It's late October 2009, and I'm sitting on a stool in the performance room at the KEXP studio, watching Shabazz Palaces get ready to do a live in-studio set for Street Sounds. This will be Shabazz's first live performance in their hometown (albeit on radio), and it's kind of a big deal. Back in May, when Shabazz's stunning debut EPs Shabazz Palaces and Of Light first materialized, nobody was even supposed to know the identity of the project's architect, nor was it certain that they'd ever emerge to take the stage.
It's a big deal because, supposed secret or no, everyone who listened to those EPs could identify the "plat-i-num" voice behind the mic: Ish, Ishmael Butler, Butterfly, "Pretty Barbara's son," the Grammy-winning MC and producer chiefly responsible for two seminal classics of the generally agreed upon golden age of hiphop: Digable Planets' spaced-out excursion Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and the hypnotic Panther-jazz masterpiece Blowout Comb.
Digable Planets folded shortly after Blowout's 1994 release (the album's relatively serious Afrocentric tone found fewer fans than their more fun but equally brilliant debut, Reachin', whose huge hit single is currently being used to sell Tide), and they've had one successful and one aborted reunion run since. In 1995, Butler popped up with a memorable performance on "Swing" from Camp Lo's classic debut. In 2003, after supposed-to-happen solo album Ishmael Since 1999 never happened, Butler released an album with hiphop/soul/rock band Cherrywine, titled Bright Black, to lukewarm reception—particularly from local heads, many of whom had zero time for such genre-blind musicianship. In 2008, Butler showed up breathing smoke on the end of "Home," Jake One's ode to Seattle's classic hiphop sound, setting the stage for great things to come.
Shabazz Palaces and Of Light arrived with a carefully cultivated air of mystery, their opaque packaging not even revealing album titles let alone artist credits, and with Butler urging journalists to uphold his desired anonymity (a conceit I can respect, although it's time for a new generation to get to know his worth).
Shabazz, according to the Nation of Islam, was a scientist who led an ancient nation in Central Africa, since then forever lost in the mists of time; Shabazz Palaces evokes those same origins of African nobility (but is no NOI screed) with imagery of scimitars, warriors astride camels, and minarets all figuring into the stark, enigmatic marketing. But it's not, to quote my childhood swap-meet Black Bart Simpson tee, "a Black thing you wouldn't understand." Shabazz's almost subliminal messages are universal: "Find out who you are and see it/Find out what you are and free it/Find out who you love and need it/Find out what you can and be it."
It's a timely sentiment for Seattle hiphop, which, after years of self-negating/hating or looking too much to the Bay Area and Brooklyn for direction, is enjoying a creative surge and homegrown industry that is—no bullshit—changing the landscape of Seattle music. And many of the scene's most exciting artists are, in a strictly creative sense, Butler's kids—bohemian, black fist-up sonic spacefarers like Champagne Champagne, THEESatisfaction, and OC Notes, to name a few.
But Shabazz's Seattle isn't all sunshine and 206 utopianism. Over the EPs' combined running time of 45-odd minutes, Shabazz runs down game, smoking in the alley between a harrowing keyboard grimesploitation sound and the starkest of 1986 claps, only sometimes suddenly sunbreaking into lilting chorus. The records capture every clogged concrete pore of a nameless, dying slum that's the same the world over, stepping smartly with a 10-point program of block ethics and self-preservation, sewn tight to vest with eerily loaded call-and-response ("The beat will always save us," the blues people answer back) and exhortations to "listen up."
The self-titled EP kicks off with a song titled "kill white t, parable of the nigga who barrels stay hot, made by hardkings@freecasion .blk" (all the songs on this EP have similarly long and inscrutable titles), with Butler conjuring a druggy after-hours blackjack intrigue, complete with crooked cops and guns on the brink of coming out. True to the title, it's a parable laced with a lesson: "Jewels and licks to strike it rich but really not/Just like spinners, lookin' like we going when we really stopped." The Of Light EP's song titles indulge in some welcome brevity but otherwise mirror the preceding collection's sensibility—which is to say, repeat listens reveal even deeper sonic dimensions and unfold unexpected weight and multimeaning in seemingly innocuous rhymes. "Everybody got to go to school and learn the golden rule," Butler playfully chants, "so you can know when you get burned."
In a time of economic collapse, when the South End and the Central have become "superhot" (as he says on "32 Leaves") with a staggering rise in gun violence (especially among young people), Shabazz Palaces' sublime, abyss-straddling gospel resonates stronger than any self-styled "conscious rap," and its rebel bass brings true revolutionary rumble to rattle the scene's current wave of so-called "party" raps.
In the KEXP studio that day, Butler (smooth, Afro parted) beat the pads on an MPC sampler—triggering stuttery drums, vocal snatches, air horns, and prerecorded drops—as he wove his trademark, slicker-than-ever wordplay, all game and profundity. Live, Butler is joined on traditional Shona percussion (such as the mbira) by Tendai "Baba" Maraire, a Franklin High School Quaker who hails from a storied clan of Zimbabwean musicians and has toured himself all over, both as part of hiphop group C.A.V.E. with his brothers and solo as Boy 1der. Rounding out Shabazz Palaces is Silk, aka Dougie (who refers to himself on the radio as "your dad"), a Central District rep like Butler who brings a veteran street-proved counterpoint to complement Butler's fly proverbs (as when patiently explaining to errant hoodstars on "My Mac Yawns" the basic economics of "breaking bread"—that is, spreading accrued wealth among your circle). The three cut mesmerizing figures, swaying to the beat, heavy with soldierfied hood pragmatism and motherland mythology. It's not the hanging from the rafters, burning-down-the-house live energy that has defined so much hiphop from Seattle of late; rather, it's a hypnotizing, almost regal presence. It's the OG with jewels to drop—that is "diamonds to say"—who won't hesitate to set a youngster straight. Shabazz Palaces don't have to tear up the block; they energize the scene without breaking a sweat.
Shabazz Palaces' hometown debut is the first major musical event of the year for Seattle, and it's setting the bar and the stage high for a new decade here and hopefully everywhere else. After hit songs, world tours, and decades of real life, the town's ever-humble prodigal son still does it "for the people, so you know y'all can have it." What you do with it is on you. Don't fuck this up.