Last week, at The New Parish in Oakland, Seattle-based experimental hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces put on a pair of shows in support of their new LP Lese Majesty, which dropped last Tuesday.
Within the long-stagnant hip-hop landscape of excess and rampant self-referentialism, emcee Ishmael Butler (formerly of Digable Planets) and multi-instrumentalist/producer Tendai Maraire are total renegades. Whereas hip-hop often feels challenging for challenging’s sake, these guys bend and stretch the genre wide open, challenging the listener in a way that is less confrontational and more invitational.
While bearing similarities (on paper) to Madlib and J Dilla, these guys have created a disjointed sound that is completely their own, making comparisons tough. Dark, brooding rhythms consisting of unstable, off-time bass tremors are stitched deeply into an intoxicating swirl of unidentifiable vocal samples. This percolating stew of sound is unexpectedly punctuated by something light and familiar — such as the soft, innocent plucks of the mbira (thumb piano), or a slowly and deliberately tapped steel drum — creating a sonic atmosphere that is simultaneously unsettling and strangely comforting. Drizzled over the top are Butler’s thought-provoking, if sometimes oblique, lyrical runs: “My body traveled / my mind waits behind the music / my crime bemuses / relax inside my shiny blueness.”
The masterful use of negative space gives their compositions room to breathe and pulsate with a life of their own, inviting the listener to find a dark corner to crawl into and absorb the music from the inside. For reference, check out 2011’s “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” from the Black Up LP:
Shabazz Palaces – “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum”
Live, this translates into a surprisingly compelling show. The bass hits hard, making the songs more immediately moving. New Lese Majesty track “#CAKE” invokes the mid-80’s street bass I remember listening to on cassette as a kid, and had both levels of the ultra-dark, cave-like New Parish club bouncing all over the place like possessed jelly beans:
Shabazz Palaces – “#CAKE”
I was also surprised to see just how much of the recorded music’s intricacies were recreated live, with minimal use of sampling. From the mbira and steel drum, to maracas, hand bells, multiple drum machines, and live vocals that looped, twisted, echoed and more, these guys had their hands full. And when they didn’t, they were performing perfectly choreographed arm movements directed at the audience, making us feel like we were all part of a secret club and they were our leaders. Occasionally, we caught the guys stepping out of character and flashing smiles, showing that they were clearly enjoying the set as much as we were.
The crowd was way into it, even when Butler and Maraire veered off into meandering reinterpretations of their own music. YouTube member Johnonoh captured this jammy, drawn-out reinterpretation of “Chuch”, a standout from 2009’s Of Light EP:
Shabazz Palaces – “Chuch” (Live @ The New Parish)
If you’ve ever been to a country where you don’t speak the native language, but you know the law of the land is strict, (think eye for an eye), then you know what it feels like to listen to Shabazz Palaces. They build hazy, foreign cities with their music; uncertain and unstable, threatening to topple over and consume you at any moment… but you actually want it to.
This is unmistakably hip-hop, but these guys are doing things differently. Treat yourself when Shabazz Palaces comes through your hood. They’re the freshest group around right now, playing entirely by their own rules.
Support provided by Oakland’s own soulful jazz-funk virtuosos Ghost & The City.
Grab the new Shabazz Palaces record Lese Majesty over at Sub Pop.
Catch Shabazz Palaces on tour here.