The future can feel like a cold, austere place in the hands of the Seattle hip-hop duo
Shabazz Palaces isn't here to challenge you.
That might come as a bit of a surprise after listening to the Seattle hip-hop duo's latest magnum opuses, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs the Jealous Machines, released just weeks apart in a flurry of productivity.
Composed primarily of vocalist/MC/producer Ishmael Butler and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, Shabazz Palaces emerged from the ether with 2011's Black Up and have since continued to drop avant garde rap epics that shirk easy labeling even within the multi-hyphenated universe of hip-hop. In short, there's really nothing like it.
Combining electro and grime-influenced beats with trip-hop tempos, the songs are driven by Butler's dense lyrics and deft wordplay, delivered in a buttery cadence that listeners will recognize from jazz-rap forebears Digable Planets. But unlike that group, which focused on a warm, analog sound full of hooks and groove-laden samples, Shabazz Palaces' music is gloomy and glitchy, centered on the random robotics of Butler's digital landscape. It's a cold, austere place, and the perfect atmosphere for the subject of Quazarz: an interstellar visitor who details the simulacrum of modern life from the safety and distance of an alien ship.
What they discover isn't pretty. Rap is dominated by preening celebrity and syrup-soaked sameness. Social media has saturated our exchanges so that photographs now substitute for real experience. The mobile phone screen is more than the mirror showing us who we are and trying to become; it's a black hole sucking us in.
When pressed about his own reliance on technology to make this music and stay connected with fans, Butler was adamant we can use it wisely. “There's a necessity for balance, and a lot of people have just given up on finding any,” he said by phone from Seattle. “It seems these devices are coming between human beings, and it's happening without anyone giving it another thought.”
Shabazz isn't the first hip-hop act to wrestle with a technological dystopia. Del the Funky Homosapien and Dan the Automator's 2000 project, Deltron 3030, detailed a funky trip through the ruins of a future development — all computer hijinks and evil corporate overlords. But Shabazz Palaces foregoes the cartoonish fun for a bleaker take. Rather than coming to save us like some intergalactic superhero, the duo documents the disease of media saturation and then dips out for cooler climes, which sounds like a good idea these days.
Butler insists he's just making music that makes sense to him; music that he hears as natural expression.
“I've never been challenged by Sun Ra,” he said, speaking of the free-jazz pioneer who also hailed from a distant star. “When did we let the artificiality dominate what pop music is?”