Live Review: Shabazz Palaces, the Fly Bedouin, Makes an Impressive Local Debut

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Shabazz Palaces played Neumos on Jan. 8.
The moment Shabazz Palaces and partner Baba Maraire chugged onstage like a pair of slow-moving train gears, Neumos filled with what Don DeLillo might've called a "body hum"--a vibrating force that carries from one soul to the next. Given the patient, calculated unfurling Shabazz (aka, Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, of Digable Planets fame) embarked upon with the release of his two fucking brilliant EPs--a strategy that cloaked the MC's identity in a midnight cape of mystery--you expected the air to be tinged with a kind of mysticism. But the buzz in the room for his Seattle debut felt like a biological imperative--like something was happening that you needed.

I haven't seen a wall-to-wall audience anywhere pulse with this type of ratcheted anticipation since the same venue hosted Dirty Projectors--and that didn't really match what happened on Friday night. (Shabazz is local, after all.) The fact that like Shabazz Palaces, the Brooklyn group owes something to Africa's diverse musical heritage (though, in the case of Shabazz and Baba, who is from Zimbabwe, those inclined to level charges of cultural appropriation don't have a wooden leg to stand on) is all coincidence, of course, but given the shamanistic mood Friday night, one can be forgiven for drawing parallels between such disparate sonic worlds. Like Shabazz says, "Yeah, pretty much, motherfucker, good times."

Shabazz was swathed in a read head scarf and sunglasses--a bit of costuming that maintained the carefully cultivated enigmatic air that's surrounded him. You could barely see his face. His partner, Baba, went even further with the facial gag, donning what looked like a gas mask (it was hard to see from the back, what with all those bobbing heads), before chucking it in favor of a poker visor. The cumulative effect, especially after Shabazz removed his shades later in the set, was that the mystery had finally been solved.

Of course, Seattle has been hip to Butler for a while now. Even so, like a detective with a hunch, proof was needed before you could say it definitively. There he was on Neumos' stage, a fly Bedouin in the flesh, and all came into sharper relief: The EPs were invitations to the show. Sure, Shabazz's self-titled effort and Of Light stand alone, but this--this--is what it was all about. If it had all been a simple unmasking, it would've boring. But his abilities extend far beyond marketing strategies.

Shabazz and Baba filled the space with their elliptical, often dark sounds. Aided by an array of percussion instruments, a laptop, and what might've been a Trigger Finger (DJs, a lil' help here), Shabazz's tweaky, buttery voice carried crisply through, as he unspooled songs with all the patience he brought to concealing his identity. Though the highlight for me came with the final--well, pre-encore--song, "A Mess"--which begins with Shabazz confessing: "See, I'm just like you/Yeah, I know I'm a mess," which performed live dripped with irony, since the guy is nothing like you and me; we're not that talented--the fact that Camp Lo's Geechi Suede was able to come through and power-drive through a verse with nary a motherfucker noticing was a perfect complement to all the damned opacity. Shit, I'm not even sure it was actually him; I'm prepared to be corrected. Fucking mysteries.

The weaving and teasing of "Blastit" throughout gave the set an architecture--something to latch onto. Not that the crowd needed it. You can head-nod or rave to Shabazz, such is the opportunity created between the beats' vistas. Often, the production echoes of dubstep--a sound unafraid to open up space. As a result, little dance communities sprouted all over, and people shouted out lyrics like they grew up to these tunes.

At one point, Shabazz and Baba made reference to 206 hip-hop being on the map, which The Stranger suggested was a partial refutation of my story on the scene's national prospects. Since Shabazz's publicist was quoted in the piece, it's possible he and Baba were commenting on it. Whatever. With Go! Machine and the Shabazz Palaces show, we've now had two major events in local hip-hop that have to rival anything else going out there in this recession-swamped republic. Like I said before, there's something bubbling in the rookeries, and, with the right amount of attention--a combination of continued artistic boundary-pushing and promotional acumen of the type Shabazz possess--the city's scene can only go further. If that's what people want. And it seems to me with Shabazz at the front, there are a lot of acts here who can go damn near anywhere they please.

 
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