SXSW 2011: Politicking with Shabazz Palaces and Open Mike Eagle
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Shabazz Palaces have a backstory fit for Dostoevsky. You might remember frontman Ishmael Butler from his former gig as one of the three Digable Planets, the early ‘90s jazz rap titans who tutored the world on the essence of ‘Cool Like Dat.’ (For those with short memories, it was the ‘swag’ of its day.)
Their unsung sophomore masterpiece, ‘Blowout Comb,’ found them subjected to the hip-hop equivalent of the execution of the Petrashevsky. Doomed for turning in a politically radical album when gangsta posturing ruled, EMI dropped them after the album failed to register commercially.
Butler endured a decade-plus sojourn in a metaphorical Siberia, recording a series of barely heard projects that were inevitably described (if mentioned at all) as ‘being by the guy who used to be in Digable Planets -- whatever happened to them?’ The answer came last year when Shabazz Palaces emerged from the (relative) hip-hop hinterlands of Seattle. Music writers from the region began breathlessly hyping them as the most exciting local rap group in decades, and when Sir Mix-A-Lot is universally regarded as the gold standard, it wasn’t much of a stretch.
Currently signed to indie rock powerhouse Sub Pop, Shabazz Palaces’ ascent has been striking and in total defiance of the rules to which artists usually have to conform. From their nonexistent approach to new media (no Twitter, few interviews, an absolute aversion to courting the blogs) to their lack of national touring, to their ruthlessly bleak sound, Butler’s new outfit is uniformly dedicated to being uncompromised.
One of their first appearances outside of Washington, Shabazz Palaces’ early evening Friday show at the Gorilla Vs. Bear showcase was a rare peek behind the iron mask. Butler now goes by Palaceer Lazaro, and whatever he calls himself he doesn’t look like he’s approaching 40. Wearing a Senegal soccer jersey and Army fatigue shorts, aside from a fleck of gray in his goatee, Butler appeared to be in his late 20s and he rapped with a young man’s passion, offering caustic dirges dedicated to black power, the ruthless avarice of the major labels and those of his peers that ‘sell out to the white man’s establishment.’
Admittedly, there was a minor disconnect between their hard-line lyrics and the fact that they were playing a set to a 95% white audience compromised of blog disciples (and thus perhaps not as finely attuned to the hypocrisies of fake Five Percenters who ‘don’t eat pork but cook bacon’). But no matter, Butler delivered his rhymes in an staccato fury that matched the brutality of his dubstep-like beats. Aided by a dreadlocked partner playing hand drums, Butler alternated between rapping, knob twisting on an electronic machine and even playing hand bells.
It was unlike anything else in contemporary hip-hop. Whereas most rap producers and artists veer toward the danceable and smooth, this was staunchly arrhythmic and jarring. While pop-rap producers pull from the glossy and house-slanting side of electronic music, Shabazz draw from the most grimy and oxygen-less quarters. While political rap is often considered a vestige of the afro-centric era or even its Rawkus-era renaissance, Shabazz are firebrands for the Obama era. Salient reminders of the inequities that persist, and with the pistol-whipping fury to execute properly. Butler called it Nat Turner rap, but it felt like ‘Crime and Punishment.’
The group made for an ideal segue into Open Mike Eagle‘s unapologetic art rap. The Chicago-raised, Los Angeles-based rapper is the best kind of revolutionary: He’s so subtle that you might miss exactly how damning his words are if you aren’t listening closely. A gifted satirist riffing on everything from Viacom-sponsored minstrelsy, to girls with asymmetrical haircuts, to the myopia of pop culture, Eagle boasted of his ‘high IQ and low credit score,’ while turning a small crowd into a dance party. Whereas Shabazz blend their abstract raps in the most punishing compositions, Eagle masks his sarcasm in sing-a-long melodies.
One of the most underrated hook men in rap right now, Eagle unveiled cuts from his forthcoming Hellfyre Club release, ‘Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes.’ A comic screed aimed at the evanescence of the rap game, Eagle rapped about how one day ‘rappers will need Viagra and bypasses.’ The secret was his quick wit. Breaking between songs for jocular banter with the crowd, Eagle revealed why comedian Paul F. Tompkins tapped him to open for him last month.
Whereas Shabazz rap in code to disguise their meaning, Eagle couches his meaning in catchy melodies. But don’t be mistaken -- their rap music is defiantly political and very much the heir to what Public Enemy and X Clan were doing 20-plus years ago. Yet whereas most agitprop rap had grown tedious and trite, full of empty slogans and outmoded philosophies, Eagle and Butler have updated their critiques for a dreary digital age. Along with Mississippi madman, Skipp Coon (playing Saturday night at 9 p.m. at the 18th Floor of the Hilton Garden Inn), they comprise the vanguard of a new era of political rap. They might not be screaming for you to fight the power, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful.
-- Jeff Weiss