4:13 pm Apr. 16, 2012
The Seattle hip-hop artist born Ishmael Butler used to call himself Butterfly, and he used to live here. But a lot has changed.
Back then, he led the New York City trio Digable Planets, best known among casual fans for the laid-back jazz horns and busy bass on the Grammy-winning “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” a 1993 hit later used in a Tide commercial, and best loved among rap fans for their 1994 album, a dark beauty called Blowout Comb.
These days, the rapper-producer goes by Palaceer Lazaro and works under the name Shabazz Palaces, having moved back home to Seattle over a decade ago. There, he briefly led an alt-rockish band called Cherrywine, but Shabazz Palaces began triggering buzz in mid-2009, when a couple of hand-made E.P.s began filtering into local record shops. Made with the assistance of Erik Blood, a Seattle shoegaze fixture with roots in hip-hop, the E.P.s were murky and beguiling, and when Lazaro and percussionist partner Tendai "Baba" Maraire debuted at the Capitol Hill rock club Neumo’s in early January 2010, their reception was rapturous—“madly triumphant,” in the words of The Stranger’s Eric Grandy.
All of this read great, especially the part about Lazaro not doing interviews, not putting up a MySpace page (it was 2009) right away, etc.—and grew ever more believable with the release, in June 2011, of Black Up on Sub Pop. The album’s mix of deliberately murky sonics, elliptical lyrics—and, more literally, titles, e.g. “Are you . . . Can you . . . Were you? (Felt)” or "A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)"—and general sense of overhanging dread recalled an updated version of Sly & the Family Stone’s 1971 There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It’s not hard to imagine Sly drawling a Shabazz lyric such as, “I run on feelings, fuck your facts/ Deception is the truest act,” from “free press and curl” (lowercase in original, of course).
Interviewing Lazaro for Pitchfork in 2010 (a coup), Tom Breihan noted, “You have had videos in rotation on MTV, and that doesn't seem like something you're striving for with Shabazz Palaces.” “Yeah,” Lazaro replied, “but I'm not striving against it either.”
Elsewhere in the same Q&A Lazaro expanded on the same idea: “I just like the idea of earning a fan, a listener, an ear, a mood, a heart, rather than being placed in front of somebody with some sort of pre-determined outlook—for someone to either adapt or not adapt based on what has been pushed on the plate in front of them. It also serves to help us, longevity-wise, when you have a slow grind. You know everything you gained along the way belongs to you. It's a genuine thing. It also allows us to be a little bit more concentrated, intimate with the people that dig us.”
Shabazz Palace’s gig at S.O.B.’s on Friday night was a homecoming of sorts as well—Lazaro did earn his biggest success here, after all. Standing side-to-side on stage, Lazaro and Maraire cut an instantly likeable pair, in trim leather jackets (Lazaro’s was brown, Maraire’s black) and shades, with Lazaro also rocking a rather natty patterned scarf. (And is that a bit of grey in his hair and goatee?)
The free construction and dub production of Shabazz Palace’s music might make them seem like a headphones-only proposition. Not remotely so. The duo didn’t give themselves much space to move—Maraire stood behind a pair of congas and at one point played a large thumb piano, as Lazaro switched between mike-stand effects box, waist-high laptop, and a couple other machines. (My date cooed over the Roland Octapad: “It's so cute, I want to go up and pinch its cheeks.”)
But the group had a nice little repertoire of choreographed moves (the best one was a high-five-on-the-backhand-side), and generated a lot of compressed energy, something the room returned in kind. The space filled up fast—zero to sixty in the 45 minutes between my 10:15 arrival and the headliners going on. (Also on the early side: comic Eugene Mirman, Shabazz Palaces’ Sub Pop label-mate.)
The show finished with "Recollections of the Wraith," whose chorus goes, "Clear some space out so we can space out," and by that point it was hard to move around at all—which, of course, isn’t the same as the music being hard to move to. That was no issue at all.