Shabazz Palaces

An­wen Craw­ford on Shabazz Palaces

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - An­wen Craw­ford

Seat­tle duo Shabazz Palaces sound like a broad­cast de­liv­ered un­der­wa­ter, in an­other lan­guage. Their man­ner is pur­pose­ful and their mes­sage close to in­scrutable. The group’s two mem­bers, Ish­mael But­ler and Tendai Maraire, use per­cus­sion, drum ma­chines, syn­the­sis­ers and a smat­ter­ing of other in­stru­ments to cre­ate songs that are sparse in ar­range­ment but lush in feel, alert while also ec­cen­tric. But­ler has a voice that grins at the edges, and its Cheshire Cat qual­ity is en­hanced by sig­nif­i­cant amounts of echo and ad­di­tional ef­fects. His lyrics trace rhyme and im­age pat­terns, but slip away from easy sense. Shabazz Palaces make hip-hop of a sort, but they ex­ist at the far­thest edges of that genre, or any other.

This month, Shabazz Palaces re­lease two al­bums, Quazarz: Born on a Gang­ster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jeal­ous Ma­chines, bring­ing their ca­reer to­tal to four. These twinned re­leases are, broadly speak­ing, al­bums about tech­nol­ogy and our re­la­tion­ship to it, but you could just as eas­ily, and as ac­cu­rately, de­scribe them as be­ing about space travel, or about love. There is a char­ac­ter – per­haps it’s also a planet – called Quazarz that ap­pears on both al­bums, and the two records form halves of a teem­ing, in­vented uni­verse. Shabazz Palaces are weird enough to feel right for the times we in­habit. They make an al­ter­na­tive mu­sic about al­ter­na­tive re­al­i­ties, in an era of al­ter­na­tive facts.

“Be­hold the soft cyber ca­ress / My tele­vi­sion was my lover,” says But­ler on ‘Wel­come to Quazarz’. (“Rap­ping” is not al­ways an ac­cu­rate verb to de­scribe his style, which can be more like speak­ing.) The track opens Quazarz vs. The Jeal­ous Ma­chines, and it’s as close to a state­ment of in­tent as Shabazz Palaces get. “The jeal­ous ma­chines and de­vices / Strug­gled to find the light switch.” There’s a pat­ter of sheeny dig­i­tal rain­drops, and then the song finds its groove, led by cow­bell (but don’t let that put you off) and a thickly tex­tured two-note bass melody. Shabazz Palaces tend to avoid con­ven­tional song struc­tures – a cho­rus is a rar­ity – but they do en­joy rep­e­ti­tion, which, with small de­vel­op­ments and vari­a­tions, gives a sense of them think­ing aloud as they go. “We killed imag­i­na­tion / We killed fresh,” says But­ler, and later, “We killed time / We killed cameras.”

‘Wel­come to Quazarz’ is a cat­a­logue of con­tem­po­rary dis­trac­tions, but Shabazz Palaces also of­fer a restora­tion of the things they mourn: imag­i­na­tion, fresh­ness, time. They make un­hur­ried mu­sic, and though Quazarz vs. The Jeal­ous Ma­chines is a bass-heavy record, its low fre­quen­cies en­fold rather than pum­mel a lis­tener. “I in­tox­i­cate / Grace­fully lux­u­ri­ate,” of­fers But­ler on ‘Ef­fem­i­nence’ (Shabazz Palaces are fond of ne­ol­o­gisms), while the mu­sic it­self lands softly.

The feel­ing is sim­i­lar on Quazarz: Born on a Gang­ster Star. ‘Shine a Light’, where the song’s ti­tle phrase is sung over a loop­ing string sam­ple, achieves the kind of sun-dap­pled at­mos­phere that The Avalanches tried and failed to find on last year’s Wild­flower, while tracks such as ‘Dèesse Du Sang’ and ‘The Neu­rochem Mix­a­logue’ lay down pro­cessed, some­times word­less vo­cals, the thrum­ming feel of which is off­set by shards of twinkly syn­the­siser. Across the two al­bums, the ef­fect is both womb-like and ga­lac­tic. These songs sug­gest there are new things to be­come, and new places to go.

For Shabazz Palaces, the jour­ney has al­ready been ex­ten­sive. Both mem­bers of the group are in their 40s, and formed their duo around the be­gin­ning of this decade, draw­ing upon long per­sonal his­to­ries of mu­si­cian­ship. Tendai Maraire is the son of Du­misani Maraire, who was a Zim­bab­wean-born mu­si­cian and eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist, and a mas­ter player of the mbira, a tra­di­tional plucked in­stru­ment known in English as a thumb pi­ano. Tendai’s sis­ter, Chi­won­iso, who died in 2013, was also a mbira player. “Every­one was born and started per­form­ing,” said Maraire

of his mu­si­cal fam­ily, in a 2014 in­ter­view with the New York Times, and he has used African in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing hand drums and mbira, in his work with Shabazz Palaces, along with pro­vid­ing a va­ri­ety of back­ing vo­cals.

But­ler, mean­while, who some­times goes by the stage name Palaceer Lazaro, was a mem­ber of the hip-hop trio Di­ga­ble Plan­ets, who formed in Philadel­phia dur­ing the late 1980s be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to New York. The group re­leased two al­bums: Reachin’ (A New Refu­ta­tion of Time and Space) (1993) and Blowout Comb (1994); these works of lop­ing, jazz-in­flected rap were at odds with the hard sound and mood of other, more com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful, rap artists of that decade.

Be­ing at odds is, one sus­pects, a pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion of Shabazz Palaces. Their first al­bum, Black Up (2011), was mu­si­cally min­i­mal, match­ing un­ob­tru­sive drum ma­chines to re­peat­ing back­drops of syn­the­siser. Their sec­ond, Lese Majesty (2014), was con­cep­tu­ally ex­pan­sive: 18 songs ar­ranged into eight “suites”, with ti­tles such as ‘Palace War Coun­cil Meet­ing’ and ‘Murk­ings on the Oxblood Star­way’. In­stead of a track­list, the phys­i­cal re­lease of Lese Majesty came with a colour-coded diagram, like a map to the group’s her­metic world.

Though they are de­ter­minedly in­di­vid­ual, Shabazz Palaces nev­er­the­less con­nect with the rich artis­tic and philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion known as Afro­fu­tur­ism. An amal­gam of cos­mol­ogy, mythol­ogy, sci­ence fiction and cul­tural crit­i­cism, Afro­fu­tur­ism pro­poses al­ter­na­tive vi­sions of black his­tory. Shabazz was the sur­name that Mal­colm X even­tu­ally took for him­self, in ref­er­ence to the Na­tion of Is­lam’s be­lief in the Tribe of Shabazz, an an­cient na­tion that sur­vived a prior de­struc­tion of Earth and re­lo­cated to Egypt. Afro­fu­tur­ism cel­e­brates the achieve­ments of pre-colo­nial African civil­i­sa­tions, and looks to outer space as a place where black peo­ple may at last be free – or per­haps, in a par­al­lel uni­verse, al­ways were free – of racist cru­el­ties.

Cul­tural critic Mark Dery coined the term Afro­fu­tur­ism in an in­flu­en­tial 1993 es­say ti­tled ‘Black to the Fu­ture’, and posed a key ques­tion: “Can a com­mu­nity whose past has been de­lib­er­ately rubbed out, and whose en­er­gies have sub­se­quently been con­sumed by the search for leg­i­ble traces of its his­tory, imag­ine pos­si­ble fu­tures?” Afro­fu­tur­ism em­braces the prospect of be­ing or be­com­ing alien, es­pe­cially as a re­sponse to the his­tory of slav­ery, which made black African peo­ple alien in an­other sense: an ab­so­lute other, forcibly trans­ported to foreign lands, and vi­o­lently tyran­nised there.

“We have re­turned to claim the pyra­mids,” de­clared Ge­orge Clin­ton on Par­lia­ment’s 1975 funk clas­sic ‘Mother­ship Con­nec­tion (Star Child)’, which has been ret­ro­spec­tively named as a key work of Afro­fu­tur­ism. The hor­ror of the slave ship is not erased, but it is coun­tered, by the lib­er­at­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of the space ship. “I’ve never been a good slave,” says But­ler on ‘Moon Whip Quäz’, in a con­tin­u­a­tion of this re­sis­tance. ‘Moon Whip Quäz’ is the penul­ti­mate song on Quazarz: Born on a Gang­ster Star, and it too is a kind of funk, by way of Kraftwerk, whose gleam­ing mid-’70s elec­tron­ics have proved equally in­spi­ra­tional to sev­eral decades’ worth of hip-hop mu­si­cians.

The pop­u­lar­ity of Afro­fu­tur­ism has, like a moon, waxed and waned, but it has shone bright again in re­cent times. Kansas-born mu­si­cian and ac­tor Janelle Monáe’s two ma­jor­la­bel al­bums, The ArchAn­droid (2010) and The Elec­tric Lady (2013), have told the saga of an an­droid who ex­ists in the year 2719. Two of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic’s high­est-pro­file per­form­ers, Solange and her sis­ter Bey­oncé, have mixed coolly fu­tur­is­tic sounds with im­agery drawn from tra­di­tional African re­li­gions. Los An­ge­les trio Clip­ping, an­other ex­per­i­men­tal hip-hop group, re­leased a com­pelling con­cept al­bum last year called Splen­dor & Mis­ery, which, in the group’s de­scrip­tion, “fol­lows the sole sur­vivor of a slave up­ris­ing on an in­ter­stel­lar cargo ship”. Clip­ping’s mu­sic is knot­tier and harsher than that of Shabazz Palaces, but the two groups hap­pen to be la­bel­mates: both are signed to Seat­tle’s lon­grun­ning Sub Pop, which has, in the past, been bet­ter known for its rock bands.

The in­ter­leav­ing of his­tor­i­cal eras that char­ac­terises Afro­fu­tur­ism has been made more plau­si­ble – more ap­par­ent – by the in­ter­net, a tech­nol­ogy that can scram­ble any sense of lin­ear time or dis­crete place. But so far as Shabazz Palaces are con­cerned, the in­ter­net, and so­cial me­dia in par­tic­u­lar, is a thing to be wary of. This may have some­thing to do with their age – they are not, af­ter all, “dig­i­tal na­tives” – but it goes fur­ther than that. Songs such as ‘Par­al­lax’ (from Quazarz: Born on a Gang­ster Star) and ‘Self-Made Fol­low­naire’ (from Quazarz vs. The Jeal­ous Ma­chines) man­age to re-cre­ate, and also re­fute, the men­tal de­ple­tion that comes from spend­ing too long on­line. The lyrics move in and out of au­di­bil­ity, and the sound is gloopy, like a marsh­land. “Abol­ish­ing to­mor­row,” says But­ler at one point on the lat­ter track. Shabazz Palaces are warn­ing against the pos­si­bil­ity of for­get­ting how to day­dream, and how to in­vent, when the dis­trac­tion of the in­ter­net is al­ways within reach. “Stay away from your de­vice – your phantom limb – and stay away from your im­age – your phantom self,” they wrote in a state­ment to ac­com­pany these new al­bums.

Shabazz Palaces’ re­fusal to be pinned down by genre, method or doc­trine is also its own state­ment. In be­ing so dif­fi­cult to cat­e­gorise, they es­cape be­com­ing, as But­ler says on ‘Wel­come to Quazarz’, “Mov­ing tar­gets for the mar­kets”. No al­go­rithm will ever quite con­tain them; in­stead, they re­write the code, and aim for the stars.

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