Seriously Shabazz Palaces. Who do you think you are?
I should preface this review by saying I don’t feel compelled to write a review of every show that I see now that we have this handy-dandy website that I can write show reviews on. But I can’t not say something about the Shabazz show. It was too good. Wayyyy too good. I knew it would be good, but even I wasn’t prepared.
I’ll start at the end. “Thanks for coming and checking us out,” were the last words spoken by frontman (I admit, this title is debatable, but for lack of a better word I’ll call him a frontman) Ishmael Butler aka “Palaceer Lazaro,” after their hour-long, non-step set. “You’d be stupid not to!” Was the response from some seemingly star-struck fan in the crowd. I won’t name any names (Jake Fisher), but seriously, you’d be stupid not to.
Back to the beginning. They came out of nowhere. I’m not even sure if they entered from backstage or crept up from the side or what…I literally don’t even remember. They were just there. Lazaro and partner Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire filled the stage immediately with a presence that obviates all eloquence — in speech, and in writing. These guys are badass. There is no other word. Profanity is a necessity.
There are comparisons, though. Lazaro’s entire look seemed to be drawn from the ’80s (think: updated MC Hammer), while Maraire looked slightly reminiscent of Bob Marley. When they started to play, they immediately busted out into synchronized, choreographed dancing (think: updated Morris Day and the Time) that could have easily strayed into the realm of campy, except that it didn’t. Not even a little bit. That’s the thing about these guys, is that they were just dripping with references to the past, and yet nothing about them was unoriginal. And it’s because when that first bass drum hit filled the room you were immediately transported away from the venue, away from past, away from the present, even, and into another universe. Shabazz Palaces didn’t emerge from any genre, really. They emerged from a spacecraft and swiftly converted their extraterrestrial powers into an unearthly noise we humans can only meekly describe as hip-hop.
And, I guess it was a hip-hop show, at its bare bones. The opener was a hip-hop act, the DJs doing sets between acts played hip-hop, I even danced like I would dance to hip-hop. But I’m just not sure. Their ambiguity was obvious to me early on, with their album Black Up. Besides the fact that is signed to Sub Pop, a predominantly white, girly, indie label, there are certain production choices that seem to place it in another realm. At first I wanted to label this as inexperience, or immaturity. I thought, these guys really have something going for them, they just need to refine it a little bit. Kind of like I think Janelle Monae is a genius but some of her lyrical content is a little bit immature. Seeing Shabazz live totally changed my mind. I don’t think they’re going for hip-hop, which is why some of their production choices seem a little bit strange. I also think some of the things they do don’t really translate into album at all. There’s too much going on. Lazaro was playing a drum machine, laptop, sampler, and using a vocoder all at the same time. Maraire, aptly described as a “multi-instrumentalist” by Wikipedia, was playing bongos, a tom-tom, a drum machine, a shaker thing, no, wait, multiple shaker things, another noisy thing, so many things! And that thing that’s so infamously used in “An echo…” (speaking of which, they kind of played that song, but not really, they just played around with that sample that sounds like a choir of babies and used the “thing” — God, what is that thing???). He was also vocoding his voice. See what I’m saying? There’s a lot going on. You have to see it live to get what it all means, and why they’re not just a hip-hop act. They give the word “Sub Pop” a whole new meaning. Yeah, it’s a sub-category of Pop. Not Pop, not hip-hop, just…something.
And even calling them an “act” feels wrong. I could say that Maraire and Lazaro are incredible performers, but they’re not. Performing implies that some kind of charade is being put on, that something could go wrong, that you’re not being yourself entirely. No, these guys weren’t performing. They were abducting. Abducting us into their alien noise. Everyone in the audience got taken to planet Shabazz that night (any coincidence that they were playing at Mad Planet? PS, if you haven’t seen a show there, do it). They did everything right. They played what we wanted to hear, and they played stuff we hadn’t heard ever before but now we’re eager to hear it again. They were obviously quite comfortable playing material from Black Up but they never strayed into boredom or looked like they were doing something routine, and the new stuff they played looked like they had been doing it for years. I was very much absorbed in the world they created up on stage. Their attention to the music was never broken and neither was mine. I felt a kind of strange awe that I was allowed to view them, and I still kind of feel it. Maybe Wilmer and I got abducted into a parallel universe that just looks like earth but we’re not really back on earth yet at all. (I didn’t make this connection last night, but Wilmer and I saw a shooting star on our drive home…”You think I’m selfish, exist only to wish on stars….” Too weird.)
I had an art history professor tell my class that the average person today doesn’t know what the avant-garde is. And now I know why. It’s because it comes from another planet, and occasionally lands on earth to play shows. Shabazz’s tour schedule says they’re off to Chicago next…I think we all know that’s a lie. You can’t hide from the humans now that we’ve seen you. Now that we know who you are….