July 2017

Arts & Letters

Parallel universes

By Anwen Crawford

Photograph by Victoria Kovios

With their two new other-worldly albums, Shabazz Palaces continue to evade categorisation

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 major-label 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 long-running 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.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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