If there is one group in hip-hop who are innovating at every stage of their game, it is Shabazz Palaces. Formed by producer and MC Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Digable Planets (aka Palaceer Lazaro) and percussionist Tendai Maraire (aka Baba Maraire) in Seattle in 2008, their debut LP, Black Up, topped many year-end lists in 2011 on the strength of its MPC beats that blend hip-hop, African folk, jazz and heavy bass with rhymes critical of the mainstream hip-hop culture machine.
When they took the stage, they projected an air of cool confidence. Butler’s clashing tiger and leopard prints somehow meshed with the intricate tapestries draped over his soundboard and Maraire’s drums. But it hardly mattered when they started jamming on buttons and pulling sound from the congas. The set opener “100 Sph” (an abbreviation for “styles per hour”) could be applied literally to their live aesthetic. Rather than perform a song and bask in applause, Shabazz Palaces performed blocks of songs, giving their performance the feel of a continuous medley, with each song fragmenting, reforming and eventually fading out as the next was introduced.
Shabazz Palaces do no aspire to catchy hooks, yet their songs contain irresistible call-and-response passages that scratch the same pop itch and widen the avenues of audience participation. They didn’t openly exhort the crowd to move or get live, because the exhortations were built into every song. Weaving “Gunbeat Falls” into “100 Sph,” they milked the call-and-response “Push the button/Start the show” until the entire crowd was in the jam. When they repeated “The beat will always save us,” the mantra created one nation under a groove for a fleeting moment. The dance floor was at rolling boil during “Kill White T . . .,” which had the crowd of mostly white college students (and one white journalist) grinding and grimacing in 6/4 time. The irony was not lost on said white journalist when Butler mashed on his MPC pad and unleashed a lethal gun-beat trill.
As the band approached the middle of their set, the wraithlike vocal samples of “An Echo of the Hosts That Profess Infinitum” slowly bled into the mix. Maraire added accents with bright high-hat tricks while Butler manipulated the syncopated (!) delay on his vocals. The crowd joined in on the quotable refrain of “Yeah, yeah! No, yeah!” When the song splintered in the middle and Maraire built a circuitous thumb piano theme, Butler subliminally suggested the next song through a tangle of echo, singing the refrain, “We call that survival/With style.” He seamlessly pasted in a verse from “Chuch,” off their EP Of Light, rhyming, “And stay way fresher than the oppressor.” Without fumbling a single 16th note, Maraire switched from thumb piano to high-hat and snare as the ghostly wails of “An Echo . . .” wove back into the mix.
Maraire and Butler create and re-create each beat live, executing all of the nuances of vocal delay, MPC fills and auxiliary percussion with precision. They made it all look easy, adding choreographed dance moves to certain songs, as on “Free Press Curl,” where Maraire and Butler, between sub-bass bombs, executed a synchronized shoulder shake with panache.
For all of the hype thrown their way—from NPR to Pitchfork—Shabazz Palaces proved they are rap’s vanguards, and they did it without breaking a sweat.