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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

January 5, 2010 at 7:37 AM

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Concert preview: Shabazz Palaces at Neumos 01/08/10

Posted by Andrew Matson

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"Capital 5..."



Central District man/myth/legend Palaceer Lazaro shifts in his seat at the Starbucks on 23rd and Jackson. He takes long pauses, stares into the distance, makes intense eye contact.

At 40 years old and in the artistic prime of his life, he's the beats/rhymes auteur behind local hiphop act Shabazz Palaces, whose music sounds like smoke through wind chimes, a confident first step into a nightclub, and the soundtrack for a paranoid walk through a dark alley.

I ask Lazaro why this Starbucks is special to him, and he tells me to listen to it, like duh. It's busy and everyone is black, including the people painted on the walls and piped through the speakers. Recently post-Christmas, it's a festive, social environment. Everyone's talking and laughing.

Shabazz Palaces is as yet largely unknown, but responsible for Seattle's best album of any popular music genre in 2009, the separately sold sibling sides "Shabazz Palaces" and "Of Light." Its primary exposure to local audiences has been on blogs and the radio station KEXP 90.3 FM. The group's first hometown concert is Friday, Jan. 8 at Neumos.

Shabazz Palaces' KEXP in-studio performance

Lazaro asks if I've ever been to Africa. I have not, but wanted to meet where we are because of his lyric on "Capital 5..." about "old-head Africans" who hang out at this particular Starbucks. It's true, the table by the door is always filled by older African men. It's a permanent feature that reflects the immediate area, which contains Seattle's highest concentration of Ethiopian/Eritrean/Somali restaurants/coffee shops, and seemingly its highest concentration of "old-head Africans" who hang out, eat and drink chai/coffee in them. Some spots are dominated by taxi drivers, like the Dur Dur Cafe down the street. This Starbucks hosts a more varied clientele: There's no shortage of whites, but there's also a spectrum of blackness.

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At a less culturally significant coffee shop with Shabazz's producer and percussion/synth contributor Erik Blood, I say that initially, Shabazz felt like my personal secret from the rest of the world, and I expected other fans would feel the same way

"Isn't that the coolest thing, though?" says Blood. "It's so personal. And it feels personal. It's not, 'This is going to be a massive hit,' but more like, 'This is going to creep around the bedrooms of the world.'"

Borne of nighttime atmospherics and stargazer poetry, Shabazz Palaces' songs exist outside of time. They're bass-heavy mixes of '70s Jamaican dance hall, '80s American hiphop, 2010 London dubstep and "other." It's hip-hop as eater, as digester. The Shabazz filter is a multi-platform percussion wash: shakers, congas, triangle, samplers, drum machines and mbira (thumb piano). There's not a drum sound on the album like anything else in hip-hop; instead of kicks and snares, it's unplaceable thuds and stabs of static. Everything is customized.

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Its lyrics swerve in and out of traditional sense-making, Lazaro threading images and themes throughout the songs, chanting phrases whenever he feels like it, playing with word meanings like a spoken-word artist, and employing all manner of singular vocal tics, from breathy overdubs to quick mid-word stutters.

On "Hottabatch" he raps in a Jamaican patois: "Back 'pon contro-oh-ol/ pat down my fro-oh-oh/ one bad man reach high a million good ones scrape low-oh-oh."

There is no middle ground. Either you think the project is annoying/pretentious/boring, or can't get enough, want to listen all day, unpack all possible meanings, hear it on better speakers. The micro-albums come with patches on the outside; one says "Shabazz Palaces" and the other pictures a scimitar. Both seem destined to be sewn onto backpacks and hooded sweatshirts of superfans.


Palaceer Lazaro is speaking in philosophical abstractions about his creative process, coming back to this point: He makes musical decisions based on instinct and doesn't think about the results. It is not the point, in his opinion, to explain or recognize elements of his songs.

"[The point is] just to make some somebody have a feeling," he says. "All the back story is irrelevant."

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