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Matson on Music

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

December 27, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Shabazz / THEESat: a history of high-concept Seattle shows

Local rap groups Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction, who play a double bill at the Neptune Theatre Friday, are making some of the most exciting and creative music in their genre right now. Shabazz's "Black Up" album was exalted in The New Yorker; THEESatisfaction is one of NPR's "10 Artists You Should Have Known in 2012."

But here in Seattle, we have another special reason to love them: they do shows jointly with a conceptual edge that the rest of the world doesn't see. And you never know what's going to happen.

In 2011 at Neumos, they blended their sets into a theatrical production structured like a late-night TV show, with Ishmael Butler from Shabazz Palaces playing a combination Johnny Carson/Huey Newton. The year before, they performed a concert-as-ritual-incantation at the Moore, donning custom headdresses (a version is currently on display at the Frye Art Museum).

Will they go the extra mile when they play together again this Friday at the Neptune Theatre?

"It's wa-a-a-ay more than likely," says Butler on the phone, not giving anything else away.

The concert was originally supposed to be a two-night stand for Butler, who was going to perform Saturday with his old, Grammy-winning group Digable Planets. But he says another rapper in the group, Ladybug Mecca, "in all her royal inglory," canceled the show, continuing a string of difficulties between Digable and Mecca that makes Butler feel like Digable is finally finished.

"It's a heartbreaker," he says.

Mecca did not respond to emails asking for her side of the story. Danny Brown is the replacement on Saturday, a hard-rhyming Detroit emcee Butler likes and selected.

"We've been working on getting him out here anyway," says Butler. "It was the logical next step."

For Shabazz, the special-show idea is something of a philosophy. Butler and percussionist/vocalist Tendai Maraire have a song where they chant "was you there tonight?" as if to ask whether you noticed the freshness of their show.

THEESatisfaction also prioritizes the live experience by giving the audience one-off remixes: new beats to existing words.

"I performed with [THEESatisfaction] in Zurich, Munich, Berlin and Fribourg," says Seattle producer/singer-songwriter OCnotes, who joined Shabazz/THEESatisfaction on tour in November. "It was crazy watching them improvise."

Whatever their motivations for stepping it up on stage — perhaps to set themselves apart from other hip hop "artists" who rap over their own CDs? — what really distinguishes Shabazz and THEESatisfaction is their looseness and mental effort, which makes their music similar to jazz, where nothing is set in stone.

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