Gangsta rap from outer space. Poetic, sometimes mystical lyrics mesh with nuanced electronica, African percussion, and jazz overtones to create a sound that unsettles even as it draws the listener in.
Shabazz is the brainchild of Ishmael Butler, a one-time member of the early-’90s jazz-tinged hip-hop outfit Digable Planets, in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, whose father was the acclaimed mbira maestro and scholar Dumisani Maraire. With their debut album, 2011’s Black Up (released on Sub Pop records, a label more closely associated with the likes of Nirvana and the grunge scene), Shabazz Palaces served notice that something interesting was happening in hip-hop. Eschewing the braggadocio and heavy-handed beats favoured by many of their contemporaries in the genre, it instead featured minimalistic, unpredictable soundscapes: other-worldly synths, tribal drums, and fragmented beats, the perfect backdrop for Butler’s impeccable, easy-going flow and intelligent, provocative lyrics.
If Black Up saw Shabazz Palaces establish themselves on the “audacious progressive fringe” of hip-hop (New York Times), 2014’s follow-up Lese Majesty pushed the envelope even further. Featuring eighteen songs grouped into seven suites, it finds Ishmael’s vocals often serving as an additional instrument, distorted and reverb-drenched: the lyrics at times unintelligible, at others cutting through the murk with a stab of insight. With its sometimes jarring changes of time signature and single-minded inventiveness, Lese Majesty was a fearlessly uncommercial album, but widely praised by critics and an ever increasing fan base. It is perhaps fitting that Radiohead, rock’s great experimenters, invited Shabazz Palaces to support them on their 2016 US tour. Dense and highly sophisticated, their work has been described as “thrilling music that seems totally without precedent” (The Guardian).
For those who want to experience the future of hip-hop, or even put aside any notions of what “hip hop” actually is, Shabazz Palaces’ Strings of Autumn concert is not to be missed.