Blue Scholars’ new video for “Slick Watts” is a pantheon of northwest hip-hop cameos — the food and Townfolk variety. Jordan Nicholson helmed the high-def for this one. Chances are good you’ve seen dude’s lens work on other local music sites. I implore you to Google further.
Two new beat tapes from Blue Scholars’ producer/DJ, Sabzi. The first is Yesler, a 20-track collection of instrumentals designed “to accompany your reflecting and daydreaming in the car, collegiate studying, or hours spent on graphic design work.” (Saba’s words.)
And the second is Cine Riddims, the now-familiar instrumentals to Blue Scholars’ 2011 album, Cinemetropolis. Put your own raps over Sabzi’s slaps and embarrass your friends and family today!
When Cinemetropolis dropped last year I spent more than a few good minutes of my time trying to figure out the context of Geo’s second verse in “Seijun Suzuki.” That was because there didn’t seem to be any. Ah, but there’s the rub, fam: There is always context for the man’s lyrics. I eventually got the chance to ask him about it and for that see, here. In the meantime, just enjoy the entertaining video for the track, directed by SEA rap video extraordinaire Jon Augustavo.
206UP.COM’s Top 10 Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2011 concludes today with the list below, the blog’s five favorite local releases of the year. I hope you enjoyed the list and that it generates an active response in your brain — that’s really the sole reason we do these year-end list things, anyway. Everything is up for conjecture. If you have something to say, I want to hear it — the Comments section is there for you to use. As before, links to download or purchase are included, just click on the album covers.
5. The Good Sin & 10.4 Rog – Late
Producer 10.4 Rog’s beatific sense of rhythm and electronic adornments made for the perfect counterpoint to The Good Sin’s grounded, low-pitched raps on getting by financially and romantically when success with both endeavors seems fleeting. I recall downloading this free album right around the time Odd Future’s proverbial cream was rising to the top and, upon listening, was happy to experience a different type of hip-hop escape: Finding a relatable and comfortable space of existence between Rog’s airy atmospherics and Sinseer’s lyrics on the everyday struggle. For most listeners in Seattle, this was a formal introduction to both producer and MC. Late set an incredibly high standard for these promising young artists whose stars are still rising.
4. Khingz – Liberation of the Monster
A relocation to Vancouver, BC has not changed the allegiance or focus in subject matter of the South End’s most self-aware rapper, Khingz. Liberation of the Monster was the best collection of tracks the MC has released since 2009’s remarkable From Slaveships to Spaceships. Canadian producer Rel!g!on was responsible for all of the beats, a Pacific Northwest re-working of the SoCal gangsta aesthetic found on 1990s albums like Dogg Food. While Khingz may forever associate himself with that style of rap nostalgically (like many us who came-of-age in the 90s), he’s decidedly more responsible and progressive in his rhymes. His course is set on a better future, a destination borne from a dubious past. On tracks like “Monster’s Lib” and “Hard to Say,” the MC is so diffuse in his rhyming it’s hard to keep up with the words. You would be too if you had the rare combination of artistic acumen and social enlightenment of this rapper.
3. Blue Scholars – Cinemetropolis
Even Shabazz Palaces’ debut LP Black Up didn’t ignite the local hip-hop landscape initially the way Blue Scholars did with their third full-length album, Cinemetropolis. Behind the strength of a Kickstarter campaign that generated a pre-album release $62,000 in donations in six weeks and a subsequent 33-date national headlining tour, Geo and Sabzi remained Seattle rap’s sentimental favorite (until the next Macklemore drops, anyway).
Producer Sabzi developed a new sound for the group: A bass-heavy mix of heady synth and tropical rhythms. And MC Geo wove his love for cinema and social justice into conceptual lyrics that succeeded in entertaining and provoking thought. As the members of Blue Scholars age, it seems like their fans are getting younger, which bodes well for the future. If the youth are independently choosing to support acts like this, then maybe there is hope for the coming generation.
2. The Physics – Love is a Business
A giant leap forward for Seattle hip-hop (and R&B for that matter). The Physics’ Love is a Business was the long-awaited follow-up to the group’s first LP, Future Talk, a record that held many promises for those heads still living in rap’s Golden Era. Love is a Business did have much in common with its predecessor, but also moved beyond with a wholly-conceived sound that was more soulful and refined thanks especially to don’t-call-them-back-up singers, Malice and Mario Sweet.
LIAB represents Seattle hip-hop in its most fully-grown incarnation. Thig Natural, Monk Wordsmith and Justo placed themselves contextually in that realm of maturity where one is still young enough to enjoy a Tuesday night jump-off encounter, but not without a hint of regret at having to face the coming work day on little to no sleep. In these mens’ lives, the intersection of their art, professional careers and romantic engagements are inseparable, each one informs the other. If there’s any justice in the musical universe someday The Physics will make beats and rhymes for a living, and this album’s description of their current existence will serve as a fond reminder to them of when life was a little less charmed.
1. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
At this moment in time, it’s impossible to place Black Up into appropriate hip-hop context. But that’s because (and any theoretical physicist will tell you this) time itself is merely an illusion. Similar to the career of Shabazz Palaces’ primary motivating force, Palaceer Lazaro (earthly name: Ishmael Butler), the sounds on Black Up ascend to the stratosphere, only to dissipate and fall invisibly to the terra firma where the music is reformed into new lyrical notions and sonic movements. The sounds here are transient, but everything in Butler’s past seems to have been pointing to this moment.
If you had to pinpoint an origin for Black Up, you would say its spirit is rooted most firmly in Africa. The Palaceer’s words stay tethered to a motherland but course off in many directions, just like peoples disseminated (by choice and by force) across the globe. As I type this, Shabazz Palaces is spreading its ethereal sound across parts of Europe, and will likely move beyond that continent. How fortunate we are in Seattle then, to be able to call our city SP’s corporeal home. I don’t think many people in The Town realized a spirit like Shabazz’s existed in their midst. Seattleites (and the world), take note: If that’s cream you’re putting in your coffee — don’t. Better to drink the elixir Black.
The second week of June was the center of the hometown promotional storm for Blue Scholars. In support of the group’s third LP, Cinemetropolis, Geo and Sabzi did no less than play three shows (two back-to-back album release parties at Neumos and one invitation-only Kickstarter appreciation show), dropped the album’s first music video for the track “Fou Lee,” appeared at an in-store special edition t-shirt signing at Seattle Stüssy, and played an on-air KEXP studio session with DJ Kevin Cole.
The group has remained steadfast in its musical independence, both in sound and from a business standpoint. And though Blue Scholars didn’t have the industry weight or promotional heft of a record label behind them with this album, its release felt no less important to the city of Seattle and its burgeoning hip-hop scene. This crew carries a lot of capital, creative and otherwise. It remains one of the most visible faces of Seattle rap on a national level and, judging from the overwhelming response to its Cinemetropolis Kickstarter campaign, continues to resonate with the entity that matters most: the fans.
I caught up with Geo and Sabzi backstage at Neumos, a few minutes before they played the second of two sold out shows at the venue.
You guys seem really relaxed, almost in like a Zen state, with the release of Cinemetropolis. Are you guys at a place in your careers where you’re relaxed when putting out new material?
Geo: Yeah, definitely. That’s an interesting observation. I’d say it varies from one project to the next. But when it comes to the full length albums, we wouldn’t [normally] release it unless we were 100% cool with what we had. Not super perfectionist type shit, but just something that we feel represents where we’re at at that given point. We’ve always had the philosophy that we want our music to be a time capsule of where both me and Saba are at individually, at the time of creation of that album. I guess we do kinda exude a Zen approach because so much [tension] gets released by the time the record is presented to the public that we’re just like, “Hey it’s out there, man.”
Sabzi: [That’s] definitely how this record has gone.
Cinemetropolis sounds totally different than anything you’ve done before it. There was no fear of alienating your fan base?
Geo: No, if we did we would never release it. We are very aware of how different this record sounds from the last. If we took even, like, five minutes to sit and think about that and be worried about it, I would go fucking crazy. So maybe it’s like a defense mechanism to be like, “Hey man, whatever happens, happens.” When it comes time to release something, all those moments [of questioning] have already happened. I think what we’re always doing is trying to navigate through both our personal lives and our collective lives and then making sure the music is at the intersection of where we’re at. That’s why there’s a cinema influence. That’s why we didn’t go with a label. All of that is part of the story. If things are fucked up, we want it to be our fault and nobody else’s.
Speaking of navigating your personal lives, how have you dealt with being on opposite coasts? (Geo lives in Seattle and Sabzi has been splitting time between Seattle and New York.)
Sabzi: [The recording] was done here. It’s really not that different. When we first started making music in like 2001, I would make beats, upload it to FTP and Geo would download it.
Geo: We lived a five minute walk away from each other and we still made the first album mostly over the internet.
But New York has a different kind of energy. Sabzi, did you make the beats there or in Seattle? Was there a different type of creative process in the two cities?
Sabzi: I didn’t make them all out there. I made “Fin” in New York. I made “Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant” there. Half of it was Seattle and half of it was New York. I’d say tracks like “Hussein” and “Fou Lee” were template cuts for making the rest of the record, so we were already heading in that direction. When I moved to New York I didn’t have my record collection with me so that was a concrete factor that influenced the creative process. I didn’t have them to sample from, so every time I sat down to work it was all synth-based. I just don’t really think like that [about the recording environment]. I’m not saying there’s no influence, like I’m somehow above my environment which isn’t true at all, but it’s nothing I’m conscious of. As long as I have the same computer and, like, the distance between my chair and my computer and keyboard, it’s the same. And whatever I experienced that day will feed into it. There’s a lot more dancehall being played [in New York]. People have commented this record has a lot of island rhythms on it.
And what about from a writing standpoint? Does your environment affect how you write rhymes?
Geo: I mean, I’d like to think I have a visceral writing style and so that the experience of traveling and coming home, going out, jogging at Seward Park, riding the subways through Manhattan, I think I’m conscious of that. I’m thinking of rhymes as I’m going. And then you go into the lab to execute those ideas. If I’m on the train I can pull out my phone and record the thought and then that makes it onto the record. So for me, I’d have to say that influence [of being in New York and other locations] is definitely on the record more than any of the other stuff we’ve done before.
I wanted to ask you about two tracks, specifically. The first one is “Hussein.” Is it about Barack Obama?
Geo: It could be. [Laughs]
There’s a line, “What happens when you think patience always means wait,” which resonates because of the shift in optimism from his election in 2008, when so many folks thought it meant instant change for the better, to today when everyone is impatient, still waiting.
Geo: I was one of the people that, on one hand, was very critical of Barack and his message of hope and very idealistic things, knowing that he’s just one dude who’s talking all this good game, knowing that the system is set up so that he can’t change it overnight or even in four years. But then you can’t discount the fact that it is a historical moment for this country, at least symbolically. “Hussein” was the first song completed for the album. It was probably done by early ‘09.
The fact that this country even elected someone with that middle name spoke volumes, symbolically.
Geo: There were a lot of conversations about his middle name, man. It was a lightning rod. A carry-over from anti-Muslim hysteria, anti-Middle Eastern hysteria. In this country that name is so politicized. It evokes a reaction from everyone, whereas you go to other parts of the world and “Hussein” is just another name.
Sabzi: I think it spoke volumes to like, “Yo, this is how we’re gonna fix it. Like, we’re down! All done!” Electing him is not much different than adopting a Korean baby. It’s kinda like, “We’re hella ‘about the world!’”
I’m Korean and adopted. [Laughter]
Sabzi: Oh, for real? Yeah, but your parents aren’t celebrities.
No, they’re not. They’re definitely not celebrities.
Sabzi: You know what I mean though, right?
Geo: That’s exactly what the song is about. One thing that probably triggered the song the most, more than all the political stuff we’re talking about now that people in coffee shops everywhere talk about, is on Facebook that year  people were changing their middle names to “Hussein” and in the “Political Views” people were writing, “Obama.” It’s somewhat of a triumph over Bush and [the] Neo-Conservatism that has dominated America for most of the last decade. It was like, we know who the enemy is and maybe it took that long to realize it. Maybe it’s just gonna take a little longer to realize who the people [are] that are gonna do something about it. For a brief moment people really gambled on the Democratic Party, via one dude, to be that. I think it’s very obvious that the “patience means wait” approach to politics is bankrupt, man.
Sabzi: For the record, I personally am really glad Barack Obama is the President. And I don’t give a shit if he changes anything ‘cause that’s not what he’s supposed to do. The President doesn’t really matter. You might as well just have him be tight. Like, let’s just have a cool-ass dude as the President. That makes a huge difference. If you travel internationally now, they’re like, “Whattup, man? You’re from America? Swag!” And it’s way more about “swag” than anything else. Just to be clear: thumbs up Obama, from me at least.
The other track I wanted to ask you about is “Seijun Suzuki.” I perceived the song to be about the Seattle hip-hop scene — not so much a shot at The Town, but more of a challenge, like: Who’s really trying to “make it?” What’s your general take on what’s going on in the Seattle rap scene right now?
Sabzi: Better than ever before.
Geo: Yeah, it is. It’s interesting you mentioned that. I would say it’s actually more of a statement on rap in general. I’ve developed a reputation of being that dude that every song I write is “about some shit.” I’m a Lil’ Wayne fan, man, as well as a Mos Def fan. So there’s the element that, on one hand, I am tired of “rap about rap” but I’m also a fan of “rap about rap” when it’s done in a manner that moves me. It’s not necessarily about a super-conceptual idea. I was thinking about this while I was watching [Seijun Suzuki’s] films. There’s a lot of criticism about Seijun Suzuki in his day about like, “This dude’s films ain’t about shit.” On the other hand there are people really over-analyzing his films when they were just low-budget Yakuza flicks. I thought that was interesting because they’re both right and they’re both wrong. But at the end of the day it was just the artist doing him. And I think this [track] is where I wanted to put the foot down and be like, “You know what, I don’t wanna rap about anything in particular on this song. We’re gonna pull a Seijun Suzuki up in this ma’fucka, man. I’m gonna touch upon a subject in one bar and then I’m just gonna rap about nonsense.”
But there’s that line, “The day we decided to make it like Jake and Vita,” that specifically references the two, arguably, most well-known industry dudes in the Seattle rap scene.
Geo: I’m glad you caught “Jake and Vita.” A lot of people thought I was saying “Che Guevara.” I threw Jake and Vita in there because, to me, I feel like there’s a perception of what success is and should be, and here are two dudes that have molded a sound and a scene, and a lot of the [artists] that we look up to know these cats. But to a lot of people, if you’re not out in front of the crowd or all up on TV, then you haven’t “made it.” To me, there are people who have “made it” [that aren’t like that]. And that’s connected to the hook, “Ain’t nobody winnin’ everybody’s scared of losin.’” I think there are a lot of people that want it but are afraid to really put themselves out there because they’re afraid who they really are is not gonna translate. So they do really well at emulating what’s out there. And that’s not just a hip-hop thing, that’s a music thing, a film thing, a life thing. We’re in a phase where everybody’s half winning.
You’re going on tour to promote Cinemetropolis soon, right?
Geo: Yes, the details I can give right now are it’s gonna be in September, October and November, give or take 30 dates. It’s our first headlining tour that’s longer than a regional run.
Will there be a New York date? The last show you played, at the Bowery Ballroom last September, felt triumphant not only for you guys but Seattle hip-hop in general.
Geo: Yeah, it was. It’s a moment that I don’t think can ever be captured again. It was crazy because we hadn’t put out a full length album in almost four years. All signs pointed to that show doing moderately well or even failing. Bowery is supposed to be one of the spots. You have to build your way up to it or you have to really be on some super hype shit, and we were neither. Everything fell into place. Half the crowd was from Seattle or had roots in the area. I’m grateful. That was probably one of my top five favorite shows.
Sabzi: I thought it was great. I’ve been to a lot of different events in New York from like Highline [Ballroom] to little parties at CV [an exclusive club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan] and we sold out Bowery and there were no scenesters there. So I think that’s really interesting. There are so many different sides to New York City and one of them is definitely like a town, like ours here. It was like the New York version of the fans that come here, who are real people, with real jobs, who live in the boroughs, who listen to music and good stuff, came through. And I don’t hate scenesters, I actually think they’re really tight ‘cause I am one [laughs]. But I liked how we could sell that [show] out without needing that.
What’s up with the side projects? Geo, you have a new EP, Walk Into A Bar, coming out soon with Bambu.
Geo: It’s nine tracks, ten with the bonus track. Beatrock Music, who puts out Bambu’s stuff, took interest and is actually making it an official Beatrock Music release. [Bambu] is gonna be our main support on the fall tour. This is like our BFF Hawaii record. It’s like OOF two [laughs]. On one of our trips to Hawaii we had planned to do one or two songs with a Hawaii-based producer and give it to In4mation to throw on their blog, and we ended up doing three and did the rest over the internet. A lot of Seattle producers got involved and it became an actual project. It happened all because we literally walked into a bar our first night in Hawaii and decided to do a few songs.
Sabzi, you released a side project, Made In Heights, with singer Kelsey Bulkin last winter. Is there more to come from that collaboration?
Sabzi: We have another collection that’s already recorded. That’s what I’m doing in New York. If everything works out then I’d like to do one or maybe two more things with Made In Heights, perhaps like a full record and get a lot of New York people involved. Really take it in the opposite direction of everything I’ve done before. And then I plan to do plenty of solo stuff. Forever. For the rest of my life!
Amidst the massive amount of success Blue Scholars has experienced since its formation in 2002, MC Geo (aka. Prometheus Brown) and DJ/producer Sabzi have remained stubbornly — defiantly even — proletariat in their musical aims. It’s a testament to the duo’s acute devotion to the rank-and-file they prefer to serve that there have been no Clear Channel radio-ready singles, no flirtations with major labels and their “fucked-up” (as Geo once put it) three-sixty deals, no appearances on late night television, and no wavering from the Socialist underpinnings that have provided the ballast for the group’s lyrical content since its inception.
In fact, in support of the crew’s third LP, Cinemetropolis, Geo and Sabzi asked “the people” to subsidize the album’s production via the Kickstarter platform, a move that could have been dismissed as rap hubris run amok if it had been made by any other group without a history as communally-oriented as this one. Fans replied to the tune of about $62,000 in donations in 45 days, a response that indicates Blue Scholars has become a sort of mini-movement in addition to just being a rap group. This particular album cycle is literally being powered by a loyal fan base that asks for little in return other than the group’s best efforts at dopeness on wax, which is exactly what Cinemetropolis represents thus far in Blue Scholars’ discography.
The group was unofficially knighted the de facto leader of Seattle’s underground hip-hop movement in the mid aughts, all of it due to the crew’s self-titled debut album, an accessible collection of Golden Era-styled boom-bap with a revolutionary spirit and anti-establishment bent. The group’s sophomore LP, Bayani, featured complex layers of rhythm and dense sonic textures that were darker in comparison. It was a dynamic listen on the headphones but didn’t translate nearly as well live. The album felt a little like growing pains with respect to the group’s sound, with fewer samples at the forefront of the production and more distinct musicality that provided unique description for the group’s identity.
With Cinemetropolis, Geo and Sabzi have separated themselves musically from every hip-hop group in Seattle’s now bustling scene and arguably from most acts nationally. Sabzi’s evolution as a producer over the last year or so has seen him shed the sample-heavy boom-bap skin of the group’s prior work in favor of more colorful compositions comprised of heavy synth and deep reverberating drum and bass that often sounds tropical. Tracks like the rolling, low end-heavy “Slick Watts” and “Seijun Suzuki” fall in line with the producer’s ride-friendly work for Das Racist (“All Tan Everything” and “Who’s That Brown?”), while the beautiful, sweeping synth waves of the epic “George Jackson” is akin to the arrangements of Made In Heights, his electro-pop side project with singer Kelsey Bulkin (who also lends vocals on Cinemetropolis’ title track).
It’s impossible to determine whether Blue Scholars has officially found its particular “sound” or if this is just one paragraph in the group’s musical narrative, which seems more likely. It’s unlikely, however, that a similar lyrical concept will ever pervade future albums. Cinemetropolis was intentionally engineered as a “reverse soundtrack,” whereby each of the album’s fifteen tracks will inspire accompanying short films and/or music videos. The group is interested in how film informs our perception of real life and vice versa, a conceit that generally holds the LP’s wide spectrum of subject matter together. The idea is especially interesting when you factor in the group’s reputation as a socially conscious outfit, a regard that has made both group members shift uncomfortably in their seats during interviews. Blue Scholars has appealed equally to rap heads that keep themselves in-the-political-know, and those less informed folks who might find themselves Googling Geo’s many references to revolutionary factions in colonized locations across the globe. Many of Cinemetropolis’ song titles are great fodder for the Wikipedia machine and there’s much to be learned strictly from that search button exercise.
Listen more intently to the lyrics, however, and a greater depth is revealed. Geo is one of the best lyricists at extrapolating big ideas from simple concepts. “Fou Lee” is named after a Vietnamese grocery store on Beacon Hill where Blue Scholars and other members of their team would stock up on food during the Bayani recording sessions, thus the track becomes an emblem for both creative and physical sustenance. “Hussein” may or may not be a specific reference to the 44th President of the United States, but it’s definitely about the MC’s desire for change much greater than what has occurred in the last three and a half years. Even a track like “Slick Watts,” which isn’t much more than a glorified interlude, might contain a reference to gentrification when, after a comprehensive Seattle neighborhood roll-call, Geo says, “Got some folks leavin’ / Got other folks comin’ / Somebody had to go and say somethin’.” The analysis might be a stretch but it’s not out of bounds given the MC’s point of view.
Certainly less ambiguous is “Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant,” a track that encourages the public documentation of police brutality in order to maintain some semblance of accountability of the boys in blue. It’s a far cry from “Fuck Tha Police” but far more militant than any other Blue Scholars track that exists in public. The choral chant of, “Shoot the cops / Shoot the cops / Shoot the cops / Take your cameras out your pocket people,” is blatant enough to be incendiary and enigmatic enough to remain halcyon. It’s a noble attempt at reminding the public of how powerful we are when maintaining a united front against injustice. It also perfectly captures the ethos of this group. The men of Blue Scholars have an amiability that immediately places them on a level relatable to most. It’s a combination of focused ire and off-the-charts creative acumen, however, that allows them to craft a hip-hop auteur’s monument like Cinemetropolis.
At Saturday’s sold-out Cinemetropolis Album Release Party, the second of a two-night run at Neumos, Blue Scholars had Seattle hip-hop fans eating out of their proverbial hands, as has been the case at all of the duo’s local shows for the last six years or so. The energetic all ages crowd followed Geo and Sabzi’s lead for nearly an hour and a half as the crew marched through a set list heavy on new material with a few select older favorites.
Geo is one of the best lyricists at taking simple ideas and extrapolating them into something larger and more complex. On “Fou Lee” one of the best cuts from Cinemetropolis, the name of the venerable Beacon Hill Vietnamese grocery store is used as an emblem for the source of Blue Scholars’ inspiration and sustenance, literally and figuratively. This is an intimate Town jam, in which the best reference is the MC Foods corner store at Alaskan and Columbian. I always get a laugh when I pass that spot. Directed by Canh Solo.
Cinemetropolis officially drops tomorrow, but if you ain’t got it already, then you probably aren’t a fan. The live jump-off is this Friday and Saturday.
Breaking news from the Blue Scholars camp (via the good folks — and fellow colleagues — at SSG Music): the crew’s eagerly anticipated third full-length, Cinemetropolis, is now available for streaming and purchase at their Bandcamp page, a full two weeks before its official release date of June 14. Look for a full album review coming soon from 206UP.COM.
Blue Scholars just premiered the short film/music video for the track “Slick Watts,” the first clip from the group’s third full-length album, Cinemetropolis (dropping everywhere on June 14). Enjoy the visuals courtesy Geo, Sabzi, the Sonicsgate team, and a very special and not-so-conspicuous guest (hint: the song is named after him, dummy).