Live at Capitol Hill Block Party: Shabazz Palaces

The in house DJ, playing a quick set between mainstage performances, threw down a few 80s tunes for kicks to get the audience moving. Then it was time to get down to business. Quickly switching the mood he ripped through a few Jay-Z classics as several of front rows lit up their blunts and prepared for Shabazz Palaces, local avant-rap duo fronted by MC Palaceer Lazaro (formerly of Digable Planets and known more famously as Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler) to take the stage.

Unfortunately most of the concert was plagued by an obvious imbalance of sound. Fans were dismayed as the bass sludged, the percussion sharply attacked but Ish could hardly be heard. Throughout the first three quarters of the show this problem continued, leading the audience to groan and shout at the guy on the sound board to “turn Ish up!” or have the two vocalists “switch mics!”.

Luckily, Ish finally achieved full volume on his microphone and delivered his infamous nasally alto flow over the last few songs. With the critical momentum of the new self-titled album throttling Seattle hip-hop heads into Shabazz fandom, plenty of show-goers likely came to witness his crisp and dynamic rap style. Once the downtempo beats shifted to create space for their MC, all was well--hands went up and heads bopped in unison.

Shabazz Palaces may be labelled avant-rap for their distaste for the usual boom-bap and lyrical content that the mainstream is used to but from their live performance, it’s clear they’re influenced by the current wave of rap. The drawn out bass notes were reminiscent of any hip-hop show from the Cool Kids to Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and while these artists aren’t chart toppers, they’re certainly not avant-garde. And Ish’s flow really doesn’t differ much from any of his peers or predecessors. Indeed, the minimal but high volume beats that critics often describe as twisted and experimental sounded drastically less so live--they were cool and catchy. The only element of the performance that seemed a bit off kilter was the MC taking his position behind a table in order to tweak a few knobs and vocode occasionally. But this was something I quickly got used to as he maintained smoothly in motion throughout the set. Shabazz Palaces are well worth checking out live. They’re energetic, interesting lyrically and their slow and minimal beats knock harder than most underground rap artists trying to achieve similar goals.

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