Live Review: Shabazz Palaces @ Neumos 6/30

photos by Dave Lichterman

review by Andrew Hall

I’m certainly not the first to say it, but it’s clear that Shabazz Palaces is starting something; better yet, the world is, to my great delight, taking notice. Beyond Black Up itself — a rap record from Seattle released on a storied superindie that sounds worlds removed from not just the city’s hip-hop scene, but this universe’s — Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire’s performance at Neumos, the first of two shows celebrating the album’s release, felt just as much like a rewrite of live rap conventions as the music itself. In a genre notorious for rough performances, the duo offered a generous set that more than validated the hype surrounding them.

Following OCNotes’ DJ set and a brief set by Merm & Mal that hit its stride only in its last ten minutes, as well as the requisite overlong wait, Butler and Maraire emerged accompanied by two women clad in all black, most likely Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White of collaborators and now-labelmates THEESatisfaction, who would later return during the set to contribute additional vocals, and proceeded to tear through the first several songs of their new record.

Whereas the album’s production feels wholly unified, in a live setting they’re clearly split. Butler eschews the traditional and seemingly obligatory DJ set but chooses not to go the all-live band route; instead, he controls his beats from his own laptop and a table full of electronics, and he’s wholly in charge of the music’s aggressive digital elements. Alongside him, Maraire’s partial drum kit, kalimba, and additional vocals, often processed, fill in its empty space without rendering it claustrophobic or coming across as at all contrived, a remarkable feat given how often digital performers fail to listen to or interact with their analog counterparts.

Though there were a handful of technical difficulties across the eighty-minute set, mostly pertaining to microphones — Butler’s mic suddenly cut out during a song, one of Maraire’s drums had its fall out, and one of THEESatisfaction’s ended up rolling off a table and slamming onto the stage — the duo never took a moment to stop and was better for it. The audience wasn’t just sympathetic; more than a handful of people knew what felt like all of the words to a dense, “difficult” record that just saw physical release two days before this show, and that’s better proof than anything else that what Shabazz Palaces is doing is worth following.

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