Laundry – November 3rd
“What day of the week is it?” demanded Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro, of rap duo Shabazz Palaces. The question came from the Seattle-based artist and former Digable Planet member near the end of the group’s superb 90+ minute set at Laundry. “Tuesday?” he answered. “Well, we appreciate you coming out. We know you’ve got shit to do.”
And that was about all the crowd got in terms of chit chat from Butler. But by that point, he and his partner – percussionist Tendai ‘Baba’ Marair – had made enough of a statement on the Hackney stage to last a lifetime. After all, here were the two current champions of progressive hip hop busy casting their spell over a packed house, armed with nothing more than two microphones, some drums and enough beats and samples to bring their stark music to life.
From the start, the Sub Pop-signed duo wasted no time showing off the riches of their latest album, Lese Majesty. Could they be the first set of major league rappers to make it out onstage early? The acid-washed bleepy intro to ‘Forerunner Foray’ rang out, complete with the ‘Hustlers Convention’ sample from 1973 that summed up the evening’s excitement well: “…you could feel all the tension, filling up the convention…” before they launched into the tune’s bumping and laconic groove. And with a barrage of lasers and an impressive haze of dry ice smoke filling the room, they set about doing the unthinkable – creating a mind-boggling night of music from the most limited of arsenals.
Music relentlessly bold in its exploration of space, time and timbre.
“We’ve been playing live so much it’s almost like two people whispering now,” Butler told me before the show. “But we like to add a lot of volume to it and create a really synergetic and athletic approach to the music, with lots of improvisation. It’s been cool.” The volume was definitely there. And it was blessed with a soundman who kept the vibe hot within the challenging confines of the concrete bunker. But the crew were not to be denied and they proceeded to rip up the rap blueprint and forge their own sonic path. Whether it’s down to Butler’s wild and varied flow on topics ranging from the mystical to the musical, or Tendai’s off-kilter and propulsive drumming, it matters not. The music was just relentlessly bold in its exploration of space, time and timbre.
As the duo rocked along they lulled the crowd into a heady groove that seemed both weightless and effortless as the seductive beats and rhymes just kept coming. They were even nice enough to mix a shout out for ‘London’ into a slick beat and loop it repetitively. How about that for a personal touch? Triggering a sea of bobbing heads, the sunglass-wearing duo knocked out the tracks seamlessly, varying from their early EPs or 2011’s album Black Up. They all worked.
But it was the tracks from Lese Majesty that truly convinced. From the deceptive slink of ‘Harem Aria’ or the surreal flow of ‘#CAKE’, the duo took no shortcuts in their one-two mic attack, with Butler leading and Tendai echoing, as the haze of subbass and wooden African percussion littered the air. And ‘#CAKE’ served as a perfect example of how surreal Butler’s wordplay and flow can be as he served up with a certain delight: “And when I seen her whispers in her friends’ ear/ Eating cake/ His lust is just so sincere/ Eating cake/ Got the feeling she was right on/ Eating cake/ As the purveyor of the tight songs.”
But perhaps it’s best summed up by Butler himself as he described their music: “Hip hop is has travelled light years from where it used to be.” And from Seattle to Hackney, here lie the new frontiers of rap.