Tom Randall

Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (Sub Pop)

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Shabazz Palaces - Black Up (Sub Pop)

by Tom Randall

In my last few years of high school ( that laboratory of the opinions and vices that will come to characterise one’s early adulthood) I became obsessed with funky, jazz-influenced hip-hop. I had set out to follow the alchemy of learning to play jazz on guitar, supping in equal parts from the mystery of improvisation and the extremes of melody and dissonance inherent in its architecture and fizzing beneath its skin.

Around the same time, I found funk. Friends I made while playing in my school jazz ensemble slipped me choice cuts which they had been hipped to by older members of the same band through preceding generations. It felt like the imparting of secret knowledge. It began with the James Brown modal jams, a precious and exotic music, intellectually-informed but all about the satisfaction of bodily feeling. Next came the fusion of Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, Billy Cobham, and Eddie Harris. Then, we dug into modern appropriations of this source material, and our eyes grew wider. Turns out the beat from ‘Funky Drummer’ was fucking EVERYWHERE. US3’s ‘Cantaloop’ was played to me by one of my dearest friends in life, and I marvelled at the duplicity of taking this fantastic piece of modal jazz (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island’) and turning it into an infectious piece of hip-hop. I first heard The Roots in another friend’s basement before band practice. Conventions of genre and mood unhinged and swung wide, releasing the tensions of style and formalism that were knotted throughout our nascent musical sensibilities.

At the time, it seemed like freedom. It wasn’t only the promise of freedom that thrilled. These artists had an aesthetic that favoured certain intervals between melody and bass-note that would punch right through me. Like Mingus would do when he put blues melodies against unexpected progressions (‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’), or Miles, with Puck-like mischief, would flagrantly disregard the favoured bebop cliches of the time and pitch sweet, sharp barbs against the canvas of the rhythm section and watch them burrow in.

“Good notes,” I’ve heard them called. The best jazz-influenced hip-hop would have a similar kind of awkward juxtaposition. A Tribe Called Quest commonly would construct chord progressions that were asymmetrical, elusive, giving aural identity to Q-Tip’s regular invocation of The Abstract. The lopsidedness was a departure from the resolution favoured by the majority of mainstream jazz. These good notes cycled like electrons around the knock of the beat, and would urgently twist and jolt my heartstrings. Just like Mingus and Miles, two of the greatest stirrers in jazz, controversy and unease, were encouraged by these enigmatic misfit progressions.

The transmission of this folklore was far from infallible: it took a couple more years for me to be hipped to ATCQ, a band who are now my undisputed benchmark for this stream. But in spite all the lame acid-jazz mpfrees that I waded through, it was a key step for an overly serious dude with shitty dial-up and no other discographical experience. Grunge, punk, metal and indie alternative had been bequeathed to me by Triple J. Of course I went deeper, but I was hostage to the agenda of commercial magazines, and shitty ones at that. This music, on the other hand, was the gift of a community. It was to be shared (the selfish charm of obscurity quickly fell away), to be revelled in. In small-town, skate punk, Triple J unearthing, Silverchair-birthing post-industrial New South Wales, it was watershed. I gave it name. “Oblique hip-hop”: angular but open, unkinked but unlinked, the harmonic disparity countered by the insistent and metronomic nod of my head when listening to it.

Again, it wasn’t a perfect system. I didn’t find Digable Planets until university. But I did. And this happened to me:

Even through the corny vibraphone and sax-cool, the shout-out to Eric Dolphy and smooth-jazz muted guitar, I still get chills from how the bass and drum lock, the nimble and understated flow of the MCs fleetly skating over it.

Ishamel Butler from Digable Planets has this new record out as Shabazz Palaces, Sub Pop’s first hip-hop release. This is not crowd-pleasing acid-jazz, but it is of the lineage discussed above, but it grasps for something more, something more abstract and alienated from cliche. Bebop gave away to the “New Thing” of later Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and others. Conventional structures and norms of pitch and rhythm were regarded as exhausted. Chaos (often countered with a sort of lyricism) was sought out to make a music that was valid without a reference to signposts comfortable to critics and public.

Black Up is not an acid-free-jazz record, if such a thing were possible. It still has a constant rhythm or pulse, although it does like changes of tempo and metre in a single track. It plays like the soundtrack to a film out in front of your eyes, gentle, not didactic, supporting some greater truth being communicated, a part of a whole. And while I sometimes wish that Ishmael would show his hand, the suggestiveness of these tracks is addictive as shit.

Miles would say, “Never finish a phrase”. There is an extended space between the slippery and compacted beats as they unlock and slide behind and around as you follow these beats in perfect non-linear paths.

Time stops for you to stare into the abyss. Distant cries are heard. Hooks drag themselves out of the morass of rickety structures, but they are rare. This is music that withholds the release; the click never really locks in to the big bassline. But it has a confidence in its skeletal frame, as reverbed Atari-drums ricochet in perfectly quantised geometry. All while swaying woozily, obliquely.

And when he does decide to lay a catchy beat on you, you feel that excitement: this is new, but its lineage strong. Exotic and precious. Each beat thrums your bones like it’s the first time.

What will Ishmael do with this new vocabulary: retreat into further abstraction, or craft it into forms alluring to the immediate ear? He can, of course, only do both, because only that would continue to confound our expectations; only that would be to move obliquely.

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