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The Don Of Diamond Dreams

In their annual year-end critics’ poll, The Seattle Times ranked The Don Of Diamond Dreams as the very best Seattle album of 2020, saying:

Ishmael Butler is a Seattle original. The enigmatic rapper/producer has been at hip-hop’s vanguard since Digable Planets’ Grammy-winning heyday in the early ’90s. During the past decade, the onetime jazz-rap leader and, ahem, Seattle Times paperboy became an influential alt-rap figure, further expanding the art form through Shabazz Palaces’ polyrhythms and Afrofuturist touch. This spring’s Sub Pop-issued The Don of Diamond Dreams ranks among the best work of Butler’s illustrious career, showing he hasn’t stopped moving forward in three decades.

Butler makes literary sport of hip-hop’s braggadocio traditions, name-checking 1920s French actors, and “catching mermaids without no hook” on the hypnotizing “Chocolate Souffle.” Elsewhere, the warped funk of “Fast Learner” is fit for an intergalactic space cruise or midnight drive through neon-lit streets. In a year when local hip-hop shined so brightly — and some in the mainstream might be catching up to his star-surfing ways — amid a tumultuous start of a new decade, there’s comfort knowing this Seattle visionary still carries a guiding torch.

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Digable Planets Live

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Watercolor

Someone said the slow-burn groove of Porter Ray’s 2017 Sub Pop release, Watercolor was “decidedly wavy.” It’s a good descriptor of the push-pull forces at work here: just as songs begin to take off, they slow down again. It’s this ongoing tension that makes the record so fascinating and so perplexing.

This is headphone music, demanding your attention, full of hushed lyrics, buried voices under the verses, mumbles deep in the mix, and smooth ass bass lines. (Shout out to BRoc on the production.)

I’m a huge fan of Porter’s back catalog of mixtapes, but even then, it took me a dozen listens to make sense of this 18-track double vinyl. We live in a time of five-second sound bites and snap judgments, and this record defiantly rejects both. It builds slowly. It demands investment and patience.

Watercolor starts to kick into gear around track 4, “Past Life” (feat. Ca$htro), before easing down again into an instrumental interlude.

Watercolor slowly primes you to achieve that moment where you’re ready to receive bold truths. This record is musical yoga, held in stasis, where the smallest movements are rendered epic, practice through repetition, recurring themes, and verses throughout multiple songs and MCs. Just breathe. Those bangers come later: “Lightro,” “Beautiful,” “Sacred Geometry”—all on the latter half of the record—deliver in spades. The longer you spend in this dream space, the deeper the dream goes. Lay in corpse pose. It’ll come to you.

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Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, the first of twin 2017 releases from Shabazz Palaces, isn’t a traditional record: This is a visceral auditory experience. It blows up every preconception you had about music. As you read this review on your “glowing phantom limb …swiping all the time,” consider the following description: Try as you might, you will struggle to latch onto a center in this music. It moves, certainly, it shimmies and sways, it has beats-per-minute, yes—though rarely the same from bar-to-bar. These are sounds you experience emerging from your bones at a cellular level rather than, say, through your ears as all other music has worked for millennia. There are moments on this record, especially at the right volume, that you hear it beating from inside your body, like exhuming a long-dormant language you used to speak. Primal DNA music. Ishmael Butler raps on the first track: “Pay attention close you kids, this the shit don’t got no lid,” and he’s right. These songs will take you down a path of hypnosis: My mind traveled to far-off corners, lost memories, and summoned recollections that I’d long forgotten. Listening to Quazarz cracks open a door in your mind, like during the transfixingly long instrumental section at the end of “Effeminence.” The beat on “Julian’s Dream (ode to a bad)” is nonsensically, cheesily spectacular. And the verses on this same song will have your mouth dry with a hunger for the wanting of fruit and sunny summer days. Okay Seattle, the Shabazz Palaces crew have dropped the gauntlet: How do you reply?

The Stranger picked Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines as one of the “Top 10 Albums of 2017,” saying that:

Deciding between Shabazz Palace’s excellent two-album set that came out in July, I’m going with Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. On it, we’ve been graciously invited to inhabit the cosmic cool that is part of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire’s universe. This album is pure pleasure from start to finish, from the rapturous rhymes to the freakishly weird beats and the elegant, preternatural soundscapes. Also wins the award for best album of the year to listen to when getting blazingly high with your deepest, dankest bud.

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Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star

The 1991 novel Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis tells the story of an alien who experiences time backward, and who is perplexed by all our human behavior throughout the 20th century, where people become sick after visiting the hospital, and where the Holocaust births millions of new humans. Shabazz Palaces’s twin 2017 albums are concepted around a similar tale: Quazarz, the extraterrestrial, trying to make sense of contemporary America: Our capitalism, our fake news, our police brutality, and our smartphone obsessions. Throughout the verses, you’ll recognize your own habits and values reflected back, and see them as equally perplexing and strange. This second record, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, was originally conceived of as bonus material for the first (Jealous Machines) before taking on a life of its own. Songs have a stasis, a hazy quality, echoes of spare drums, and barely-there beats that stubbornly refuse to groove. Still, tracks like “Eel Dreams” and the Kraftwerk-inspired “Moon Whip Quäz” find their own abstract way to rock, taking you on a mystical space-travel journey. Overall, there’s an ease to the music on this record, an exploration of artists hanging out and playing and innovating, unconcerned with convention or commercial viability. Influences pull from everywhere: improvisation, sampler-based free-jazz, indie, and prog-rock, fusing the sound waves into a truly unique sonic landscape. This record opens your eyes. We’re all Quazarz. Our world is a confusing and magical place.

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Live At Third Man Records

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EarthEE

EarthEE from THEESatisfaction is quite possibly our favorite record of all time. Writing about favorites is hard because of how much you want to say and how so much of what connects you to music is hard to define. Political, environmental, and human, this record approaches its themes in ways sublime and profound: It dives down and plumbs the vast depths of the ocean and the mind. There’s so much happening on the bottom end that this music pours out of your speakers like thick molasses, pooling on the floor.

SassyBlack and Stas Thee Boss may have ended their creative partnership, but we’ll always this magical sequence: When the dense vocal layering at the end of “Fetch/Catch” gives way to the punch-in-the-stomach drum kick of “Nature’s Candy,” and then, after a few bars of rapping, the song performs alchemy, reversing motion, escaping time. (Also, gorgeous cover by Rajni Perera and Dusty Summers.)

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riZe vadZimu riZe

Years ago I bought a multi-track cassette recorder, and for a while, I became obsessed with recording four different, unrelated songs on top of one another. The results were mostly tortured audio chaos, but occasionally some unexpected beautiful musical serendipity would emerge. Listening to 2014’s riZe vadZimu riZe from Chimurenga Renaissance I’m reminded of those early experiments–this album contains similar auditory chaos. A project from Shabazz Palaces instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, songs are densely layered, with multiple melodies moving in multiple directions all at once. This is the sound of multitasking and the first few listens can be overwhelming. But commit to an active listing experience and this record will reward with much serendipity. Beautiful cover design by Civilization.

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Lese Majesty

If you’ve ever watched a sunrise, there’s this moment when the sun suddenly, miraculously appears, and all the shadows infinitely elongate, and you’re blinded by color and shaken by the experience. That’s a pretty accurate way to describe Lese Majesty a 2014 album from Shabazz Palaces. This album sounds like nothing else. The first few times I heard it, I found it so dense and foreign and perplexing that it sat on my shelf a long time, but lately has navigated a place in the regular rotation. This cover is an odd rubberized paper, deeply tactile. The music: deeply tactile as well.

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Pungwe

The Stranger picked Pungwe as one of the “Top 5 Albums of 2012,” saying that:

“A Toast to Frame & Ro” (featuring Ishmael Butler) is found on the brilliant Chimurenga Renaissance Pungwe mixtape. It blends deep, traditional Zimbabwean sounds with that deep and moody hip-hop that has defined the Northwest’s post–Sir Mix-A-Lot sound since its inception in the mid-’90s. Maraire’s raps are at once angry, thoughtful, political, American, African, post-postcolonial, postcolonial, and anticolonial. As for Ish, Shabazz Palace’s rapper, he delivers some of his most startlingly personal lines. “A Toast to Frame & Ro” is black Africa as Blade Runner.

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Live At KEXP

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awE naturalE

The silhouettes moving through the jungle evoke the strongly primal and sensual emotion you feel when listening to THEESatisfaction’s 2012 Sub Pop debut, awE naturalE. This is music you not so much listen to as you hear deep in your ancestral DNA. Track 3, “Queens,” is a song so sultry, so belly-warming, and twitchy, it makes the repeated line “sweat on your cardigan” sound like pure sex. A later track contains the line, “try to deny the funk.” Settle into a comfy chair and listen to this one loud enough that you can feel the enormous bass. It has a physical presence here. Tendai Maraire and Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces make an appearance on a couple of songs, too.

The Stranger picked awE naturalE as the very best hip-hop album of 2012, saying that:

“QueenS”—one of the three tracks arranged by Erik Blood on awE naturalE (he mixed and recorded the whole album)—is not only the best hip-hop track of the year, but also the most seductive. The genius of “QueenS” is how it draws you into its world. You first hear it from the outside, like a party in some house or apartment you are approaching. Upon reaching the door of this place, it magically opens for you—you enter and become a part of what’s really happening. This is why the video for the track, which is also the 206 video of the year (though it was shot in Brooklyn), captures the essence or the feel of the music so perfectly. Directed by hip-hop journalist and culture critic dream hampton, the video leads us into the warm core of a party in an apartment. The women at the party are all black and dreamy. This is their world. This is their music. This is how they party.

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Black Up

Seattle hip-hop blog 206UP picked this record as one of the “Top 10 Albums of 2011,” saying that:

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.

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Live At Sasquatch 2010

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Eagles Soar, Oil Flows

“See I’m just like you, yeah I know I’m a mess / Take a minute to thank, take an hour to dress / Got this pain in my neck, pain from starin’ at stars / I can’t find the remote, drinkin’ drivin’ my car… SLOW DOWN! For what? Slow down! For what?”

I’ve been listening to a lot of Seattle hip-hop classics lately, like this 2009 debut EP from Shabazz Palaces, alternately called Eagles Soar, Oil Flows or simply the Shabazz Palaces EP. I was talking with someone at a show about how what’s amazing with this group are all the ways they’re breaking all the so-called “rules” all at the same time. Some of this music is out of time, sometimes out-of-phase, the bass and treble levels inverted and broken, instruments arrive in and quickly depart with seeming randomness, or wait, is this just two guys with drums?!?

An elusive chorus finally presents itself just as the song is ending… This, bouncing beat, sometimes hostility, is then interposed with moments of such intense charm and beauty. There’s an exacting precision here. It’s like listening to… I don’t know. There’s nothing really like this. Lives are lived in this span of time.

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Of Light

Seattle hip-hop blog 206UP picked this record as one of the “Top 10 Albums of 2009,” saying that:

One of the five most creative and forward-thinking hip-hop albums of the decade. Everything about this album seems like it was pre-meditated. From the esoteric packaging to the intentionally veiled identity of the project’s main participant, to the deliberate pace of its “marketing” roll-out. Shabazz Palaces represents everything that is good about hip-hop. It casts a dark shadow over the genre’s vapid and disposable popular product, and illuminates hip-hop’s unlimited potential as a subversive course to self-awareness and urban pedagogy.

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White Van Music

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Bright Black

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9th Wonder

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Blowout Comb

I have to say from the git, the first time I heard Digable Planets I didn’t just sleep on them, I called in sick. Digable Planets? What kinda name is that? They call themselves doodlebug and wha? Fuck that shit is corny. Hearing them wasn’t better. The music’s all right, but it was the way they chanted their choruses like mantras, and sounded like they was on Actifed. I guess it just reminded me of too many bad poetry readings.

So, what do I think of their newest? Blowout Comb? I’m sorry to admit, it’s well, a Blowout Comb (or a pick as we used to call them in Colorado). Their chant thing still gets to me (“May 4th”), but the music on this album is so…beautiful.

“Black Ego” with its Roberta Flack cello and bass, noodley-blues guitar is !!!!!, and the lyrics fed my hed. They follow it up with “Dog It”-sax, vibes and… Damn! “Dial 7 (axioms of creamy spies)” has Sara Webb breathily singing “Black people, Black people, steal your mind back/don’t die in their wilderness. fuck that.”

“Dial 7″ is one of my favorite songs since the Young Disciple’s “Freedom Suite.” “The Art of Easing” samples Bobbi Humphrey (!). OK, OK, OK. I might’ve been wrong. (This review originally appeared in The Rocket and was written by Carlos Walker.)

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Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)

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