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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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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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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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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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4 The Love of Music

Imagine a family reunion where everyone is there. I mean everyone. That means you get to see grandpa captivate people with his charm and wit, and you can hear a few of the aunts harmonizing a lovely new song they just made up, but you may encounter some not-so politically correct language from certain relatives. 4 The Love Of Music contains 17 tracks from across the family of rap and hip hop in the Emerald City as it existed when this comp was released in 2010. The expert curation by Tendai Maraire places tracks by superstars like (his own band) Shabazz Palaces, Macklemore, and Sir Mix A Lot, alongside offerings by other artists familiar to fans of Seattle hip hop. Thee Satisfaction contributes “Queen Supreme” and The Physics give us “Booe’d Up.” Fresh Espresso’s “Sunglasses On” stands out for its synthwave aesthetic, while “What Up Pimpin” by Draze is impossible to dislike, it’s simple and catchy. Unfortunately, there are too many more artists to name them all, but I must mention “Can’t Stand The Reign” by Mash Hall. Clocking in at five minutes and thirty-six seconds, this track is mysterious and inventive, calling to mind a hallucinatory Harmony Korine movie soundtrack. 4 The Love Of Music is one of the most complete assemblies of Seattle’s diverse rap community, and this compilation is a must-own. (This review was submitted by reader Novocaine132.)

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Town Biz Mixtape

No list of essential Seattle hip-hop compilations would be complete without the inclusion of Jake One’s 27-track opus, the Town Biz Mixtape. He dug deep into the crates, surfacing lost hits, deep cuts, and the finest local hip-hop spanning more than 20 years. (From 1989 to 2010, when this CD was released.)

The mixtape is an essential playlist that surfaces forgotten gems and unexpected bangers. My favorite track here is Vitamin D’s “Who That??” feat. The Note (from Narcotik), but there are so, so many solid tracks. Everyone’s on this, from Blind Council to Mash Hall, The Physics, Tay Sean, J. Pinder, and Shabazz Palaces. Listening to Town Biz will leave you realizing how blessed we are to have so much musical talent in our own backyard. But we knew that already, didn’t we? Thanks to Jake One for compiling this so we can spin it on a sunny summer afternoon and feel hella proud.

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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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