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Shabazz Palaces Concert Review

Shabazz Palaces
June 18th,  2015
The Riot Room - Kansas City, MO

Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces
While standing around inside a somewhat empty Riot Room, my new acquaintance Martinez Hillard told me I should follow him outside to the venue's patio. We sit down at a table and I am introduced to his Ebony Tusks bandmates, Daniel and Nathan. The group ripped up a flyer for a past show and began plotting out their setlist for the evening's show. As they discussed which songs they'd be performing and how to transition from one song into another, Martinez and I discussed some past music scenes that he had been involved in.

He told me about Lawrence house venues he had been to as well as seeing bands like Eyes Of The Betrayer and others at El Torreon back in the early 2000's.  While I am still young and meeting new people all the time, Martinez's extensive musical background (that I don't even know in full yet) really struck me as more diverse and interesting than most people I know. All the while, Nathan was joking with friends about how he had invited his mother to the show along with ten people he had met on Tinder.

We all return back inside and everyone mills around for a bit while Kendrick Lamar's two latest albums are playing on shuffle over the PA. As the clock hits 9pm, Daniel Smith cues up the band's introduction track, a slowed down version of a classic Jibbs song "Chain Hang Low," affectionately renamed "Chain Hang $low" by the band. After that, Nathan Giesecke joins Smith on the stage but Hillard remains in the small (but growing) crowd. He announces to the bar patrons that the show is about to start and that he hopes they will join him up in front of the stage. He begins the performance with a lengthy a cappella rap while pacing around the lower part of the venue. When he is done he is met with cheers from the audience and Ebony Tusks finally convenes on the stage.

The trio then proceeded to let loose at least 30 minutes of electrifying, experimental, independent hip-hop. Their strobe lights flashed, their fog machine rolled (for a couple songs at least), and their loyal fans bounced and shouted along. And anyone who wasn't a fan to begin with probably was by the end. The group's instrumentals are a mashup of '90's New York hip-hop, loud electronic music, and lots of other small tidbits. Hillard's vocal style is almost as difficult to pin down, ranging from a plain speaking voice to a frantic yelp within the same song. Overall, I was floored by the group. They have quickly cemented themselves as one of my favorite local hip-hop projects. Real unique shit. The perfect match for Shabazz Palaces.

Martinez Hillard of Ebony Tusks
After a short intermission and the stage being rearranged (silk tapestry-covered gear moved to the front), Seattle's Shabazz Palaces was about to begin. The duo is fronted by Ishmael Butler, former member of '90's hip-hop stalwarts Digable Planets. He is backed by Baba Maraire, a multi-instrumentalist of Zimbabwean descent. Together they make a very strange, spacey type of experimental hip-hop (published by Sub Pop Records nonetheless). And while their new album didn't quite wow me as much as their debut, I was still excited to see them.

An introduction track is played before the two can take the stage. The track, along with the newly-dimmed lights and heavy artificial fog, created a very powerful and noisy atmosphere in the small room. The duo finally appear on the stage and they begin their first song. The first twenty minutes of their set was a blur to me really. Their instrumentation was definitely interesting (in a good way). It included two small drum machines, a small keyboard, effects pedals, a pair of conga drums, other percussion pieces, and a microphone for each man (Butler's including a vocal looping rig). What wasn't very interesting was the way Butler was delivering his lyrics. While maybe the microphone could've just used more volume, his vocals were somewhat buried behind some of the instruments. He also remained stationary for quite some time, leaving with most of the audience just standing there staring at him.

It may also have just been the combination of songs in the early portion of the set that left me feeling kind of bored. One song flowed so smoothly into the next that many people didn't know when to applaud. A somewhat intoxicated man behind me who I feel wasn't familiar with the group found himself shouting and pumping his fist very out-of-tempo with the strange, winding songs. While certain parts of the show dragged on for me, the set still had multiple highlights. Their song "An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum," from their debut LP was a hit with the crowd. Multiple (possibly improvised) drum vs. drum machine bits also got the crowd excited, especially when Maraire was pounding away at the congas, sometimes with drumsticks. The two also had some fun chemistry going on when not working away at their instruments. When their parts in some songs synced up they hopped up and down, spun, and pounded each others fists in rhythm. When their hour and a half-long set finally came to a close I was worn out from standing fairly still for so long, but definitely still glad I had been able to take in their weird, vibrant, and still entertaining brand of hip-hop for the night.

Thanks to Martinez and the cool door guy who helped me attend this show.

Here is the complete album of photos I took:

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