By MICHAEL ANDERSON
February 27, 2014
Better than: Reading philosophy without a backing track or live drums.
"2 Chainzzzzzzzz" - cried a member of the audience.
He had directed this comment at Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces, who, much like the pop star, wears shades and dreadlocks -- although that's where their similarities end.
Frontman Ishmael Butler -- formerly of the seminal 1990s jazz-rap outfit Digable Planets -- would return the barb later. He playfully called out the audience for being "charading hip-hoppers," who dress up like and perform the "maneuvers" of the real deal. This audience was predominately male and mostly white, about half wore a beanie or a flat-brim hat, and many danced with their legs fixed in place, ceaselessly nodding their head with eyes shut.
I'm not sure if what followed in Butler's address to the audience was a non-sequitur or allegory. He remarked that the Bay was an incredible place, and that, if you're not native, you "Gotta walk in lock-step with the groove here." That can be true of a hip-hop show, too, where, if you're a "charader," you still do as the rest do; you melt -- you nod, maybe throw your arm up if you're feeling courageous. Butler said all of this with a smile.
His embrace of the audience, and the duo's general congeniality, was about the warmest Shabazz Palaces would be all night. Their sound is alien. It's hip-hop, but not in the sense you'd expect -- certainly not in the way 2 Chainz is hip-hop. This is rap filtered through smoke: Butler's distorted voice, saxophone, and chilly, pre-recorded backing vocals sound as if they'd been emitted by a ghost.
The alien-ness of Shabazz Palaces' sound was made even clearer by opener Cities Aviv, aka Gavin Mays. He was good. He also was not Shabazz Palaces, even if they both are nominally hip-hop artists. Mays jumped around the stage and vibrated. He seemed to be in a semi-permanent lunge throughout the set, and ran around an empty stage. He sprung off an elevated platform as if he were competing in the hurdles -- while wearing track pants, no less. He opted for a wall-of-sound approach, with bass so loud I could've shut my eyes and sworn I was at a My Bloody Valentine show.
Shabazz instead relied on nuance, bringing more than a laptop and a mic, beats, and personality. The members remained fixed in place behind congas and a couple card tables, where they would rest their instruments. Butler's voice was often distorted beyond recognition. He and Maraire would handclap in rhythm. Maraire beat on the drums, both synthetic -- an Octapad, like what a keyboard is to a piano -- and real, with congas in front of him.
Accompanying the drums and Butler's rhymes were pulsating beats and haunting backing vocals, which repeated in high-pitched lilt: "Ooooo woooo Ooooo woooo Oooooooo." This was the sound of a ghost, who would reprise its appearance throughout the night, lending a spooky feeling to Butler's rhymes.
Things got most sinister on "Free Press and Curl," where Butler declared again and again, "I'm free," but immediately qualified and complicated any feeling of liberation. "I'm free/ Free to chain my will onto the wings of my instinct," and, later, "I'm super free / Free to fill my smiles up with these tears that I forgot and haunt myself / Besides these pretty ghosts that float my heart, you know I'm free." To Butler, free will is bound by a chain and happiness is at the mercy of ghosts. Many in the room last night, though, may not have been wise to his characters' bleak philosophy -- the clearest thing through all the haze was Butler's smile.
Get ready for your close-up: Slim's is one of those venues where the barrier between artist and fan is just about nil. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Shabazz was able to connect with the audience with a simple smile in between rhymes about free will, love, and happiness. Opener Extra Classic had a little more trouble. Singer Adrianne Verhoeven wore all the rockstar moves -- she danced, she threw her arms up in the air -- but she didn't seem too happy about it.
Best outfit in the audience: A white fur vest.