Shabazz Palaces + THEESatisfaction. 07.21.12

It was 997°F in the Baker neighborhood of Denver yesterday, which coincidentally made it just a few degrees cooler than it was in the Golden Triangle for the Westword Music Showcase a few weeks ago.  You would have thought we’d have missed the worst of the heat by waiting until 5:00pm to show up, but as we made our way to the Main Stage in the Goodwill parking lot, the blazing rays of the sun provided an appropriate scene for a band named Sauna. Apparently it was still too early to be outside, so we made our way down the street to the new, black metal influenced TRVE Brewing.  Minimalist decor, black walls, 3 beers on tap, and most importantly, heavily air conditioned, we had to fight the impulse to spend the rest of  the day in this oasis of cool comfort.  But no matter how tasty the Tunnel of Trees IPA might be, our wristbands were a reminder of why we were in the neighborhood.  So, a half hour later we exposed ourselves to the elements once again.

Sweet relief came in the form of clouds.  They didn’t necessarily make it much cooler, but they did protect from a direct onslaught of brutal burning rays.   This cover actually made it slightly cooler outside than inside most of the bars/venues, so we decided to park ourselves at the Main Stage.  Sole performed an inspired set despite his hatred of Denver Post.  Gauntlet Hair made the most of their last show in Denver for awhile (the band is leaving our Mile High City).  A Place To Bury Strangers were a noisy mess (in a good way).  Snake Rattle Rattle Snake performed a set I’ve seen 1,001 times and somehow managed to sound fresh.  But it was the headliners, Shabazz Palaces, who I was most interested in seeing.

Shabazz Palaces are an experimental hip-hop duo from Seattle, Washington.  They are the first hip-hop group to ever be signed by Sub Pop.  Comprised of Ishmael Butler (who went by Butterfly in Digable Planets) and Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire (son of the influential Dumisani Maraire), Shabazz Palaces are not immediately accessible.  In fact, when their critically acclaimed Black Up was released last year, I seriously did not get it.  Coming from a huge Digable Planets fan, I was drawn in by Butler’s unique vocal style, but I missed the jazzy flow of his previous group.  The music on Black Up was just so fractured — like they recorded an album, cut it up, and presented it as one of those sliding puzzles.  Failing to put the pieces back together, the result was too confusing.  I had a large amount of respect for the experiment, I just didn’t like most of the resulting tracks.

That being said, after repeat listens over the past year, I have found something more than just respect for the fact that Shabazz Palaces are doing something completely unique.  I have found that I can enjoy their confused sounds for what they are.  I have also found that the tracks that have a consistent beat, tracks like “Swerve…”, are actually as good as anything Digable Planets did.  This is why I was so curious to see their set last night.  Artists like Shabazz are what set the UMS apart from Westword’s safe showcase.  You have to respect their decision to book risky headliners like Shabazz and Atlas Sound — making it a truly ‘underground’ music showcase.

Looking around at the faces in the crowd, you could see they were comprised of the fans, the curious and the confused. As Butler and Maraire presented a forward-thinking collage of hip-hop, jazz, world and noise music, the audience was as fractured as the sounds emanating from the stage.  Some stood still, as if too confused to move.  Some would grab a hold of one single element and dance until it disappeared, only to catch the next one floating by and adjust accordingly.  Some, like my wife, just worked on the energy itself — moving to the internal drummer of their mind.  The effect of the music was almost more intense than the music itself.

Butler’s vocals are an acquired tasted, a friend of mine commenting that it was hard to take him seriously, but having acquired the taste back in ’93 with the “Rebirth of Slick”, his flow was the necessary constant (the gravity) that held it all together for me.  His vocal kept my feet on the ground in front of that stage.  The experience was a worthy one, but it wasn’t until the girls from THEESatisfaction joined them to provide the key female element to “Swerve…” and “Endeavors For Never…”, that it took on a whole new level.  It is my opinion that the Shabazz experience was exponentially elevated with the introduction of Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White — solidifying my decision to catch their set at Hi-Dive…

THEESatisfaction are also a duo from Seattle.  They are also signed to Sub Pop (based on their contributions to Black Up), but the similarities end there.  Instead of the future-rap explored by Shabazz, THEESatisfaction are firmly rooted in the past.  Their retro rap, infused with r&b (Cat is the singer, Stas is the rapper), can go from warm flow to icy cold (bitch) faster than you can say supersonic.  Their debut album, awE naturalE, is as easy to get into as Black Up is difficult.  The album artwork might suggest a soundtrack to a 70’s blaxploitation film, but what lays within is something smoother than Shaft ever was.  Although, having the album on regular rotation did nothing to prepare me for the power of their performance.

Hi-Dive is not my favorite venue on a regular night, so you can imagine how much I loved being packed in there at 11:00pm when the temperature outside had yet to dip below hellish.  A plan of escape started mapping itself out in my mind during each pause between songs, but the two girls on stage held me in place despite the sweat soaking its way through my shirt.  To say THEESatisfaction were satisfying would be the understatement of the day.  While Cat brought the subtle sex, it was Stas’ flow that kept me inside the hotboxed Hi-Dive.  She is literally one of my best emcees I have seen in quite some time.  My friend described her as hypnotizing and I can’t think of a better way to explain her style.  I could sit here and compare her to anyone from Missy Elliott to Dessa  to Monie Love (especially on the throwback “Bisexual”), but that would be a disservice at best, and dishonest at worst.  Stas has a unique style — a style bigger than either THEESatisfaction or Shabazz Palaces.  And as much as I think her and Cat are a team that should continue to challenge the world together, Stas is the one artist I saw yesterday that I look forward to seeing again.  The performance at Hi-Dive was the highlight of my single day at the UMS this year.

Here’s to the Denver Post for another quality showcase!

Unfortunately I won’t make it back down today, but for those of you who are, I recommend checking out The Morning Clouds, Emily Wells and of course, Atlas Sound…passing up an opportunity to see Bradford Cox is something close to criminal.