As a longtime resident of Fort Greene, I've gotten used to changes. (Insert standard gentrification gripe here.) They don't tend to come without warning, though, so when I stepped away from the hanging-in-the-grass vibe in Fort Greene Park yesterday between sets by THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces, I probably shouldn't have been surprised to come back in the middle of an everybody-on-your-feet throwdown. Wish I could tell y'all how it went from one to the other. The only certainty is that In the ten-minute space I used to pedal (furiously, I might add) home to my own bathroom, Shabazz Palaces managed to get all these folks who seemed to be chillin' on blankets at girl duo THEESatisfaction's stoned soul picnic not only standing, but pushed right up against the stage. [Our note: the portable toilets, though hard to find, were remarkably clean.]
They stayed that way, for obvious reasons. I think somewhere in there a metaphor exists for how Ishmael Butler, the MC-lyricist half of Shabazz Palaces, transformed himself from the groove-juice sipping Butterfly of Digable Planets to his current electro-charged alter-ego Palaceer Lazaro. Having vacated an apartment right near Fort Greene Park around the time Digable called it quits back in 1996, Butler has been putting things together from Seattle—where he was a basketball star in high school—ever since. Folks like to point out that his parents were boho/Marxist/whatever when that actually meant something, and though his music reflects that as much now as it did in the '90s, it'd probably be a mistake to look at Lazaro as anything more than a persona Butler is damn good at fleshing out.
It goes beyond the fastidious chaos of his beats, which last night threw echo and a catalog of dueling vocal effects against rat-a-tat rhythms and boomy sub-basement bass, or his titles, which notoriously give listeners much to chew on. (He didn't seem to be working from a set list, but I'm almost certain that "An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum" followed the love song "A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis (1000 Questions, 1 Answer).")
Butler has always been smart, confident and humane, but perhaps not as unabashedly confrontational as he is on something like "Yeah You," baptizing a hater with "you corny, nigga" and "you weak, nigga!" In all the press last year that accompanied Black Up (Sub Pop), the Palaces' debut, very few pointed out the title's play on the minstrelsy-era custom of "blacking up," in which whites often caricatured blacks by applying dark makeup. Such an inscrutable reference invites the kind of misunderstanding Butler probably wouldn't clear up if asked to (the music "is what it is" is his standard reply), but the toughness in both music and lyrics is worthy of a rapper who's been around the world and now wears a salt-and-pepper goatee.
The beauty of the band's live act is how Butler and percussionist/hypeman Tendai Maraire handle the barrage of elemental sound with an economy of means. Standing behind congas and a hi-hat, Maraire undercuts the techie effects with thumb-piano episodes and rhythms that would work just as well as the heartbeat of a Santeria or Nyabinghi ceremony.
I was tempted to be dismissive of the vibe at one point, when the crowd up front started swaying in that hazy way that says "drum circle," but actually it's a neat trick to get music this claustrophobic to feel airy and breathe. Butler may be a wordsmith par excellence, but he showed his understanding of the hierarchy of the hip-hop performance on "Swerve... The Reeping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)", the piece that brought the girls in THEESatisfaction back on to reprise their role on the album. "If you talk about it, it's the show," went the lyric. "But if you move about it, it's a go."K. Leander Williams has been writing with panache about music for a long time, so we're pleased to have stolen his words (The Village Voice once used our reporting about Mayor Bloomberg, so it's not really stealing. And we just can't articulate like that, not about music anyway. Ask us about Arizona election law or the novels of John Galsworthy.)