Ten minutes into Shabazz Palaces' set, a shout of “Fix. Tendai’s. Shit.” starts booming through the soundsystem of Baby's All Right on a loop pedal.
It’s not quite “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” but it’s close. The power went down, and just as quickly, Ishmael Butler, the Seattle duo's leader, wove the ship back together with a demand and a beat.
Which is good, because Tendai Maraire — son of Mbira virtuoso Dumisani Maraire — has a lot of shit worth fixing. Both members of Shabazz Palaces are multi-instrumentalists with decades of performance behind them (Butler co-founded influential '90s hip-hop act Digable Planets). No matter how many instruments they wanted to bring, it’s hard to imagine they’d ever be denied extra overhead storage on the space shuttle.
They’re also both vocalists, not only insofar as they both sing and rap in Shabazz Palaces. Their voices — separately, blended, vocoded, fucked up, photocopied, looped to get the sound guy’s attention, pressed into a golden record and blasted into the stratosphere — are gorgeous. They are the voices of instrumentalists, reedy and trained and playful with the instruments.
That quality is there on Shabazz Palaces' early anonymous material, their subsequent releases as one of the few rap artists on Sub Pop Records, and it’s there in the new material — well-fed and strong enough to fry the breakers, name and date TBA. It’s Afrofuturism and it’s time travel, consistent with several other currently active West Coast acts, happily three Earth hours behind those of us in Brooklyn and light years beyond in most other ways.
One of Shabazz Palaces' most prominent peers in this realm is Busdriver, the unofficial minister of culture from Leimert Park, Los Angeles, who delivers transcendental, reference-heavy sermons at amphetamine speeds, and who brought his own instrument-driven, warming performance to the Baby's stage less than a year ago. It’s easy to trust a spaceman who's self-aware enough to call himself Buckaroo Banzai, heir apparent to Krush Groove. He knows it all not because he’s a know-it-all, but because he’s placed himself so far out in the eighth dimension that he can see our bullshit all the way from space.
Likewise, this month saw an incredible new album, also out on Sub Pop, from Seattle’s Clipping., led by Daveed Diggs — no big deal, just the Marquis de Lafayette from motherfucking Hamilton. Splendor & Misery is as astronomical as Shabazz’s Space Invader triggers and Busdriver’s archetypal first black astronaut. From the album art to the musical theater–worthy narrative arc woven through the songs, it’s all about life in space — specifically, a worker-slave named Cargo 2331. The album’s nuclear core, "Air ’Em Out," contains specific references to the work of black feminist sci-fi author Octavia Butler. The song’s video shows Diggs as Cargo 2331, the objects on the desk in front of him floating in anti-gravity, leaving him empty-handed, while he somehow remains seated — weighed down, perhaps, by having both learned history and seen the future.
Not everyone in this vanguard is on Pacific Time. The ultimate example might be Brooklyn’s own Joey Bada$$, in both his raps and his television incarnation as Leon, the sweet and protective hired assassin from Mr. Robot, who works alongside elite hacker Whiterose to carry out her missions. It’s not even a little difficult to imagine Leon smoking out the audience at Baby’s All Right (the show does primarily take place in Brooklyn). But the concert also sparked thoughts of his new single "Devastated," where Joey raps about turning up the wavelengths in his brain from somewhere far out in the reverb-laden metaverse, almost as if he’s hoping Leon will come through and help him out.
Because seriously, why the fuck wouldn’t Shabazz Palaces and company want to blast off or dissolve into virtual reality, given the fact that our country is, for the most part, run by ignorant, menacing racists hell-bent on perpetrating a murderous agenda, even way out on the left-ish coast, the land of semi-legal weed and Prop 8? It’s right there in the title of Death Grips’ No Love Deep Web, and there’s for sure a cloud of Cali kush hovering around the instrumentals on artificially intelligent Detroit native Danny Brown’s brand new and frighteningly hi-res Atrocity Exhibition.
The overhead storage is full up with electrified history, and the cargo, as Clipping. have told us, is ready for mutiny. Shabazz Palaces, in matching lucite visors good enough to make Daft Punk blink, are piloting this ship; it’s up to the rest of us to climb aboard or risk being left to watch as they blast off into the distance and darkness, two bright stars standing out among thousands.