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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

October 15, 2010 at 8:05 AM

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'End' of Blue Scholars as we know it

Posted by Andrew Matson

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Blue Scholars, L-R: Sabzi and Geo; photo by Ken Lambert / Seattle Times

Mention rap music in Seattle and Blue Scholars is the first name that comes up.

The group finally lived down the ghost of Northwest rap pioneer Sir Mix-A-Lot.

That may sound disparaging to Mix, who, if anything, deserves cultural and critical reappraisal. But Blue Scholars has reached a level of popular acceptance that might have been unimaginable a generation ago. The duo headlines a historic Wednesday-night concert at the Paramount — the first time a local rap group will top a bill at that venue, according to sources there.

Rapper Geo and DJ/producer Sabzi embody Seattle's ideal perception of itself — mixed-race, concerned with social issues, unafraid to conflate hipness with intelligence — and have mastered a gateway rap style that pairs inoffensive/understandable/politically left-leaning lyrics with almost cloyingly melodic tracks. For Pacific Northwesterners, it's hip-hop designed to sway the undecided vote.

Sabzi says, "If you want to get to the point where you're at the Paramount, you're going to have to communicate to the dominant group."

Former UW students Geo and Sabzi are 30 and 28, but their influence on Seattle already spans generations. Like mindful parents, the Blue Scholars raised a huge chunk of Seattle's young people, introducing them to the guiding light of thoughtful rap. As the group and its fans have grown up, they've become a part of a new, emerging mainstream — one that nonetheless considers itself non-mainstream.

Rooted in the Internet's "have it your way" ethic, the new mainstream is pan-cultural but glaringly apparent in pop music, where downloading speedily collapsed major labels and created the current topsy-turvy climate where indie rock band Arcade Fire plays KeyArena and Kanye West gives away smash hits in mp3 format for free on his website.

Blue Scholars hit the ground running in 2002, converting fans to its welcoming hip-hop without ever considering the old model of monocultural force-feeding, focusing instead on providing grass-roots concert experiences, branded merchandise and a well-cultivated online presence. The group has stayed ahead of the musicultural curve, touring heavily, selling gear, fitting right in to what critic Nitsuh Abebe has called the "stream model" of celebrity maintenance, where figures make it easy and worthwhile for the public to routinely check in with them online.

Geo writes a blog at prometheusbrown.com with a heavy focus on film criticism and Filipino issues — he's a good writer — and Sabzi releases exclusive tracks on his new site townfo.lk. Both sites are integrated with bluescholars.com, which hosts all manner of media, recently including "day in the life" mini-documentaries. It's an improved, second generation homepage: early site masslinemedia.com prominently featured a message board, now a semi-outdated platform.

In recent years, the group's local dominance has been expressed in multi-night stands at nightclubs — five concerts at Neumos, three at the Showbox — but the Paramount show marks another echelon. Blue Scholars will lead a City Arts Fest lineup that includes Brother Ali and local rap acts Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Fresh Espresso, Mash Hall and Tilson.

The concert also coincides with the rise of Sabzi's national profile as a producer. He splits time on the East Coast, commuting from New York City to Seattle's Beacon Hill, and right now has the defining track on one of the year's hottest albums, "All Tan Everything" on NYC rap group Das Racist's "Sit Down, Man." The song is different than most of the Scholars' music, emphasizing a creeping slap instead of Sabzi's early-period gentleness. The new sound adds some creative tension to the fact that Blue Scholars really can't get more famous in Seattle.

"The show is happening at a very timely moment," says Sabzi. "It's the end of Blue Scholars as most people have known it, and the beginning of a newer more mature Blue Scholars."

At Capitol Hill Block Party this past summer, an event organized by the Scholars' manager and local nightlife impresario Dave Meinert, Blue Scholars premiered songs from upcoming album "Cinemetropolis." One called "Slick Watts" was named after an old-school Sonic basketball player, and had Geo running down Seattle neighborhoods one by one in a rap litany, connecting hip-hop to the city with a cumulative effect. The beat sounded like a combination of songs Sabzi produced for Das Racist, with a looped-phrase chorus and a minor-tinged melody.

Sabzi says "Cinemetropolis," set for tentative release spring 2011, will connect with core Blue Scholars tenets, message-wise, "but the sonic texture will be fresh and contemporary. New, not a repeat of anything before."

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