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Matson on Music

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

November 24, 2010 at 9:39 AM

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Seattle snow jams: Digable Planets versus Shabazz Palaces

Posted by Andrew Matson

While snow covers Seattle, let us watch the video for "Where I'm From" (1993) by pioneering jazz rap group Digable Planets. The first MC in the video is Butterfly, aka Ishmael Butler, pride of Seattle's Central District. He raps in the snow.

Butler still performs with Digable Planets. He also goes by the name/title Palaceer Lazaro as the auteur of Seattle-based avant-rap act Shabazz Palaces, which recently partnered with Sub Pop Records. Following self-released debut micro-albums "Shabazz Palaces" and "Of Light" (2009), the group is expected to release a sophomore album with Sub Pop sometime in 2011.

By his verse on "Where I'm From," you'd be forgiven for not knowing Butterfly was from Seattle. Digable Planets was based in New York City, but his rap is not about that city, either. It's figurative: he's from funk, he's from blackness, he's from a place where kids read Marx and wear Clarks. That last rhyme might also be literal, but in general, Butterfly is from a state of mind, not a place on a map.

The idea of existing someplace other than Earth is central to Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces.

On "Where I'm From," Butterfly lists figurative origins and also says, "I'm interplanetary," meaning he's not from here or there, but the space between. Digable Planets' debut album confronted the issue directly in its title: "Reachin': A New Refutation of Time and Space."

Shabazz Palaces seems to see the terrestrial/extraterrestrial split in terms mythmaking. Take for example the unreleased song "Show Tonight," a live staple that may or may not see life as a Shabazz Palaces/Sub Pop recording. The video below is by Jordan Luckman, from a recent concert at the Wild Buffalo in Bellingham, WA. The song's chorus goes, "Was you there tonigh-igh-igh-ight?"

When witnessing "Show Tonight" performed live, the question in the chorus is obviously rhetorical — you are right there, after all. It hints at something legendary, and suggests people will talk about the performance after it's over, that something about it will not die.

In the verses, Lazaro raps about specific Seattle streets — Cherry, Rainier, Genesee. He also raps about "Aristotle down in Kingston." Local writer and my friend Larry Mizell, Jr. informed me the Aristotle in question might be Aristotle Marr, a former Rainier Beach High School student who robbed a Seattle Wells Fargo in his mid 20s and eventually fled to Jamaica, where he hid out for 7 months around the turn of the millennium.

If that is indeed the Aristotle in "Show Tonight," Lazaro's message seems less "Marr is a hero" and more abstractly, philosophically, amorally, "Marr is a legend."

"Show Tonight" is not about Aristotle Marr individually any more than it's about Lazaro and his Shabazz Palaces compatriots Tendai Maraire or Dougie, both of whom are also named. It's about elevation from the Earthly grid of city streets to the realm of myth.

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