Matson on Music
Seattle's Blue Scholars: scaling back with "Cinémetropolis"
With the noontime sun beating down on 14th Ave S. and Jackson St., the outdoor smell of garlic and fried spring rolls is stronger than usual. It feels like the first day of summer, three weeks early.
Inside the triangular Phở Bac soup house sits Alexei Saba Mohajerjasbi — aka Sabzi, DJ and producer for Seattle's successful hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, with rapper Geo (George Quibuyen).
Sabzi acts and looks cool — Ray-Ban shades, hair slicked back, shirt buttoned all the way up — but says he's anxious about the prolonged, pledge-based release schedule for the Scholars' third album "Cinémetropolis," the next musical evolution of the group's socially conscious rap style. It came out officially Tuesday, but at the time of this conversation some fans had been listening for weeks and bootlegs abound online.
Sabzi's also worried about selling tickets for two concerts at Neumos Friday and Saturday. (He needn't have: both shows sold out.)
These are jitters of an artist entering a new phase. For Blue Scholars, gone are the days of famous New York City hip-hop record labels (Rawkus and Duck Down), bigshot managers (Dave Meinert, the Seattle nightlife impresario who runs Capitol Hill Block Party), and back-to-back national tours. The group is retreating into a more independent zone.
No label, no manager, sporadic touring.
The Scholars' once-dominant local popularity is still strong but waning, transferring to protegé-cum-peer Macklemore — who features on "Cinémetropolis" track "Tommy Chong." Four years ago, the Scholars sold out five consecutive nights at Neumos. But Sabzi and Geo seem perfectly OK with where the group is now.
Sabzi's also perfectly OK with Blue Scholars never crossing over to the national mainstream, like some thought would happen. The Scholars' music has always been intellectual and politically engaged — not the mainstream flavor.
He did have an original idea to put saccharine, "Heart and Soul" chords over a hard hip-hop beat — he illustrates by singing "Dynamite," the hit song by Taio Cruz — but other artists (Akon, T-Pain, others) have been charting hits with the same formula.
"That used to be my edge," he says. "And now I'm tired of it. I assume this is how certain jazz musicians felt. 'I'm sick of all these chords.' And then they did avant garde."
"Cinémetropolis" has a little of that energy behind it. Musically, the album continues down a path from sample-based hip-hop to a unique brand of electronic island rhythms, produced to be a surround-sound experience.
The best songs are perfect for headphones: "Fou Lee" (named for a Beacon Hill grocery) and "George Jackson" (named for a Black Panther) sound like zooming through echoing digital tubes. "Oskar Barnak ∞ Oscar Grant" is built from noises made by Geo's Leica camera, arranged into a whirring, clicking storm. The chorus chants "shoot the cops, shoot the cops" and turns out to be about photography, as a form of activism.
An avid shooter, Geo is developing pictures when I call him the next day. Asked which "Cinémetropolis" song he sees the public growing most attached to, he says: "'Tommy Chong,' mostly because of the Macklemore appearance. He's like the André 3000 of Seattle right now," referring to the enigmatic Atlanta rapper from the group OutKast. "He doesn't come out that often, so when he does it's an event."
Geo says the new touring arrangement gives him more family time — and time to finish his B.A. at the University of Washington, where he and Sabzi teamed up about a decade ago.
For Sabzi, it's more freedom to jet from his apartment in New York City to Seattle, where he stays with family and friends. More time to make songs for Blue Scholars, New York rap group Das Racist, and his promising, rap-inspired singer-songwriter group Made in Heights, with California vocalist Kelsey Bulkin.
On the phone, Geo explicitly says Blue Scholars isn't breaking up. But this new day for Blue Scholars isn't about ending anything. It's about scaling back one project to make room for everything else under the sun.