Review and photos by Daniel Senter
Near the end of Shabazz Palaces’ set Thursday night at Slim’s, the multi-instrumentalist half of the duo, Tendai Maraire, proclaimed his partner, Ishmael Butler, “the best MC on the planet.” No one in the packed house could disagree. Though not prone to hype, hyperbole, or even acknowledgement of his own identity in the group, Butler (the former Digable Planets frontman) coyly grinned at the audience, as if to say, let’s let the music do the talking.
Drawing on their groundbreaking 2011 release Black Up and earlier EPs, the duo bopped and twirled (with trademark dance steps and handclaps) through a dynamic electro-acoustic hip-hop set before a packed house. Many of these songs had been further diced-up and re-arranged for the live show, incorporating more instrumentation from Maraire (shakers, bongos, thumb piano) and live vocal samples and effects. Also on display were apparently a number of new tracks, which I can only surmise will be on an album Butler announced would be out near July. These tracks appear to share the dissonant, non-chorus centered quality of Shabazz’s previous work, but they also seem to draw more heavily on dance music, with a faster rhythm and fewer fractured time changes (but we’ll have to wait for the record to really know).
Show highlights included “Youlogy” and accompanying dance moves, mimicked by many of the audience members; the vocal-sample-heavy “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum”; the breakdown in “Free Press and Curl” featuring thumb piano, and Maraire’s two-minute live drum freakout mid-set. The connection Maraire and Butler have achieved on stage is on a Vulcan mind-meld level, co-emoting and co-funk-flowing. I saw them back in 2011 at the Brick & Mortar Music Hall, and while that show was impressive in its own right, on display last night was a higher stratum of improvisations, jam outs, and sudden, fluid leaps from one sonic idea to the next.
But the center of the night remained Butler — his flow, prose, grace, and appreciation for the audience and the moment. And while, in his closing number, “A Mess,” he implored the crowd, “I’m just like you,” it’s clear that he’s not. Butler is making some of the best, inventive hip hop of his life and of our time, and both the audience and his partner knew that, even if Butler wouldn’t let on.
Opener Cities Aviv sported running pants with reflectors. Good thing, too, because he ran all over the stage and worked up a sweat while yelling, rapping, and dancing to his wonderfully distorted beats. The crowd was feeling it, and it was hard not to — Cities assaulted the senses.
Hailing from Memphis, Cities Aviv has carved out his own niche in independent hip-hop with a sound that has been likened to something between Death Grips and Oneontrix Point Never. His lyrics are primarily shouted, and his compositions feature thundering bass, distorted high-ends, and finely diced vocal samples. The audience feels an ambient explosion behind his furious flow. His performance, which involved yelling, jumping, and throwing the mic stand — but also a good deal of straight chilling and crowd interaction — was as much punk rock as it was hip hop, and it all felt good.
San Francisco’s Extra Classic got things rolling with their blend of Jamaican dub and psychedelic rock. The crowd trickled in from the rain and appropriately the band hit its stride with “A Little Rain,” a reggae-tinged groove with just enough reverb to coax some precipitation from the sky. The full band, fronted by Adrianne Verhoeven, provided a mellow counterpoint to the more electronic, fractured sounds of the following acts.