My association with Shabazz Palaces goes back to Summer 2011. This bright-eyed film school student had finally graduated and was ready to enter the world completely on my own terms, no longer having to pander my creativity to fit academic confines. I was willing to try anything (artistically, that is), and I wanted to get my hands on every film that broke the rules: experimental, avant-garde, psychedelic, etc.

While I did discover some incredible films and art pieces that continue to inspire my filmmaking endeavors, my exploration also spilled into music. I really wanted to diversify my listening habits and sought out underground gems that could mold my interpretation of that particular art form. I was introduced to quite a lot of artists that year, but I remember Shabazz Palaces in particular.

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Photos by Melissa Karlin

I was aware of their previous EPs from a couple years earlier, but my attention was truly piqued when I listened to “Swerve…,” the last track from 2011’s Black Up, and I recall its incredible mysticism. This music was hip hop in some sense, but it also wasn’t. Twisted construction, highly unusual sampling, African-fusion instrumentation…all of these traits combined with the wonderful wordplay of rapper Ishmael Butler (aka Palaceer Lazaro) resulted in this weirdly attractive and hypnotic track. It was a highly refreshing take on the genre, and perhaps most interesting was that I could never really figure out who Shabazz Palaces was — the project existed only in waves of sound without any physical identity.

Do I enjoy the mystique? Absolutely, which is why this article includes distorted photos of the band by my lovely photographer Melissa Karlin. But given that my anticipation for once again getting lost in their sound was heightened to the point of giddy school-girlishness upon release of their sophomore LP, Lese Majesty, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to see the group in the flesh when they rolled through Los Angeles. And so I found myself a part of the intimate but sizable crowd gathered at The Roxy last week to see Shabazz Palaces live, and believe me when I say their performance was everything I wanted it to be.

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Despite only having two full-length albums and a couple of EPs under their belt, the duo managed to play a ninety-minute set filled with tracks from across their discography. Just like their music, they never steered in any one particular direction, jumping from a track off 2009’s Of Light to one off Lese Majesty (I’m glad to say they did not break up the album’s suites, instead keeping them stitched together).

In addition to performing the tracks, Shabazz Palaces also included some insanely suave choreography. The members would mimic or mirror each other’s moves in cool fashion, which really added an extra visual dimension to their vivid sound, especially during moments in which the duo did not sing or perform an instrument and instead let a backing track play. If you didn’t have an idea of what Shabazz Palaces looked like when listening to any of their albums, their awesomely cool moves during the performance will now fill that void.

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The crowd at The Roxy was clearly much more attentive and receptive toward Shabazz Palace’s previous catalog works than the newer tracks. This was understandable given that the show took place just two days after the release of Lese Majesty, but it looked as though the audience was enjoying the new material. I know I was, especially since I had had the album for at least a month in advance, and the entire “The Phasing Shift” suite, which included one of Palaces’ best tracks, “Forerunner Foray,” was performed with zeal. It might take a little while before fans and newcomers into experimental hip hop truly take to this new album, but I do believe future performances will be even better received.

One of the more memorable moments of the show came towards the end of the set when Shabazz Palaces played a prolonged version of “An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum” that included the steel drum breakdown as heard in the studio version but for an intense period of time that helped reinforce the track’s echoey and intoxicating mood. For a majority of the time, the live tracks matched their studio counterparts, but it was still wonderful to hear those tunes in an acoustic room full of fans, and when Palaceer Lazaro and Tendai Maraire did stray into live experimentation, it was even more mind-melting.

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Shabazz Palaces produced one of 2011’s best albums, and they’ve managed to do it again this year with Lese Majesty. Most importantly, though, their live performance at The Roxy last week reminded me of how much adoration I have for this band and their push toward new and vibrant ideas in music. If you have yet to check them out as their mysterious studio selves, I suggest that you do, but if they’re rolling through your town or city, I give my highest recommendation that you discover them in a live setting.

A special shout out to The Roxy for providing me with VIP seats, which allowed me to see Shabazz Palaces from an amazing vantage point!

Lese Majesty is out now on Sub Pop Records.

For more info:

Shabazz Palaces
Sub Pop Records