“So psychedelic space rap. Want to speak on that?” Noir Night Ship host Lonnie Michaels asked musical guest THEESatisfaction as he sat mischievously on the edge of a tall thatched throne.
“No,” Thee Stasia deadpanned as her and partner Cat Satisfaction attempted to lounge on a lengthy couch but never succeeded in getting completely comfortable as guests forced to sit during their own performance. Last night’s Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction show at Neumos was performed under the guise of a spazzed-out late night talk show to help bring some levity to two groups loved for being dense and otherworldly. While entertaining and pulled off well, both in concept and musically, the set-up sought to satirize the media baggage associated with being a modern musician but could not entirely escape those same underpinnings.
The sold-out show had been much buzzed about for quite some time, especially in light of THEESatisfaction’s recent announcement that they will be joining Shabazz Palaces as the lone hip-hop acts signed to Sub Pop. The groups were to be performing a joint set two hours in length, a fitting celebration of their successes and a toast to the promise of their bright futures.
Of course, neither group would allow for such a clear-cut story to be told. A celebration, yes, but it had to be an experience as well. OC Notes spun records to the side of the stage as the heavily horn-rimmed studio audience filtered in, providing Detroit Dilla-heavy background music for mingling before the show. As Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces began prepping laptops and MPCs before the set started, the venue floor was solidly shoulder-to-shoulder. Maraire announced the commencement of the latest episode of the Noir Night Ship with heavy vocal effects, establishing himself as the intergalactic Ed McMahon of the night — or in a more contemporary example, a cosmic ?uestlove on congos.
Introducing THEESatisfaction as musical guests, they played two quick numbers before the host announced his presence. Lonnie Reggie Michaels Warren, rocking a dookie chain and a light jacket but no shirt (which became a running joke throughout the night), seated them for a brief Q & A that elicited trite and reticent answers. It was all an act and in good fun of course but cut at a clear truth: the interviews and journalistic prying are obstructions in the way not of creating art, but appreciating it on its own merits. Art need not be explained, nor should the artists and their stories be put before it.
After questions about relationship statuses were deflected, Michaels quit the interview, stood up and positioned himself over a Roland SP-555, dropping the guise to become none other than Shabazz Palace’s Palaceer Lazaro. Jumping into “A Mess,” it was unclear how many in the audience knew beforehand that the cheesing host was actually Ishmael Butler, the star of the night. Bereft of the headpieces and heavy garb of his other Seattle shows and the only performer onstage not wearing sunglasses, Butler made himself more conspicuous than ever but still went unrecognized, though not surprisingly — visibility and accessibility have not been readily forthcoming in Shabazz Palaces’ infancy. The group was birthed with no promo, no background (the fact that Lazaro was the same guy who was Butterfly of Digable Planets was revealed some time after they debuted material), nothing except the music, tracks that demanded listening for their ingenious, cryptic mysticism.
The performance placed the music first and foremost by obscuring the performers. Thick wafts from a smoke machine and colored lighting favoring deeper hues all but made them shadows for much of the performance, especially when Lazaro and Adaire were affixed to their stations playing tracks live. THEESatisfaction sauntered and swayed to the front for their songs, but drifted back into comfortable invisibility stationed on the couch during Shabazz’ cuts, occasionally adding distant echoes or haunting refrains of “super high.” The tracks had to stand on their own, and of course, they did, with no critical accolades or stage antics or Twitter beef. They were just as they existed after their initial release into the public eye.
Of course, as much as Butler cared to flaunt his creations naked of outsider-imposed context and THEESatisfaction agreed to the same in their refusal to answer Michaels’ personal questions and pleas for explanation of their art, the music cannot exist within its own absolute lexicon. It came about from somewhere and somebody through circumstances affecting its public stature. The past was made present: after challenging audience members to recite four bars of any performer’s work to win signed merchandise, someone began to recite the chorus to “Rebirth of Slick” before a downpour of boos and cold stares from Butler. The business was present: acknowledging their ground-breaking deal with Sub Pop, Michaels invited the label’s general manager Megan Jasper onstage so the groups could perform a quick “demo” in the hopes of getting signed. And the future was almost made awkwardly immediate: during an audience Q & A that was generally irreverent and light-hearted (why the pluralization of palace?), someone asked, “What will it take for local hip-hop to break out of Seattle on a national level?”
Butler’s response was enthused: “We don’t need anybody else! We doin’ our thing!” His answer elicited instant applause and THEESatisfaction nodded in agreement. Art was once again placed above praise, exposure, and personal fame, with Butler, non plussed, ambivalent towards obtaining a greater national profile (“whatever happens, happens”). Shabazz Palaces proved once before that unique, innovative music, popular sound as high art, can still find listeners (and many devout fans) by existing on its own. But to do it again, on a larger scale, and to do it after already having divulged as much as they have, is not something that can be done simply with only the use of heavy artificial fog.