The Los Angeles-based promotion company ArtDontSleep has been wreaking havoc on the local musical underground for about half a decade now. The loosely constructed organization is the brainchild of Andrew Lojero — a young, passionate promoter who has relentlessly championed new music — often mining a fertile cross-strain of hip-hop and electronica. With Thursday evening’s Echoplex concert, Lojero positioned Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces as the headliners of a lengthy bill that also included Gonjasufi, Sonnymoon and RasG.
Since 2009’s eponymous EP, Shabazz Palaces have remained one of the most daring purveyors of experimental hip-hop in modern music. A collaboration between Ishmael Butler, best-known for his work with Grammy-winning ’90s jazz-hop darlings Digable Planets, and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, Shabazz creates a musical realm that is bleak and hopelessly distorted. The laid-back horns and winding bass that characterized Butler’s previous output come back regurgitated, spat between a twitching array of hi-hats, affected vocals and claustrophobic rhymes. It’s post-apocalyptic music — a deep exploration of the void that remains when groove and melody cease to function.
Taking the stage well past midnight, Shabazz wasted no time in establishing their live modus operandi: an almost maniacal reliance upon rhythmic sub bass. With the subs cranked to the point of physical discomfort, Butler and Maraire combed through the brittle landscape of 2011’s Sub Pop release “Black Up.” Butler shifted effortlessly from rhyme to rhyme, all the while triggering samples on a low-resting Mac Book Pro. Meanwhile, Maraire was preoccupied with the textural layering of the music, contributing furious percussion fills and washed-out backing vocals.
“An Echo From the Hosts …” was one of the best examples of Maraire’s uncanny abilities as a true multi-instrumentalist. Against the backdrop of a menacing, syncopated beat, Maraire picked out an elegant melodic refrain on a large, wooden thumb piano. As the melody subsided, he would then dive into a series of rapidly articulated bongo and hi-hat sub-rhythms. As he manned his percussion post, he also delivered a series of well-tuned backing harmonies. The visual of Maraire controlling so many varied musical components was frantic, but the sound he created was anything but, achieving a purposeful blend of rhythm and melody.
Other highlights included “Free Press and Curl” and “Swerve …” the latter of which featured a guest appearance by female R&B duo TheeSatisfaction. The ladies added a much-needed melodic respite from the digitized clatter. Extended renditions of “Are You … Can You … Were You? (Felt),” “32 Leaves,” and “Blastit” were interesting if at times overly redundant, needlessly stretching compositions that seem to fit more comfortably into a concise package.
The performance lasted for a solid hour and a half, with the music subsiding at the behest of the venue’s 2 a.m. curfew. By this time, many concertgoers had shuffled out of the previously full Echoplex. Maybe it was the sub bass, or the late set-time, but regardless, Shabazz Palaces displayed a depth and technical prowess that seems to be sorely lacking in many of the avant hip-hop acts of today. Where many of these “experimental” acts rely solely upon the weird and the random to elevate their music beyond the commercial, Shabazz Palaces truly have the chops to succeed conceptually, imbuing its music with both meaning and purpose.