Putting Emerald City on the Map

Blue ScholarsThere’s garbage floating around out there. It’s in the bottled water, and people keep drinking it. Every once in a while, I understand a sip, but the massive thirst for this garbage water is becoming unbearable. Of course, it’s easy to become addicted to a certain type of water when you really don’t know any better, or perhaps don’t want any better. And when all the brands of water taste the same, what does it matter what bottle you drink from? And why wouldn’t you buy it?

Well, the bottled water companies here are the record labels and radio stations, obsessed with putting out a consistent product that keeps the masses drinking. In the process, musicians and artists are funneled into a series of water bottles, the shapes and sizes of which can vary, but the general taste of which remains the same. So, left with not much other choice, you keep flipping on the radio and drinking Pop. I don’t blame you…like I said, I take a sip sometimes too, it’s what we’ve been raised on, like fluoridated water, but it’s easy to forget that you can bypass the bottled water and get to the source sometimes.

Let’s be honest people, when a show like American Idol draws 30 million viewers a week in order to crown the next great radio star from a host of characters that couldn’t even launch the idea of a musical career without a free-for-all reality program catering to the masses, we have a problem as a music listening population. I’ve got an idea…let’s let everyone in the world, regardless of talent or skill, compete by singing copies of Pop radio songs, and the person who is the least offensive and most popular to the people that watch this show and listen to Pop 100 on the radio can launch a recording career, make more bad pop songs and sell records.

When I put it that way, doesn’t it insult your musical intelligence? Doesn’t it offend you that 90% of the music you hear out there all sounds the same and is mass market pumped to you through the iTunes collective? If it doesn’t, you can stop reading here and go back to sleep…MixMatch is about changing the way music is made and the way it sounds, not sitting idly by and buying the new “Single of the Day.” I’ve heard people say that they watch the show, but wouldn’t buy the album. This is like saying you don’t support the steps taken by our government to secure cheap oil while complaining about how much it costs to fill up your 2 miles to the gallon SUV. You might not be directly responsible for the problem, but you’re contributing to the means that lead to the end. We’re still overseas and you’ll still be hearing that artist on the radio for the next two months. So who shows more intelligence? The viewers that promote this kind of annual activity by spending their time and money on it, or the media moguls who have realized that no matter how many times you repackage the same thing, the majority of Americans raised on the radio are going to buy and buy and buy. And yet every season, new contestants arrive, millions tune in, and record companies make massive amounts of money funneling us a “new ” version of radio music we’ve heard 50,000 times in the past 10 years. But I digress…the point was Emerald City.

Because some of the most authentic and creative sources are so forgettable, we have to keep spreading the word and reminding ourselves that there are other drinking options out there. One of the premier out of bottle drinking experiences now and for the last 15 years has been the consistently overlooked, under-appreciated and sparsely marketed underground hip-hop scene. Sure, CDs and mp3s still float around, and there’s some consistent word of mouth when an underground artist rises to the surface, but all too often, incredible DJs and MCs stay underground, sometimes leaving us with less than we deserve.  For instance, one of the artists right now that exemplifies the fight against the mainstream record label, the need to speak honestly about the state of politics, the media and the record industry is Immortal Technique.  And yet, because labels are trying to tone down his message, he stays off them, and remains underground.

And you deserve the underground of Seattle. Yes. I said Seattle. The City of Rain isn’t just for Starbucks (scary stuff people) addicts, Seahawk fans, or long-haired flannel wearing musicians with the urge to turn their brains into a Jackson Pollack painting anymore. The indie (not grunge, indie) scene is pulsing with new musicians interested in turning the surroundings into a musical tapestry of depression AND hope. I thought a band like Throw Me the Statue showcased Seattle music at its best. Hip-Hop? You can find that in the Bay Area, LA, various havens on the East Coast. But not Seattle, not since Sir Mix-A-Lot or outside of the Lifesavas anyway. Or so I thought. Always exposed to new things through the IndieFeed Hip-Hop collective, I was recently turned onto Blue Scholars, an underground twosome from the Northwest with two albums for you to sink your ears into.

As with most prolific and worthwhile underground artists, the personal stories of the artists play an enormous role in the music they make, and the Blue Scholars, a play on blue collar, let their history and surroundings saturate every beat and line of their two cds, the 2004 release Blue Scholars and this year’s Bayani. They’re the answer to that question you have long contemplated but maybe never thought to ask…What do you get when you mix a Filipino rapper and an “Iranian American jazz-trained pianist” turned DJ? The result is a large spectrum of beats ranging from melancholy drifters to jazzy car cruisers, and lyrics examining the social, economic, and political systems in existence here in the United States. But when not tackling the socioeconomic divide, they still have the time and the skill to put together laid back summer day tracks that you can imagine coming out of stereos in the streets or from passing car windows.

What’s interesting in discovering these two albums at the same time, produced three years apart, is noting some of the similarities while also being able to see how far the group has come in their personal and musical mission. On Blue Scholars, the group sounds like your fundamental backpack crew. The delivery of the lyrics is laid back and easy to follow without sacrificing complexity of subject matter or rhyme scheme. Even on the songs with less of a message to send carry a sense of urgency to be heard. The beats are of a lower production value, giving it the basement studio sound, but still contain musical hooks and phrases that you can’t stop listening to. In short, it’s your typical stellar yet underfunded debut album from an underground hip-hop group. The subject matter tackles their origins as a group, their personal connections to the working class and life for a Seattle transplant.

Bayani, on the other hand, shows what three years can do to the growth and development of a musical sound. They come out sounding more secure, more focused and more intent on being heard. If Blue Scholars is a whisper from the basement, Bayani is a shout from the rooftops. Some of the more typical hip-hop beats of the first album are abandoned here for more complicated beats incorporating jazz and world sounds. The beats by Sabzi here are of a much higher quality, creating a more perfect tapestry for Geographic’s tightened and more lyrically calculated flow. You see glimpses of what he’s capable of as a lyricist on the first album, but the second album shows off just how talented he is in mixing potent wordplay, social observations and governmental condemnations into complicated phrases that roll off his tongue.

Bayani also refuses to let its political message be ignored. While Blue Scholars carries some references to the war and bits and pieces speaking against our current government (which really hasn’t changed much since the album’s release), Bayani is infused with an anti-war, anti-establishment message that makes some sort of appearance in every song, most notably “Back Home” which tackles the need to bring American troops back from Iraq and “50 Thousand Strong” which looks at the riots and subsequent police action at the WTO meetings in 1999. At the same time, they don’t forget the need for tracks that you can sit back to, which they fill with “Ordinary Guys” and the homage song to their hometown, “North By Northwest.”

So if you’re looking for some solid underground hip-hop from an unusual geographic location, look no further. It’s only fitting that an MC named Geographic could help make the traditional locations of genres irrelevant. Remember, when we change the way music is produced and recorded, we can change how it is distributed, where it comes from, how it becomes profitable, and who takes home that profit. So put the water bottles down good friends, go find that fresh water and take a sip…if it’s slightly strange at first, don’t be alarmed, give it time…we’ve been drinking garbage for so long.

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