Posts Tagged 'Seattle'

Blue Scholars to be Re-Released on Duck Down

I received an email today announcing the release of Bayani Redux. When I saw this, I was under the impression that we were going to get a release of B-sides and remixes for the sophomore album by Seattle based Blue Scholars, Bayani. For anyone who has followed Evolving Music for a length of time, you’ve seen the concert reviews and album reviews for the duo of Sabzi and Geologic (aka Prometheus Brown.) And yet, I still find trouble reconciling myself with how talented they are and how little mass exposure they have. Granted, some of the best music falls through the cracks and gets chewed up by the massive grinder of the music industry, but I hold out hope that the word of mouth on some of the best underground artists will reach surface and flip the industry on its head.

I feel like the music industry is caught in a bad dream. That dream where you keep running, turning corners, opening doors, all to get away from something, and yet you can’t. Every time I turn on the television or flip through the radio dial, it’s like I’m opening a door in the dream and finding myself in the same place, listening to recycled music from the past twenty years, sometimes infused with a new trick like auto-tune, sometimes not. But people keep buying, and therefore, labels will keep re-packaging. This is an old rant of mine, but one that came back to the surface after reading the release details for the second coming of Bayani.

When Rawkus Records released Bayani on June 12th, 2007, it was the second album from the duo and one that promised an enormous amount of future material based solely on the progression of the artists between it and their eponymous debut. However, in reading the re-release article, I come to find that only 20,000 copies of it have sold. That’s 10,000 per year in the two since its release, which averages out to about 28 albums per day. That’s not too bad, until you think about the fact that Flo-Rida probably averaged 28 single downloads per minute for his crap and the current iTunes chart topper is Miley Cyrus.

What do you need to do to expose people to good, quality music these days? 2007’s Bayani is a far stronger album than Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, yet that went Platinum with 1,000,000 sold in just three months and we’re talking two years later at 20,000 for a better hip-hop CD. Is it the lyrics? Are lyrics with depth and intelligence, as pushed out by Geologic and the majority of his underground counterparts, too much for radio listeners? Is it that any variety making a beat sound like something you haven’t heard in every Top 10 song for the past 5 years is frightening? Personally, I’m not sure. But what I can tell you is that while Kanye West walks around making an ass out of himself with all of the money the pop-hypnotized public gives to him, quality artists like the Blue Scholars are trying to figure out where the inspiration for and money to produce their next album will come from.

So do yourself a favor. Turn off the radio, stop watching MTV, and do something other than Shazam the latest club track you heard last night while you were drunk off your ass. Check out Indiefeed, your local independent record store or any vast number of music blogs and resources online and find something new, something different, and in many cases, something more artistic.

Bayani Redux comes out with three previously unreleased tracks on September 1st.


Blue Scholars and GZA at The Independent

In all of the concerts of all the genres I’ve been to, hip-hop shows are by far the most risky to go to. More than most genres, hip-hop shows can be extremely hit or miss depending on a variety of factors centered around the music and the group’s preparation. At a hip-hop show, you’re usually more likely to encounter sound issues, poor crowd interaction, truncated songs or artists who just didn’t put enough time into rehearsing their material, sometimes needing to ad lib or cut songs short because they don’t know all the words. Great hip-hop shows consist of a solid mixmatch of a setlist, rappers who know their words and can interact well with the crowd, good music and fantastic energy. Luckily, the past several hip-hop shows I’ve been to have been on the stellar end of things, and Tuesday night’s performance by Blue Scholars at The Independent in San Francisco fit perfectly into this string of solid shows.

For those that don’t know Blue Scholars, you can check out my write-up of their sound and style in Putting Emerald City on the Map. It’s safe to say that they’re one of the most musically and lyrically diverse groups on the hip-hop scene right now, and the combination of Geologic’s in-depth and personal lyrics with Sabzi’s unique and multi-faceted understanding of various genres makes Blue Scholars and Bayani two different and fantastic albums. Of course, having never seen them before in concert, and knowing of the historically wildly unpredictable transformation of hip-hop groups from studio CD to live performance, I went out to The Independent last night not sure what to expect.

What I got was an amazingly positive and energetic set centered around fantastic lyricism and incredibly well put together musical mixes. At the beginning, I was concerned because one of the fastest ways to tank a hip-hop show is when no one in the crowd knows you, and they did not appear to be as enthusiastically received as I would have liked. Being the opener for GZA doing a full rendition of the renowned classic Liquid Swords album, Blue Scholars had their work cut out for them. But from the minute they took the stage, you got the feeling that their energy was going to be a train, and you could jump on or get run down. Visually, the hip-hop of Geologic’s baggy clothes and zip-up hoodie contrasted nicely with the more indie look of Sabzi’s glasses and button-up shirt. It’s a good feeling when one part of a duo introduces the other as “my partner in music.” They started with a song that used the guitar riff most recently heard in Green Day’s “Hitchin’ a Ride.”

They then moved on to “Second Chapter” before going through the entire set including “Opening Salvo,” “The Ave,” “Loyalty,” a spoken word bit, two new songs, “North By Northwest” and “No Rest for the Weary.” Where others stumble over words, Geologic, from the beginning to the end of the set, was simply enthralling with his delivery. Every word was crisp and coherent, on beat and on target, with emotions ranging from the pure joy of rapping and using the beat to a savage rage at economic inequalities and injustice. While these topics permeate the group’s songs, Geologic did a nice job of leaving them there and making his interludes to the crowd more about enjoying music and spreading the word. Sabzi never once let the beat falter, and even in brief interludes made clear his enjoyment of soul and funk music. He also did a great job of keeping the set on track. As Geologic went to start a freestyle over the tail end of a beat, Sabzi cut it off and told him he needed to move on.

While the crowd didn’t know as many of the songs as I would have liked them to, they certainly got into the act by the end of the show. Both artists helped with this as they did a great job of slowing songs down, taking the beat simple, and then gradually building them back up until they let the energy spill over the top and infect the crowd. “The Ave” and “Loyalty” were by far the standouts of the set, but with the way these two performed, I could have listened to the entirety of both their albums live and been content. Furthermore, the diversity of topics in the lyrics and the variety of sounds conjured up by Sabzi showed just how deep these two can be. The material never seemed repetitive or strained, and at no point did you get the feeling that the two weren’t on the same page together in the creation of the music.

Blue Scholars were followed on stage by GZA performing his legendary Liquid Swords album, joined on stage for a time by Killah Priest. They almost started a riot though when the wait time between the sets reached epic proportions and had people in the audience booing the DJ. It’s tough to call Blue Scholars a “warm-up” act when by the time GZA came on, the crowd was cold and pretty upset that they had to wait for so long. The audience was obviously Wu-Tang heavy, and it went nuts when the first notes of the opening monologue filled the venue. For those that haven’t heard the album, it’s a dark and complex piece of rap music, beats produced by RZA and infused with clips from the stark background of the black and white cult samurai movie Shogun Assassin.

But what works as a studio album, and would certainly work with various songs played throughout a set, didn’t quite work as an entire piece. The energy seemed canned, probably due to the consistency you need to find when you’re going to play your entire album cover to cover live, and all of the songs are a bit too similar to hear outside the context of the CD. GZA’s delivery was good, but didn’t carry the same type of force and creativity that Geologic brought to his. But to his credit, GZA’s reproduction of the CD in a live setting was virtually flawless. At one point, having finished a song, something went wrong with the sound and the interlude that played wasn’t the proper one for the album. Rather than put on the right interlude and move on, GZA asked the crowd if they wanted him to start over, which they did, and he had the DJ put the track back to the beginning, performing it from the start again.

It’s a tough line to straddle though…being prepared and rehearsed enough to do an entire album, while also maintaining a sense of energy and spontaneity that an audience needs in concert. Finally, having waited the entire set to hear my favorite song on the album, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E.)”, Killah Priest tanked it. Not only did he seem to forget a number of the words to his own song, but Priest seemed to be unable to control his breathing sufficiently to get through the entire thing. Several times he had to stop mid-verse to catch his breath, and you started wondering if the album version was done in one take or multiple takes to help him breathe through it. As the song that I find most playable on the album, it was sad to hear it so fully butchered.

While there’s no denying Liquid Swords its place among the top rap albums of all time, and certainly credit is due to GZA for everything he’s contributed to the genre, the delivery and energy of his set couldn’t match that of the Scholars. I’m still glad I saw it, as the album is one that has a number of personal historical ties for me, but I left the venue thinking that I might have been more satisfied if GZA had been the opener and Blue Scholars had closed the show. Either way, I encourage everyone to get out to see either of these groups. With Blue Scholars you can see the idea behind what musically diverse and lyrically socially conscious hip-hop can and should be, and with GZA you can see a lyrically solid artist doing a faithful performance of one of the best rap albums of all time. Here’s two clips from the Blue Scholars song “Loyalty,” one of my favorites. Turn the volume down to limit the distortion as my camera didn’t do well handling the louder portions of the song…

Throw Me the Statue @ Bimbo’s 365

Bimbo’s Marquee

Friday night, Throw Me the Statue (aka Scott Reitherman) descended on Bimbo’s in the city to hype his new album Moonbeams and visit with the hometown folks on his way to the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Because of the nature of the concert, it was packed with the high school crowd.

I was excited to hear how the album songs translated to concert, knowing that Scott wasn’t bringing some of the session musicians brought on for the CD. With Aaron Goldman and two others, the four man set did a remarkable job of turning out the songs, often in ways that brought more energy to both the venue and the sound.

Despite the fact that it felt like a concert in high school, complete with Gavroche heckling Scott from the crowd, it was an impressive set in a great venue. For those that haven’t been to Bimbo’s, you should get out there if a band you’re even remotely interested in is playing. It’s spacious enough to provide comfort for everyone, and at the same time small and intimate enough that it feels almost like a coffee shop show of sorts.

While I don’t remember the set-list order, they came out and started “Written in Heart Signs, Faintly.” From there, they played “Lolita,” “Groundswells,” “Yucatan Gold” (which they made very cool by passing out shakers to the crowd and asking them to assist with percussion,) “Young Sensualists,” which was amped up with a strong amount of tempo and energy not found on the album version, and “About to Walk.” “Young Sensualists” surprised me the most…as the album opener, it’s a very nice song, albeit slightly lower on energy. In concert, the song found new life and was right up there with “Groundswells” and “Yucatan Gold” for me in terms of enjoyment.

What was most interesting to see was the transformation of one of our friends from a high school/gig musician to an actual rock band on stage. They fit perfectly into the crowd and the venue, looking well rehearsed, and easily poking fun at their own mistakes (“sometimes we like to test the patience of the audience by playing wrong notes. You guys are still here!”). What I didn’t expect was how easily, once off the stage, Scott went right back to being Scott. There were no handshakes or hellos in the lobby that felt forced. Scott was still Scott, and still genuinely glad that people came out and enjoyed his music. It didn’t feel like he was in the band and we were fans. It felt like he had just got done doing something and we were back at a party from high school or college. His parents came out as well. Mainly, everyone had a great time.Gavroche and Scott @ Bimbo’sActual and Scott @ Bimbo’s

Scott certainly appears to have the right mix of crowd sensibility and notions of grandeur, while keeping a grounding that should keep him close to his closest friends and supporters. It makes for an interesting mix in a rock group, and one that will be interesting to chart as he gains a larger following (which will happen…they heard “Lolita” on KCRW in a cab ride home in Los Angeles following the Troubadour show).

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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