Shabazz Palaces MC/producer Ishmael Butler is in Miami today on vacation, so the Stranger met up with Shabazz drummer/mbira player Tendai Maraire at Caffe Vita to present the group with their Genius cake. Butler beamed in via Skype, back-lit, occasionally pixelated or caught in a few second of delay, wearing sunglasses and big, DJ-sized headphones. When the cake was presented, Maraire had to lift and maneuver the laptop screen for Butler to see it, and it was like he was holding a head in a jar.
"We got a cake, my brother," Maraire said into the computer, then read aloud: "You. Are. A Frickin'. Genius." Still largely in silhouette, Butler's smile floated on the screen above the sheet cake. Us music types being new to the whole Genius Awards thing (it's the Genius Award for Music's first year), it had to be pointed out that the cake was not the entire prize. The cake is a symbol. A symbol for the $5,000 no-strings-attached award. At this news, there was much laughter; Butler's bright, hovering smile widened considerably; and, from Miami, he raised a glass (white wine?) to the occasion.
That Shabazz Palaces is taking the award this year should perhaps come as no big surprise. In the past year, the Stranger has championed the band (see here, here, and here) more than we have any homegrown musical act since, what, the Murder City Devils, even going so far as to put Shabazz on the cover, something we do approximately never for a musical act.
This is boosterism, to be sure, but it's beyond well-deserved. Shabazz Palaces does nothing so much as deconstruct hiphop, and build it back up in their own singular image, from the local (the 23rd & Jackson Starbucks) to the universal (dark places where "we all go"), the Afrocentric/Afrofuturist (greeting the Capitol Hill Block Party crowd with an Auto-tuned chorus of "Allahu Akbar") to the surreal, the hand drum to the MPC. And they do it with both the skill of veterans (Butler is 41 and a Grammy-winning member of Digable Planets; Maraire is 36 and an accomplished musician in his own right) and the rule-busting enthusiasm of rookies. Their tracks fluctuate from spooked minimalist beats to lush, celebratory sample collage, and Butler's rhymes twist around tight syntactic corners and delve down dark yet richly populated alleyways, telling stories, spitting stream of consciousness, tying everything together in unexpected ways. And the Stranger isn't the only place that's noticed—Shabazz has popped up in Rolling Stone and on Pitchfork this year—although we may have been the first.
Shabazz Palaces will be performing as well as accepting their award at the Stranger Genius Awards Party, going down September 17th at the Moore Theatre—so they can have that cake and, well, you know.