I’ve always really loved sci-fi, space opera, and the afro-futuristic themes of groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Parliament/Funkadelic. I also really, really love hip-hop music and culture. They used to cross over early and often. Just peep Afrikaa Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force, or Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.
Somewhere along the way though, hip-hop gave up on the vast, crowded backdrop of the cosmos and the endless possibility of the future, and became grounded in the present, concrete realities of the now, and in earthbound concerns: Money, Sex, The Hood. To be sure, there was a focus on Afrocentrism and black nationalism, but that died out early, only to be resurrected by the outsider fringe; think Dead Prez in 2000, or the recent resurgence of protest music that is most often framed as a counterbalance to the lean-sipping proclivities of pop rap radio faves like Future and Migos.
Shabazz Palaces, the brainchild of Ishmael Butler, formerly of ‘90s jazz-rap trio Digable Planets, along with percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire, aims to place that original sci-fi ethos of hip-hop firmly at the center of the conversation with Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star. Concept albums are a staple of hip-hop; Lupe Fiasco and Prince Paul and Masta Ace and even Jay-Z have all tried their hands at crafting a full project around a central theme or narrative, but rarely are those attempts so ambitious as this.
Released on Sub Pop Records following an extensive promo campaign including singles “Since C.A.Y.A.,” “When Cats Claw” and “Effimenence,” Quazarz, part of a duo of new releases from Shabazz which includes Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines (out next week), is a musical space opera about:
Quazarz, a sentient being from somewhere else, an observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary. What he finds in our world is a cutthroat place, a landscape where someone like him could never quite feel comfortable amidst all the brutality and alternative facts and death masquerading as connectivity.
From its weird, synthy electronic beats, built out of laser blats and flanged, swirling leads, to its fuzzed-out mixing and distorted vocal effects, Quazarz strives to realize its outer space aesthetic to enhance the concept of the character Quazarz and his freaky, funky philosophy, which stands in stark contrast to the materialistic concerns of even the most conscious rapper. “F*ck Gucci, Louis, Prada / Dolce & Gabbana, every devil dumpin’ garbage off the coast of Somalia,” he rages against the machine on “Parallax.”
Elsewhere, he decries the prevalence of violence and money as the centers of American culture. “I got my money, I got my honey, I got my gunny; I’m straight,” goes the hook to “Fine Ass Hairdresser,” answering his own question that begins the staccato, jumpy track: “Have you ever wondered why we all have the same dream / who installed this and what does it mean?”
Throughout, Butler leans hard into the shtick, even going so far as to release a manifesto in character as Quazarz:
“I, Quazarz, Born On A Gangster Star, son only of Barbara Dream Caster and Reginald The Dark Hoper — he who rides on light — dreamer of the seventh dream and kissed eternal by Awet the Sun Scented — who far from home I found my same self differents in those constellies that be Dai at my weap-side immediate and all us Water Guild affiliates who revelries in the futures passed recordings and ceremonies flexing resplendent in the Paradise Sportif armor — raising these musics a joy/cry that way into these aquadescent diamondized ethers of the Migosphere here on Drake world. Welcome To Quazarz.”
The concept risks coming off goofy, and likely will to the uninitiated. After all, hip-hop heads have been spoon-fed on a loose dichotomy of gangsta vs. conscious rap for nearly three decades straight with little in the way of truly strange or conceptual mainstream rap, unless you count Outkast, who despite presenting as trippy, outer space emissaries of Planet ATL, have stuck to pretty standard fare musically.
Of course, there have been those experiments like Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon, Del Tha Funky Homosapien’s Deltron3030 and work with The Gorillaz, and whatever the heck it is that MF DOOM is has been doing since the late ‘90s, but only Del has even come close to trying to do what Shabazz Palaces does on Quazarz, which is creating a hip-hop’s own Star Trek, Fifth Element, or Jupiter Ascending.
The fact that Shabazz intends to do it again with Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines is all the more encouraging for those of us in the center of the “sci-fi geek/rap junkie” Venn diagram. While these two projects may not spark a new wave of afro-children-in-space rap albums, the first does succeed at least in advancing its cause; to take hip-hop in new directions, and boldly go where no rapper has gone before.