Blue Scholars: Beating Back Boundaries
“When you hear a song that is written in a way you never heard before, or you see a painting that is done in such a way that makes you go ‘wow, I never thought this shape and this color could go together,’ that opens a space in your mind and your soul that is equal to growth. You take that expansion and you apply it to everything else, and if you’re constantly thinking forward in that way, then change happens.”
So says Alexei Saba Mohajerjasbi—better known as Sabzi, DJ and producer for the Seattle based hip-hop duo Blue Scholars. Opening up space and shunning convention have long been a part of the group’s M.O. The core of their music—Sabzi’s eclectic, cerebral beats and emcee George “Geologic” Quibuyen’s chilled, calculated delivery—have always stood a cut above most “political” rap. In what can often be a predictable sub-genre, the Scholars prefer not to be backed into a corner.
It’s no surprise, then, that when it came time to release their new EP, OOF!, the Scholars chose a format that is, well, non-traditional. Scratch that—it’s downright anti-traditional. “It’s more than an EP,” explains Sabzi. “It’s more of a multi-media, cross-cultural experiment.”
The whole OOF! package—available on their website—includes not just a download of the 12-song release, but a poster by graffiti artist Aaron “Angry Woebots” Martin, a t-shirt, and the video for the group’s dope lead single “HI-808” shot by Hawai’i-based media groups Kai Media and Honozooloo.
Sabzi is quick to point out that each one of these is an equal component of the project, each of the various collaborators coming in with an equal voice. The approach is refreshing. Too often, different avenues of creative expression find themselves compartmentalized and segregated from each other: “music has nothing to do with film,” “poetry has nothing to do with painting,” and so forth.
To Blue Scholars, such an approach seems stilted, unnatural. The iron wall that hangs between each avenue of creativity seems to mirror the ways in which humanity is, according to Sabzi, “very separated—we have a lot of lines and boxes drawn between each other and around each other than cause difference.” And while the various artists that came together for OOF! are of many different disciplines, they’re all united under a common theme.
That theme is—and here comes another curveball—Hawai’i. But listeners expecting clichéd stories of buff surfers and palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze have another thing coming. The rhymes spun by Geologic—who grew up there when his father was in the Navy—are honestly people-centric. Delivered with a deft humor and frankness, his rhymes drip with the struggles of the island-state’s people, cutting through the polished paradise imagery of a million glossy postcards:
“Nope, it’s not a walk on the beach
So don’t come thinkin’ shit is sweeter than a sugarcane tree
‘Cuz when the beats drop, brah, don’t blame me
And now you wanna curse like Interstate 3
Newsflash jerk: Hawai’i ain’t free
And I vowed on the day I became an emcee
Never not say what I’m made to speak from”
Geo isn’t over-thinking his lyrics. Throughout OOF! he speaks of Hawai’ian self-determination and the Seattle general strike with the same ease as backyard barbecues and rap music itself.
Likewise, Sabzi’s beats mesh together with a freshness that reveals more instinct than anything else. He seems genuinely shocked when I tell him that his production actually sounds like Hawai’i. “I don’t want to say yes, but I also don’t necessarily want to say no. I will say that sonically, when I listen to the record and I think our trip to Hawai’i, they fit.”
Sabzi may not have been overtly conscious of it, but the essence is definitely there—from the surfy Hammond organ to the lightly punctuated guitars and echoing drumbeats. Hearing Sabzi’s surprise I’m reminded of a quote from the late, great Joe Strummer: “It seems to me that origination is perhaps instinct, not intellect.”
Most definitely, there is a lot about this EP that is instinctually radical—both in terms of content and form. Blue Scholars’ own history is one of finding the infinite points in which music and activism collide. Past songs have approached topics like the Battle in Seattle and the occupation of Iraq in a way that dovetails personal experience with outspoken militancy. Since 2002 they’ve taken their live show not just on the road with acts like Kanye West and De La Soul, but to labor organizing conferences, community youth centers and the May 1st “Day Without an Immigrant” protests.
So it’s only appropriate that in finding a forum for a project as ambitious as OOF!, Blue Scholars bypassed the mainstream record business entirely. “Basically, if you have a big record label fund any of this stuff,” Sabzi stops himself, “well, they’re probably not going to even fund it because they don’t understand this kind of artistic expression.”
How true. The typical schematic record deal is one where the terms are dictated to the artist. If you don’t like it, you hit the road. “In that agreement, the label ends up—because of costs of production and ownership of the means of production and all that jazz—having a very dominating role in the relationship. If we were to sign the deals that we were being offered by some of these labels, we would have to turn over certain control.”
Ceding control to a major label can have wide repercussions past the music itself. “The kind of control I want in a music deal, for example, is to approve spending on—and distribution of—promo materials. This is an important issue if the person in charge is culturally removed from the communities they’re promoting to—which is usually the case.”
It’s not for sure that the Scholars’ unwavering, independent spirit would be smothered under the weight of a big imprint. But why take the chance? Distribution of the limited-edition CD version of OOF! will be taken on by Duck Down Entaprizez, though as the group’s press release points out the group didn’t sign to Duck Down. Rather, the Blue Scholars brought the terms to Duck Down, and Duck Down signed to them. Much of the record’s support is also coming from Caffé Vita, a Seattle-based coffeehouse well-known in the area for its progressive business practices. In the end, though, the buck in this unique deal stops with the artists themselves.
Ten years ago, this kind of unorthodox project might not have been possible—at least not if the artist wanted to be exposed to a wide audience. Despite never being on a major, the Blue Scholars haven’t had a problem finding fans. Their 2007 release Bayani (also recently released in a redux by Duck Down) has to date moved over 20,000 units—an impressive number for an indie release—and the group have gained a loyal following over the past few years. At a time when no single sound is dominating hip-hop and the influence of major record labels appears to be scattering to the wind, a growing number of folks are getting hip to the Scholars’ radically humanistic message.
If there were ever an opportunity for new spaces to be opened up, this is it. “The world is more screwed up than ever before,” says Sabzi, “things are really deteriorating.” If there’s anything that sums up his outlook, though, it’s optimism:
“The scenesters today, the kids who really seem to get it are really forward thinking… There’s a certain optimism in young kids today. It’s like they love everything, and yet they’re not buying in and selling out at the same time. I’m learning from them and trying to put that into what we do.”
For sure, there’s more room to learn from each other’s ideas and experiences more than ever. If something better is possible, then such dialogues aren’t only preferable—they’re necessary. Ultimately, they’ll only be successful if they’re the kind of ideas that can break down boundaries and pull folks together. And if they can buck the powers that be in the process, all the better.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in Socialist Worker, CounterPunch, ZNet, PopMatters.com, MR Zine and Razorcake.org. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.