In the ‘90s, my dad was into this hip-hop group called Digable Planets, which was weird because my dad didn’t like hip-hop. But this jazzy rap sound was different, and we both thought it was pretty cool. Fast forward about 20 years, to Shabazz Palaces, the new group by former Digable Planets frontman Ishmael Butler. The second I heard kalimba on Shabazz Palaces’ “Black Up” (Sub Pop, 2011), I was hooked. Then I realized it’s not a kalimba, it is a mbira—a similar instrument with a similar sound, but much better. It was like calling a Hammond B3 organ a Casio keyboard. That’s Shabazz Palaces in a nutshell, though. At first, the heavy beats and rap style make it easily lumped into the genre of hip-hop, but, especially considering the genre as it exists today, that is a limited categorization of this musically rich duo. It’s kinda weird, experimental, has tons of studio effects but is lyrically solid and totally badass. The duo brings a wide assortment of instruments and effects with them on the road, making their live shows just as mindblowing as their records.
Shabazz Palaces is Butler, or Palaceer Lazaro as he now is called, as MC and Tendrai Maraire, a multi-instrumentalist and the son of a mbira master. The female duo of THEESatisfaction makes a couple noticeable appearances on “Black Up,” and hopefully they’ll be a part of the live show as well. After two EPs, the duo was signed to Sub Pop, an usual choice of acts for the traditionally indie rock label. But they were spot on, with Black Up receiving wide critical acclaim. They’ve since released a four-song live album, Live at KEXP (Sub Pop, 2012), but nothing from the studio. Butler recently became an A&R rep for Sub Pop, taking on the job while working on a new Shabazz Palaces record, perhaps signaling a sign of a new direction for the label. NICOLAS GRIZZLE
Playing the rap game like it’s Parcheesi is Cities Aviv, busting straight out of Memphis and giving respect to his predecessors from the region, Three Six Mafia. The artist also known as Gavin Mays takes samples from across the board, equally comfortable in New Wave beats as he is with funky bass grooves. His new album, Come to Life (released January 28), even features Mays shouting his clever lyrics over Danny Elfman-esque xylophone music sped up by about 50 percent. The only surprise, really, is that he routinely pulls off such daring combinations so well. NICOLAS GRIZZLE
Extra Classic is indeed a good name for this quartet, led by Adrianne Verhoeven’s trippy, psychedelic vocals. A touch of reggae makes this band a shoe-in for a ‘60s spinoff of “Lost,” where Jefferson Airplane crash lands somewhere in the Caribbean and has to play gigs for locals in order to learn the secrets of how they arrived and how to get home, but they only know their own songs, so they play them all in the style of the island. They’re not just classic, they’re Extra Classic. Their latest LP, Your Light Like White Lightning, Your Light Like A Laser Beam, was released in 2012 . NICOLAS GRIZZLE