Like soldiers in the old army ballad, musical styles never die, they just fade away. So it's incumbent upon artists like the Blue Scholars to rescue them from history's circular file.
Coming from a city better known for its indie rock than underground rap, the Seattle duo revisits the golden age spirit of the Native Tongues crew (De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest) in fashioning socially conscious rap sidling alongside slinky downbeat jazz and soul swagger.
Although something of an odd couple, the two musicians are united by similar passions. Persian DJ/composer Sabzi (born Saba Mohajerjasbi) and Filipino rapper Geologic (aka George Quibuyen) met in '99 while attending the University of Washington, where they joined the Student Hip-Hop Organization of Washington, a group determined to address the lack of all-ages hip-hop shows in Seattle.
"Just the fact that we were both in that organization meant two things," says Geo, "that we were both into hip-hop music, but then we were also that group of people who wanted to do something — change one little thing about our city — and actively go do it."
Currently, Sabzi and Geo are supporting their third and most ambitious album, Cinemetropolis, the followup to their critically lauded 2007 album Bayani. Unlike that release, which enjoyed the support of the now-defunct underground rap label Rawkus, Cinemetropolis is fully their own baby. The recording was paid for with funds raised by Kickstarter, the Internet crowd-funding site that's slowly replacing the self-interested beneficence of large labels. The duo raised more than $62,000 from 2,243 supporters.
"Instead of being a passive consumer, they can be an active one," Geo says. "It's breaking that one rich guy into a bunch of guys who are probably in our own tax bracket, to get something done that might not otherwise have gotten done.
"The platform is different ... but everywhere — even in the Filipino working-class community — there are businesses that got started basically by the people becoming politicians in their own community and getting people to invest where banks wouldn't."
Each one, teach one
In some ways, Blue Scholars have come full circle. When they started out in the early aughts, the two musicians couldn't find anyone to release their music, and were stuck in that purgatory between working a day job to afford life's necessities and being able to dedicate enough time to music and touring to make it self-sustaining.
Eventually they formed a cooperative — would you expect anything less from a pair of community activists? — called MassLine Media, working with several other hip-hop artists (Common Market, Gabriel Teodros) to share contacts and to pool resources. That enabled them to self-release their 2004 self-titled debut, which in turn gave them greater leverage when Rawkus became involved. The label, home to hip-hop luminaries Mos Def and Talib Kweli, even let them retain control of their masters in the deal.
The band hasn't strayed from its DIY approach to making music. It's simply part of their grassroots "Each One, Teach One" philosophy of cultural kinship. But the music itself has changed, a product of Sabzi's adventurous spirit. While much of their prior work relied on samples, Sabzi was originally a jazz-trained pianist. So for Cinemetropolis, he relied more on his keyboards than his cut-and-paste skills.
"Sabzi's always been really eclectic and experimental and always trying out new things," says Geo, reflecting on the music's more soundtrack-oriented vibe. "People out there might think there's a Blue Scholars sound. But I don't think it exists so much of a sound as an approach. And part of that approach is to allow ourselves creatively and personally to evolve. I think on Cinemetropolis we're showing a side of things which is very film- and cinema-based."
In fact, Cinemetropolis is essentially a concept album. Other than the bookending beginning and ending tracks (the title track and "Fin," respectively), each song is named after a person. It ranges from "Hussein" — an ode to patience and change that honors Barack Obama's middle name — to the glitchy, Middle Eastern-tinged "Slick Watts," which namedrops a couple dozen former Seattle pro basketball players.
And then there's the smooth-jazzy "Yuri Kochiyama," on which Geo professes his adoration for the 90-year-old Japanese Nobel Peace Prize nominee, whom he once met.
The song is directly about its namesake; the others are more in the tradition of Outkast's "Rosa Parks," which is only tangentially about the civil rights icon.
Geo references these cultural icons (others include pot-smoking iconoclast "Tommy Chong," filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's muse, "Anna Karina," and Black Panther/author "George Jones") in order to explore the space between the person and the myth, and how these individuals come to represent something much larger than themselves.
The other big theme that Cinemetropolis deals with is the concept of home. As the military brat of a Filipino U.S. enlisted man, that's always been something nebulous for Geo. Eventually he came to see that we "carry all those places that we lived with us."
"There's home — the actual home, the people you see, the streets that you know — and then there's the idea of home that we're all trying to find and buy into," explains the rapper.
"So a lot of that's reflected in the record, but through the lens of media. That's the second part — the idea of home is something that we participate in through the media. It's a mythology that's happening even in a place like Seattle. There's a general mythology of what Seattle looks like and who's in it, and a lot of that has to do with the media's portrayal."
For Blue Scholars, home is something created through the efforts of people who strive to make their world something more vital than the space between Starbucks and McDonald's franchises. That's the type of work Blue Scholars will gladly put a shovel to.
And now, after nearly a dozen years of making music, they've become comfortable with who and what they are, and the way it leads them to approach their art.
"A&R execs have told me, 'You guys do a great thing and it's phenomenal what you've accomplished. We would love to offer you something, but I don't think we could ever market you guys,'" says Geo. "They don't ever say out loud specific reasons, but you get the idea it's that we're a Filipino dude and a Persian dude from Seattle. We get it.
"On the other hand, we wouldn't have it any other way."