Blue Scholars Give A Hip Hop Seminar
Listening to Geologic, the sharp-tongued vocalist for the respected hip hop duo Blue Scholars, you’d be tempted to call him the front man. His booming voice, commanding flow and insightful lyrics seem to carry the weight of the storytelling, after all. But the more you listen to Blue Scholars, who are at the Paradise Rock Club Sunday night, the more apparent it becomes that his beat-making partner Sabzi is equally important by creating the aural environment in which those stories can hit us in our heads and hearts the hardest. The two men — also known as George Quibuyen and Saba Mohajerjasbi — have a musical chemistry reminiscent of the earliest days of hip hop, when the music was equal parts personal, political and party.
Having released three full-length albums and four EPs since 2004, and spending weeks and months at a time on the road, they have grown as artists and now brandish a reputation as respected veterans of the independent hip hop scene and one of the most renowned hip hop acts to ever come out of Seattle.
While their self-titled first album was loaded with a young man’s ruminations on how it feels to come of age in the hip hop generation, their most recent release, 2011’s sweeping “Cinematropolis” paid homage to the vast array of different figures in art and life throughout the generations who have served as their inspirations, from composer Lalo Schifrin and filmmaker Seijun Suzuki to radical activist Yuri Kochiyama and Oscar Grant, the young father who died as a victim of police brutality in 2009.
Blue Scholars effortlessly weave personal narratives and a deep reverence for the history of populist movements with larger social and geopolitical issues of today, with several nods to their beloved Pacific Northwest always thrown in. On the haunting antiwar song “Back Home,” off their second album “Bayani,” Geo explores the ways a culture of war affects people on a global and local scale through clever turns of phrase like “Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy looking like the streets we named after him/ permanently under construction.”
Here’s the video:
I caught up with Geo at his home via Skype while his two children – an 8 year-old and an 8 month-old – slept.
Giles Li: You and Sabzi have been making music together for 10 years now; you have the 1 MC/ 1 DJ formula down. Some of the most celebrated duos in hip hop history haven’t lasted as long as you guys have. What’s the secret?
I think about this myself sometimes, and I think it has to do with how we met. We met in college, before he knew I rhymed and I knew he made beats, we met as students, so we bring that to it. When we first started making music together, I bet we had more sessions where we just talked than actually making music, and so no matter what, we’re homies first. If we ever got to the point where we were just making music and that’s it … we wouldn’t ever let it get to that point. I’m a fan of his. We’re fans of each other.
Since the beginning, we’ve said it was 50 percent Geo, 50 percent Sabzi, 100 percent Blue Scholars. We try to meet each other between where we’re at. At first, Sabzi was making almost Bollywood-esque beats, and I made him bring more of that boom bap. And he taught me — I was half battle rapper/half spoken word artist, so I kinda fetishized the role of the vocalist. I had no idea about the music side of it. He taught me there’s a thing called a hook. This is how you structure a song. Even though you’re not singing, the pitch of your voice has to match the chord progression and so on. And we’ve continued to learn from each other.
Most people outside Seattle don’t know anything about the Seattle hip hop scene, but you’ve been in it for a long time now. What’s your assessment of it?
This is the year that Seattle is blowing up. There’s a lot of talent – there’s always been a lot of talent, but right now Macklemore is blowing up nationally, Grieves & Budo on Rhymesayers, Jake One also on Rhymesayers as a producer, but also on the local scene, it’s grown. This year, for the first time ever, three local Seattle acts are headlining three different venues on the same night and selling out with their own fanbase. Even last year, if anyone was doing hip hop on a night, other promoters wouldn’t do it because they weren’t sure they could fill a show. It’s definitely happening in Seattle right now.
What are your thoughts about your upcoming show in Boston?
Boston has a Seattle-ish feel to it. Something about it is really supportive. This is only our second time in a concert venue, but like our 10th show in Boston. Our first East Coast show — and our first for a long time, meaning our second East Coast show didn’t happen for a couple of years – but our first East Coast show was Boston in 2005. And after that, we’ve done like every college in Boston except Harvard.
The first album was available in Boston before anywhere else on the East Coast, at an independent bookstore in Central Square [East Meets West Bookstore]. So even before Blue Scholars really should have been known outside Seattle, Boston has been showing us love. The name of this tour is called “Town All Day,” and we set it up like a story of a day in the Seattle we know, but still relatable to people outside the community.
And this is the last show of the tour. The last show is always the best.
Blue Scholars visit the Paradise Rock Club on Sunday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. with Brothers from Another.
Giles Li is a published poet and award-winning spoken word performer. He also serves as the director of programs at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, a community-based agency serving more than 2000 people a year with essential services.