Naomi Ishisaka and LaDessa Cobb
Twenty years after emerging on the streets of New York, hip-hop has transformed from the “black CNN” to a commercial juggernaut of its own, with a powerful industry often more concerned with the money than the message. Still, as hip-hop becomes the dominant force in pop music, independent artists are blossoming as well. Defying the industry’s chokehold on distribution, the digital revolution in the music industry opened the door for independent artists to produce and disseminate their music directly to the people.
Seattle’s Blue Scholars, hailed as the second coming of local hip-hop bands, is the extraordinarily promising embodiment of that revolution.
Blue Scholars also heralds the second generation of hip-hop artists, who honor and pay tribute to the African-American history and foundation of the art form while incorporating their own ethnic backgrounds and experiences into the music. And it is becoming increasingly impossible to define hip-hop through narrow demographics as fans and artists span all races and cultures.
With a Filipino-American emcee and a DJ of mixed Iranian-American heritage, the group personifies the genre’s shifting influences while staying true to the old-school formula of hip-hop. Blue Scholars’ lyrics are drawn from experience and close connection to community and showcase beats that can stand alone as complex, multilayered musical collages. Weaving classical, soul, R&B, jazz and many other styles, Blue Scholars – true to their name – work hard for your ear.
Seattle’s Blue Scholars is the musical brainchild of emcee George “Geologic” Quibuyen and DJ Alexei “Sabzi” Saba Mohajerjasbi. Blue Scholars does not fall easily into the popular “good rap/bad rap” dichotomy. Fun without being frothy, powerful but not pedantic, it is, by any definition, a socially conscious hip-hop group. Yet Blue Scholars very intentionally set out to create music that will hook people in with the sound, accessible yet highly political. Geologic says this is part of the group’s vision.
“(The) main thing we always come back to is that we are doing this for the communities we are a part of and for uplifting communities in general,” Geologic says. “There is a message out there in the music, we definitely don’t want to preach to nobody, we don’t want to tell anybody how to think, but we want to equip people with some sort of knowledge … to maybe equip them with the tools to critically think about things. In our music, a lot of people will hear a lot of themes, like politics, social justice, liberation and they will relate to it. There are other people who won’t relate to it immediately but might do some research about it (after being caught by the sound).”
Growing up in military bases across the United States, Geologic was attracted at a young age to the political consciousness of early hip-hop. Introduced to the music through a compilation tape given to him by his father, Geologic’s initially visceral reaction to the sound grew into an intellectual connection, as music like Public Enemy’s seminal album “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” grabbed hold of his mind, having a profound affect on the shy child of Filipino immigrants.
As Geologic’s love of hip-hop grew, so did his awareness for the potential for social change through the power of voice. The self-described blue-collar scholar went on to college at the University of Washington and met Sabzi through a hip-hop organization they were both involved in. Blue Scholars was born in 2002.
A soft-spoken and natural leader, the down-to-earth Geologic says Blue Scholars do not desire to be messiahs for the masses, preferring to stay rooted in the community they love. Geologic, who also works as an exhibit coordinator for the Wing Luke Asian Museum, is passionate about maintaining grass-roots connections. Active in community issues, Blue Scholars performs at numerous community events and concerts, and was involved in a get-out-the-vote concert for young people before the November election. This community involvement is part and parcel of Blue Scholars’ mission.
“A lot of socially conscious artists talk about communities or reaching to the masses, but every time I hear an emcee talk about those things on a record, the first thing I think about – and not to be on some self-righteous stuff because there was a point when I was putting out all these political messages without really understanding why I was doing it – I wonder how rooted they are in a community,” Geologic says. “Because a lot of times when you put yourself on a political platform there is a tendency to isolate yourself, like you are preaching to the masses rather than learning from them or gathering all your knowledge and strength from them. You can’t reach the masses with your music if you aren’t reaching out to the masses in your everyday life. … That’s the main thing, if you stay connected within the community you will have more inspiration, more experiences to talk about within your music.”
And in Geologic’s lyrics, there is much to talk about. Eschewing the tired hip-hop clichés of materialism or violent machismo, Geologic’s rhymes prefer to speak to the mundane as well as the political. Blue Scholars’ self-titled debut album deftly navigates between pointed critiques of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq in “Blink,” to Geologic’s refreshingly unabashed admiration and love for his wife in “Life and Debt.” In the homage to the early days of hip-hop, “Motion, Movement,” Geologic’s powerful lyrics are masterfully complemented by Sabzi’s hauntingly beautiful, rhythmic piano line.
While the Blue Scholars have developed a following for their music, Geologic pulls no punches when talking about the institutional failings of the industry as a whole.
“The music industry and mass media in general (are) problematic. They only care about the message if the message sells. Message or not, whether it is uplifting or damaging to communities, they don’t really care. Profit is the bottom line. Being self-sustaining artists, we understand that there are certain things that are worth more than money, such as your integrity as an artist or your integrity to your community,” Geologic says.
“To me, that is the bottom line. It’s good business to maximize your profitability, but if it comes at the expense of some things you can never get back, then it’s not worth it. And that’s basically what I see going on in commercial hip-hop or basic private-sector corporations.”
“Blue Scholars in the place to be, we got one DJ and one emcee, and that’s it ya’ll…”
While Geologic is the face and voice of Blue Scholars, the quiet and unassuming Sabzi is the man behind the group’s music, utilizing his classical piano training and extensive studio composition experience in his effort to create music that can stand on its own. “Even if there was no emcee on (the tracks) people would like to listen to it. So because they were produced like that, not as background or just a backbeat, or some sort of a supporting role, I think that is ultimately what addresses the need to for a beat (to get people connected to a song).” From the first note, Sabzi’s commanding orchestrations set the tone for the album, announcing to all that it will not be the aural equivalent of a PowerBar – good for you but really not that enjoyable.
Keeping the audience engaged is part of Sabzi’s role in the group. “As a hip-hop producer, you get to exercise a lot of different types of skills that deal with music,” he says. “You have to have a good producer’s ear, you have to know what other people respond to as well. You need to work and create music for other people.”
Audience is growing
Between Sabzi’s flowing beats and Geologic’s poetic lyrics, Blue Scholars’ audience is growing. The group performs about five concerts a month and enjoys regular airplay on KEXP 90.3 FM radio. From October-December, Blue Scholars was No. 1 on KEXP’s hip-hop chart. Blue Scholars was also the top seller in January at the Sonic Boom record store, according to staffer Mike Jaworski. Last year, its debut CD won “Best Album of the Year” from Seattle Weekly, and praise from music critics has been effusive. Blue Scholars has earned the respect of the hip-hop cognoscenti, too, with writers such as Charles Mudede of The Stranger saying “Sabzi’s beats and Geologic’s raps could easily stand alone as complete works of hip-hop art,” and describing Geologic as “brilliant because he is complex without being intellectual.”
In what might be the ultimate compliment, the group is even getting reactionary backlash. A recent, racially charged rant directed against Geologic (and hip-hop in general) by a local right-wing talk show was a telling reminder of the cultural prejudice that hip-hop artists still endure.
Consider this from the KTTH 770 host’s soliloquy: “Hip-hop music is an educational process whereby your child learns how to abuse women, abuse drugs, abuse alcohol, have promiscuous sex, assault police officers, and get shot. (Geologic) does not belong in college, he belongs in some re-education program where we brainwash him to become a normal person.”
Yet the band plays on. The group recently released a video for the ebullient song “Freewheelin,” featuring local extras and set in Seattle’s International District, which will be included in the bonus materials on the spring re-release of its debut album. A second album is planned for the end of this year. Not bad for a duo that still uses a home studio in the attic of the duplex they share.
Computers, with home-recording hardware and software, have revolutionized the music industry, making it very easy and cheap to record music from home, and to digitize and tinker with voice, tempo and even the instrument you play on. And Blue Scholars has used this opportunity to mix and create tracks on their computer, disseminate their music and video on the Web site as well as the traditional brick-and-mortar distribution channels. Through professional mastering and attention to detail, Blue Scholars’ CD has the crisp, clean sound quality of a big studio production.
On their own
As Blue Scholars grows, artistic independence and community connectedness remain the focus. While the musicians plan to cross the major-label bridge when they come to it, for now they appreciate the freedom that independence brings.
“The biggest thing about being an independent artist is, first and foremost, the ownership of everything you do,” Geologic says. “Ownership literally and figuratively – like literally your artistic creation. You own your own stuff. On a major label, they own your stuff. You could create some really political stuff and if some suit decides your song would be good for a Ford Taurus commercial, there it goes. Our approach is that right now, a lot of headway is being made in independent music. With digital media, there is a market for independent artists to thrive without signing their life away.” Staying close to the community helps make that independence possible. As their fame spreads through word-of-mouth, Blue Scholars are acquiring new fans every day. And perhaps fans are unafraid to engage the group with their support because Geologic and Sabzi are disarmingly low-key and humble and clearly don’t take their audience for granted.
“I think we really put ourselves out there. People come up to us, hit us up on e-mail, after our shows, whereas some of my favorite artists, they aren’t very approachable,” Geologic says. “I wonder about it, what is it about us that makes people so eager to dialogue with us? I love it, it’s a big part of why we do what we do.”
In the end, this might be what makes the Blue Scholars so popular. While honoring the past, their community and the power of music, they reflect a possible positive future for hip-hop. A future that is entertaining, yet at its core, stands for something.
Sarah Heng-Hartse contributed to this report.