Article republished from The Stranger. View comments here.
Blue Scholars recently issued a declaration rejecting Seattle hiphop’s current fascination with all things outer space and reaffirming the duo of MC Geologic and DJ Sabzi’s commitment to reality. The declaration came in the form of an odd tune called “Paul Valéry.” It’s odd because its namesake, Valéry, has no currency in what Large Professor called “the hiphop nation.” Machiavelli? He is in the house. Socrates? He is in the house. Shakespeare? He has been in the house for sure. But an almost forgotten figure of French modernism? What is he doing in the house? He is in the house for his famous quote “The future isn’t what it used to be,” which Blue Scholars have made their salvo for an attack on one of the signature features of the new and current wave of local hiphop—a wave that recently celebrated its arrival at the Crocodile with the Go! Machine festival. That feature is what the British/Nigerian critic Kodwo Eshun calls “sonic fiction”—the musical form of science fiction.
“Rejecting today’s ubiquitous emphasis on black sound’s necessary ethical allegiance to the street,” writes Eshun, “[sonic fiction] opens up… the secret life of forms, the discontinuum of AfroDiasporic Futurism… It moves through the explosive forces which technology ignites in us, the temporal architecture of inner space, audiosocial space…” In short, sonic fiction is not about reality, but about robots, space travel, space ships, galaxies, moon bases, aliens, alien abduction, and laser beams (“…is so hot”). This kind of fantastic stuff is currently the hot stuff for a number of hiphop crews in our town. It’s all over the music of THEESatisfaction (“Moonday School [Intergalactic Church]”), Helladope (Return to Planet Rock), Spaceman (“Starship”), and Khingz (From Slaveships to Spaceships).
Blue Scholars, the leaders of a school of hiphop that emerged in 2005 and the reigning kings of the underground (they recently sold out two shows and added a third at the Showbox at the Market), have decided enough is enough—it’s time to leave the futuristic planet rock and get back down to Earth on the third rock from the sun: “Cancel your plans to Uranus, you asshole/And come back to Earth where the rest of us work.” Now, those are fighting words, and they are by no means ambiguous. Much in the way Gil Scot-Heron denounced NASA and the space race with his 1970 poem “Whitey on the Moon” (“I can’t pay no doctor bill/But whitey’s on the moon”), Geo is directly denouncing a school of rappers whose heads are in the stars. “Do you really want to ride/Shotgun in my spaceship/On this pimped-out journey through the sky… Hope you ain’t afraid of heights… on this interplanetary flight,” rap THEESatisfaction on Helladope’s super funky (and super pleasurable) “Cosmic Voyage.” These are the kind of journeys Blue Scholars want to cancel.
But before I closely examine the meaning and implication of “Paul Valéry,” I want to make a clear distinction between the “real-izm” (as DJ Le Gooster called it) Blue Scholars represent and the kind that Eshun had in mind when he wrote More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction in 1998. Blue Scholars are about the realities of poverty, exploitation, state control, and working-class blues. What Eshun had in mind (“keeping it real, representing, staying true to the game”) was about the dangerous streets, tough corners, drive-by shootings, drug dealers, thug niggaz, “crosstown beef,” and “feeling closer to god in a tight situation.” This reality has nothing to do with the more authentic reality of making ends meet, looking for a job, and raising noisy children. However, both Eshun and Blue Scholars reject the street-realism. This is where they meet (“Paul Valéry” also attacks the thug tradition that stems from Tupac—those rappers are “chumps”) and also where they depart—Eshun to the celestial, Blue Scholars to the diurnal.
Blue Scholars’ reputation is for capturing the very ordinariness of oppression. It is not about the 10 rules of crack game but the dull fact of keeping a dumb job, not about bullets flying but the common addiction to booze. Indeed, the duo’s greatest track, “La Botella,” which is on their most important contribution to the canon of local hiphop, The Long March (though released in 2005, that record is still growing on me), perfectly captures the monotony of just boozing at a bar: “And another one, and another one, and another one, and another one.” You just do not get more real than that, and that kind of real has been the duo’s bread and butter.
I and other critics have often marked Blue Scholars’ self-titled 2004 album as the point at which an old form of local hiphop came to an end and a new one began. But I think it’s fair to include in that turning point another album that was also released in 2004, namely the Gift of Gab’s 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up. Though Gab is from the Bay Area, this splendid work of sonic fiction was produced in Seattle by Jake One and Vitamin D, two eminent figures in all of the waves that have come our way. One track, Jake One’s “The Ride of Your Life,” is designed to sound like a rocket launching from a NASA base—we hear the fire, the smoke, the ship shooting up the atmosphere, escaping gravity, and entering the weightlessness of space. Another track, Vitamin D’s “Stardust,” takes us from Earth to the deepest and chillest parts of the universe. By 2009, all systems were Go! for Seattle’s space program.
But this new direction was not exactly new to hiphop. Since the early 1980s, space was the place for crews like the Soulsonic Force and Newcleus, and the entire modern hiphop project arguably began as an exploration of deep space in Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” (a track that many, myself included, consider to be the highest achievement in all of hiphop). Rakim took a heady concoction of Islam, Afrocentrism, and ghetto enlightenment to the furthest parts of the universe. “Let’s travel at magnificent speeds around the universe,” rapped Rakim in 1987. “The Earth gets further and further away/Planets as small as balls of clay… Astray into the Milky Way, world’s out of sight/As far as the eye can see, not even a satellite.” This is the kind of space travel that THEESatisfaction and Helladope (the leaders of the now wave) are pushing—not the apolitical, decadent escapism that Blue Scholars reject, but a deliberate reformulation of reality, an alternative language for the experience of the city, lights of the city, and movement about the city.
What Blue Scholars fail to see with “Paul Valéry” is that this form of space travel is still very much about the planet Earth. When Khingz calls himself “the black Han Solo,” he is using a popular culture code to explain or express his urban mode. So the problem Blue Scholars have with space is more a matter of aesthetics than politics. The Beacon Hill Marxists want to hold a clear mirror to reality; the Beacon Hill futurists prefer to hold a distorted (or funny) mirror to the same reality. In one mirror, we see the corporate power of the Columbia Tower; in the other mirror, we see something that looks like the Death Star. It’s the same thing, but different ways of reflecting.