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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 38.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Shabazz Palaces electrify Union South with celestial electronic meltdowns
Shabazz Palaces' take on hip-hop is experimental, psychedelic and, at times, empowering.
Credit:Joseph Engle

For a group that started in relative anonymity, Shabazz Palaces have become a road workhorse. Mastermind Ishmael Butler released the duo's first two mini-albums online in 2009, with no fanfare or information. The group have toured pretty much constantly since 2011's critically acclaimed Black Up, turning into something more than the shrouded-in-mystery act they were at the start. They're a powerful force live, a group that must be seen to be believed. They proved this point at their April 20 show at the UW Union South Sett.

Opening with the 4/20-appropriate "Youlogy," the set mixed the experimental Afrofuturism of Black Up with a handful of new, celestial electronic meltdowns. While all three of the evening's acts were announced as hip-hop from Seattle, that's not necessarily a true genre descriptor for Shabazz Palaces. Butler spends more time sculpting towering beats than he does rhyming.

Black Up is a textbook headphones album, full of small moments, fragments of brilliance, and gnarled, complex, oblique rhymes. Live, it's a more mighty experience. There are times when the bass drops and it feels like you are at a Skrillex concert. Butler -- of the late, lamented Digable Planets -- is accompanied by Tenda Maraire, who plays auxiliary percussion through heavily effected amplifiers and contributes hand drums that roll like thunder. "An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum" was like an intergalactic jackhammer; the skeletal backbeat shook the metal architecture of Union South. The more traditional boom-bap of "Swerve..." was made more impressive as Butler and Maraire built the beat from scratch, layering multiple samplers, percussion and robotic voices until it became a tsunami wave.

When Shabazz Palaces began in 2011, Butler wanted to remain behind the mask of an alter ego named Palaceer Lazaro to keep his music out in front of his persona. But that is impossible in a live setting because he's such a magnetic performer. He always seems on the verge of laughing from behind his '70s shades, and he and Maraire have the most endearingly goofy choreography. It seems like they planned their moves in front of a bathroom mirror. He did let the music do his talking, though; he didn't say much to the crowd beyond "How y'all doing tonight?"

And that was totally fine because his music was so overwhelming that it didn't need much of an introduction. The set reached its peak towards the finale, when Shabazz Palaces were joined onstage by THEESatisfaction, who appear on Black Up and warmed up the crowd with songs from their jazzy, experimental debut awE natural during an opening set. The show closed not with a Shabazz Palaces creation, but with THEESatisfaction's "Enchantruss," a song with a guest verse from Butler. It was a fitting move for a group that often try to cede the spotlight despite it being theirs the whole time.

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