From Seattle, with a clean slate

Boston Globe, November 4, 2011

Their new album’s title is a shout-out to 1930s Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, born of their fascination with film studies. The songs are oblique tributes and reflections inspired by film stars, activists, political prisoners, Barack Obama, and … weedhead comic Tommy Chong. Two tracks are eulogies of a kind: one for Oscar Grant, the young man killed by a police officer on an Oakland train platform; the other for the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team, which folded and moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Welcome to the kaleidoscopic world of Blue Scholars. For nearly a decade the duo of MC Geologic and DJ Sabzi has been spinning rhymes that are at once national, even global in their social scope, and hyper-local, an engagingly detailed and affectionate guide to their hometown, Seattle.

In the process, they’ve become leaders in that city’s fertile but long-unheralded hip-hop scene, and its ambassadors to a nation of beat and rhyme aficionados in need of some renewal and inspiration. “Cinemetropolis” is their third full-length album (they’ve also made a flurry of EPs), and their strongest. It has earned them their first national headlining tour; they visit the Paradise on Thursday.

A few things to know about Blue Scholars: First, they may be intelligent, worldly, political, go light on the profanity and even lighter on violence or sex, but please don’t call them “conscious rappers.” At least, that’s their request.

“The whole point is trying to make music that means something instead of music that means nothing,” Sabzi says on the phone from a tour stop in Missoula, Mont. “Not that I want to be unconscious or don’t care about anything, just that word has become defined as something not forward-looking.”

He’s right; “conscious” often connotes a pigeonhole where preachy spoken-word rhymes intersect with austere, rudimentary beats. This is entirely different from Geo’s flow, which has grown ever more proficient and funky over the years, and Sabzi’s production, which favors midtempo beats, lush layers, and quirky ornamentation. Besides, “conscious” is a 1990s conceit, and the Scholars, who formed on the University of Washington campus in 2002, are from a newer generation.

Second, the Scholars come from a city where the absence of established hip-hop history – unless you count one-off sensation Sir Mix-A-Lot, of “Baby Got Back” fame – means a refreshingly clean slate.

“If you grew up in Seattle there was no existing local stereotype to conform to,” Sabzi says. That also meant no outsize industry personalities to honor or internecine beefs to navigate. Just the city, for better or worse: “Young people are either hyper, hyper town pride, or they think Seattle is super wack,” Sabzi says. “Whatever it is, it’s authentic.”

Count the Scholars in the first camp. Their Seattle is diverse: Sabzi is Iranian-American, Geo is Filipino, and their extended crew has roots in a patchwork of nations. “The communities of color are small enough that people mix,” Sabzi says. “We came up knowing about the history of our friends’ mother countries. Everyone’s familiar with each other’s food, embraces this Seattle identity as being very cosmopolitan and yet local at the same time.”

The place has less analyzable charms as well. “There’s a town spirit that I feel exists,” Sabzi says. “I’m a student of it. I’m not a whole shaman, but that’s where I get my inspiration.”

“And it does rain a lot,” Geo chimes in. “Those winters where it’s gray and drizzly for months, there’s definitely a culture around that. In Seattle, rainwater is the essence of music and culture.”

Make of that what you will; but whatever its spiritual inspiration, a song like “Slick Watts,” which features a recitation of local neighborhoods followed by the names of SuperSonics greats, has a goofy parochialism that’s completely endearing. Elsewhere, references to, say, local public transit might whiz by an outsider’s ear, but that’s OK.

But “Cinemetropolis” is also a concept album – unlike its predecessor, the slightly rawer “Bayani” – with a bigger point to make. In this hyper-mediated world, the Scholars argue, it’s become too easy to pick up and discard political ideas and cultural identities as if they were fads, devaluing the hard work and struggle that went into them. The Scholars don’t like this.

“Unless you have trained yourself to see things with a discerning eye, things are extremely fake,” Sabzi says. “The cancer that is spreading around the world culturally is getting better and better at looking like it means something. And that’s weird, dude.”

On the album, the Scholars respond by naming songs for individuals and riffing outward in various directions. “Yuri Kochiyama” specifically honors the Asian-American activist and Malcolm X associate. “Anna Karina,” named for the French New Wave actress, becomes a song about gender and in a way, love, as does “Rani Mukerji.” More prosaically, “Tommy Chong” is about weed.

The Scholars are activists, too; they’ve been organizers and youth mentors in Seattle, and on the current tour, they’re visiting the local Occupy protests in each town. Their own agenda highlights economic independence; they walked away from label deals and funded “Cinemetropolis” online, via Kickstarter.

“It goes beyond the record,” Sabzi says. “However we’re going to be artists will emerge from critically thinking about what kind of world we live in now, and what we should do if we want to stay human.”