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November 7, 2011

Blue Scholars teach hip-hop a lesson

The prolific and political group Blue Scholars brought a taste of Pacific Northwest hip-hop to Chicago last Saturday night. The multi-talented rap group provided longtime fans and newcomers alike with a high-quality, musical performance at Schubas Tavern in Belmont.

Although the headline act, Blue Scholars, and Bambu, the second group to take the stage, gave an overall impressive performance, the first performer, rapper Grynch, based out of Seattle, was a little disheartening. His rap flow and the instrumentals were respectable, but it was often hard to understand what he was saying, which took away a great deal from his performance. Even the discernible lyrics lacked the depth characteristic of most underground hip-hop. Many of his songs, on topics such as smoking marijuana and his Volvo, were disappointing since they reinforced the stereotype that contemporary hip-hop is mainly about partying and getting women. This focus was exemplified by one of his latest songs, the one he chose to the leave the audience with, “All I Wanna Do,” in which the main message was “All I wanna do is sit in my room and party.”

The following act was a completely different story and went beyond the more trivial message given in the first performance. Bambu, on tour with Blue Scholars this fall, focuses his music around social change and, as he puts it, “serious shit.” His lyrics were not only comprehensible, they were also powerful. His thought-provoking raps about subjects ranging from the degradation of women to social class divisions easily reached the audience through his strong voice and impressive rapid-fire lyrics. By far the most intense and effective song of his show, “Something,” addressed the issue of domestic violence and how it gets passed down from generation to generation. This song, with instrumentals that draw upon a mash-up of Adele’s song “Someone Like You” and a heavy, monotonous beat, was accompanied by a disturbing music video and successfully got the audience to feel the indignation he was trying to evoke through his lyrics. Near the end of his show, Bambu told his audience that “hip-hop is about revealing the messy” so that we can go and change it, and his music most certainly did that.

Finally, two hours after the start of the show, Blue Scholars duo emcee Geologic (Geo) and DJ Sabzi finally took the stage, clearly ready for an energetic performance. Starting the set with their newest album’s title song “Cinemetropolis,” the group set an upbeat tone with a lot of dancing and movement, instantly absorbing the audience into their show. Later, the audience was literally able to be a part of the show when Geo invited everyone from Seattle onstage to dance and rap one of the numbers with them. This interactive experience was carried on throughout the show with Sabzi’s hilarious, understatedly-delivered anecdotes, including a nonchalant warning against doing “blow,” an attempt to start a “microphone stand” crowd surf, and multiple tangents about their clearly beloved city of Seattle. The audience was even treated to what we were told was the longest conversation on the Occupy Chicago movement and social class division ever to be included in one of their shows.

Although Blue Scholars’ message is much less explicit, their performance remains true to Bambu’s definition of hip-hop as a way to raise awareness of “the messy,” which in the Blue Scholars’ case are the struggles of the Filipino island natives in the Pacific Northwest. Throughout the show, the group projected various short video clips, highlighting each song’s theme and enhancing its mood without taking away from the performance. Other simple visuals illuminated the songs’ subjects: a spotlight sun during their song “Marion Sunshine” about weather in Seattle, and Geo pretending to shoot pictures with a camera during “Shoot the Cops,” a song addressing the need to make the police accountable for their actions. This, along with their unique synth sound and Geo’s impressive vocals, forced the audience to pay attention to the passionate, conscious content of Blue Scholars’ music.

With an encore performance of “Blue School,” a track from their first album, Blue Scholars left their audience with a song that exemplifies their mindful ideology and energetic sound. After having the chance to personally congratulate Bambu on his performance and see other audience members mingle with Geo and Sabzi, I exited Schubas Tavern, remembering why I love underground hip-hop. Using passionate, meaningful lyrics, an energetic, addictive sound, and an audience-geared attitude, these performers connect the Northwest and Midwest through a love for what Geo simply calls “good rap music.”

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