Blue States: Indie hip-hop heroes Blue Scholars embrace a new label, sounds, and social concerns.
It took a month for George Quibuyen just to get used to waking up in his own bed and “being a family dude.” After two years on the road with musical cohort Alexei Saba Mohajerjasbi it was time for a well-deserved break. As the Seattle-based hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, Quibuyen and Mohajerjasbi—known as MC Geologic and producer Sabzi—had toured for 24 straight months to promote their second full-length album, Bayani. It's an ambitious album that poignantly tackles war, gentrification, and the immigrant struggle.
Originally released in 2007 on '90s hip-hop label du jour Rawkus, Bayani was recently reissued on New York's Duck Down Records. Never ones to rest on their laurels, Blue Scholars have, in the meantime, dropped a new six-song EP, Oof!. This newer work gave the pair an opportunity to explore different sonic and lyrical territory. Compared to Bayani, the EP has a lighter, upbeat tone. “It's a musical vacation,” says Quibuyen of Oof!—a Hawaiian slang term for sex.
In a way, the EP is more reflective of who Quibuyen and Mohajerjasbi are. Neither is as serious as one might assume from their previous records. Humorous and lighthearted, a casual conversation with the two strays from music (Mohajerjasbi has a punk and ska background, while Quibuyen is very much a traditional hip-hop head) and sports to marketing and politics. Both slim-framed artists are fashionably low-key; Quibuyen's wardrobe consists of button-up shirts, fedora hats, and athletic wear; Mojajerjasbi, sports shirts buttoned to the top. Oof! reflects the duo's eclectic thematic and musical interests.
Mohajerjasbi incorporates his vast influences into his production and flexes versatility on songs like the synth-pop jam “New People” and “Cruz,” a slow Jawaiian island joint that goes down like a cold brew on the beach. The EP also gave the pair a chance to explore their party-rocking proclivities.
Blue Scholars pride themselves on their live shows and tight performances. But delivering the right type of beat and vibe sometimes proved difficult with Bayani's serious lyrics. “Let's face it," Quibuyen says. "It's kind of an emo hip-hop album—it doesn't translate well live all the time.” He notes that Blue Scholars have always been a balancing act between rocking the crowd while still conveying their socially relevant messages.
The bulk of Bayani was made in 2006 during Bush's second term. At the time, Quibuyen's brother was fighting in Iraq, and gentrification in cities was on the rise. These issues became fodder for the texture of Mohajerjasbi's production and Quibuyen's dense storytelling. The record was as much political as it was personal. But now, they say, it's time to move on. “Protest music in today's world—I'm not feelin' that. Importing the spirit of the '60s to today doesn't work,” Mohajerjasbi says. Quibuyen adds that if the times change and their music doesn't, then their art would become irrelevant.
But don't let the bounce of songs like the new lead single "HI-808" distract you from the substance. Quibuyen praises the state where he spent a portion of his childhood while lamenting the difference between Hawaii now and when he was younger: “Seen homes erased/Faced with an ice epidemic so large/It'll put global warming on pause… It's not a walk on the beach.”
Although the sound and themes throughout Oof! are different from the duo's political fare, Quibuyen asserts that it is still very much a Blue Scholars project. “[We're still] telling stories you don't always hear and associate in the mainstream media,” he says.
Unconcerned with celebrity, Blue Scholars have cultivated their own sound. Remaining true to old-school hip-hop aesthetics, Mohajerjasbi's textured, soulful beats and Quibuyen's thoughtful, poetic lyrics have earned them respect and a loyal following. Community-based anthems like "Joe Metro," a somber portrait of their hometown as told from the perspective of a bus passenger, and "50K Deep," which gives a firsthand account of the 1999 World Trade Organization riots, have won over local fans. Meanwhile, other more universal ballads, like the anti-war "Back Home" and hip-hop ode "Freewheelin'," have fans bobbing heads in locales far beyond the Pacific Northwest.
There's no doubt that they've left an indelible impression on the Cascadian music scene. “Before the Scholars got regular rotation [on local radio station KEXP], you never heard local hip-hop on the station,” says friend and fellow Seattle rap artist Gabriel Teodros. “They're the first hip-hop group to cross over to that indie rock audience... They're definitely shining a light on the fact that hip-hop is made here and we're doing it well."
According to Mohajerjasbi's estimates, the group draws 4,000 fans whenever they play a show in the Emerald City, selling out venues that no Seattle hip-hop artist has done since Sir Mix-A-Lot. But far from raking in dollars Diddy-style, Blue Scholars have made an impact in both the community and hip-hop scene via grassroots grinding. Quibuyen and Mohajerjasbi frequently perform at schools in Washington as well as various benefit concerts. They also participate in workshops for youth groups in the Bay Area. It's this multi-dimensional approach that has earned them a diverse and dynamic fanbase, from die-hard hip-hop fans to the parents of the youth who listen to their music. Now all the hard work is paying new dividends.
The duo recently signed a unique deal with Duck Down Records, a label previously known for managing and developing NY-based act, Boot Camp Clik, and its members Black Moon, Heltah Skeltah, and Smif-n-Wessun. Duck Down has recently branched out to release projects from Chicago's Kidz In the Hall, Cypress Hill's B-Real, and more. Blue Scholars' new deal with Duck Down is not a traditional agreement. Instead, they're contracting the label to take care of marketing and promotions while a sponsorship from Seattle's Caffe Vita Coffee provides the backing for local support and distribution. The agreement is already yielding returns, landing “HI-808” on leading hip-hop blogs such as Nahright and 2DopeBoyz.
“It's like turning the artist/label relationship upside down,” explains Quibuyen, noting that the label is contracted to work for them, not the other way around. As part of the agreement, Blue Scholars maintain full control over digital distribution, a financial component many artists are often forced to give up. “That's a big deal-breaker,” says Quibuyen, “especially since we haven't seen its full potential and it's already so big.”
Also included in the Duck Down deal is a new full-length album scheduled to drop in mid-2010. While the details about the project are still under wraps, Quibuyen did offer this insight into the content of the next album: “With the world the way it is now, you have got to be a complete asshole in 2009 to be caught up in cars and fashion and culture for culture's sake. Anybody who's talking about, 'We got money' in 2009 is a complete fucking asshole.”
In short: don't expect their vacation from straight-up political and social commentary to last too long.
With big plans on the horizon for 2010, Blue Scholars' balancing act is getting more precarious. More fans to rock, more issues to lyrically torch. But what does political hip-hop look and sound like in the Obama era? Although they're often viewed as indie hip-hop's most active socially conscious group, the duo maintains a healthy cynicism about the current political climate. “Everyone asks, 'Now that Obama's elected president, what are you gonna talk about?'” says Mohajerjasbi. “Is everything suddenly fine now? I don't know—did racism leave?”
Quibuyen has more specific concerns on his mind. He and fellow hip-hop activist Kiwi embarked on the Stop the Killings Benefit Show in 2007 and the People Power Tour in 2008 to raise awareness about the worsening political conditions in the Philippines. Today, he voices concerns on a variety of issues, including the recent deployment of US troops to the Philippines, along with the approval of more troops to Afghanistan.
Though he gladly refers to Obama as his “favorite president,” he won't be lulled to sleep by the simple fact that he's in office. “It's time to hold this dude accountable,” Quibuyen says. Although he's all for hope and change, Quibuyen says he's not about hope and change as a slogan but as a reality, which is what Blue Scholars strive for with their art.
“It's never been about the president,” says Quibuyen. “It's never been about the boogie man or the man. It's been about real shit and real situations.”