Blue Scholars are a Seattle based hip-hop duo, currently promoting their latest album, “Bayani”. Covering topics from Iraq Veterans to the Seattle Riots to day-to-day working class struggles, their songs may not be top of the pops, but they are vitally important for moving hip-hop beyond the superficiality of the bling, the sex and the drugs, or what member Sabzi calls “cocaine songs”.
Given your different, more politically overt style, why do you think hip hop originally started, and where is it going nowadays?
Geo: Hip hop was born out of a street culture that came out of the working class- specifically the black and Latino working class community in the south Bronx, but at the same time there was new street culture everywhere I think. There was people poppin’ and lockin’ on the west coast, but it became part of this one identified youth music- and, at some point, some point some people decided they could make a lot of money off it. Flash forward 20 or 30 years and it’s a multi million dollar industry, but at the same time there’s a bunch of people who still live and breath, you know the essence of what it was. And by essence I don’t mean stylistically, but like true- true hip hop, that spirit of making something out of nothing. And also there’s an element of resistance and rebellion in to it. People who were usually the types who were stepped on- those were the people who could identify with it. So I think that’s…what it is now.
Do you think that’s changed over time?
G: In a lot of ways that’s getting worse um, as far as the people who control the media. Not to say everything in the mainstream is whack, but you can argue that a lot of the shit on the mainstream is the same…there’s just an imbalance of what’s going on. And it goes in cycles, you know, the average listener um, the mass of listeners out there are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. And as much as people will follow trends, they will also like tune out of it and it will become saturated, and… you know, I think it will reach its saturation point…like, with 10 years ago after biggie and pac died there was this whole “shiny suit” era and people jumped on it real fast- some people jumped on it, and then everyone was like “oh that’s whack!” and jumped out real quick, and there was like a resurgence of independent underground hip hop.
Saba: I think, it seems to me we all go in cycles, and…once you reach the “disco” phase cycle, something new will pop up.
Are we at the disco phase?
S: We’re in the disco phase
G: There’s some fly aspects of it…
S: Yea, I mean there’s some disco songs I like- I mean, there not calling it disco now- you know, it’s club music, it’s fast, it’s cocaine…it’s fur coats, it’s chains.
People have a hard time separating rap from hip hop. Would you guys see yourself as a rip or hip-hop group, and what is the difference between the two, if any?
S: I dunno, sometimes me and Geo don’t see eye-to-eye on this.
G: I think it’s changed…
S: I mean there really is no difference, overall. Like “Overall-Overall”…I always thought rap was a part of the hip hop culture. Colloquially the two terms have begun to take on different meanings, so people call hip hop like the underground real stuff, and rap is like the mainstream. Um, so if that’s what people mean when they say that, I don’t think- I mean when people invented hip hop, which was never really invented. It…developed. They didn’t all sit down and say “ok this is gonna be rap and this is gonna be this”… I mean the language evolves. But you were saying people have a hard time distinguishing the two? I think that’s one of the reasons why- is because it’s not really clear cut, and different people have different colloquial understandings of what rap is supposed to be and what hip hop is supposed to be. Like, I’m down with all of it- for the most part- I used to think I wasn’t, but now I can see things.
What made you change your mind?
S: I just got older. I just…opened my mind more. Like I listen to the radio, I don’t listen to old music. I’ll listen to underground stuff. And um, if it’s honest and if there’s good qualities about it, I will like it. If it’s not, then, y’know. I mean I think I used to be very die-hard very independent- you know, “if it’s on the radio, it’s sellout”. And that’s what I grew out of. Cos I mean there’s some stuff on the radio I like [laughs] but I may not like myself for liking it
G: I try and stay away from the debate of what’s real hip hop and what isn’t. But I think KRS-One said it best I think; “rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live”.
Having shared the stage with the likes of Mos Def, De La Soul and GZA from Wu Tang, what’s been the highlight so far, and is there anyone in particular you would like to work with in the future?
S: Man, anyone you listen to as a kid and then you meet- that’s always got its own highlight, even more so than who’s ‘hot’ now. Like, playing with Masta Ace- that was-
G: -At our album release- that was cool. Or Q-Tip in New York when we opened up for him. But as far as the shows go…I didn’t grow up listening to Kanye West, but it was still very much a moment I think for us to open up for him and because he was hot. A lot of people traditionally would be filing in line for the opener, but because it was Kanye West, that year, and y’know, we built a bit of a name for ourselves. The place was packed before we even got on.
S: And as far as the future, personally, I’m really interested in exploring, like working with artists like MIA…
S: Because…Well I have certain roots in jazz, punk rock and hip hop, but I’m personally staying open to the evolution of like, where our music can take us. And I also think that living in this part of the world, there’s an immigrant identity that’s very much not- it hasn’t been recognised historically, and it seems there’s a lot of us that are emerging, um that are culturally relevant and contemporary. There’s a lot of ears pointing at that, and those artists for example, don’t fit. I mean they’re not even hip hop sometimes but, you know, there’s a connection there, and there’s still a vibrant, relevant cultural forum, and they don’t fit the stereotypes of traditional minstrels. And I like that, and I think that every time people try to put us in a box put us on like, what hip hop has looked like in America. That’s where we don’t fit in at all. And we get passed up for like a record deal…or the label we’re on favours another group cos we don’t fit to their whole…thing. So I’m interested in- instead of trying to change ourselves to fit that- like really explore who it is that we are, and take that. Like the themes on the “Bayani” Record, for example are more like further. And- to look at what the world has to offer in terms of whatever this ‘new hip hop’ is. Cos like what is going on in London is interesting, or Sydney, Australia or even Montreal, or South Africa, you know? It could be dope. Whereas previously, the idea of -at least in the west- of “world music” as more of a genre, which is upper class people tokenising little bits and pieces that they can have; like there’s classical music and- “oh let me listen to some West African roots”. Like how come World Music can’t be as crackin? Why does it have to be a genre?
G: World Music is music.
S: It’s a genre that’s based on like if this was the centre of the world.
G: And we need more internationalism.
Can that happen soon?
S: It’s happening right now! I think it’s happening right now and
G: It’s happening as this country goes to hell…
S: [laughs] The more that artists like the ones we’re talking about emerge- cos that’s like the majority of the world- when those youths finally see themselves represented in the media, it’s gonna do something, you know what I mean? Like, “Oh shit! I can- I can be myself?”
Speaking of being yourself, how does Saba’s Baha’i faith play in to your music, and do you think as things stand now is that a help or a hindrance? How does it work for you in terms of breaking out in to a greater audience?
S: Me being a Baha’i plays as much a part of the music as Geo’s political leanings. Both of us come from a place where that deeper sense of identity really defines who we are- it’s not something we do on a Sunday or something we just contribute money to. It’s kind of why we make this music and having this conversation in this way. It’s not a hindrance, you know what I’m saying? If it helps make me who I am, then it’s only helping. Despite that, like there’s the small things, like neither of us are gonna license our music to like Hennessey for a commercial. And we’re not gonna necessarily support hoes stripping off on stage while we perform. And in some cases maybe that is a hindrance, but I think a very short term one, and in the long term there’s gonna be a bigger pay-off if you will- and we’re not even doing it for a payoff.
You both have solo avenues as well as working as Blue Scholars- how does the solo work in conjunction with Scholars as a group, and what is the priority for you?
G: Right now, like we’re not even working on new music together, you know I’m always writing, he’s always writing. But we’re approaching the one year cycle of the “Bayani” record, which we still haven’t nationally toured on yet, so that’s in the works. And obviously it’s hard to come up with new material in the studio when you’re travelling so much, but I think 08 is the year- working this record and the live performances…we’ve never been known to look before the year ahead so…
S: I think the other thing too is every individual has their own path, and right now, “Blue Scholars” is a space for both of us to coincide, and we will continue to do it as long as it bears fruit. And at the same time we’re also building up on our own individual careers. I produce for another group called Common Market. By September we’ll have put out a new record for that.
With the current political atmosphere of superficiality and personality wars and your (Geo’s) use of political lyrics, do you think the public will accept that or just continue to be fed what they’re being fed?
G: I think because of where each individual or community is at, as far as participating in this sham of an electoral process, there are communities that have to, and people that have historically seen that it doesn’t work. So they’re at a more advanced level of organising themselves politically and gaining political power and economic power. Whereas there are those who still have faith in the system who haven’t seen its shortcomings- or are just feeding into the propaganda that the election is gonna solve all our problems if we vote in it. So, I mean, I think one mistake a lot of people make politically- on the left particularly- is the disappointment that people don’t rally behind “the cause”, and it’s like ‘yo this is a protest and struggle’, like we’re gonna gain and lose people, But the tide of history moves forward and if you really truly believe- after analysing historical movements and where we’re at right now, I feel that it’s inevitable that people will start waking up, especially if conditions worsen- not that I personally hope that conditions will worsen so that my political agenda can follow through- but it’s the acknowledgement that that’s the path that we’re on. I mean you got this global rice crisis that’s going on right now. Trying to call it a rice shortage is bullshit- millions of tonnes of rice just…chillin’ up there, that are not being distributed to people. I mean, when I first got politicised and became active, I went to IMF (International Monetary Fund), World Bank, WTO, they all said this shit 10 years ago. They said that we’re gonna have a global food crisis because of the way that IMF and World Bank loaned money out and made third world countries dependant on imports on shit that they can produce themselves. And here we are 10 years later and it’s happening. You know 10 years ago trying to listen to this, they’d be like ‘oh that’s some conspiracy shit whatever, whatever”. And you know like I don’t mean to say “I told you so” but there’s gonna be a bunch of “I told you so’s” in the next generation. And you can either be part of that group or the “Oh, I didn’t know” group. And I’m not trying to be in that second group at all.
So are you guys standing for anyone in the election?
S: Standing anywhere? No, that doesn’t really make a difference. I mean it’s exciting to see a lot of people who are generally apathetic otherwise, care about something. I mean if we had a black president, that would be…something, or a woman president, that would be a first, or if they both got stomped by McCain or something, that would be crazy! In the end, I think personally I try to put my energy into thinking about things that will actually make my life improved, or the lives of the people around me better
G: I’ll send in an absentee ballot. That’s about it.