Rafiq Bhatia (Son Lux) Talks Shabazz Palaces’ Lèse Majésty

Can phantasmagorical hip-hop unseat oligarchs and führers? Son Lux's guitarist phantasmagorically explores this intriguing idea.

In the first light of the Luxorian sunrise, you can make out an ocean full of sunken ships which whisper with ghost tones, the waves pummeling glistening purple cliffs. Curving roads mirror the trajectories of incandescent rivers; all empties into the glowing, golden lakes of time (keep in mind that there is, and always will be, a difference between gold and glitter). You might find yourself waking alone here, suddenly compelled to disrobe, if only to feel and be yourself in the night’s light and air. This is a place where falcons and people may both spread wings and soar on high, taking in the seemingly endless sprawl of it all. Meetings are convened in the stratosphere.

By emulsifying lyrics in implications, as above, we can conjure the setting of Shabazz Palaces’ phantasmagorical and somnambulant new LP, Lèse Majésty. Though their domain stretches as far as a bird’s eye can see, there are whispers that a silent and subversive threat is growing in the world beyond. We know that colluding oligarchs — being the categorizers that they are — fertilize the ground with mistruths, preparing to harvest a new crop of buyers, while minimizing chances and thwarting true advancement for the rest of us. The moment has come to deal with these pernicious capitalists and their quantized offspring, to remind the world that a realer alternative is at the ready, to set the record straight.

How did they get here? There was a time when they were cruising down 155th in kitted-out Maximas, through neighborhoods run by dealers (a hood pedigree of syndicates and felonies). In those days, the songs were built in parks and between buildings — echoes slapping off walls — as fly ladies rocking bangs and furs walked by. But all of this feels like a distant memory now; indeed, everything about this album feels a little distant. Still, somehow, this reminiscence is woven into the fabric of the new world in which they find themselves, in much the same way that sin is still in our sons: instilled.

At some point, we can only assume that there was an exodus. They planned the escape, spilling upwards out of the concrete jungle (modern, synthetic, stifling, transient) and into the vegetated one (ancient, organic, breathing, timeless). They fought through thick brush with machetes, clearing away layer after layer of undergrowth in the direction of a distant, glimmering promise (“If only we could just breathe clearly,” they must have thought). An understanding of the parallels between physical and mental freedom fueled their efforts: open spaces, open minds.

It’s easy to imagine Seattle — Shabazz’s city — as the backdrop for such a flight, the people turning their gaze upward from the metropolis into the evergreen mountainsides and downward into the breaking Pacific surf. But make no mistake, the migration is meant to take place in your cranium. This record is here to throw Molotov cocktails at the führers of the world beyond Shabazz Palaces’ mental Luxor, and to draw the rest of us up towards their reclaimed high ground. More than anything else, to my ears Lèse Majésty is about proposing an alternate version of events, a demonstration of what’s possible when we value openness, collectivism and exploration. Together, we’ll break the chains that bind us to normalcy, and ascend into that Elysian realm, leaving our machine reliance and follower’s mentality behind.

Emcee Palaceer Lazaro’s kingdom is of the mind, and his sores are spawned by complacency and uniformity, materialism and egotism. The first lyric of the album will entreat you to “focus” — and good luck with that. Consciousness streams out of mouths (many of the verses are doubled and panned wide), a chariot pulled by black stallions, rushing past the periphery of your ears. Constantly shifting content cascades over constantly shifting terrain, sometimes in the form of irregular rhythmic cycles and incalculable modulations of tempo. It’s a bit like trying to follow a drop of water through a river: the most ancient and engulfing of flows, never the same for any two creatures or at any two moments. This isn’t a deluge you can contain; all you can do is immerse yourself in it, steeping in the message until its meaning soaks in. And so begins the dogma of Shabazz’s revolution: we are to begin by relinquishing our desire to control.

To the extent that you are able to absorb Lazaro’s winding and heavily obscured narrations, you may notice references to cosmology (“the nadir’s endless envy of the zenith”), the achievements of bygone African civilizations (Luxor, Kush), the immateriality of swag (“I gots more game than dough,” “Why in god’s name would I grind, they’ll be riches should I climb, toward essences I’m inclined”), and the poetics of beauty (“You’re a birdsong visualized”). Acknowledgements of the record’s infectious encryption (“all of our stories told in code”) are tempered by backhanded assurances of integrity (“I’m not messing with your mind, I don’t have that kind of time”). “#CAKE,” which is arguably both the album’s catchiest song and one of its most adventurous, contains a potent embrace of lust: Lazaro raps, “Lord forgive me all these pleasures sought, he said, ‘My son just doest what thou ought,’” while THEESatisfaction’s Catherine Harris-White answers, “Why raise the sun and not dance in its light? Let the gods laugh at such questions.” Their credo isn’t puritanical, it’s just anti-egomania, at odds with the uniformity of the status quo.

All of this provides a backdrop for Lazaro as he takes aim at an ambitious target: unseating the oligarchs and führers, the entities that give rise to and profit from our rampant conformity, consumerism, and conceit. Step one is to supplant cookie-cutter emcees, and for this Lazaro employs his singular execution of the usual recipe: victory by implication (“All your feels computerized, any flux gets organized, all dynamics minimized… Nothing gets laid on the line, nothing happens in real time”) with a dollop of expertly abstracted self-exaltation (“Every time we rock it’s a tongue kiss”). But the foe is formidable and the road is rough. Occasionally, our man lets out an anguished rallying cry like a fallen general: “I’m asking, ‘Where did it go?’ What happened to my folks, all our beauty bought by Empty Corp? Loving what you don’t, I can’t understand why we can’t hold sway, and place ourselves behind all these things we paved the way for.” He’s directing his soldiers past himself, sending us hurtling further into the throes of combat, our gilded pangas hacking deeper into the woodlands.

Lèse Majésty’s setting is articulated by the murky luminosity of the team’s production. The sun rises above Luxor in the form of rounded, organ-esque synths. Or maybe it’s actually synth-y organ? This light suffuses walls of pulsating, harmonically distorted guitar; here are the purple cliffs. It’s all breathing, and sounds a bit like the reverberations of fervent human activity. What might feel overwhelming or even terrifying up close has been blunted and made serene by distance (I’m reminded of Feels-era Animal Collective, which I recently learned is Lazaro’s son’s favorite band at the moment). Swells of white noise, fluttering crackles, and echoing bleep-whirs evoke the stars, slung across the heavens, shooting across the sky through variations in pitch and panning. Solar-plexus-pummeling sub-bass kicks, robo-ricocheting snare replacements, and crisp, automation-happy hats are our cheetah waves, carrying with them the sound of ghost tones from sunken ships. There are also Tendai Maraire’s congas, filtered and ring-modulated to sound even more ancient, as if their resonance came straight from the dirt, up through the worn roots of an aged acacia. Variously, these drums bear the mark of percussionist and programmer, that happy meeting of the organic and digital realms that is a defining feature of present human history, played out in sound.

On every release I’ve heard, this crew seems always to be universally in favor of laying on more flavor. Delay, reverb, modulation, saturation, doubling, time-stretching, filters, everything coming from everywhere, all the time — let’s throw it all in the mix. The repeated decision to recess the vocals deep within the folds of the music inspires the listener to keep turning up, further contributing to the immersive experience. As with the lyrics, you have no choice but to wade deep into the swamp and let its thick, chirring waters enfold you. The marsh is teeming with life, the mud squeezing up between your toes.

At its best, their music is as expansive and enveloping as the ether that blankets our planet, peering down knowingly at the sight below, a soundtrack to the big picture. In these stretches, Shabazz Palaces might be the most exhilarating thing in hip-hop (and therefore, for me at least, in music). They’re bungee jumping from those glistening purple cliffs, suspending their fears and holding their noses to keep out the uniform air, swooping us up and elevating us onto their level. But this music stays lifted, laid up high on pure blends, a thick and smothering cloud, its moisture billowing in through speakers and headphones. On occasion, after such constant exposure to oppressive humidity, the bushwhacking grows tedious, and my machete dulls. It’s at moments like these that the Shabazz ideal begins to feel the most like a chimera. Who is Palaceer Lazaro anyway, and why does he never lift the qob of his djellaba? I find myself listening for accountability (or maybe it’s just contrast): a single voice, clear and unobstructed, panned dead center, face-to-face; dry sounds with focused attack. The group’s last album, Black Up — which, by the way, literally stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it and turned out to be one of my favorite releases of 2011 — yielded more instances of this frustration than Lèse Majésty. In my opinion, this new joint is several leaps in the right direction. I’m sure experience and development are largely responsible for the growth. But another factor in the clearer translation may be the means afforded by their vastly improved recording setup, complete with Rupert Neve Porticos and other gear they’ve always dreamed of, all housed at their plushtrously appointed new studio, Protect and Exalt.

The first time I listened to Lèse Majésty, I found myself in a reverie, awakening in a room at the end of a dimly lit cave. I began to work my way towards the distant glimmer on the other side, peeling through layer after layer of cobwebs as I went, the lyrics sinking into my subconscious. I still haven’t found my way out. While it’s therefore hard for me to make any kind of definitive evaluative statements (not that it would be easy otherwise), I can say that I’m about many of the ideas and aesthetics that Shabazz Palaces embodies: a fascination with the ethereal and the symbolic; an embrace of the common ground between whiplash-inducing beats and walls of exuberant sound; a rejection of musical conformity, even while occasionally celebrating its fruits, and repurposing some of its building blocks towards more interesting and fulfilling ends. I look forward to digging deeper into this record, and continuing to be uplifted by future dispatches from Protect and Exalt (and if y’all should ever want another sonic explorer of the above-described persuasion in the mix out there, I’d be honored). In the meantime, I’m inspired to keep pushing, stay vigilant, and strive above all else to create something meaningful. In the Palaceer’s words, “You gotta go in there and basically jump off a cliff and hope that the parachute of your instinct and ability saves you. That’s how we do it. You gotta push yourself sonically, it’s a balance you gotta ride: going too far and not going far enough. That’s the planet we live on.”

Composer, guitarist and producer Rafiq Bhatia is a member of Son Lux. Rafiq released his own debut EP and LP in 2012, and contributed to Son Lux’s Lanterns (2013) and Alternate Worlds (2014) prior to joining the band this year. As of this writing, he’s touring with Son Lux and working on new Son Lux and Rafiq Bhatia albums. You can follow Rafiq on Twitter and Facebook, and Son Lux on Twitter and Facebook.  (Photo credit: Timothy Saccenti)