Blue Scholars Blaze, Don't Follow

How the hip-hop duo's fans helped with create its third album.

A lot has changed in the seven years since Blue Scholars dropped their self-titled debut. One thing hasn't: The Seattle hip-hop duo is still experimenting with the best ways to get their music heard. Former University of Washington students Geo (the MC, at right in the photo) and Sabzi (the DJ, on the left) released their first album in 2004 on the now-dissolved MassLine, a label of their own making. Three years later came follow-up Bayani and another new distribution wrinkle: a partnership with Duck Down Records and coffee chain Caffé Vita. Now comes the release of Cinémetropolis, the Scholars' third full-length, funded entirely by fans who donated to the group's successful Kickstarter campaign. "There's a certain honesty and rawness that reminds me of the first record," says Sabzi of the new release. "It's like Bayani was college, where we were taking it seriously but we were being quiet and paying attention in class. But the first album was us just wildin' out before we had to come in and study. And now we're done studying and we're wildin' out again—and we're smarter." Smarter and better financed: The Scholars managed to raise more than $62,000— representing more than 2,200 preorders—from the creative funding site. "Even if Kickstarter didn't exist, we probably would've set up some sort of preorder platform that would've fit in with the story of not going through a financier, distributor, or label," says Geo. "The whole 'signing to the people' thing was the tagline of the campaign, and in a way this is the same record deal we had with our first. But now there's more people." Not that they haven't been tempted at times to pursue more traditional routes. The self-described trendsetters say they sat down with Seattle's Sub Pop—now home to media darlings Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction, among many, many others—a few years ago. But as the Scholars describe it, the timing just wasn't right. In Sabzi's words: "We're totally down for a label to maybe eventually work with us—they just have to join our crew." Cinémetropolis takes its name from a term coined by Russian film theorist Sergei Eisenstein, and takes advantage of Geo's impressive knowledge base to mesh life and film. With the exception of the self-titled introductory track and the endpiece "Fin," each song takes its name from notables like movie pioneers Oskar Barnack and Seijun Suzuki, activists Yuri Kochiyama and George Jackson, former Sonic Slick Watts, and Seattle's Foulee Market. But while the Scholars have stayed on point ideologically—as the track list indicates, they're still the same politically conscious and socially minded outfit—it's another story behind the boards. Trading in a sample-heavy sound for synths, and ambitiously abandoning the snare drum altogether on some tracks, Sabzi's sound is not only more mature, it's also defiant. "You can achieve the same level of intimacy with this music even though it doesn't look and sound the way you expected," he says. "We want to introduce [our fans] to how something beautiful can exist in a different skin. I mean, dude, seriously: Do you still want to hear whatever was hot in '99?" After Cinémetropolis' official release, the duo plans to retreat to Hawaii. Geo wants to finish and release his joint record with Los Angeles rapper Bambu, Walk Into a Bar, exclusively on the islands. And both want to help out with some youth workshops at the University of Hawaii. The trip is also a chance to recharge, which they'll need since they'll be occupied with the next round of music videos (with a goal of one for each song, created by a variety of filmmakers) and the details of a fall tour: in essence, all the things they opted to take on by going fully independent, a move they've been working toward since the very beginning.

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