Blue Scholars, a Seattle hip-hop duo, had an amazing year, going from their sold-out five-night stand ("The Program") at Neumo's in 2007, to sharing a bill with hip-hop legends like The Pharcyde and Mos Def at the recent Rock The Bells at the Gorge.
Amid the screaming, the Blue Scholars get ready.
Shifting his weight from foot to foot, Geologic paces about, mic in hand, meditating. Meanwhile, his partner, DJ Sabzi fusses with his new haircut, trying on different sunglasses.
The former University of Washington students have come a long way since organizing concerts for their peers back in 1999. Now, as leaders in the Seattle hip-hop scene, they own the spotlight.
That Saturday afternoon, the two were getting ready for the culmination of years of hard work — rapping at the only international hip-hop festival, Rock The Bells, a fest that’s grown to the level of Coachella and Lollapalooza. At the festival, the Blue Scholars shared the stage with their heroes: Nas, De La Soul and Mos Def.
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“I participated both as a performer and a fan,” the MC, Geologic, said later. “I say it as if there’s a difference, but I was a fan on stage. … Those cats in the front, reciting all the lyrics, that was me. That is still me.”
The Rock The Bells appearance was just one of the many highlights of the Blue Scholars’ successful year. They kicked it off with a five-day sold-out Seattle hip-hop festival at Neumo’s, followed by a concert at the Austin, Texas, musical showcase South by Southwest; a tour with indie hip-hop icon Hieroglyphics; a performance for protesters at the Democratic National Convention; and most-recently, that Gorge show. Coming up this weekend: a two-night concert at the Showbox at the Market.
Things can only go up from here.
“I think they are poised to really break through on their next album,” said David Meinert, their manager who also works with another local breakout, The Presidents of the United States of America.
Here’s how their momentous year broke down.
Seattle, Dec. 18-22, 2007
“The Program” was a five-day Seattle hip-hop festival at Neumo’s that featured the Blue Scholars every night, along with other local groups like the Saturday Knights, Dyme Def and Cancer Rising. It was patterned after Portland’s local hip-hop festival called “POH-Hop,” and gave the Seattle hip-hop scene a platform to promote its growing reputation.
“It fit 2007, where a lot of people started taking the scene seriously,” said George Quibuyen, aka Geologic.
And demonstrating the growing prowess of the group, all five days of their showcase sold out. Many fans came back for a second, even a third time.
South by Southwest
Austin, Texas, March 15, 2008
You’re not a true music nerd if you’ve never been to South by Southwest, according to Sabzi, so this year marked the first time the two performed at the music festival.
“It was a blur,” says Alexei Saba Mohajerjasbi, aka Sabzi.
But everywhere they went, they ran into folks from home.
“It felt like half of Seattle was there,” said Geologic.
Sasquatch! Music Festival
George, May 25
In their third year playing Sasquatch, the Blue Scholars were the only hip-hop act on a bill filled with rock stars.
“We performed for a lot of Cure fans,” said Geologic, who said the crowd reception at the Gorge has changed over their three Sasquatch years. “It was cool, a lot were open-minded. The last time we had a crowd like that, we had a lot of people to win over.”
Nationwide tour with Hieroglyphics
July through October
Before Blue Scholars existed as a group, Sabzi and Geologic regarded Hieroglyphics as heroes.
In fact, the Hieroglyphics were Geologic’s first CD purchase and one of his first hip-hop shows. He was 19 when he snuck into a concert by one of the Hieroglyphics MCs (Del Tha Funky Homosapien). Security kicked his underage friend out, but Geologic ran into the audience and stayed for the show.
So when the opportunity came up to tour with the Oakland group, they “jumped on it,” said Geologic.
Democratic National Convention, “End the Occupations/End the War March & Rally”
Denver, Aug. 24
A coalition of groups putting together an antiwar rally invited Blue Scholars to perform.
“It was a spectacle,” said Geologic. “It was the biggest show of strength by the state — 4,000 police, 2,500 national guards, helicopters, snipers on rooftops.”
One moment, Geologic was at a rally on the steps of the capitol, and the next, at a cocktail party for the Washington-Oregon delegates. Walking around Denver’s downtown, he also saw Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Al Sharpton and R&B group Boyz II Men.
But with all the chaos, Geologic noticed that the issues that pertain to his own background — immigration and the Philippines — were not being addressed.
“The experience was lame,” said Sabzi, who didn’t attend any actual DNC events but witnessed what surrounded the convention. He felt the experience was contrary to the Blue Scholars’ purpose, which is outlined by their name, a play on “blue collars.”
“I make music for my friends who are public school teachers, or I make music for everyone who works in an after-school program, or for any of the youth that I’ve had a chance to meet with or connect with directly, or any of our friends who work at the juvenile detention center. … We make music for people who work every day in the community to do something … and they use it as a soundtrack for what they do on a daily basis. … What I don’t make music for, is the people who show up outside the DNC to wrap their faces in bandannas and throw [things] at the police.”
Rock The Bells
George, Sept. 6
According to Geologic, the Blue Scholars didn’t have to do much convincing to get on the lineup of Rock The Bells, the largest hip-hop festival in the nation. Festival founder Chang Weisberg joked that the Seattle community would send hate mail if their favorite group was not on the bill.
So after a performance in Oregon, the crew woke up at 7 a.m. and chugged over to the Gorge. After days of driving six hours every day, sometimes even 13 hours, there was nothing to the three-hour trip to the Gorge. They carpooled with three cars full of friends, then partied in their dressing room with a cooler filled with beer. The duo and their friends talked with a reporter for hours — about what it was like to evolve from fan to friend, about when they first met the duo — fumbling over the words to explain their appreciation.
But now, it is these friends that keep the Blue Scholars down to earth. If they ever act up, “we’ll call them out,” said Chev Gary, 24, a Seattle MC.
When it was time to perform, everybody filed to the back to watch. It was like a family of fans cheering them on from the front, with a family of friends whooping from the stage wings.
Geologic started by calling out area codes — “206, 425, 360, 604… ” and fans screamed back, raising jerseys to highlight their local love. “It’s good to be home again,” responded Geologic. “I love the Northwest. There’s no other place I’d rather be.”
Early in the day of a 12-hour festival, the Blue Scholars crowd was small, but swelling and swaying their arms about. Geologic pointed out fans in the front, thanking them for being there from the beginning.
“When I say North, you say West,” said Geologic, after launching into their popular single, “Joe Metro.”
Then, their 30-minute set flew by.
“It felt like a lightning version of the show,” said Geologic.
Rock The Bells was certainly a high point of their year, but the Blue Scholars have still more to come in 2008. For a few more weeks, the tour with Hieroglyphics continues, stopping over in Seattle Friday and Saturday.
“When we travel, there’s people who haven’t seen us before … and we have a lot of performance routines and material that we can do,” said Sabzi. “But every time we play in Seattle, we have to come up with something different. It’s the hometown. The standard is higher.”
After the tour ends, they are planning another Seattle hip-hop showcase in December, the continuation of “The Program.” The Blue Scholars are thinking of mixing it up this year, maybe having the Seattle artists perform in Portland and vice versa.
“Besides that, the next year is wide open,” said Sabzi.
The two have worked together since early 2002, switching to full time in 2006 when Geologic left his position at the Wing Luke Asian Museum as exhibition coordinator and Sabzi, now 26, turned away from side jobs as valet and game tester.
“We felt that we had hit a plateau. We would sell CDs at our shows and drop CDs at Tower, 10 at a time,” said Sabzi. “To progress we couldn’t do it on the side, we had to make some kind of sacrifice.”
After touring, they plan on working on a new album. They hope to find a label that can offer marketing dollars without asking for compromise, so they can continue as partners with a purpose.
“I just look at it as trying to make honest music, everything else will just sort of fall into place,” said Sabzi.
Added Geologic, 28: “For here, no one has really broken out here nationally since Sir-Mix-A-Lot … so when someone comes out here and reps for the town, I think young fans are almost hungry for that, to see themselves represented, which has never really happened before as a scale as large as this.”
Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or firstname.lastname@example.org