Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars returned to SXSW for the third consecutive year, and their packed Scoot Inn show Friday night — a short and energetic set as part of Duck Down Records 15th-anniversary showcase — was a good snapshot of what they do under tight perimeters. MC Geo and DJ Saba packed the time slot with their slick production and clever wordplay, including “HI-808,” a bumping crowd-pleaser off their latest EP. The two are moving beyond the Scholars project, as well. Geo just wrapped up a video shoot in L.A. with Filipino rapper Bambu, and Saba — who deejayed for Brooklyn rap duo Das Racist’s killer set at Buffalo Billiards Wednesday night — now spends his time between New York and Seattle. For now, the group is united in making good music and being positive. Here, they talk a little about the festival and their unique partnership with Duck Down.
Who are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW this year?
Geo: SXSW is like the calm before the storm. We’re doing a mini West Coast tour, which is taking up so much time, but I am looking forward to seeing a lot of Seattle hip-hop, Macklemore, the whole Sportin’ Life records camp.
Do you enjoy the networking frenzy?
Geo: There is no way to fully experience this festival with the film, the multimedia. The music alone is impossible to navigate. It’s overwhelming. The first year we were here for two days, and that was definitely not enough, so this year we’re trying to find a balance so that we can actually get a chance to check out other things.
Saba: It’s not the music conference that it might have been in the past, with all the A&R, label people, booking agents. Now it seems like over half the crowd is tourists, and they take up half the space. I don’t know how people here get any work done. I’m going to be kicking it at the Fader Fort; I have a bunch of friends who work at The Fader, and a lot of other people I know are into that scene, so I’ll be hanging out there, going to random things and eating a bunch of tacos.
Is the conference effective in what it’s trying to do?
Saba: I don’t know if the sort of Horatio Algiers, struggling-artist-that-gets-discovered idea exists anymore, or has even existed for like 20 years. Everything is planned out ahead of time, and there’s a lot of corporate money backing the ones who are going to be the stars. Last year you might have said the star of SXSW was Kid Cudi or Janelle Monae. I don’t even know who’s supposed to be the big deal this year. But they had basically already made it. They were already positioned in certain ways, and SXSW is something that merely accentuates that.
Geo: I think it’s definitely what you make of it. On one end there are people who are talking it down, saying it’s all a bunch of hype; on the other it’s the best thing in the world. Somewhere in the middle, it’s work and play. It all depends on what your goals are. If you’re serious about what you do, then you’ll take SXSW seriously. You’re playing to a not-so-typical concert crowd, and you only have 20 minutes usually. It’s a chance to make an impression.
You guys have a unique partnership with Duck Down. What does that involve exactly?
Geo: It’s a restructuring of roles that places the artist at the top, as the primary mover of the relationship, rather than the label. Traditionally, the label’s aim was to front all the capital and invest it into an artist who may or may not meet their expectations. If they do, cool; if they go beyond their expectations, then the label cashes in on their investment and keeps the majority of what the artist makes, including owning the masters of their records, making percentages off of everything, et cetera. We experienced a little bit of that with our deal with Ruckus; we didn’t sign to their roster, and we kept a lot of the creative control in-house, but as far as the marketing and distribution — I won’t get into the technical aspects — they didn’t know where the money was going. With Duck Down, they perform the functions of a label that we need: marketing, publicity, promotions. We basically hire them and contract them out to do that work rather than having them do the work and pay themselves out of our future income.
Do you think your arrangement with Duck Down might be appealing to other artists who might catch your performance?
Saba: I think what it really comes down to with all this stuff is just building positive relationships with people. I look forward to going to SXSW to spend time with anyone who wants to have an honest conversation. People who make music or conduct business in a similar fashion are naturally going to work together. I just want my interactions with people to be positive.
The Oof! EP had this irreverent, playful sound – as opposed to your more serious, socio-political lyricism. Is this a new side of Blue Scholars?
Geo: I think there’s parts about Oof! that are going to stay in the project. More so the model of collaborating with a bunch of people whose work we think is cool, and vice versa. I feel grateful that it did bring back having fun, but that also we remain fully committed to approaching our art the same way we always have — as a social document with the possibility of political action among people who listen to it. I think the primary thing is the social documentary aspect. How’s it all going to sound? We’re working on it. We’re working with so many influences right now; we’re trying to trim the fat.
Saba: We definitely have fun with the tongue-in-cheek academic thing. Academia is so pretentious. It’s fun to pretend you’re like that and know it’s BS. A mastery of the English language is something you can have fun with or you can take too seriously. We try not to take it too seriously.
How do you guys keep the momentum rolling?
Geo: I think a combination of being bored really easily and not accepting boredom. We’re not big on perfection. We have high standards for our own art, but we also know that it’s a growing process. If we continue what we’re producing now we’ll get better at it, and it allows our audience to grow with us. We love to share the process of how the music is made.
Your lyrics are so region specific and reflective of life in the Northwest; would you ever consider moving to a scene that’s more entrenched, like NYC or Atlanta?
Geo: That’s actually becoming less and less important to us. People finding a level of success on a local level — there’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with making that push to engage with a wider audience. For us, we’re going to rep who we are and where we’re from to the fullest. If it happens that we can do that and have people outside our region pay attention, then cool.
How was filming in Hawaii for the “HI-808” video?
Saba: That was the video that I sort of directed. I ended up doing all the storyboards for it because it was such short notice by the time we ended up getting video folks. It was a lot of fun. The whole part of that project was to explore and share the connection that Seattle and Hawaii have. Geo grew up there, and if you’ve spent any time in our lane in Seattle then you will know lots and lots of Hawaiians. For some reason, Seattle is considered the ninth island. Part of what we’re doing now is exploring what that modern cultural identity looks like.
Is 2010 the year of Seattle hip-hop?
Geo: I think it’s all a bunch of hype. It’s not just Seattle, it’s everywhere. It’s like your most unstable friend announcing on New Year’s Eve how sober they’re going to be, that repetitive resolution that Seattle gives itself. But it’s not coming out of nowhere; it’s coming from the fact that Seattle hip-hop has thrived over the past five years and there’s a lot that comes with that. A handful of people have been around a long time and remember the struggles of hip-hop when only a few people were listening. It was hard to get venues to allow hip-hop artists to play, or to get college radio to spin it outside of that two-hour show [KEXP’s Street Sounds] every week. Then the alt-weeklies started paying attention to more than just one band at a time. There’s always going to be some kind of hype. It’s natural, it’s part of the scene growing, but at the same time I can’t buy too much into it.