Coffee and Coversation with Sabzi of the Blue Scholars

Three days before I head south to San Diego, I met up with Sabzi (Saba Mohajerjasbi), the man behind the beats of Seattle’s Blue Scholars. At Victrola Espresso in Beacon Hill, Sabzi and I sat down to talk about the Northwest music scene, being a global musician, record labels, revolutions, Soulja Boy, and the future music in a conversation that reiterated just why the Blue Scholars have earned international acclaim for their enlightened, educated, passionate contribution to hip-hop and independent music alike.
As Sea-Tac International Airport bound planes passed above us, we began discussing the Northwest music scene–dynamic, diverse and rich, but often ignored by those outside its borders. “I would say its very difficult to pick a sound from the Northwest, though I used to think you could. One of the things that is interesting, there is a dominant group which is the Indie Rock group. But for hip hop, its gonna be constantly changing. You’re going to hear some Dirty South stuff, some Backpacker stuff, some Gangster stuff, and everyone’s going to say, ‘that’s the sound of Seattle’. And they’re all right. One of the things that makes the Northwest scene distinct is that its eclectic,” Sabzi said.
Since meeting through the University of Washington’s Student Hip-Hop Organization, Sabzi and MC Geo (George Quibuyen) have released their self-titled first album in 2004, The Long March EP in 2005 (which Seattle Weekly’s named Album of the Year), and Bayani in 2007. Each was warmly greeted by critics and fans alike, as the Blue Scholars’ blend of Sabzi’s smooth, eclectic beats  and Geo’s intelligent and engaging lyricism captured audiences well beyond the duo’s regional roots in the Northwest.  Yet as Sabzi arrived in a humble Toyota, I knew the “Ordinary Guys” mantra–as explained the track from Bayani–was spot on and central to the duo’s work.
While typically overshadowed by other American regions, the Northwest has seen a recent bourgeoning in the hip-hop scene. Though the music industry has left the region relatively untapped, Sabzi addressed the talent and potential. “People need a sound, a clear story, something to easily comprehend in order for word of it to travel. But we just haven’t had anyone with commercial success represent Seattle since Sir Mix-A-Lot. But I’m glad I grew up here, I’m proud to rep this area wherever I go.”
Sabzi continued by expressing interest in developing the talent in the 206.  As an artist and producer in Seattle he has been involved with numerous artists in the area, including Common Market. “I would love to do collaborations with people in the Seattle area, like the Physics guys, Khalil, or Khingz. But it comes down to time. There’s just not enough time. I wish I was back in high school so I could do that.”
Much of the Scholar’s acclaim derives from the global perspective grounded in their music,  exemplified in Sabzi’s diverse beats rooted in his eclectic musical background ranging from Jazz to Ska. Geo’s poetic lyrics cover everything from the Nicaraguan Contra scandal to the pitfalls of the American education system to the 1999 WTO Protest in Seattle. Additionally, Sabzi’s Iranian/Persian heritage and Geo’s Filipino heritage distinctly color their music. The duo’s ambitions back up the content of their music, and Sabzi elaborated on being a globally oriented musician in 2009.
“One of the last designers I worked with was out of Argentina. I met him through a dude I knew in New York, who has also plugged me with guys in Brazil and Germany. I’m seeing with people our age, all of us all over the world are not that different. This generation has a lot in common. There’s cultural literacy. There is a generation that is sharing a space where they can be universally culturally literate, in Johannesburg, Tokyo, Dubai. That’s a big deal. That’s a really big deal.”
Indicative of their culturally diverse background, the Blue Scholars named their 2007 album Bayani, meaing “heroes (of the people)” in Filipino and “the divine word” in Farsi. While Sabzi mentioned his pride for the Northwest, he insisted his perspective carries much greater scope. “As much as I love the tribal identity and a region, what I’m interested in focusing on and contributing to is that global culture. Anything that is contributing to a global identity, recognizing that there is a space we are all a part of. More so than repping Seattle in the United States. How narrow is that thinking? It’s more about a person’s thinking and how they perceive things, as oppose to where they are physically.”
In 2006, the duo opted to create their own record label, MassLine Media, to adhere to their independent ambitions rather than working through the bureaucracy of a larger label. Sabzi discussed the enigma of record labels in a changing music industry.
“When people use the word label or independent, everyone has an different understanding of what that means. No one really knows what a label is like until they actually worked in that business. When I was 15 or 16, I was like ‘fuck labels’ and all. Back then I didn’t even know what I was talking about. What a label actually is completely changing. From a business model perspective, the recording industry has always been about selling CDs or tapes. And that’s done. 50% of all U.S. teenagers last year bought zero CDs”. As artists emerging through the remains of an era when the Big 4 labels (Sony, EMI, Universal and Warner) owned nearly 80% of global music distribution, the Blue Scholars represent a new school of music entrepreneurs. “The label is really just a brand now. Whatever it needs to be done to get the music get out there, that’s what needs to be done.  If that means being independent, great. If that means being a part of a label, cool.
While gaining notoriety through Blue Scholars, Sabzi has worked on numerous other projects in the region. A testament to his ambitions to expand the limits of what music production can be and contribute to a truly global music community, he is experimenting with new models with the Scholar’s upcoming EP “OOF!”.
“I think [artist collaboration] is great. It’s not new to me, not new to the world. Dance hall reggae culture has been doing that for a long time. And we’ve seen it with the mix tape culture in the US. But I think there’s a lot more than can be done with that kind of activity. When we put this record out, we made the instrumentals available to as their own distinct things. It comes with the CD, you get two discs. Now those are out there for anyone who wants to make anything of it. Even if they want to chop it up and do their own thing with it, that would be great. I don’t think people really get it the way I want people to get it. Right now, it’s a special time with the Hawaii tour, the videos on the net. I am inviting anyone to be a part of it by adding their new version. In a year it won’t mean the same thing, right now they can be a part of the history as it unfolds.”
We moved the conversation towards music’s developments in the past decade, when Do-It-Yourself Garage Band basement bands and MySpace redefined and expanded  horizons. “These days, anyone can make pretty good music. Anybody can. It’s not the 1950’s where you have a few really good artists and that’s it. A 19 or 20 year old can make better beats that I did at that age. But everyone’s just making pretty good music. So what sets music apart from other work is its meaning. Or I would hope that’s the direction music is headed in”.
“Everything is for sale now. So when you meet an individual with an upright character or a moral conviction that they will not sell out on, that’s very impressive. A person who has that kind of character, regardless of what they do, it will show in their craftsmanship. You could be a carpenter, a mechanic or anything, but if you have integrity, it will show in your work.. It’s very important to have integrity. It will always come through. It seems like music may be headed in that direction. Especially because, look how quickly things become popular and fade away. Things that stick around have meaning.”
I interrupted to ask if Soulja Boy might fit that bill. But Sabzi backed him up.
“No, Soulja Boy is doing what he believes in. What kid actually does that, says ‘this is garbage, but it will make me a lot of money’. No he just said, ‘this is tight’. He totally believes in what he’s doing, and may be what’s behind the success. Think about grown men, who are 35, making club songs. That’s a little different.”
As lyrically conscious artists who have been compared to A Tribe Called Qwest, Talib Kweli & Mos Def and Common, I asked Sabzi how he felt to see the deterioration of hip-hop in the rise of Auto-Tuned, Club Hit rap.   “I have really gone through a lot of questioning. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. I don’t even know what [hip-hop] means anymore. What has become “real hip-hop”, its crappy. Even the so called “underground” sucks. There’s no underground anymore. In the nineties, there was. You had a radio and a tv, and each of those boxes had channels on them. Anything that wasn’t on there was , by definition, underground. Naturally, anything on the box had to fit an agenda, so it wasn’t as honest as the underground. Now, there’s no underground as there used to be. There’s an underground being sold. I know this, because I pay a PR person. When you read the blogs or whatever, it’s as fake as the radio was. This is all engineered. Its marketing teams with behind them.”
However frustrated with the current state of hip-hop, Sabzi confirmed the Blue Scholars’s aspirations to use their music to progressively address global issues. “I don’t want to hear raps about revolutions. That meant something in the past. When people talked that way in the 60’s, it actually moved people. But let’s be honest, things are different now. Revolution is still needed. We still live in a very corrupt society, there is still massive economic disparity, the reality has not changed. But we need to evolve our language of how we talk about it. Inspirational, motivating language is needed. Not some self-righteous stuff.”
As we finished our conversation on the avenue mentioned in so many Blue Scholar verses, Sabzi concluded with optimistic expectations. “The future of music will be about embodying new forms. I don’t want to hear about what’s been lost from the past. 2009 and the future era will be about giving tradition the finger.”
Blue Scholars – Blue Scholars – 07 – The Inkwell “The Inkwell”
03-blue_scholars-opening_salvo “Opening Salvo”
The Blue Scholars “OOF!” EP drops August 25th