Shabazz Palaces, SBTRKT, and 4 other musical entities of mystery
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For a handful of musicians, the necessary spice that makes a sound or image successful in an increasingly crowded music business has come via cultivating an air of mystery around themselves and, by proxy, their work. Naturally, enigmism won’t do a musician any favors if their actual output is boring. But, if someone’s music is even halfway decent, and they use smoke and mirrors competently, then they’ll inevitably hook some curious people. That “leave ’em wanting more” adage—an especially important message in a time that floods everyone with info and content—has never felt truer.
Tonight, a group that has used mystery to its advantage, Shabazz Palaces, stops by Milwaukee’s Mad Planet. The A.V. Club examines what exactly makes (or made) Shabazz and five other bands and musicians so compellingly shadowy.
Pre-Shabazz Palaces, the public knew Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler as part of Digable Planets, a Grammy-winning alt-hip-hop trio. But with his ambitious, spacey new project, the MC started going by Palaceer Lazaro. As the hype surrounding the group grew, Lazaro used several methods to project a sense of mystery. He created twisty lyrics and rambling track titles that seemed to exist in their own peculiar, personal hemisphere. (Example include: “Are you... Can you... Were you? (Felt),” and “A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer).”) Afro-Muslim imagery and iconography were sprinkled throughout, without the motivation for this being fully explained. For shows, Lazaro often wore the Bedouin-esque outfit of headscarf and sunglasses. Instead of distributing regular band photos, the group preferred to issue a bizarre, sub-Reboot CGI portrait and a picture of what looks to be a quilt with their name on it. Images of the Shabazz members’ actual faces were available independently, yes—but these tactics were the efforts of a group that was purposely trying to be secretive.
In the group’s early days, Lazaro occasionally did interviews, but those interviews weren’t particularly fruitful. Pitchfork got mostly vague, noncommittal answers (Lazaro kept referring to “we” in reference to Shabazz, without explaining who we was), although the MC did say, “None of the questions that are usually asked are very revealing. And also, it’s difficult to really represent something as ethereal as what goes on, what becomes the music you make, and then try represent that in that Q&A form.” When he spoke with Seattle alt-weekly paper The Stranger, which honored the group with a Genius Award (i.e., effusive praise, a cake, and $5,000), Lazaro was more furtive and purposely obtuse than ever. Funnily enough, those games of anonymity played a major role in attracting new eyeballs that would lead to new ears.
Will we ever know them better? We already do. Since the peak of buzz around Shabazz in 2010-2011, the shroud has already been lifted. The group now has actual images of real-life humans available for the press, instead of something that looks like it was barfed up by Windows 95, and Lazaro has given several other and far more informative interviews. In the most dramatic and bizarre example of this shift, see Lazaro’s lighthearted interview with Maureen. Even though much of the mystery is fading fast, Shabazz’s genuinely off-the-wall hip-hop easily has enough juice to keep the project fascinating and its fan base growing.
SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”) is Aaron Jerome, a DJ/producer who has tried in vain to stay undercover. The London-based electronic musician—who has done remixes for Basement Jaxx, Tinie Tempah, and M.I.A.—spends his shows under colorful, eye-grabbing tribal masks. In multiple interviews, he’s explained his predilection for disguises and distance. “I’d rather not talk about myself as a person, and let the music speak for itself. The name SBTRKT is me taking myself away from that whole process,” he told Clash. His conversation with Under The Radar yielded the following: “Since the beginning, I’ve always felt that writing electronic music is not necessarily doing something that’s very personal, like writing about your life experience. I think it’s much more imaginary in the sense that you’re using these sounds that don’t really exist in the real world and turning that into an imaginary soundscape or emotion. For me, making music under the alias SBTRKT is kind of like taking my own personal thing away from it, and SBTRKT being its own kind of persona. The mask is an extension of that, putting a new face on it.”
Unfortunately for Jerome, this attempt at separating his actual self from his musical persona hasn’t been particularly effective, and his masks appear to be doing an increasingly poor job of covering his countenance. In a recap of a SBTRKT performance at SXSW, Pitchfork noted that his mask only covered four inches of his face, and in a photo from a 2011 performance review by The New York Times, the lower half of his face is clearly viewable. The more we think about it, SBTRKT’s mask is more about symbolically hiding his face than actually doing so.
Will we ever know him better? Yes and no. Jerome will likely stick with his masks for the long term, but it will probably be in a Deadmau5 kind of way, where images of him with and without his head gear are often made public.
Like many rappers, Daniel Dumile is fond of concocting aliases—King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn, Madvillain—but with the creation and development of Doom (formerly MF Doom), he’s indulged in some persona-building that’s a step above what other MCs are doing. On record, a Doom song features a guy with a low-key voice but a great knack for weird wordplay. His presence elsewhere adds loads to his mystique, as he’s usually clad in a metallic, Doctor Doom-style mask and conspicuously eschews giving many interviews. “I’m not the dude [Doom] at all, I am writing about a character,” Dumile told Wax Poetics. “It’s a little bit based on my personality, but it’s definitely exaggerated. You know, if you gonna have a character, make him into his character. I made him into a super MC/supervillain. The MC side ain’t nothing but rhyming. I can do that all day. That part is super already.”
To further the aura of his character, Dumile has screwed with people’s heads by allowing Doom imposters to run amok. Wired reported on one show in San Francisco that featured “a noticeably skinnier and particularly furtive Doom rapping for 20 minutes—into a dead mic,” which eventually led the crowd lobbing boos and bottles at the stage. One person has hypothesized that the Anti-Doom is actually DJ Wesu, and Doom himself has been extra cagey when discussing the issue. “I liken it to this: I’m a director as well as a writer,” he said to HipHopDX. “I choose different characters, I choose their direction and where I want to put them. So who I choose to put as the character is up to me. The character that I hired, he got paid for it. There’s no impostor.”
Will we ever know him better? Almost certainly not. In the early days of the Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah wore stockings, masks, and turbans as disguises, only to renounce the mystery relatively quickly. His collaborator on the impending DoomStarks project is much less likely to shed his secrets. If nothing else, all of Doom’s chicanery should only increase over time.
Seeing as how the true first names of most people on this list are public knowledge, the Swedish doom-metal group Ghost has accomplished a particularly rare and remarkable feat. Even though the band’s only been in the media’s gaze for about a year, no one in the press is entirely sure of the names of any of the six members. Hell, the media barely know any of their aliases, as five-sixths of Ghost are “Nameless Ghouls” who resemble the floating druids from The Portal stage in Mortal Kombat II. (This is Jandek levels of keeping info under lockdown.) The final member has both a name (Papa Emeritus) and very distinct look (skull makeup, a Pope hat, and crimson robes). All of this pageantry is crucial to a band that’s totally smitten with indulging themselves in Satanism. This image has done wonders for them, as frontman Papa scored the June 2011 cover of respectable metal mag Decibel after the group had only released its first record stateside in January.
Strangely, this band very much admits to its shtick. In a recent interview with The A.V. Club, one of the Nameless Ghouls says, “Well, we are very gimmicky. Even though we have the songs to back up what we’re doing, we are obviously relying heavily on our image. The whole idea is to bring something forth, from the twilight between rock and roll and theatre. Naysayers will accuse us of being pretentious, which we are, or gimmicky, which we are. ‘Oh, you’re wearing masks?’ ‘Yes, we are.’” Realistically, this does take away from their dark sensibility, but at the same time, admitting to this theatricality gives them a strange endearing quality.
Will we ever know them better? Okay, time for some potentially heartbreaking news: Someone over at Encyclopaedia Metallum may have already cracked Papa’s identity and revealed that the real guy doesn’t look very Satanic (or even metal) at all. The band members have refused to comment on this theory, and let’s hope they never do. Outing their identities would mean having to get rid of one of the greatest Facebook quotes ever: “We have no names. We are your worst fucking nightmare....”
The lasting power of the phrase “playing hard to get” is proof that mysteriousness can be incredibly sexy, which must mean that Abel Tesfaye, the main man behind moody R&B project The Weeknd, is getting all kinds of laid. The Toronto musician shows his face in several images, but almost all that are widely available have one (or more) of these characteristics going for them:
1. He’s looking pensive.
2. He’s hiding his face.
3. The picture is faded.
4. The picture is black and white.
None of this is coincidence. Moreover, a similar sense of visual style informs The Weeknd’s album covers and videos. These have a stylish sense of detachment about them. (Call it Tumblr noir.) The Weeknd’s music has a secretive quality, too, as Tesfaye usually talks about things like substance abuse and bad relationships in sordid, debauched ways, in the process sounding like the kind of character females want to get to know better.
Will we ever know him better? Very likely. Even though the man behind The Weeknd has steadily maintained his hazy aura, he’s still a relatively underground artist. When his popularity increases down the line, his press clips will increase, too, likely recalibrating his image along the way.
On one level, it might seem bizarre to think of Prince as a character of mystery. The man is known all over the world, has a firm place in pop music, and boasts a 10,000-word Wikipedia entry laying his whole career bare. Still, the man legally known as Prince Rogers Nelson has kept away from the spotlight over the last decade to work on whatever he does at Paisley Park, and some unusual stories and details have accumulated along the way. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, a hardcore vegan, and might need a hip replacement that he’s unwilling to get. He hates the Internet and has some very strong opinions about it. He’s talked about moving to France, but who knows how serious he is. His fashion sense has perhaps gotten weirder over the years.
In 2002’s An Evening With Kevin Smith, the director of Clerks shed fresh light on Prince’s eccentricities after working on an unreleased documentary together. Smith’s long and supremely entertaining anecdote is too much fun to spoil here, so we’ll just reveal a single piece of info. At one point in the story, Smith mentions talking to one of Prince’s professional associates, and she says that he has “50 fully produced music videos with costumes and sets and everything” sitting in a vault somewhere. On top of the fact that this is Mr. Purple Rain himself we’re talking about, the idea that any man is so obsessive about what he makes public is ridiculously intriguing.
Prince does still make his public appearances. He might catch a notable indie band’s big performance in his hometown of Minneapolis, play the Super Bowl, or boot Kim Kardashian off his stage for not dancing. Still, his restrained, demanding, and often prickly personality in non-performance scenarios makes him a tough guy to get to know. Prince exists in a rare class of musicians—Freddie Mercury, Kate Bush, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett—who have been both very popular in show business and great introverts away from it.
Will we ever know him better? Unlikely. Prince seems very content poking his head out for an occasional tour or brush with attention, but he’s not about to make a drunken, whiny Facebook post about the aborted plans to cast him instead of Michael Keaton as Batman. We really, really wish that would happen, though.