First Loves: King Shabaka
“I was obsessed with Tupac when I was younger,” starts Shabaka, or ‘King Shabaka’ as he is known alongside his bandmates in The Comet Is Coming. “I was really into gangsta rap in general around my early teens so loved artists like E40, The Lost Boyz, Bone Thugz-N-Harmony, The Notorious B.I.G. and Westside Connection.”
The Comet Is Coming are a band who channel the forces of Squarepusher’s organised chaos, Fela Kuti’s complexity, the cosmic leanings of Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders, the big band leanings of Jaga Jazzist and the uneasy grit of British hip-hop, with a bit of mayhem thrown in there for good measure. Consisting of Danalogue the Conqueror on keys, drummer Betamax Killer and of course King Shabaka on the saxophone, The Comet Is Coming exude a hip-hop mentality not just in name alone. “I like to view the lyricism as social commentary, even if that commentary is wrapped in the veil of identity. The dynamism of MCs such as Tupac, Capleton and Sizzla have influenced the way I attack phrases and my energy on stage.”
"The traditional role of the Calypsonian is one who acts as a griot."
While tracks such as 'SLAMMIN' draw comparisons with Tricky, encompassing the type of drum breaks that wouldn’t be out of place underneath a DOOM verse, it’s easy to spot the influences in Shabaka’s work from the showmanship in hip-hop culture as a whole, albeit with a distinct lack of on-stage breakdancing. “I loved the attitude of the music more than anything, the way they were spitting their lyrics and the bravado they gave off,” says Shabaka. “Tupac was special for me since there was a complexity there which I recognised. The passion he gave to all his words would be something that influenced me in years to come. I hear the same approach of infusing maximum energy in every phrase in dancehall artists like Sizzla and Capleton who I was massively into during my youth.”
While it’s pretty common for people to adopt hip-hop from an early age, mine came in buying Wu Tang’s 36 Chambers at 13 and everything went a little downhill from there really, the same can’t really be said for dancehall, a genre that personally felt a bit alien to me growing up in rural Derbyshire but which therein lies the difference. “I grew up in Barbados, at the time everyone was into hip-hop as well as bashment, dancehall, calypso and soca. Hip-hop was the big thing however, it was American and the Caribbean I guess was on the frontline of cultural globalisation at that time.”
Throughout all of Shabaka’s projects, from the MOBO-winning Sons Of Kemet to his work with the Sun Ra Arkestra, the importance of representing his heritage in his music has always been prominent, a belief shared with hip-hop culture from the very beginning. “I loved how different personalities would show themselves throughout an album,” says Shabaka, “like getting a peek into a distant world further than anything I could envisage within my Caribbean surroundings.”
“I remember buying a massive ‘Fubu’ fleece jumper to look like LL Cool J….the power of hip hop!”
“It was a sense of risk too. I used to obsessively transcribe all the lyrics from my favourite songs, once the guidance councillor found my lyric page for Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ and went mental. She called my mum and started a vendetta against me since she thought I was infused with the devil.”
Any other odd moments during this time not involving demonic possessions? “I remember buying a massive ‘Fubu’ fleece jumper to look like LL Cool J….the power of hip hop!” he says.
While wanting to imitate the lives of rappers is quite natural – MTV in 2016 is pretty much dedicated to it – Shabaka goes on to note the role his upbringing continues to have on his musical philosophy. “The traditional role of the Calypsonian is one who acts as a griot, commenting on and immortalising issues relevant to the society in the guise of a lighthearted and fun music.”
“A fascination of mine is what the micro-elements of Caribbean music are, how they can be re-contextualised and seen as essential building blocks in stylings dissimilar to their point of inception. This allows me to infuse most of the projects I’m involved in with glimpses of phrasing, which one could relate to the Caribbean canon yet is not reverent to any notion of pastiche.”
If you’ve ever taken a listen to The Comet Is Coming or Sons Of Kemet you’ll discover a musician in Shabaka that leaps from the stylings of Soweto Kinch and Courtney Pine (“I’d not imagined anyone could use the sax like he was” tells Shabaka of seeing Courtney live at the age of 16) to 8-minute long improvised freak outs. Fire In The Booth with saxophones if you will.
While his work as a composer brings elements of jazz, electronica, psychedelia, acid and of course hip-hop together, where did this diversification come from? “I don’t think my upbringing inspired the diverse influences The Comet Is Coming portrays, living in London did.”
“In some ways I see music as an expression of social interaction at a particular moment in time. London allows for this perfectly since there are so many people making amazing music. Maybe my upbringing inspired the diversity though by not attaching any level of snobbery to musical genres. There was just music that people liked or didn’t, no-one saw any hierarchy in their preferences.”
The fountain of knowledge and unequivocal Dalai Lama of hip-hop KRS-One once delivered the line “rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live”. While hip-hop for Shabaka may not be his entire life, does it still remain a part of it? “I’m definitely still influenced by the music I loved when [I was] young” he replies. That’s the power of hip-hop, alright.
The Comet Is Coming are coming to a
comet city near you very soon. Why don't you go and buy the album too? Available here.
Fri 22 Apr 2016 GAM, Creil, FRANCE
Sat 23 Apr 2016 Run Ar Puñs, Châteaulin, FRANCE
Thu 28 Apr 2016 Paradiso, Amsterdam, NETHERLANDS
Thu 19 May 2016 Moods, Zürich, SWITZERLAND
Fri 20 May 2016 Village Underground, London, UK
Fri 27 May 2016 Druga Godba, Ljubljana, SLOVENIA
Sat 4 Jun 2016 w/ The Invisible Orchestra, Masonic Hall, Nottingham, UK
Wed 22 Jun 2016 Soup Kitchen, Manchester, UK
Mon 4 Jul 2016 Montréal Jazz Festival, Montréal , CANADA
Tue 5 Jul 2016 Montréal Jazz Festival, Montréal, CANADA
Thu 14 Jul 2016 Jazz à Vienne, Vienne, FRANCE
Sat 16 Jul 2016 Lovebox Festival, London, UK
Thu 28 Jul 2016 Festival Musicas do Mundo, Sines, PORTUGAL
Thu 4 Aug 2016 Wilderness Festival, Oxfordshire, UK
Sun 28 Aug 2016 Shambala Festival, Northamptonshire, UK