New Off the Spaceship: A Bluffer's Guide to Black Constellation

Sub Pop 30

This Thursday, Aug. 2, KEXP will host the second Sub Pop Turntable Session in our Gathering Space with Seattle collective Black Constellation, offering a chance to hear the members discussing their craft and collaborative artistry. But what is Black Constellation exactly?

For those who may have some familiarity, you might recognize names of Seattle artists like Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfacton, and Porter Ray within the collective’s all-star lineup. But the collective is so much more than just Seattle hip-hop. It’s a shared artistic spirit between rappers, songwriters, beatmakers, filmmakers, authors, producers, designers, and whatever other outlets its members seek out to execute their grand visions. Black Constellation cannot be boxed, but we’ve created a quick guide to some of the artists who make up this cutting edge collective.

Much like our universe, Black Constellation is ever-expanding and sprawls beyond our comprehension. They say we only see a fraction of stars in the sky, some reflecting a light from a star that’s long been gone. As such, we recognize that this list is only but a pale blue dot in the grand scheme of Black Constellation. Nevertheless, these artists provide a great jumping off point into the massive world of Black Constellation. See you, space cowboy. 

Ishmael Butler


Deeming a leader in the nebulous-by-design Black Constellation would be a fool’s errand, but still it seems logical to begin with Ishmael Butler. Butler’s gone by various names over his illustrious career. He was Butterfly in the Grammy Award-winning jazz rap outfit Digable Planets, embarked on a brief solo career as Cherrywine, and occasional takes the name Palaceer Lazaro when he’s crafting new work as one half of the groundbreaking, experimental hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces with Tendai Maraire. Butler is a cosmic poet – a hip-hop Galactus devouring every celestial body in his path. But he’s not a destroyer. He rebuilds and recontextualizes every sound he comes across and weaves them together with a flow that not only just sounds cool as hell, but showcases flow and lyricism that operates on a different imaginative level than his peers. With decades of work under his belt, Butler continues to operate in some far off future that we’re all still trying to catch up to. He’s currently prepping to release the first Knife Knights album with longtime collaborator Erik Blood. The name “Knife Knights” first appeared as a production credit on Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up. - Dusty Henry

Associated Acts: Shabazz Palaces, Digable Planets, Knife Knights, Woke (with Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Tendai Maraire)

Recommended Works: Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up & Lese Majesty, Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb, “"The Lavishments of Light Looking" by Woke (feat. George Clinton)


Tendai Maraire


Probably (and somewhat unfairly) best known as Ishmael Butler's impossibly cool sideman in Shabazz Palaces, Maraire's facility with instrumentation (percussion especially) is essential to what makes the group so fascinating to listen to; he is the pulse that drives the duo. The son of Dumisani Maraire, once referred to by City Arts as "the foremost scholar of Shona music in America," Tendai's Chimurgena Renaissance project finds him rhyming circles over complex, sample-heavy beats with centuries-old Zimbabwean rhythms and evocative mbira melodies, and he produced the engrossing soundscapes on Pierre Kwenders' Polaris Prize-nominated full-length MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time. - Martin Douglas

Associated Acts: Chimurgena Renaissance, Shabazz Palaces

Recommended Works: Girlz With Gunz, riZe vadZimu riZe, "Bittersweet Mornings" (by Pierre Kwenders, featuring Fly Guy Dai)


Stas THEE Boss


There’s a reason why Stas THEE Boss hosts KEXP’s weekly hip-hop show Street Sounds. She embodies the far reaching spirit of Seattle hip-hop and has made herself a fixture in the scene. When she’s not performing her solo material, she’s DJing parties around town and producing her own decadent, jazzy beats. Stas first came to prominence with the rap and R&B duo THEESatiscation with the wondrous vocalist and songwriter Sassyblack, releasing two albums on Sub Pop – EarthEE and awE naturalE. The duo was also featured prominently throughout Shabazz Palaces’ landmark LP Black Up. In many ways, Stas is a kindred spirit to Butler. She raps with a laidback, murmur – her voice so captivating that she hardly has to raise her voice to grab your attention. A listen to her debut solo effort S’Women gives audiences a crash course into Stas’ world. Beats roll on like a sweltering summer day, chopping up jazz piano chords and vocal samples, while she waxes poetic on an “aquatic explanation of failed female companionships.” - DH

Associated Acts: THEESatisfaction, Shabazz Palaces

Recommended Works: THEESatisfaction’s EarthEE & awE naturalE, S’Women


Erik Blood


Like every star in the orbit of Black Constellation, Erik Blood is not beholden by genre. A producer whose knowledge of curiosity regarding music knows no boundaries, the Los Angeles-via-Seattle musician's fingerprints can be found all over a variety of selections. From works you've definitely heard and/or heard of (Tacocat's Lost Time, various releases from the Moondoggies and Shabazz Palaces), to ones you might be surprised by (Partman Parthorse's Year of the Jerk), Blood's resume is vast and diverse, which is also evident in his spacious and bountiful solo work. - MD

Associated Acts: Shabazz Palaces, Knife Knights

Recommended Works: Lost in Slow Motion, Touch Screen



Listing the number of different styles utilized by Otis Calvin III (for those who don't know, the host of KEXP's Sunday Soul) would be as time-consuming and labor-intensive as listing album releases and production credits. His knowledge of music could rival that of an encyclopedia series, his appreciation of and participation in the form extends far past what he's best known for. Just as quick to loop the opening measures of Velvet Underground's classic "Femme Fatale" and cleverly draw inspiration from the Strokes in an electric guitar ballad as he is to chop up African jazz samples and loop choice R&B, the music of OCnotes plays like a guided tour through a city with streets too narrow for buses. It's illuminating and specifically personal. - MD

Associated Acts: Metal Chocolates, Freekazoids

Recommended Works: Color Wheel, Doug Morris, Delicate Surface (by Astro King Phoenix, produced by OCnotes)


Porter Ray


It didn’t take long for Porter Ray to catch on in his home of Seattle. Born and raised in the Central District, Porter released a trilogy of mixtapes in 2013 titled BLK GLD, WHT GLD, and RSE Gold to local acclaim. Aside from all of his other aforementioned projects, Ishmael Butler also runs A&R for Sub Pop and set his sights on Ray. Upon hearing Ray’s music for the first time, Butler told KEXP last year: “I just thought that the way that he was observing his life as a kid and then how he was able to memorize it and his command of the language to put it in such poetic and clear and concise and floral terms.” Butler’s assessment is spot on. You only need to listen to Ray’s official debut album Watercolor to identify his effervescent rap prowess. He pits himself against spacious and spacey beats, uncovering personal trauma like a seasoned veteran of the game. Ray has gone beyond “promise” at this point and continues to reveal himself as one of the most forward thinking, candid rappers in the city. - DH

Recommended Works: Watercolor, Fundamentals, “EarthEE” by THEESatisfaction (feat. Shabazz Palaces, Porter Ray, and Erik Blood)


Nep Sidhu


There are forms of art I prefer to simply appreciate rather than evaluate, and I would place visual art at the head of that class. The works of Nep Sidhu -- the Ontario-based painter, sculptor, and designer responsible for the iconic cover art for Shabazz Palaces' Lese Majesty -- spread across several different forms, across time and space. His paintings are majestic and ethereal in ways I'd have trouble describing with words even if I wrote every day for another decade, the cover art he has designed for Shabazz Palaces and others serve as the window into the artists' imaginative worlds, and the clothes he designs (often worn onstage by several members of Black Constellation) meld traditional styles worn for centuries with a truly modern, head-turning flavor. - MD

Recommended Works: "(Re)Confirmation A," "Black Constellation Gang Vest"




If the members of Black Constellation are all stargazers and space travelers, JusMoni’s voice is the sound of signals extending out into the ether of the universe. The Seattle-based songwriter has been weaving otherworldly visions with her voice and works since she released Ready For Life in 2010. Since then she’s worked with a wide array of producers and outfits, including producer WD4D and Chimurenga Renaissance. She’s a frequent collaborater with Stas THEE Boss, both appearing on each other’s records and live performances. JusMoni’s latest release came earlier this year with the stunning Sweet To Me, a 30-minute ride on the astral plane with her enchanting vocals moving across beats that feel like the sizzle of heat coming off of pavement. - DH

Associated Acts: Stas THEE Boss, Chimurenga Renaissance, WD4D

Recommended Works: Sweet To Me and JusMoni as Saffroniaa


Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes


The term “multimedia artist” underplays exactly what Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes is all about. He’s an artist in the truest sense, taking whatever medium catches his inspiration and molding it into his vision. It might film, fashion, photography, or sculptures – his work is vast and ever expanding. His art has been displayed locally at the Frye Art Museum but has also appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as abroad in exhibits in Japan and Denmark. His work intersects often with his Black Collective peers, often visually with music videos for Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction, and Porter Ray. - DH

Associated Acts: Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction, Porter Ray

Recommended Works: THEESatisfaction “EarthEE” music video, Shabazz Palaces “Are You... Can You... Were You? (Felt)” music video, Alley-Barnes’ continuing Pelts collection, Ode to Octavia part 12: (Sparkles)… Recollections of the Wraith short film


Nicholas Galanin


Black Constellation intersects all forms of art, with music playing a common thread throughout. It’s something that Alaska-based artist Nicholas Galanin exemplifies himself in his own work. Galanin’s work is often rooted in concepts of nature, many times posing animals like the wolf in his “Inert” piece that was displayed in the Frye Art Museum. His work extends further into clothing and jewelry, creating some pieces alongside Nep Sidhu for Shabazz Palaces live performances, and even created a project conceptualized as ceramic riot gear. Galanin is also a musician himself, recording with OCNotes and Zak Dylan under the moniker Indian Agent. - DH

Recommended Works: “Inert”, “No Pigs In Paradise,” Indian Agent’s Meditations in the Key of Red

Ishamel Butler, Tendai Maraire, Stas THEE Boss, OC Notes, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, and Porter Ray will all be appearing at the Sub Pop Turntable Session this Thursday, Aug. 2 in the KEXP Gathering Space. Find more details here.

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