On the inaugural episode of Fresh Off the Spaceship, co-hosts Larry Mizell Jr. and Martin Douglas guide you through the big question: “What is the Black Constellation?”
On the inaugural episode of Fresh Off the Spaceship, co-hosts Larry Mizell Jr. and Martin Douglas guide you through the big question: “What is the Black Constellation?”
We dive into what the collective is as well as the music and art it encompasses – from Shabazz Palaces and Stas THEE Boss to Porter Ray, OCnotes, Ya Tseen, and more. We hear from the artists themselves as well as reflections from Larry and Martin as Black journalists covering the Seattle music scene. Throughout the podcast we explore the Constellation’s ideas about collaboration, intuition, ritual, self-determination, legacy, and the continuum they practice in.
Listen to a playlist of music from the episode and read the transcript below.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Are you… Can you… Were you? (Felt)” by Shabazz Palaces ]
MARTIN DOUGLAS: So our introductory question to this entire podcast is, what is the Black Constellation?
STAS THEE BOSS: Man, I don't know. [laughter]
MARTIN: I mean, it's a pretty loaded question to start with.
STAS: Yeah, I mean..
LARRY MIZELL, JR.: This is Fresh off the Spaceship, the story of the Black Constellation — the artist collective that began in Seattle but has representatives across the continent of North America, whose works have touched every other continent that’s not Antarctica.
[.MUSIC CUE: Digable Planets - "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" ]
The voice that first served as the call that brought this crew together is fairly well-known: that of Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces, Knife Knights, and of course, Digable Planets.
ISHMAEL BUTLER: The Black Constellation started as a bar and it became a notion. A myth and a legend that, you know, produced — produces — tangible things because, you know, it started out in a song, a Shabazz song. And the bar was, "I be with my Black Constellation."
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - "Bop Hard (Live at KEXP)" ]
ISHMAEL: And from there, it just picked up. People started sort of referring to all of us. And we started referring to each other as that, that hung around each other.
LARRY: So, how do we tell a story about something so nebulous, a creative convening of spirits that often evades words? Well, in brief, I’d say the Black Constellation is a collective of multi-disciplinary artists, ones who had previously all managed to significantly distinguish themselves as individuals, but quickly found in each other a rapport and shared language. Through the realms of music, visual art, and writing, the Black Constellation have since created a rich body of work, an ethos, even a mythology that derives from a shared continuum of culture.
LARRY: So let’s start there — and I suppose, with introducing ourselves, the ‘we’ that is telling that story. My name is Larry Mizell Jr, I’m a DJ and writer for KEXP in Seattle
MARTIN: Am I supposed to read my line? Is that what...
LARRY: Introduce yourself. Come on down.
MARTIN: And I'm Martin Douglas, writer and producer for KEXP.
LARRY: What up man?
MARTIN: What's going on man?
LARRY: We’re gonna discuss our role in this story as Black music journalists covering the scene in Seattle in the late 2000s when the collective began.
MARTIN: And for you, as a member of the Constellation.
LARRY: That’s right, but for now, I want to immerse listeners in the world of the Black Constellation the way I know best: through music..
MARTIN: I mean, you’ve been playing their music on your show for years, so this can be like a sampling of your work as a DJ.
LARRY: We have Shabazz Palaces
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” ]
LARRY: Stas THEE Boss
[ MUSIC CUE: Stas THEE Boss - “Three 6 Stasia” ]
LARRY: Porter Ray
[ MUSIC CUE: Porter Ray - “5950s feat. Nate Jack” ]
LARRY: Erik Blood
[ MUSIC CUE: Erik Blood - “Chase The Clouds” ]
[ MUSIC CUE: JusMoni - “Got It on Tape” ]
[ MUSIC CUE: OCnotes - “Better Days” ]
LARRY: Nicholas Galanin and Ya Tseen
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “Close the Distance” ]
LARRY: And we’re just scratching the surface. The Constellation also consists of visual artists Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes and Nep Sidhu, and most of the members practice art in many forms.
MARTIN: Yeah, just as an example — Nicholas Galanin of Ya Tseen made headlines with his art installation, “Never Forget,” spelling out “Indian Land” in giant letters in reference to the Hollywood sign. And those Black Constellation motorcycle club vests Nep Sidhu made? Incredible.
LARRY: And a lot of the members come from lineages of influential artists.
LARRY: But the Black Constellation is about more than just art. When we asked the members to define it for us, we got a variety of answers.
STAS: I mean, people would describe it as a collective or a secret society where, you know, you have to get jumped in.
LARRY: That’s Stas, aka Stas THEE Boss. Rapper, producer, DJ, and formerly one-half of the group THEE Satisfaction. I should also say, nobody actually jumped me in.
[.MUSIC CUE: THEESatisfaction - "Juiced" ]
STAS: You know, some people have come up with all kinds of ways of trying to figure out what it is. It’s honestly just um, people from the same tribe linking up, connecting, you know, we've met before, we've been here before. We all know that. And just to be able to connect with those folks that you shared time with before, that's what it is to me.
LARRY: To artist, filmmaker, designer, and writer Maikoyo Alley-Barnes, it’s a mandate.
MAIKOYO ALLEY-BARNES: Without, you know, reading directly from the manifesto, I would say that the Black Constellation has been an organic co-mingling of creative spirits. And aligned to just kind of continue to push forward the notion that we, as human beings, have the potential to be conduits for good and positivity and beauty.
[.MUSIC CUE: JusMoni - "Sweet to Me (Interlude)" ]
LARRY: JusMoni is a poet/singer/songwriter and is the youngest member of the crew, so far.
JUSMONI: Most of it, I would say, is ancestral work. Um, a lot of it has to do with the memories that live within our bodies and our families’ histories. Um, but really, you know, we're all connected by this understanding that we work within a realm of continuum, which I believe for us means, um you know, producing work or producing a life that is really aligned with things that we know to be true. Um, things that we know to be true within ourselves, within our existence.
LARRY: To Nicholas Galanin, it’s…
NICHOLAS GALANIN: You know, it's infinite. It can be many things when it needs to be. But for me, it's family, you know, and it's a place where all of these makers shape a reality in a world that makes all of this place a better place to be.
LARRY: And then there’s Otis aka OCNotes.
OCNOTES: it's not really nothin' crazy it's, it's a idea Ish came up with and then like a lot of his ideas, it just went to outer space.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Solemn Swears” ]
ISHMAEL: The Black Constellation started as a bar and it became a notion.
LARRY: One of the uniting principles of the Constellation is the idea of continuum. That’s the idea that…. [ ]. Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes put it well in our interview.
MAIKOIYO: And I think the continuum, if we're talking about it in its purest form, removes attribution. And I know that attribution is really important for people for a lot of reasons, but... If the work is actually the point, then...
MAIKOIYO: ...How important is attribution?
LARRY: Although the members have always been interested in detaching their egos from their creations, those creations started making waves in Seattle, and eventually beyond. Jonathan Zwickel wrote the first feature on the collective for Pitchfork.
JONATHAN ZWICKEL: One of their sort of, you know, esthetic choices is to let the art speak for itself. And so there really wasn't a whole lot of information at that time about who they were, how they came together, what their, you know, sort of M.O. might have been or, you know, like their sort of creative ethos. You know, there was a lot of like, you know, art being produced by the collective, but still like they were, they remained off the radar. They were intentionally, you know, kind of cloaked in secrecy. They, you know, generated greater interest by really keeping a low profile and not allowing a lot of information out of their camp or out of the collective.
LARRY: Earlier than that, Dave Segal became the first person to write about Shabazz Palaces, in the pages of Seattle’s alt weekly, The Stranger.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - "New Black Wave" ]
DAVE SEGAL: The Black Constellation Collective, the sum is greater than the individual parts, but the parts are fantastic. So what you have with Black Constellation is a supergroup operating at the genius level. They're all team players, yet they're all. They're also superstars, which is unusual.
DAVE: I find that the common threads running through Black Constellation artists is their diversity of styles. Their ability to adapt to various modes. Their rejection of cliché and aversion to stooping to the easy option or glomming onto popular tropes.
LARRY: Perhaps the person best suited to contextualize the Constellation and their understanding of continuum though, would be our family — writer, curator, healer Negarra A Kudumu.
NEGARRA A. KUDUMU: This group of people and the work that they make constitutes this universe where all things are possible.
LARRY: I met Negara back in, I'm thinking, 2012, maybe 2011, when she moved to Seattle from Chicago. She's a brilliant curator, writer, cultural critic and healer. And her analysis of what's been happening with black constellation has proved invaluable. She's often moderating panels that accompany the gallery shows that you'll find Knapp and Nick and McHugh at, you know, across the world.
Negarra's insights have been super crucial in interpreting the Black Constellation's cultural output for the larger world. I think that a lot of that has to do with her history in the art world, in writing and in diasporic healing practices that really cue her into some of the stuff that is kind of unsaid that's in the music of the Constellation and in the art.
NEGARRA: They're real deep into collaboration. As a authentic tool of learning from people they think are really, really brilliant... there's an authenticity to their creation that is increasingly less visible in popular culture.
[ MUSIC CUE: Stas THEE Boss - “Rainier and Hendo” ]
And they also happen to be doing a lot of the things that we find that Black people do when they gather, when they are allowed to create, when they when they place making and creating and generative acts at the center of their life, which is what we have always done. They are not purporting to reinvent the wheel. They are not stealing somebody else's idea, brand, you know,
LARRY: There’s a certain renowned Seattle institution that’s known for recognizing and supporting that authenticity in music, regardless of its ‘marketability.’ Here’s that institution’s CEO, Megan Jasper..
MEGAN JASPER: Sub Pop records signs artists from around the world but there has been a focus on local artists throughout the years. And we work closely with those artists to help them develop their careers and hope to make sure they are poised in a way that they are able to do whatever the hell they want creatively.
LARRY: Multiple acts from the Black Constellation have been signed to Sub Pop. And Ishmael Butler has even been part of their A&R team.
MARTIN: There’s another Seattle institution that has close ties with the Constellation, that we should probably mention.
KEXP: KEXP is a listener-funded independent radio station and arts organization based in Seattle, Washington.
LARRY: Ah yes. That’s us. KEXP and the Constellation have history. I should know — I’m the host of KEXP’s Afternoon Show, and for years was the host of our hip-hop show Street Sounds.
[ MUSIC CUE: OCnotes - “Ho Hum” ]
MARTIN: I know you don’t wanna talk yourself up, Larry, but Street Sounds was a huge and important platform for hip-hop music, especially considering the context of KEXP prior to a very certain point in our history. If I was out in the city, I’d put on Street Sounds to see what was hot not just in Seattle rap, but what was interesting in rap music, period. Negarra Kudumu illustrates why she listened to Street Sounds before she even moved here.
NEGARRA: Once I knew that the Seattle move was going to happen, I said, OK, I need to get engrossed. I need to know what's going on. And so I turned. I found the radio station. I found KEXP. I was immediately entranced by Larry because again, thinking about this point of departure of authenticity. If you grew up listening to the radio in the 80s, in the early 90s. You were probably just on that cusp of deejays who were in their youth in the 60s and the 70s still being on the radio. And they had this energy, this flare that was just. Just like cruise control, like not shoving the music down your throat, just like, man, this cut. This is it. I've seen what this cut does in the club, in the set, I will play this for you. And Larry is in that tradition. Like this is somebody who knows music. He has seen what the song does. At the set, he has seen what it does at the concert, he has talked to the artists.
MARTIN: It was also important for local hip-hop artists like Shabazz Palaces and Porter Ray.
ISHMAEL: When we first got together, we used to listen to KEXP, you know, listen to Larry Mizell on Street Sounds. And if you heard your song on there, you felt excited and like you had made it, you know. And now Stas and Otis, they got radio shows that are doing really well. So like you say, like the future is happening.
LARRY: That was Ishmael Butler again. He pointed out that another Constellation member, Stas Thee Boss, hosted Street Sounds for years.
LARRY: And KEXP’s Sunday Soul show was started by the one and only Otis Calvin III, AKA OCnotes, another member of the Constellation.
LARRY: You know, we attach a lot of meaning to the idea of a star, a word that's synonymous with fame and self-obsession…and of course our survival as a species depends on the light and warmth of the star we call Sol…but on a clear night, the sky is absolutely full of them.
[ MUSIC CUE: Boris Gardner - “Every Nigger is a Star” ]
LARRY: Over the course of human history, though, it’s the groupings of these stars, these constellations, that have given them meaning, and helped us tell stories about ourselves and our world. They’ve even helped us navigate that world, whether we’re returning back home, or going towards freedom unknown.
ISHMAEL: We represent a reality, a human reality that's tried and true.
LARRY: That’s Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” ]
ISHMAEL: You have your family that you're born into. In the age of travel, which goes back a long time ago, people with that type of curiosity, they trekked out and on those treks, they landed and found people that they became their other family in the world. You know, they found that they, their personalities called to and the other person's personality responded to, and in that bond, they hang together. They do the things that they do and capitalize on opportunities that come their way. That's something people have been doing for a long time that we don't really do that much no more or as, at the rate that we used to. But I think that model is something that appealed to people that's down with the crew, you know what I mean? So again, it's age old, but at the same time, it's a, it's a revolution.
LARRY: Like he said, the idea of collectives is age old. And holds particular significance in Black American culture. Hip hop history, for one, is filled with collectives who lifted each other up to create some of the most vital, pivotal art of the last century.
MARTIN: Just to list a few..We’ve had The Juice Crew.
[ MUSIC CUE: Marley Marl - “The Symphony” ]
[ MUSIC CUE: A Tribe Called Quest - “Scenario (Remix)” ]
[ MUSIC CUE: Slum Village featuring Q Tip - “Hold Tight” ]
[ MUSIC CUE: Odd Future - “Oldie” ]
LARRY: This notion of collective identity has always been important to Black people in America.
MARTIN: Ever since being ferried over against our will from our native continent of Africa, this has been essential - not only to our survival but to the spiritual replenishment of our culture. We find like minded people, folks with similar backgrounds and experiences as us and pay it forward, so to speak, through community, through gathering, sharing ideas and creating something for future generations to latch on to.
LARRY: In other words, collectives help us channel meaning through communion. They give us the confidence to reach our potential.
ISHMAEL: So everybody with that confidence that's being sort of bolstered up by the cats that surrounds you to do your thing and feel good about it and all and take chances and all those cliche kind of things... We feel empowered to do that.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Forerunner Foray” ]
LARRY: That sense of empowerment is all the more important when you live in one of the whitest cities in the US, where the default setting is to push you out, where every window screams that BLM but where fewer and fewer Black lives can afford to live. Seattle’s Central District, the historically Black, but dramatically since-gentrified neighborhood in the heart of Seattle.
[ MUSIC CUE: Porter Ray - “Sometimes” ]
This place, where many of the Constellation initially connected, was once home to a thriving influential jazz scene. Today though, you’d be better off looking for an artisanal donut or brewpub than any evidence of that, or even anybody that remembers it.
LARRY: Black Constellation member Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes has deep roots in the CD.
MAIKOIYO: I've heard, again erroneously, these tales about the Central District being this, you know, financially depressed area where, you know, it was just so dangerous and X, Y and Z. And it's it's never been that. We could talk about the desirability of it from, you know, those on the outside, but for those who occupied it and came to visit, it was always a rich and hyper-generative space.
LARRY: JusMoni also has roots in the CD.
LARRY: What was the CD like back then?
JUSMONI: Oh my gosh. You know, um... [laughs] blacker. Black people like walking around. You know what I'm sayin', like black people walking around.
ISHMAEL: Seattle was a lot different than it is now. It's the Central District all the way out to the south end, the high schools from Nathan Hale to Garfield, Rainier Beach and Franklin like. The amount of people that we grew up around that had the abilities and talents that are similar to the ones that we are up here talking about now and people interested in us now for - everybody was talented like that.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Since C.A.Y.A.” ]
Everybody was funny, everybody was courageous. Everybody could play two or three sports, everybody could dance. And it was like it was almost like living in a small southern city because everybody's parents know each other. Generations were growing up together, so it was like an energetic wave that we were riding at that time. The stuff we make now is kind of like the last vestiges of of the magical period in time in Seattle, you know, and for us and also for a lot of people, it was before, you know, the various booms that came and rearranged the the city in the way that we kind of see it now.
LARRY: Seattle, like most cities, has got a history of erasure when it comes to Black art. And those stories that Ishmael and Moni were referring to, they're first person, they live in people and in community, and when those communities get pushed out and those people disappear, so do those stories, if they're not documented, observed, celebrated, not pushed to the margins or painted over. And that's part of the mission, that's a part of all of the art that the Constellation has produced, keeping legacies alive, keeping real stories, real flavor from a place from a people alive.
NEGARRA: This is why personally, I love them individually and collectively, but also why I think they merit [...] a level of documentation. That does them justice. [...] And that is even more important in a city like Seattle that intentionally. Either documents poorly or narrowly or doesn't document at all […]
LARRY: Now I think this is a good time to talk about why we’re making this podcast..
MARTIN: You mean besides the money? That’s why I’m here!
LARRY: Um, I know for years, even before we were employed at KEXP, we were both independently chronicling the movement and the music from this group of people via our own separate platforms and kind of chronicling what a kind of sea change they represented in the music scene here. You know, and what that means and the lens that we both had and have being Black music journalists here in Seattle itself kind of a rarity talking about this super Black space-born cosmic thing, but it's also really grounded in the land and the place and the neighborhoods and the people that we know really well because of our own backgrounds here.
MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. It's weird to navigate the terrain as a Black music journalist in Seattle because. Even before Black Constellation, there's so much Black music coming out of here, and it's all being covered by white journalists.
LARRY: How many times have I had the experience of being outside of Seattle and somebody's like, "Where are you from?" And I'm like, "Seattle," and they're like, "There ain't no black people in Seattle," and I'm like, "You've literally erased my existence in this statement, this offhand statement." But like, yeah, and that just makes it all the harder for black people in the northwest to exist knowing that their stories, their cultural output isn't valued outside of their region, let alone within, right? So we have to fight for it. And it’s like…
LARRY: We need documents. These things have to be kept. These things get washed away. // So we have to fight to to keep these things alive, to pass on.
MARTIN: Yeah, I mean, as a writer, we are charged with documenting culture we’re charged with basically writing, writing the histories, right? So yeah, your role in the Black Constellation seems to be that documentarian, especially with this podcast. But even in your writing before you joined the crew…you're providing a record for Black Constellation and their significance to the Seattle community.
LARRY: “..and that would be the Black Constellation.”
LARRY: And that’s the thing, that’s why we’re here. Not telling these stories leaves us with half a map, blots out the stars, leaving us lost in the wilderness. There have been so many cultural touchpoints that would have meant so much to so many if they’d only known. Because those stories were never told.
Just as a quick example – have you ever heard of Tina Bell?
[ MUSIC CUE: Bam Bam - “Free Fall from Space” ]
LARRY: Back in 1983, a group of Seattle punks formed a quartet named Bam Bam, fronted by a beautiful, powerfully charismatic sister named Tina. By 1984, they’d be recording their sound —a sludgy, metallic punk rock, at the same studio, with the same producer, that so-called grunge was created at — later of course, by white dudes.
That sound would become Seattle’s most popular, profitable, and exhaustively well-documented musical export by what could only be measured in light years. Bands like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Nirvana would go on to collectively sell hundreds of millions of records. Yet through the dozens of documentaries, books, and stage plays, Bam Bam is nowhere to be found.
LARRY: But look, this isn’t about Bam Bam, grunge, or any of that. The point is, we’ve got to own and tell our stories, or they’ll be painted over, torn down, or at best, co-opted – and squeezed for the juice.
[ MUSIC CUE: THEESatisfaction - “Blandland” ]
LARRY: Throughout this podcast, we’ll be exploring a story that hasn’t been told anywhere else, of the Black Constellation and those who make it up. The messages they’ve transmitted, ideas about collaboration, intuition, ritual, self-determination, and legacy. The continuum they practice in. Some of the ways in which parts of lily-white Seattle, and its surrounding communities, have long been rooted in Blackness — a story of this region rarely told.
LARRY: Myself and my man Martin Douglas, are gonna be talking with the members, the artists they’ve inspired, and the people on the ground who witnessed the crew’s formation
LARRY: Join us next time as we speak further with the Palaceer himself, Ishmael Butler.
ISHMAEL: I'm excited to see what happens just as much as anybody else. You know?
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