Island Hopping

BY Arts Desk  August 26, 2009 at 11:21 AM EST

As hip-hop has evolved into an established international culture and multi-billion-dollar industry far removed from its underground urban origins, some artists are bringing the genre back to its conscientious and groundbreaking roots. The Blue Scholars, a Seattle-based, Hawaiian-influenced duo, is the harbinger of a new tropical hip-hop interpretation. The title of their new EP, released Tuesday, is “Oof!” — a euphemistic native Hawaiian slang word, which seems appropriate for an album that is part love letter to the islands.

The group’s rapper, Geologic (or George Quibuyen, his legal name, and “Geo,” for short), says this album proves how much weather effects music. “It’s no accident that a lot of Seattle hip-hop is laid-back,” Geo says. Previous releases from the duo have a low-metabolism flavor that is well-suited to rainy days. But “Oof!” signals a new direction for the Blue Scholars. While the politics and the ear-tickling beats are still there, this EP is for “riding around in hot weather, or letting it play on a Sunday afternoon barbeque.”

Geo was born in the Philippines, but emigrated with his family to Hawaii where his father served in the U.S. military. Returning to his childhood home after living on the mainland for over 10 years, “the Hawaii that existed in my mind was kind of withering away or didn’t exist anymore,” Geo says. It was this “half tourist experience” that fueled the creation of “Hi 808,” the first song that inspired the rest of the EP.

[Listen to an interview with Geologic about the new album from the Blue Scholars]

The duo has built a strong fan base in Seattle thanks to Geologic’s smart, politically conscious lyrics and DJ Sabzi’s eclectic, multilayered beats, as well as some “pretty hard” representing of their adopted city.

Coming to the music with nontraditional hip-hop backgrounds (DJ Sabzi is Iranian-American and grew up in Washington state), they’ve also steered away from some of the commonplace themes of the genre. Instead of writing songs about parties and drugs, the Blue Scholars have touched on the impact of the military on families and protests in Seattle. That political tone can still be heard on the new album, but it’s coated in indigenous-inspired sound.

The Blue Scholars hired recording label Duck Down Records for marketing and distribution help, and financed the album with funds from Seattle-based coffee company Caffe Vita. This gave them more creative freedom to collaborate with photographers and skate deck painters that are not only great artists, according to Geo, but also their “homies.” The result is a refreshingly exuberant and original collection of tracks wrapped in original artwork that pleases more than just the ears. “Oof!” is just a hint of the next direction for the duo, Geo says.

For fans in Seattle or Hawaii, “Oof!”‘s limited CD release (they’ll produce 808 copies, another homage to the islands’ area code) can be found at Caffe Vita locations and skate-and-surf brand In4mation’s flagship store in Honolulu. Everyone else can find it on the Scholars’ site and other digital music suppliers.