“I slam the mic when I’m done, and kick a hole in the speaker
when Rakim told Big Daddy Kane ‘Follow the Leader’
When Slick and Doug and them said ‘La Di Da Di’
When trench coats’ll hide the shottie to stick up the party”
Shabazz the Disciple caught my attention immediately when he appeared on Gravediggaz’ “Diary of a Madman” in 1994. The landscape was getting increasingly crowded with Wu-Tang affiliated rappers looking to cash in off the success of “Enter the Wu-Tang,” but Shabazz had guaranteed credibility by getting the lead verse on the first single of a group formed by legendary producers Prince Paul and RZA. The funny thing is that Shabazz wasn’t even part of the group and he still got to kick things off. “I’ve been examined ever since I was semen/They took a sonogram and seen the image of a demon.” You couldn’t have asked for a more memorable debut. From that day forward I was checking for anything that he did.
“Crime Saga” was one of many twelve inch singles that Shabazz released throughout the 90’s, but for reasons I still can’t fathom “The Book of Shabazz (Hidden Scrollz)” wasn’t released until 2003. Putting out an album should have been an easy slam dunk. With his energetic delivery, cult favorite underground status, and legions of Wu-Tang fans who would’ve bought any project he did, waiting almost a FULL DECADE wasted a lot of time to capitalize on what he had to offer. I don’t know if those same A&R people GZA rapped about on “Protect Ya Neck” were to blame, or if Shabazz himself was unorganized and better at dropping random singles than hitting the studio to get shit done. Either way, somebody fucked up.
“Street Parables” emphasizes that inability to capitalize in so many ways. Lord Jamar’s cameo hits hard, but would have meant so much more when Brand Nubian were at the peak of their “In God We Trust” popularity. The chorus Shabazz raps directly references his powerful “Diary of a Madman” debut, but nearly a full decade after the fact any new listeners would’ve been completely unaware of his history. Ironies such as these abound throughout the album. Cage had enjoyed huge success sampling from “A Clockwork Orange” on his “Agent Orange” single in ’97, but six years later people would’ve believed Shabazz, Lil Dap and Killah Priest were copying the idea on “Thieves In Da Nite” even if he might’ve recorded it first.
If the saying “timing is everything” is a cliche, that doesn’t mean it’s untrue — that just means it’s overused. Shabazz was definitely a victim of bad timing either by his own doing or by a music industry that didn’t quite understand his appeal. If we’re being fair though Shabazz was always going to have a hard time fitting in at any point in any decade. His passion for hip-hop music and culture are evident from “Red Hook Day” onward, but that passion could itself be polarizing due to his delivery. He sounds like he’s constantly tripping on amphetamines, and if you mentally picture him delivering lyrics in the vocal booth, you can only imagine the veins in his neck bulging and spit flying everywhere as he yells his vocals at the mic. The disdain he has for “Hip Pop” meant he’d never be able to crossover.
It may be that the real tragedy of “Hidden Scrollz” is the inability of Shabazz to dial it down even for a second. I love how uncompromising he is, but I also recognize how impossible that makes marketing him. You have to be incredibly careful and clever to tell the entire industry to fuck off while simultaneously expecting someone in it to pay for marketing, recording and production of your album. Pull it off successfully and you may still only sell between 100K and 200K units total.
That lack of compromise is found all over the album musically as well as lyrically. “BKBS” reminds me of Lord Digga’s “My Flows Is Tight,” but did that push major units for him? “Blasphemy” is a gothic head nodder, but it’s just one among 20+ tracks on a 71 minute album. “Cremate Em” is an interesting experiment in minimalistic production met with “triple time” style rhyming, but beyond whatever fanbase Shabazz still had in 2003, who was it appealing to? If one was being cynical they could describe it as little more than lyrical mental masturbation — proving he could do it just for the sake of getting himself off.
“Put your jewels up/put your house up/Put your tools up, nigga put your spouse up/We can go at it muh’fucker album budget for budget/and let your A&R judge it/Shit I’ll have your label push your project back because I get hyper than a fucking hypochondriac.” The flow is dope, so is the song, but the irony of his own album being pushed back so long shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Look — “The Book of Shabazz (Hidden Scrollz)” is a good album. It’s not a “hidden gem” or a “lost classic” but it definitely shows what Shabazz had to offer. Had this album come out closer to when I first got a promo copy of his “Death Be the Penalty” single, he might have had a chance to be a much bigger, much better remembered rap star from the 1990’s. I don’t know how well he would or could have sustained it, but everything about this record from start to finish screams missed opportunity.