Ishmael Butler’s Shabazz Palaces is a heavy yet fleeting Afro-celestial experience
by Jon Kirby
We spoke to Ishmael Butler in 2012 after the release of his first Shabazz Palaces long player on Sub Pop, Black Up. Last year, the penumbral yet conscious group dropped another slept-on LP, Lese Majesty, so we are revisiting our 2012 chat.
Anyone who volunteers to write about Shabazz Palaces is waging a battle that can’t be won. Their music is indescribable, their origin story is almost eventless, and their background is perhaps over-romanticized, and relatively irrelevant. You know, lots of people had famous rap groups in the ’90s, and plenty of them move home to be closer to their families later in life. A few years in, perhaps you decide to make music with a neighbor, and then burn those strange fruits and floral arrangements to CD-R. Albums like Shabazz Palaces, Of Light, and Black Up aren’t planned; they happen, and the average writer can’t handle that.
The music of Shabazz Palaces could be said to signal a paradigm shift, if there existed the possibility that anyone or anything could conceptualize a suitable, derivative response. Nary an article has been written about the group that spares the term “futuristic,” but I would argue that time, in a linear sense, becomes an unsuitable quantifier. Lazier librarians might simply place an asterisk next to Shabazz Palaces in the rap annals, but a more principled cartographer might consider them a near-mythical landmass, like Easter Island, or possibly Atlantis. The dark matter that envelops their catalog recalls, at any given time, chopped and screwed Folkways recordings, pocket-wise polyrhythm, Sun Ra paraphrasing Parliament, all the while leaving room for finger snaps and handclaps. This is not to say that Shabazz Palaces is an “eclectic blend” of anything and anything else, but rather their Afro-celestial output is rendered using less conventional ingredients.
At the end of the day, Shabazz Palaces is rap, made by regular people who love rap—people like us. Their true identities were obscured by noms de plume and costumes until the dam of public curiosity could no longer be buttressed. Once you get signed to Sub Pop, hip-hop or otherwise, people start demanding answers.
But how could we not know it was him? Alongside rappers like Rakim, Nas, and Guru, Ishmael Butler possesses one of the most unique voices in rap’s history. As a pivotal member of Digable Planets, his Brooklyn-based ensemble of yesteryear helped ignite a movement that would leave rap and jazz intrinsically linked, and create a lane for a generation of conscious lyricists. The two albums left in their wake, 1993’s Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and 1994’s Blowout Comb, would have been enough. It could have ended there.
But energy can neither be created nor destroyed, so when Butler’s familiar cadence—“Nat Turner raps” drenched in reverb—reentered the atmosphere a decade and change after Digable’s disintegration, no one should have been surprised. To hear Butler tell it, he was simply a conduit, a prism for light to pass through, which is the only explanation that comes close to making sense. Declaring early in the group’s life cycle that “rap is a pact, not an act,” Butler seized the opportunity to address a range of topics, from love, to life, to the rap world we all foolishly assumed he’d bowed out of. “I’m not that guy that’s just, ‘Everything’s bullshit, and cats ain’t lyrical,’ ” confesses Butler from his home in Seattle. “I think there’s a place for everything that’s going on. I just think that the colonization of it and the materialistic shit, that’s just not us. That’s not the way we get down.”
The three unique vessels that constitute Shabazz Palaces’ recorded fare exhibit no clear borders and seem to encapsulate one seamless conversation. Thickening the stock is teammate Tendai Maraire, whose father, Abraham Dumisani Maraire, is often accredited with introducing the music of his native Zimbabwe to the United States. Although most commonly associated with the mbira (sometimes called the kalimba, or incorrectly the thumb piano), the elder Maraire spent his adult life traveling between Washington State and the Motherland, instituting African percussion curriculum on both landmasses. Tendai’s percussive contributions give the music of Shabazz Palaces an earthly binding agent, perfect for threading together Butler’s Black-fist sound collages.
The chronological gaps between release dates seem merely breaks in the transmission—clouds passing between an immense light and the listener. As we wait for new manifestations, Butler is, in a sense, just flipping the tape over on a deeply psychedelic, funky dialog with all who care to tune in—“the chicks and fellas in the hoods, yards, barrios, and favelas.” From the melodic to exotic, dissonant to magnificent, Shabazz Palaces’ spectral output, light years in the distance, is sure to shine long after the conversation has concluded.
What was it like growing up in Seattle?
Ishmael Butler: It was kind of like growing up in almost like a Southern city in the sense that, at that point in time, all second-generation cats like my mom and them was all children of cats that had moved up here from down South, either to work at Boeing or just because it was the new frontier. The hood was kind of like those California neighborhoods, where Black people live and it’s just nice—grass, houses—where the whole hood’s just Black, and everybody kind of knows each other, because they just got up here not too long ago. People were from the same areas—Baton Rouge, Louisiana, New Orleans, Houston, Arkansas. Everybody, like my grandparents, came up and lived in the projects, got jobs, and then the whole Central District, which ended up being the Black part of town, was basically built for the new affluence that Black people were achieving, working for the war effort and shit like that. So everybody started being able to buy houses, and that’s how the central district neighborhood got started, where I’m from. It was big, small—it was a city for sure, but it was a small one. It was dangerous, but it was pretty safe, you know what I mean. It was kind of just like a new Black experience that was attuned to being down South.
Did you grow up in a particularly musical family?
My pop loved jazz. He loved sax—he didn’t play, but he was gonna let me play. So he got me a sax at a young age, and I played in jazz band from junior high school all the way through high school. So that was my thing. And then Moms was Motown—Stevie and Marvin. Music was always on, and it was always a respected and lauded thing in my household. Moms and them were very active in the civil rights movement, so Africa was a big thing with us too, culturally. I was fortunate where their idea of making a better life for me was that I would have more exposure to things and be able to look at life with much more of an open mind. They wanted me to be able to look at life and find myself in it, but also to be able to look beyond myself and find things that were rich in value from just living life.
I realize you left Seattle after high school. When you lived there, did you understand the musical significance of Seattle and the local musical economy?
Not at that time. It was rap for me. I didn’t really fuck with the rock shit, although I went to school with a lot of those cats. Now everybody tells you, like, “You know that dude in Soundgarden was that dude!” And I’m like, “Was it!?” And don’t quote me on what group it was, ’cause I don’t exactly remember, but a couple of dudes from that scene went to school with us. But we didn’t really rock with that shit. Seattle was segregated in that way, culturally. Not in a bad way, but White folks didn’t really fuck with the brothers. We went to school together, but we still socialized in a more segregated way—a natural segregation, not necessarily an imposed one, if you can kind of see the gray line there.
What about Nastymix, Kid Sensation, Sir Mix-A-Lot?
Now Mix was from the hood. He lived in these projects called Bryant Manor. The Rotary Boys Club up on 19th was where all the hoods used to go, and I was a hooper as a kid, so I stayed at Rotary, which was a block away from Mix’s crib. Everybody knew Mix, you know. He always had a tape coming out, and he had the crazy voice. He would do the thug parties on the weekends at the Rotary, and we would all be up there hanging out. Then at my high school, we had this competition called Bubblin’ Brown Sugar where all the girls would do their dance routines, and they would have Mix custom-make their song for the competition, mixing in all the girl’s names together, and all that kind of shit. Yeah, everybody knew Mix. Everybody knew Mix.
Were you anxious about moving back to Seattle? Excited?
I don’t really want to harp on it too much, but I came back because my mom got sick. It became apparent that both she wanted me to come back around, and I wanted to come back around, and that she wasn’t going to be around long. And my grandmother’s still here; all my other cousins had left or wanted to leave. I’d been gone for a while, so it was my responsibility, but not in a sense that it was a burden, or that I didn’t want to do it. Once I understood what this time entailed, that this is what it was, I looked forward to it, and made the most of it.
I understand that art is never as clear-cut as “You heard this, and it made you do this,” but can you isolate any kind of “perfect storm” responsible for this particular project?
You know how it is. If you start to mention a thing, the more you think about whatever it is you’re talking about, the deeper you go into understanding it for yourself. That being said, I’ll say this: you’re a writer, and as artists, we all do mechanical things so that when the inspiration comes, we can get it out fast enough and without filtering it, in order to make it as original as possible. I could feel it coming. “It” is proverbial, you feel me. I didn’t know what it was. Now looking back on it, because I’ve amassed it, I kind of recognize it, but I wasn’t chronicling the shit at all. Vaguely, I kind of remember—it felt like part calling, in terms of: I have these ideas that are given to me from somewhere, and because they come to me, and I was making songs and recording them, I felt like it was my duty to share them—but not in that cliché kind of sense. More so, these was gifted to you, so that it wasn’t for nothing, you’ve got to do something with it. That’s when the concept of, like, ah, man, I’ve been through the music thing, and I realize this ain’t you, this isn’t about you, Ishmael, you’re this guy who’s making this music. This inspiration, these ideas, were coming from somewhere, and I realized it was about the music. So that’s why when we first came out, niggas wasn’t really tripping about who it was and who did this and that. That was where I was at, at the time. That being said, I like Death Cab for Cutie a lot; I wasn’t listening to much rap. I always be on some Miles shit; I kept it on Miles, like Live Evil and Bitches Brew and that era. Parliament/Funkadelic, [artist] Wangechi Mutu, hella art magazines, and then a nigga was just by himself a lot too—not really having to reflect. You know how you can look ahead and look back at the same time? The shit you can look ahead to is based on where you’ve been, so it’s just, like, a crazy energetic cycle. And that’s about as deep as I can get into it. I don’t know too much else.
There’s always been a certain anonymity surrounding the group. Is there anything about Shabazz Palaces that you actually want people to know?
Nah, I just reject the notion that your career, your image, your story—you craft that and then you cultivate that and you embellish upon that. To me, that’s just a bunch of fuss. And I know where it comes from. It comes from motherfuckers like, “Yo, I got to sell this shit!” And how do you sell things? Well, you get a story together, and blah blah blah. I’m not with all that, you feel me? That’s all. It’s not about anonymity, or nothing like that. It’s just the choice we make is to make music, put it out; if motherfuckers want us to come and do shows, then, hell yeah, we gonna be there. We appreciate this.
How would you describe your relationship with rap in 2012?
Hmm. It’s just kind of like a chick I go see every once in a while, you know what I’m saying. It’s not like she’s not fly and you can’t be with her or nothing like that. It’s not a disrespectful thing. It’s just the circumstances dictate that it just doesn’t happen all the time. It’s good to go there, because there’s fly shit that goes on. Even off in the pop realm; I think that it’s always good to hear Lil Wayne, I like some Rick Ross, a lot of underground shit, like, I love “Bussin’ for Trouble.” I love different shit like that. But I also see something in it—it’s a mentality that didn’t come from inside of it. It came from outside of it. And it’s insidious in a way, and it makes for a lot of redundancy. And I just don’t feel that’s how we as Black people need to be getting down with our culture, something that’s golden of ours.
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