Interview: Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler on the group’s new studio space, his time with Digable Planets and more

Shabazz Palaces
Butler says vocals function less as text and more as texture. — photo by Patrick O’Brien-Smith

Shabazz Palaces w/ Eaters, Romulan

The Mill — Saturday, June 6 at 9 p.m.

Grab an old hip-hop 12-inch, grind the vinyl into dust, roll it up in a page from Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and smoke it. The ensuing synesthetic experience might feel, smell, taste, look and sound like Lese Majesty by Shabazz Palaces, performing at The Mill on Saturday, June 6.

On their second full length album, Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire serve up another helping of forward-thinking psychedelic hip hop — a thick mélange of organic and electronic instrumentation topped off with layers of trippy vocals. Having already pushed the sonic envelope with their self-released EPs and debut album on Sub Pop, Shabazz Palaces have added another dimension to their music thanks to a recent acquisition.

“We have a studio now that has four rooms that are a lot of different sizes, which are in an old brewery,” Butler said. “We used a lot of sounds that came directly from the space of the building, how the sounds resonated with different echoes and different materials for the wall. It was just a lot of recording and capturing of sounds that had certain characteristics, and then processing them.”

“Vocals and instruments as separate things? I don’t look at it like that.”

— Ishmael Butler

“We used all sorts of instruments,” he added, “electric guitars, bass, water dropping, hoses filled with sand hitting up against tom toms, anything we could get our hands on.” The duo then smoothied those sounds and arranged them into songs using Ableton software. The vocals, for instance, were treated and filtered to the point that they become indistinguishable from the other musical elements on Lese Majesty.

Hip-hop MCs typically are all about the words, but in the case of Shabazz Palaces, the vocals function less as text and more as texture. “I feel like that with everything about the vocals — the words and the flow, and the way we process the voice — are all about textures,” Butler explained. “To me, a song isn’t a bunch of different tracks put together, it’s all one thing. So vocals and instruments as separate things? I don’t look at it like that.”

Lese Majesty is far more apocalyptic sounding than the hit singles he scored in the early 1990s with Digable Planets, Butler’s first group (back when he was known as Butterfly). He reemerged in 2009 under the name Palaceer Lazaro with Shabazz Palaces, a collaboration with Tendai “Baba” Maraire of Chimurenga Renaissance. “We just met at a club in Seattle,” said Butler, a native of that city, “and struck up friendship and slowly progressed into making tunes and stuff.”

Although Digable Planets were pigeonholed as a lightweight boho jazz-rap act after “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That)” became a MTV staple, their overlooked 1994 album Blowout Comb was a whole new bag. The group’s final record contained seven-minute tracks such as “Black Ego,” featuring dark string arrangements and sluggish tempos that were also being employed by British trip-hop acts like Portishead and Massive Attack. Blowout Comb was an artistic success, but a commercial disaster — one the group never recovered from.

I asked Butler if he thinks that Digable Planets could have developed into something similar to what he is doing now, or are Shabazz’s sinister soundscapes purely the result of his unique collaboration with Maraire? “Probably a little of both,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s absolute, one way or the other. It is a continuation, an evolutionary destination, but at the same time, nothing can happen without the elements — the people — that are there too.”

When Shabazz Palaces began self-releasing their records in 2009, they wrapped their cryptic lyrics and woozy sonics in mysterious packaging. “The people I was working with were all like, ‘You were in Digable, and you gotta tell everybody that,’” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘Naw, I can’t do that.’ I’d rather get this new thing going on its own, because I didn’t want to rely on anything else. Wherever it went, I wanted it to get there on its own.”

Butler can’t point to a single piece of music that influenced Shabazz Palace’s sound, and instead cites another source of inspiration. “I don’t make music like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna sound like Sun Ra now.’ I mean, I probably am influenced by that stuff, but the main influence around that time — for this kind of new sound — was the artist Wangechi Mutu, who was a visual artist.”

“Her collages and paintings,” he continued, “I was trying to make music like how that looked and felt — and tasted, even,” Butler explained. “Her creative output was the thing that most influenced me. I’m saying that with the benefit of hindsight because at the time I didn’t really see it that way. But now I realize that was what going on.”

The curatorial text accompanying Mutu’s celebrated 2008 work A’gave you articulates her work within the framework of Afrofuturism: “an aesthetic that uses the imaginative strategies of science fiction to envision alternate realities for Africa and people of African descent.” This aesthetic has been especially pronounced within 20th-century black popular music. Musicians such as avant-jazz legend Sun Ra, dub reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, the glam-funk trio LaBelle, Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton, Outkast’s Andre 3000 and cyborg chanteuse Janelle Monae have employed these tropes.

They mixed playful iconography, wild costumes and out-there-but-funky music to express their alienation — all while joyfully voicing racial pride. Afrofuturism is a profound (and engaging) example of the empowering possibilities of fantasy, for it allows marginalized people to imagine and move towards a newer, better world.

When I ask Butler whether or not he sees himself as part of this tradition, there’s a long, thoughtful pause. “I wouldn’t call it that — I don’t really know what Afrofuturism means,” Butler said, “but I understand that that’s something we’ve been tagged with to categorize things. But yeah, our music is a continuation of those earlier things.”

“It’s fun to imagine,” he continued. “I’ve learned a lot about reality through these imagined worlds — about emotion, relationships, relating to other people. Like with any fictional story, they’re used to really convey deep truth, even deeper truths than quote-unquote ‘non-fiction’ accounts can give. It’s fantastic to me, and I like that state of mind and what’s possible — the possibilities that are out there.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 178.

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