Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler” once had the force to leave rappers stranded like the tribe of Shabazz, but instead like his nautical namesake, he got sucked into the whirlpool. For those too young to remember, Digable Planets crashed the rap world in ’93, part and parcel of the jazz-rap movement, one of hip-hop’s temporary panaceas that promised ablution via the virtues of subterranean cafes, incense smoke, and Herbie Hancock licks. In the wake of Gangstarr, Tribe, and De La, Blue Note necrophilia had become the go-to aesthetic for “conscious rappers” looking for a niche in a post X-Clan environment.
But Digable never comfortably fit into media and record company pigeonholing, opting to harpoon their career with the misunderstood classic, Blowout Comb, a first-clenched and radical alchemy of Public Enemy, Roy Ayers and Stokely Carmichael. As funky as it was furious, the album was destined to flop amongst a public looking for the cuddly coffee-shop simulacra of “Cool Like ‘Dat.” Of course, the inevitable break-up followed. Butler dabbled with Fender Rhodes’ and watery Sly Stone recreations under the Cherrywine guise, occasionally reuniting with Doodlebug and Ladybug for a cash-grab reunion — I saw them play Coachella four years ago to an audience of kids who probably thought they were Arrested Development.
Then sometime last year, under the Shabazz Palaces alias, Butler started playing shows around his adopted Seattle hometown. The local alternative weeklies began hailing him as Seattle’s hip-hop savior (see Dave Segal’s excellent Stranger feature) and for a city whose chief national hip-hop exports have been Sir Mix-A-Lot and Jake One, the hope seemed warranted if not premature. Unlike the rest of the pop world, rap tends to follow Fitzgerald’s axiom about there being no second acts in American life. Perennially youth-obsessed, once a rapper drops off the radar, they rarely return, barring the unique case of MF Doom who essentially had to wear a metal mask and shape-shift using an ever-evolving array of aliases in order to keep kids from forgetting that really, he was just a chubby 4o-something dude who probably still kept crates of comic books under his bed.
So treat Shabazz Palace as Butler’s MF Doom homage — his own attempt at revolution. Renaming himself Palaceer Lazaro, Butler has offered few interviews or information about the project, no Myspace page, no Twitter feed. It’s an attempt to create an aura of mystery in a new-media mangled landscape where new jacks like Wale update their Twitter 72 times a day to offer fashion and fantasy football tips. The sound of Shabazz Palace is consonant with the desire for mystery — a hermetic and insular world full of fuzzy beats that seek to forge a compromise between Dubstep and Def Jux. Slang-dipped raps that mix battle-rap shit talking — he boasts about “sprinkling hot sauce on your cabbage” — with afro-centric fulminations targeted at rappers who sold out to the “white man’s establishment.” Song titles so long-winded they’d put Bright Eyes to shame, including “kill white t, parable of the nigga who barrels stay hot, made by [email protected],” and “my mac yawns i go on to make this darksparkles move call it: as the americans say, middle section made by plcr runner reg.”
It’s simultaneously a shocking re-invention and a culmination of the promise that Butler offered nearly 20 years ago. Moreover, it’s a continuation of the angry underground aesthetic that had seemed played out when people realized that Sage Francis and Immortal Technique were Sage Francis and Immortal Technique (skinny jeans are nothing compared to the perils of vegan rap). We’ll see where this goes, but for now, Ishmael Butler has rescued himself from being a milk carton MC. The tribe of Shabazz is no longer lost.