As much as the bulk of his work with Shabazz Palaces properly captures the discord of living in 21st Century America, in conversation, Ishmael Butler sounds remarkably at ease with himself and his place in the world. After a career that has had tall peaks (the well-noted Grammy nomination for Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”) and low valleys (the underwhelming reaction to the undeniably great “Blowout Comb”), the Seattle-born-and-based (interrupted by a stint in New York) Butler– at age 42– is now making some of the most singular, innovative music of his entire career. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Butler about a wide variety of things, including his time with Digable Planets, his relationship with Seattle indie giant Sub Pop, and how his music is more subconscious than it is “conscious”. — Douglas Martin
The thing people notice first about Shabazz Palaces is the discord happening in the music, along with the politically charged lyrics. It sort of reminds me of the time around the WTO Riots, and how weird and unsettling the area was around that time. Were you here for that?
Nah. I was in New York.
How did that make you feel, watching what was going on here from New York?
I was in awe, but I also had a very cellular connection with the regional mentality and that kind of spirit, too. It’s vague, my memories from those times, but that’s kind of where I can remember thinking, of or feeling, when I saw that stuff coming across the television screen.
You were like out in New York when you were doing Digable Planets and Cherrywine, right?
Well, Cherrywine was recorded here.
When did you move back here from New York?
I think it was like… ‘95 or something like that. ‘96, maybe. I don’t remember the year right now, but it was around there.
Continuing with the subject of Seattle, Shabazz Palaces signed a deal with Sub Pop, which is the most legendary label around here. I was wondering if there were any other labels you guys were interested in, or what specifically did Sub Pop offer that no one else did?
With us, it’s not necessarily the things that are located in contracts that we look for in terms of partnering up. The feeling that they gave off from the people and the way that they approached the business of selling music, that made it a place where we felt comfortable– and beyond that, excited, and then beyond that even, honored to be down with them. It was just a very natural friendship– almost like a family-type feeling that, when we got up around it and close to it, cats were like, “Yeah, that’s fresh.” As you can imagine, for them to be not to be just a legendary Seattle label, but just a legendary label in general. Because of the way they approached doing their thing, it’s unique and it’s really, really good. I mean, the deal’s good and everything, but they treat the artists good. And I think that’s why they’ve been able to operate at such a dope level for a long time, and I feel like they’ll probably will be around even longer, like double that.
The thing I’ve noticed from interacting with their label people is that they’re really enthusiastic. So it’s really cool to have a label that knows their shit along with being fans. It’s something they do that I feel not a lot of other labels do.
True, very true.
Let’s go back a little bit. I’m interested in knowing how, when Blowout Comb came out– I feel like, and a lot of other people feel the same way, that record was a classic. And the way it was received was really lackluster. I was wondering how you felt during that time, if you were frustrated with producing such a great work and people not really responding to it, or just how you were feeling emotionally in general.
I don’t really remember, but I wasn’t frustrated, though. I think that a lot of people feel– especially people that like something– feel that, “Man, I think that it should have been more heralded or have had a little bit more notoriety.” However, for me at the time, it‘s like– it’s still a privilege and an honor and a great deal of excitement just to be able to put out a record. So for all that didn’t happen– we weren’t really approaching the music business like that. We were more interested in and excited about what was happening. The album didn’t sell a lot and all that, but we were still able to go on tour and do a lot of things that a lot of people wish they could do. I’ve always looked at it as a good time; I didn’t have any regrets about it or feel like or anything had been lost, or the ball had been dropped or anything like that. I was pretty straight at the time, and still am.
How did that– and then what you were doing with Cherrywine– how did the experience of being in the music business the way you were factor into Shabazz, if they factored at all?
It’s kinda like working out, or practicing a guitar. When you do your reps, you gain muscle. When you go to then do something where you’re exerting physical energy and power from doing your reps, you now have a little bit of added power. It’s hard to really pinpoint how, but I know that going through those things and doing all those things factor into it. I’m not a very cerebral musician or music maker; it’s all instinct with me. So, I think a lot of those things kinda just sink into me. I don’t think about them in specific ways, and then they manifest themselves in the music project that I’m involved with in, and then it’s in the sound. I think it’s something more cellular, moreso than something I can just be like, “Okay, it was this, this, and that,” and “this resulted in this, and that’s why that happened.” Some cats can kind of chronicle shit like that, but I’m not one of those cats.
What does the name Shabazz Palaces mean to you? What is your connection to the lost tribe of Shabazz?
The actual link is not necessarily the exact references to where we’re coming from. The word to me means a lot. Of course I know some of the things that’s going to come to mind immediately when people think of the word, and then there’s stuff that’s going to come to mind when people dig into the word when it comes to doing research. I’m well aware of all that. In terms of being specific about it, it’s not really like that. It’s more of an impressionistic kind of thing more than “this means that”. It’s not to dodge the question, but that’s actually the way that I feel about it.
Let’s talk about your songwriting. There are so many elements to what Shabazz Palaces does. Like, tons of different suites or movements– as a music theory nerd would call it– in the same song. Is there a specific point where you know a song is done, or is it an instinctual feeling?
It’s never really done, you know? Your instinct tells you when you’re out of it. Because it’s all coming from a place outside of yourself, and then being processed by you. And then your energies and shit go into it, and then there it is. And you can keep going on and on, but you can’t put yourself in it, because then you kinda betray the inspiration. It’s more like trying to figure out when to let go of it and leave it alone. And then over the years, you learn different styles of doing that, different ways of doing that. Maybe some people get more loquacious, some people get more concise. It’s really hard to tell. I also like to leave an aspect of open-endedness, but you can couple that with completion too, if you believe in what your instinct has put down. Plus, when you fuck with cats in a collaborative way, it’s like a cycle in which, over repeated listens, can generate new emotions. In the end, it’s cool if you can create a living thing rather than just something that has a beginning and an end.
In addition to the elements that come with your songs, Shabazz explores a wide array of styles, like hip-hop, jazz, IDM and world music. And I see you at a lot of the shows I go to; I remember us meeting at a Toro y Moi show, for instance. What do you take away from all of these different styles of music, not just in your art, but in your life in general?
I think the essence of inspiration is to be up close and next to someone giving so much of themselves, and also showing how they operate in collaboration. Being able to absorb that is empowering. It’s hard to say– like I said, I’m not really that dude that can come away from something, being able to recognize exactly what‘s happened to me. But I do know that something is happening to me, and that if I am brave enough to believe in the idea that it occurred subsequently to that and let it be, then it’ll be there to live on. I think it’s just like inspiration, motivation, beauty, and just the courage of people trying something and putting it out there, giving it to people. That kind of shit to me get my motor running in directions that are often surprising and amazing and always fulfilling.
A lot of people I know– myself obviously included– are banging Black Up right now. I was wondering, what are YOU listening to? What is getting you going, as far as music goes?
You know, I get asked that a lot. I always feel bad about my answer, but nowadays, because of access to so many different mixtapes in the form of podcasts and shit like that, I’m always looking for a song that I haven’t heard before that I like. So I be listening to hella longform mixtapes in the form of podcasts. I don’t always know who’s behind the some of the shit that catches my ear. I’m not really trippin’ off the names or the story behind who’s making stuff, too. As long as I like the song, I kind of just keep it at that. I like this group called Weekend, I think they’re out of Frisco. That is a record I’ve been listening to a lot.
Oh man, I love that record.
Yeah? You got that record? Shit is hard, right?
Yeah! That’s my shit right now! It’s such a ferocious record.
Check this out. So, we did SXSW, right? We were going on at three at the Pitchfork stage. And we get to the spot, and the cat’s like, “You guys are going on after these dudes.” So, we’re just chillin’ waiting to soundcheck and shit. Then, I look at the thing, and it said that Weekend is performing right before us, dude! I’m like WHAT? I got to see them cats, dude! Them cats was bad, man!
I also like that song “Racks” by Young Chris. It sounds like some East African shit to me, the way they be bumping that beat on that one, and how way they be rapping. I listen to a lot of old jazz shit, too. On some Seattle shit, I like THEESatisfaction’s shit. Fleet Foxes, their new album is pretty hard, too. I didn’t know niggas was singing like that, dude [laughs]! Them cats be really getting they croon on, man! For real, man! I just went to their show last night; them cats is hard, man. For real.
Do you enjoy playing live?
What does it do for you, as far as your mental state?
It’s hard to say. It’s very out-of-body. After a show, I won’t remember any activity, any action that went on, because I’m feeling like I’m in a different realm. It’s very invigorating and humbling, but not in a clichéd sense of the word. Just becoming in touch with how mystical being a human being really is. And connecting in that kinetic kind of way is a brilliance of feeling that is just rare, like the downside of a rollercoaster. You’re just flying freely, man. It’s hard to say. It’s something that I naturally peruse, because I’ve been doing it for a long time, now. I never really analyze what it is that makes me go there, but I believe in it.
Black Up got pushed back almost a month. Was that your doing? Was that you and the label talking and trying to figure out the promotional thing, or do you not get into that sort of thing, as far as promoting the record goes?
Sub Pop, the reason they’re so excited, is because I really believe they sign groups that excite them. Not just the music, but the people and the type of vision they have. They always want to know, “Hey, this is what we’re thinking, what type of shit are y’all thinking?” The record just got pushed back for manufacturing reasons, because the paper we’re using has 24K gold specks in it, and when it was being delivered, it got damaged, and it takes a certain amount of time to reproduce it. It didn’t have to do with anything other than the manufacturing thing. It is what it is. The reason that it happened is reason enough. It was disappointing, but not too much. After you learn what the truth is about things, then it is what it is.