A Long Lost Interview With Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces

Around the release of Black Up, Matt Shea spoke with the Shabazz Palaces frontman about his creative process, his chemistry with instrumentalist and musical partner Tendai Maraire, and signing to Sub...
By    February 28, 2019

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I can’t recall exactly why this interview never got published. I seem to remember something about filing it along with a Big Boi story to Marcus Teague, my editor of TheVine, down in Australia, but he was swamped in deadlines and missed the second piece, and like a chump I never followed up.

I was pretty bummed at the time, in part because I thought this was just about the best (phone) interview I’d done up until that point. But let’s be real: it was a pre-release Shabazz Palaces interview covering Black Up for an Australian lifestyle website. I didn’t exactly lose a scoop.

Looking back on your old work is weird but this almost actually maybe holds up. It’s a bit too mannered at times — these days I’d let the questions roam a little more, international delay be damned — but by the end of the conversation we’d managed to make it to the more esoteric stuff.

As for my editor, he still paid me for the story via this thing called a kill fee (how quaint). Now, we work together and Slack about chocolate bars and festival food trucks. All’s well that ends well. – Matt Shea

Ask even the most clued-up rap critic about Shabazz Palaces during the last two years and they would have struggled to provide you with anything more than a rough sketch. Information about the group was hard to find, and dripped out on to the internet at a frustratingly slow pace. It’s only now that Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire are slowly emerging out of the shadows to take ownership of the remarkable music they create.

Timely too, because Shabazz Palaces have released arguably the best record of the year so far. Black Up is a nebulous and challenging listen, but one that has a profound effect once the musical cues start to gain traction. The group’s twin 2009 EPs were impressive enough in their forward-thinking approach to rap music, but Black Up is something else entirely, the debut long player twisting to release itself from the genre that ostensibly defines it.

Part of the early mystery surrounding Shabazz was down to Ishmael Butler’s reluctance to give interviews. But rather than that making him a testy subject, Butler’s lack of media engagement means he’s yet to sub-consciously stack the stock answers that interviewers so often have to work their way around. He’s warm, attentive and unstintingly honest about the way he and Maraire create music and what he sees as the meaning behind it.

Butler’s generous with his time too, so I got to discuss all sorts of things with him: from his early 90s work with the “coffee house” rap of Digable Planets to Shabazz’s signing with Sup Pop and the instinct behind making such distinctive music. 

You’re talking to me from Seattle?

Ishmael Butler: Yeah, I’m in Seattle.

You’re still living there, yeah?

Ishmael Butler: Yeah, I’m up here living.

That’s a good place to start. I know you lived in New York for a while during the 90s before coming back to Seattle. Why Seattle? What’s special about the place?

Ishmael Butler: I think as with any place, it’s your atmosphere, and I mean that from the weight and the feel and the color and the moisture in the air to the cultural make-up of the city and how many hills and trees there are and so on. All of these things influence your artistic endeavor because it’s an expression, and your expression is going to be very influenced by your surroundings.

I’m not a cerebral enough person to be able to necessarily call all of those things out: although emotionally I can feel how it influences me, I can’t necessarily put together the words to say how. But it’s profound, and it’s deep, and it’s surprising sometimes even to myself when I can hear things and recognize slight amounts of where it came from in terms of my surroundings. But you know, I don’t really know! I know that it is there and it’s true, but I don’t really know how.

Did you struggle to capture a similar thing when you were living in New York?

Ishmael Butler: No. New York is different and it contributed greatly to the stuff that I involved in making out there. I’m more of a man who goes off instinct and the music I make is more instinctive – it’s not cerebral or thought about; it’s more actions rather than just contemplating what and why these actions take place.

That leads nicely onto a question I wanted to ask you about Black Up. It’s easy to think of it being a cerebral listen, I suppose, and it’s natural then to think of it being an exacting, almost scientific process in the making, but I’ve gotten the impression from past interviews it’s a more instinctual process for you.

Ishmael Butler: Yeah.

Is that what dominates for you in the studio: instinct?

Ishmael Butler: If anything has been thought about and a decision made in terms of the music, it’s that what happens should be believed in and trusted, regardless of where it sits or how it’s going to fit in with this song or that song. We’re going to live and die with what we make out of our instinct. That is it, for sure.

Given you approach things in such an instinctual manner and the record’s such a leap forward from the EPs, were you surprised by how different it turned out in the end?

Ishmael Butler: Yes and no. It’s almost like if you have a kid and you see somebody and the kid’s five, then you don’t see that person again until the kid’s 15 and they say, “Wow! Time really flies. Look how he’s grown.” But you’ve been there every day. You’re amazed at it, you’re taken by it, but at the same time you were there, so it’s grown on you and been familiar to you in a way that doesn’t allow you to have that shock about it. But I feel what you’re saying, and it’s kind of yes and no.

You’ve got that neat lyric on the last cut from your self-titled EP – your last EP: “Got this pain in my neck, came from staring at stars”. Do you think that sums up the Shabazz concept to a certain extent for you guys: always looking up, trying to move things forward a bit?

Ishmael Butler: A lot of people feel that, but we don’t feel like that’s what we’re actually doing, like we’ve got to reach for something weird or more different, or anything like that. If it comes out that way, yeah, maybe so, but it’s for you guys to say, not really us, because to us it’s the way it should be. These are the sounds that happen and we don’t see it any other way. It’s not like we’re going, “Oh, that sounds too normal. Let’s try and do something else.” It is what it is, but at the same time we believe in what we’re doing regardless of whether it sounds like anything else or not, which a lot of times it doesn’t, but we’re cool with that, you know.

We’re talking about instinct – and maybe I’m just reflecting my own impressions of your music – but would you describe yourself as a spiritual person, Ish?

Ishmael Butler: Yeah, I think in the sense of something is a natural spirituality. It’s not learned. I don’t have knowledge of anything. I don’t read any spiritual books. I’m not necessarily linked to one religion or the other. But I feel like I’m in a constant conversation with the universe and the natural aspects of life. It is weird and it is spiritual and it is ethereal, and it’s a big influence on me. Although I don’t necessarily be knowing where this shit comes from, I still invest a lot of my trust in it. I think that is spiritual.

People seem to really react to that tension and then catharsis in your music, but in a variety of different ways – is that satisfying?

Ishmael Butler: What’s been satisfying for me is that these ideas that end up being recorded – they come from some place that I can’t call out, that I can’t point to. So, what’s happening to me is being conveyed in the sound and maybe making that same kind of thing to the people when they listen to it, so that’s been a good thing. I don’t know, man, because this is happening to me too. When you describe what you feel when you hear it, that’s what I feel like when I do it. Where’s this coming from? What’s this about? It’s like that – it is like that.

Do you ever worry that you’re going too far for people to follow?

Ishmael Butler: No. I think because of the whole Digable stuff, I don’t care about that shit. What I feel is this: of course my music isn’t going to be something that every single person who hears it likes. But those that do like it, I’m cool. If it’s not a million, that’s fine. If it’s enough for us to go on tour and make another album, I’m cool with that. My expectations aren’t driven by some specific goal; they’re driven by wherever the music takes me – that’s a blessing, that’s a fortune to me, so I’m good.

Is the instinctual approach the reason for your crazy track names? I had to write a 70-word review the other day—

Ishmael Butler: (Laughs) Well, my question is this: all these artists who say that they deal with expression as something that they’re compelled to do, but the titling of songs has always been a business move. You know what I’m saying? It’s always been about being concise and snappy and readily available so that people can buy it, but at the end of the day when you make a song it’s an opportunity to then do something else. When titling it’s an opportunity to go deeper and go further and pay more homage to an inspiration or something like that.

My question is, how come more people don’t have more involved titles to the art that they make? It’s beyond my comprehension. Some people have even thought we do it intentionally to make it hard for people to write or something like this. (Laughs) That’s crazy – we don’t do that – but it’s an opportunity to make something even cooler when it comes to talking about this artifact that is called this: “Oooh. Wow! Let’s get into it.”

Talking about your decision to sign with Sub Pop – why go with those guys? Why them over someone else or a specialised hip-hop label?

Ishmael Butler: Man, it’s difficult to really say. Everything’s special about them. In terms of being purveyors of music, they are the most talented I’ve ever come across. Their observation is keen and their taste is impeccable and all the groups on the label – you might not know them or you might not have heard them but when you do you’re like, “Damn, these cats are bad!” And they do it just time and time and time again. It’s just an awesome place to be, and it’s very difficult to encapsulate it into a couple of sentences. They’re just awesome.

Is it liberating in a way to be with a label that doesn’t have a massive history in hip-hop?

Ishmael Butler: Yeah, but I’ve gotta say, to be honest the whole ‘first hip-hop on the label’ thing never really comes up. And when I say ‘comes up’ it doesn’t come up in the sense that it’s not hurdle, you feel me? They’re a record company and they’re awesome at being that, so they sell music and they have a good philosophy on understanding that quality is going to drive anything that we do. First of all we’re going to try to make it good, we’re going to deal with people who care about what they’re saying and doing and playing. And basically, everybody has a love. It’s not about somebody trying to be famous or anything, although everybody has their aspirations, of course. But at the end of the day, money involved or not, everybody down there would still be working in music, you know what I’m saying? That’s just the bottom line. You can imagine what kind of atmosphere that creates, especially after cats have a certain amount of success and it gives them a nice cache in the music realm. It’s pretty awesome, man. It’s pretty awesome.

Do you think if you’d signed somewhere else you would have had the label trying to reign in your more experimental tendencies?

Ishmael Butler: I’m not sure. There are two ways of looking at it. Nobody is going to tell us what to do when it comes to the music. Nobody is going to influence us, nobody is going to try and convince us to do ‘Z’ instead of ‘C’, but at the same time if you need help or you need advice, there’s somebody there to give it to you in a way that won’t crowd your artistic space. If you don’t need help, then they’re not going to bother you at all, and whatever you give them, if you’re satisfied with it, they’re going to work it as well. That’s the atmosphere they create – it’s very unique.

Going back to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. It’s a musically vibrant and diverse area – does that mean a wide array of sounds and influences flow into your music?

Ishmael Butler: Oh yeah, for sure. We’ve got this radio station here called KEXP, and they have probably 25 different shows – heavy metal, local punk rock, world music – this is what’s happening seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That’s a reflection of the city and the way the city approaches music. You hear so much shit and you see so much shit that it grows on you in ways that you can think of, and probably more in ways that you can’t even imagine. It’s like that, man.

What about the flipside? Because hip-hop’s a slightly smaller thing there, does that mean it weaves a little more seamlessly into the overall fabric of the live music scene?

Ishmael Butler: You could look at it locally, but then you’ve got to think about what hip-hop means to the overall fabric of music nationally and internationally. Because a lot of these shoe-gazing bands or indie bands: were their beats as heavy 20 years ago as they are now, because of hip-hop? What about a drummer’s sensibilities? Just because cats are 23 to 27-year-old white dudes but they were still raised on hip-hop. Everybody knows those rhythms and those sounds and everything. I think the good term you used was ‘weaving’: it’s hard to really say but it’s all in there, like, “Dude!” There’s such an array of influences in so many people’s shit that it’s pretty deep. I don’t really think about it that much, though. I’m thinking about it now that you’ve asked me.

What about you, Ish? Shabazz is obviously a very different project to Digable Planets, but do you consider yourself very different as an MC compared to 20 years ago?

Ishmael Butler: Yeah, of course. But I feel like if I say ‘yeah’ then some people are going to be like, “Nah dude! I’ll compare this verse to that verse.” Then there are some people who, if I say ‘no’ are going to be like, “Dude. You’re the same. Look what you said here and look what you said there.” It’s such a duality and it’s all up to the person listening. I think a case can be made for both and I don’t really think it’s up to me to do it, but when you ask me I do think I’m a lot different. But then there’s people out here doing shit and people have to intervene and tell them, “You’re really like this,” and they never really thought about it, so I don’t think I’m really an authority on myself. You’ve gotta ask one of my girlfriends or something – I’m sure they’d have a whole other story than I would. (Laughs)

What about as a person? Do you think you’ve changed as a person? Obviously, things change, but do you think you’ve got a different outlook compared to the Digable Planets days?

Ishmael Butler: For sure. I mean I’ve had some profound changes in my life. There have been kids and being in love and losing love and moving and having money and not having any. There are just a lot of things that you learn about yourself. I’ve known some good people whose ideas stuck with me and I think have been able to help me change. I won’t necessarily say for the better, but for good reasons and with good intentions, and honesty, and forthrightness, and integrity and stuff like that. I mean, my mom passed. Just a lot of things that bring maturity to someone who’s willing to look at oneself and see where improvements can be made. So I have changed a lot. I hope so.

Any plans on getting down to Australia for Shabazz?

Ishmael Butler: We’re coming. We’re coming, man! I just found out today, they’re talking about November. We’re coming in November.


Ishmael Butler: Yeah man.

And is that just on your own or part of some sort of festival or wider tour group?

Ishmael Butler: I’m not sure, but I know my manager told me we were lookin’ at being in Australia for ten days, so I guess we’re going to get around and do as many places as we can.

Do you guys enjoy travelling? Particularly touring: getting out and playing live shows?

Ishmael Butler: More than I can say, man. I mean, at heart I’m a traveller and an explorer and an adventurer.

What’s more important to you, then: perfecting what you do in the studio or getting up and entertaining onstage?

Ishmael Butler: I think they’re both inextricably linked to a certain extent. Once you’re out on the road and enjoying yourself you’re going to miss getting up at two in the morning and going to the fridge and gettin’ something to drink and going downstairs and gettin’ on a beat. Of course you miss that. But when you’re in the house doin’ that shit for five or six months a year at a time, you’re like, “Dude, I can’t wait to get on a plane!” (Laughs) One breeds longing for the other, when you’re doin’ it. It’s give and take, but it’s always good. I feel lucky too. I feel lucky.

When you guys first started getting up onstage, was it hard to translate your tunes to the live environment. Did you have to stop and think about it or did it still come in that instinctual manner?

Ishmael Butler: Tendai has been playing drums and marimbas and shit since he could stand up. I’ve been doing my thing for a long time too, so at this point in time because we’re older and a little bit more mature, our instinct has earned the right inside of ourselves to always do what we feel like doing. It was tough – we had a lot of stuff to work out – but we knew we were either going to rise or fall with what we’re doin’. There wasn’t going to be too much changing or modifying or trying to fit in or nothin’. It is what it is, and we knew we were goin’ to rock with it like that, if that make’s any sense.

Do you enjoy that communion with people when you perform live?

Ishmael Butler: I do. For me and Tendai – being onstage – we’re lightning rods for things coming from the ether. When we’re performing we don’t always remember what we did or what happened or what we said. It’s almost like we’re sharing that moment with the people that are there, so you can imagine how exhilarating it is. We love it. We love it, to put it short.

Looking ahead for the rest of 2011 and a bit beyond, what have you guys got coming up? Another album, perhaps?

Ishmael Butler: Well we’ve got many, many songs in the can. But the funny thing about albums is that for me they come in spurts. We’ve probably got 300 songs that won’t ever come out. They all lead you to the thing that does come out. We’ll be knuckling down soon, but we knuckle down every day, so we’ll see how it works out for sure.

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