“I’m Looking for That New, Mind-Bending, Bewildering Fly Shit:” An Interview with Ishmael Butler

Zilla Rocca speaks to the rap legend once again, this time about touring with Camp Lo, Seattle's current social climate, and much more.
By    April 28, 2020

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Shabazz Palaces have danced on quasars, touched gangster stars, transmitted radio waves of Uptown Saturday Night and Superfly to black holes for a decade now. But every space mission is a round trip.

The Don of Diamond Dreams is the return home. Ishmael Butler has conquered the final frontier and now he just wants to bump The Plugs I Met in the drop top Benz. Ad Astra soundtracked by Zapp and Lost Poets.

Nearly thirty years into his career, Ish still remembers being in the lab with DJ Premier and Guru in the ’90s while orbiting past Ultimate Breaks and Beats. He instinctively spits Inspectah Deck’s verse from “Guillotinez” when I asked him his favorite RZA beat, but his career is Interstellar – he walks back into our air space looking and sounding 28 forever, but we blinked here on earth and 27 years have passed. There is no atrophy, just diamonds mined, dreams crystallized, funk exhibited, subwoofers detonated, fly shit embedded. — Zilla Rocca

I got to ask you dude, as a rap fan as well, fresh out of the box. RZA and Premier, did you watch the battle?

Ishmael Butler: No doubt.

Okay, so more important than who you think won, did you or have you had any dealings with RZA or Premier in your vast hip-hop life?

Ishmael Butler: Just meeting them at parties and certain situations. I was never able to lab up with either one of those cats, but I’ve been around them a few times back in the Golden Era, in the heyday. They’ve always been really good. [Cee] Knowledge from Digable used to hang with Ol’ Dirty a lot, and Ol’ Dirty was really cool so when I would go over to Cee’s house he would be over there sometimes where they would come to parties and stuff together. But Premier and Digable, we did a couple of joints with some cats from that camp. We got one with Guru and one with Jeru. I was actually in the studio with Premier and Guru one time, but I was just there sitting in. I didn’t really say much to anybody because they were working but I touched greatness a couple times.

I don’t know what you saw on your timeline when you were watching the battle, but I saw the most random rappers, DJs, and celebrities. I was seeing Adrian Brody, Hank Shocklee, Fabolous, Method Man, Jadakiss, Black Thought. It was like the whole world was zoning in, it was so much fun. Fresh off the top, what is your favorite Premier beat?

Ishmael Butler: That’s a tough one. The first thing that came to my mind was “DWYCK”, but I used to listen to Daily Operation. I would wake up and put it on and then fall asleep to it. But “DWYCK” was pretty sick to me. Anytime I hear that, it’s time to get it popping.

Do you know what “DWYCK” stands for? “Do What You Can Kid.” Isn’t that crazy? That’s the best, it makes you smile. They don’t even say it. It’s not the hook, it’s not the intro, it’s nothing.

Ishmael Butler: That’s awesome. For me, him and Guru were futuristic. They were on some other material of space and time. And that sounds like some GangStarr shit right there, like “Do What You Can Kid.” I can hear Guru saying that.

What’s your favorite RZA beat?

Ishmael Butler: What I really like is “Guillotines,” but I also really really fucked with “Verbal Intercourse.”

He dropped that too, and then Premier countered with “Nas is Like.”

Ishmael Butler: I think in situations like that everybody wins. If you were there, you won.

I was checking your new record and I was thinking a lot about the podcast you did with Heat Rocks with Oliver Wang about Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustlers Convention. I was fascinated because I only ever knew of the “Sport” break from Lightnin’ Rod, I never heard that record. Hearing you talk about it; I went back because they were dropping a lot of pieces from the album as you guys were discussing it. So, I went and just played the record front-to-back for the first time after that and it connected a lot of dots for me with you, from Digable to Cherrywine to Shabazz. And especially Knife Knights and now The Don of Diamond Dreams. To me that’s the clearest manifestation of Hustlers Convention.

Ishmael Butler: You know, before he passed, on Lese Majesty, a Shabazz album, there was a sample of Jalal [Mansur Nuriddin] at the beginning of the song. I was talking to him about clearing it, so then we ended up talking once every couple of weeks, and he was in his late 70s at the time, and he passed away so he was coming to the end of his life. But he would be like, “Yeah man.” He lived in Marietta, Georgia, and he would be like “You know I got the sequels to Hustlers Convention.” He had two sequels to Hustlers Convention and he would just start rapping on the phone. One of the sequels he had was the past, the present, and the future as people, as entities, and they were talking and discussing stuff with each other. It was the coldest still rap I’ve ever heard, and it would be like 15 minutes long. And it was just in his head. He would just spit em and spit em and spit em, and to me that cat is the coldest cat I’ve ever heard spitting bars ever.

When you were connecting with him for that record – you’re not the type of person who’s very super-methodical, mapped out. You’re very much in the moment, carrying a vibe with you that is very free and leads to very interesting places. Have you consciously carried that album with you? It clicked in place for me once I heard Hustlers Convention in full and then went back to your catalogue and now in this new album I’m like “Ahh, I finally understand it.” Is that something you go back to and revisit that record every once in a while, or do you just know it so well that you just keep it in your mind?

Ishmael Butler: I think it’s both. I believe I’m more instinctive, but I know that there’s essentials and a pattern that I’m sure come up in the work. When it’s being told to me as an observation, I believe in it wholeheartedly. The first music I ever really recall hearing was Jalal’s song “E Pluribus Unum,” which is him breaking down the dollar bill. He does this whole 4-minute poem over a conga track, and he says breaking down the dollar bill and the history of America. I’ll never forget hearing that with my dad in the car, and he had all of those albums. He was my favorite poet in The Last Poets, and they had different incarnations and different members and shit like that, but he was just the man to me. My kids know all of that stuff, just from being in the car when they were kids just listening to it. That’s how it is in the fabric of my life, my family, and my creative output. The fact that you said that, I hadn’t really thought of it, but it is like that for sure.

I thought I was the coolest dad because I would play Cappadonna with my kid in the car, but you know, you kind of just beat me with that one.

Ishmael Butler: Nah, imagine that though. What is it going to mean to them later in life to pull some Cappa out? That’s how it is, you absorb that stuff from your folks, and you can tell your kids all kinds of instructive stuff, but it’s what you do that really stays with them.

The other thing I thought was interesting too was the last time we spoke, I spoke to Geechi Suede afterwards for a separate interview. I think you guys were doing the tour together, with Digable and Camp Lo. And when I’m reading the lyrics to the new album, there’s little couplets to me that are very Camp Lo-ish, which are awesome. I was wondering, were you guys writing on tour together or were you just hanging out, doing the shows? Do you tend to write on the road, or do you just have to shut that down and be somewhere separate and creative?

Ishmael Butler: I might write on my phone, like a group of words or a phrase. I rarely write lyrics all at once until I’m in the studio. But I’ll have a beat on, like I’ll look at my phone and start scrolling through shit, and then it’ll say – like my “phone’s not that smart” or something like that, and then from there I’ll just go into whatever I’m writing. I just think of things like that, I just want to evoke what I’m seeing right now and be like “That’s ill. That concept is ill. That thought is ill.” I’ll write it down, and then at the moment of truth I’ll start pulling stuff out and putting it onto the songs right then and there. But when I first heard Camp Lo, it was on “Coolie High”, so everybody was saying, “Oh, there’s this guy. He sounds kind of like you.” I remember going to the record store, listening to it, being like “Oh okay, yeah, he’s got his own thing. I can see what people were coming from with it.” So, I was driving down to see my dad in Virginia, and you know when you’re driving up and down the East Coast, there’s all those Maryland houses. So I pulled into one of those, and this van pulls up behind me to get gas, and it’s them. Suede and Cheeba. They jumped out of the van, and I was driving my little drop-top Beamer, and they’re like “yo yo,” and that was the first time we met. And ever since then, we just became really really really cool. He comes to my house sometimes and would stay at the crib and we would work on music and he’s one of my favorite cats. He could sit down and, in a few minutes, take whatever concept you started with and really flesh it out to some really dynamic and amazing lyrics and imagery and flows. He’s one of the most incredible cats that I’ve been around and have been working with. I’m sure that his influence has sunk into me quite a bit.

To me both of those guys – Suede is one-of-one, Cheeba is one-of-one. You to me have always been one-of-one. When I talked with Geechi back then, I was asking about his flow and he said that he patterned it after you, Nas, and one of the cats from Original Flavor. And he said the dude’s flow sounded like a fish with no bones in it, and that’s the flyest thing I’ve ever heard.

Ishmael Butler: See, that’s the type of shit only he would ever see and think of.

I’ve never heard another rapper describe someone as having a flow that sounds like a fish with no bones. I was like, “Okay, that’s untouchable.” Dude is the coolest, man. When I was listening to the new record, it seems like the first , and I could be way off, it’s just my interpretation, truly out-and-out, West Coast, windows-down Shabazz record. I think it’s to me a really dope continuation of Quazarz and [1 Time Mirage by] Knife Knights, very bombastic. These are songs that you could play with your girl in the car front-to-back. It’s like you could just press play on this no matter what setting. I think you kind of started with that on Quazarz, which to me was the beginning of being really accessible and melody-driven, while still having your signature slang style – clowning people for not being fly, which I’m on board for. That’s what I love the most. I don’t know what your main intention was going into this record, like “I want this to be the cruising record” or “the beach party record,” or again you said you’re very instinctive – I don’t know if you had any ideas going into the record versus how it came out when it was finished.

Ishmael Butler: To me, if you’re going to be a blogger or a writer or a “journalist,” you have to have some innate observational talent that’s different than somebody who wants to just write about music because they think it’s cool. None of the stuff that you just mentioned had I actually consciously thought about, but it’s all really close to the reality. A couple of years ago, I met this cat, Carlos Niño. He’s a dope cat out of LA. I go to LA a lot, sometimes just to catch some sun, but a lot to work and shit like that. I met this cat before I even started recording the Don shit. Me and him got cool, he’s a percussionist, he said “Look, if you ever want a studio or some shit like that, you should let me know. I know a lot of cats” because he’s kind of heavy. And I said “Cool, cool, cool.” He takes me to this place called Studio 4 West, this cat Andy Kravitz, dope cat from out of Philly, played drums on a bunch of Schoolly D shit, makes Schoolly D’s records, produces a lot of shit. He’s a heavy cat so he got dough off of that era, bought him a studio, got him a neat board one block from Venice Beach, and I want to mix there. So the whole time I’m recording the Don, in my mind I’m mixing it there. You walk out the door, you make a left, you walk 150 steps, you’re on the beach. So that’s where we mixed the record; that’s what I had in mind when I was making the record. So that whole, “California rolling, beach cool spot,” it’s in the DNA of the whole record. So yeah, there you have it.

Because being a rapper/producer myself, when people interpret your records in new and interesting ways it’s fun, but when they start putting it in places, you’re like “That’s not the point at all. I don’t know how you got to that point.” It’s fascinating to hear when someone totally misses it and comes up with something new, but you’re like “What? That’s not what I was going for at all my friend.”

Ishmael Butler: I truly believe you always achieve things you weren’t going for, and I just relinquish everything to that now. Even when I sit down and say “Okay, I’m about to make this happen,” it often isn’t that what actually happens. You’ve got to be Stevie Wonder-levels to be able to be like “Okay, I’m going to use these chords, these sequences, and this familiarity with these kind of sounds and through these machines with this kind of vocal in order to make this kind of feeling.” And I don’t have that kind of skill and talent. So, I’m just like “What I can’t do, I’m going to do it instinctively and get it down” and the feedback, I’m fascinated by it. Sometimes it’s wrong when cats aren’t really in it like that, they just trying to come up with shit and it’s based on things that they have heard other people say – it’s not original. But some cats like you, they’re tuned in to the frequencies and shit, so yeah that’s a really good observation, and actually really true.

Thanks man. When I was looking at the credits too, I was just like, “This doesn’t have a ‘typical Shabazz Palaces’ feel to it and I wonder why?” I was looking through the credits, and I was like “Oh, okay, newer folks.” But then you bring in homegirl from THEESatisfaction [now known as Stas THEE Boss], Erik Blood you’ve had for a long time, but I could literally see the credits, like “Okay, this is a new vehicle and he’s driving it on this side which is really dope.” And I’m wondering, you said you go to LA a lot — are you still in Seattle, or are you in different parts of the country?

Ishmael Butler: I’m in Seattle most of the time, when I’m not on the road.

So how is it not being in Seattle now? What is it like now, where there’s a lot of political activity and pandemic stuff? How do people out there get down because the West Coast actually handled it a lot better than us on the East Coast, and I’m wondering like if it’s because people are spread out already and are used to being that way? Like you can’t take a train and bump into 7,000 people like in Brooklyn. How has the lifestyle changed more recently, in the past couple years out there?

Ishmael Butler: Well, the city made a real decision to pursue a certain group of people and a certain aesthetic, so it’s like tech folks with Amazon and everything moving in, bringing in hella money and bringing in hella workers. Remodeling a whole section of the city and basically building a whole other city there, and all kinds of stuff like that. That tripped it out quite a bit and changed the social atmosphere here, but at the same time there’s an old guard that’s trying to hold on and keep things cool and eclectic and not homogenized and stuff. There’s that kind of dynamic but with the virus and everything like that, it’s kind of like do you have a Democratic governor or a Republican one because Republicans see the economy because of their affiliation and ties as the only thing they support. And anything sacrificed for the good of it is patriotic as long as they themselves don’t need to do it. Whereas here, in this place, Inslee’s like “Look, I don’t want people dying. We want to try and take care of people. We can do it. Let’s make a quick sacrifice, what we hope is a quick sacrifice now, and try to save as many people and businesses as we can for the future.” So that’s kind of the vibe. We were the Wuhan of the states for a minute and now we’re not even in the top 20 and shit. We were fortunate to have that situation here. It’s coming along pretty smooth here; it sucks the way the new guard of the techies feel, they don’t have as broad of an outlook on things as the old Seattle people did. Not to disrespect them, I’m just saying that’s the way it is. They get up, they go crunch their shit, they got their little activities they like to do. It was just different than it was here before and shit, and that’s felt but it’s all good. I get to travel a lot, but as an HQ, it’s a home with 5 lakes and mountains and you ride 45 minutes to get to the woods and all that, it’s really cool to come back and chill to. Especially in the summer.

When you’re taking rides out to the woods, what do you look forward to listening to? Is it stuff that you’d inspired, is it podcasts, is it audiobooks, is it mixes of stuff you’re working on? What do you do when you take long rides?

Ishmael Butler: I’ve got a lot of friends that got ridiculous musical taste and are also real diggers, in terms of they know all of the new hip stuff that ain’t nobody listening to, that nobody knows. I usually rely on them and their Spotify playlists and their mixes that they send me because I always want to hear something new. Something that is going to shock and amaze me that I hadn’t heard of, so I’m into that. I do listen to instrumentals of the musical ideas and things like that. I’m not a podcast or audiobook type of guy, although I’m not against it. I just haven’t gotten into it yet. I’m looking for that new, mind-bending, bewildering fly shit that I didn’t know was out there. That’s what I really get excited about.

Are you a fan of Griselda?

Ishmael Butler: Oh yeah. I fucks with them heavy. My favorite guy is Benny. I like them all, but Benny is the tiger out of the cage. I fuck with it heavy. But I fuck with all of them, and I’m happy for them.

I was fucking with them back when Hitler Wears Hermes 2 came out, and I was like “Oh, this looks dope.” It’s the style, the sound, it’s unapologetic – it’s like punk; if everyone is singing and doing melodies, we’re just going to rhyme. It’s pretty amazing, the same way Juice WRLD and Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi, they’re like the rebellion to people like us, where it’s like “You got to rhyme for 4 minutes straight.” And they’re like “Well, I never want to rhyme. I want to sing and bounce and that’s how I get down.” These dudes are like “No trap beats!”

Ishmael Butler: The Cappadonna aesthetic. 168 bars raw.

8 minutes, no hooks. And the crazy thing is, in his style, in his bars would be hooks galore, but that was just his charisma. It wasn’t even a thought. With your records too there’s a lot of space, which is what I like. Especially the last 3-4 songs on the record, it becomes more of a showcase of musicianship and a feeling, not so much style and blades flying. When you arranged this, were you thinking “Okay, the last part’s kind of like the cooldown.” How do you go about arranging records?

Ishmael Butler: My pop’s name is Reginald, and he passed away in July so I flew to LA to mix the record, and as I was landing I got the call that pops was in the hospital. He had been battling with Parkinson’s so he had different complications, and something ended up happening to him. He went to the hospital and never ended up leaving. And we was tight, my bro, all the cliché shit you could imagine about a father and son, we had. So when he passed away, I felt so sad for him because he was just fly, he loved life, he was just that dude livin’. So that affected me heavily. I got back to finish the record and ended up recording the last song on that record, “Reg Walks By The Looking Glass” and I’m just like “I feel like the record is like a sendoff, like when they put you on a little float like Native Americans do, and then set it off and push it into the water.” I kind of constructed the album so it begins fast, a lot of talk, a lot of tumultuousness, rapid fire shit, and it slowly evaporates into a sensual dream and a sendoff for the boy Reg. That’s why it has that flow to it, that trajectory, that going from something concentrated to something just washed out and dreamy.

It definitely has, like on Lese Majesty, how you would have little suites and little subsections of the record. This one sounded like the last 2-3 songs were like the main part where I was like “Okay, this is like the shift into a different idea, a different feeling.” I like how you said it kind of washes it out. How much time do you spend arranging albums?

Ishmael Butler: Let’s say someone sends in a file and the file rearranges it when you download it into the computer, in my mind the reason that happened means something to me. I consider that. Whatever that serendipitous arrangement ended up being, and that being the case, I also spend a little bit of time rearranging it and being like “Nah, nah, this shit goes there. This feels right.” And you know, maybe listen to it a couple of times, but I would say once or twice. And I like the things to not necessarily be totally decided by me. I like a little bit of natural circumstance that plays into the end result because I think that, in time, it’ll all start to make sense to me, whereas it might not have at the time that it happened. And that happens to me a lot.

That’s dope. You’re letting that space be there, it’s a process later on.

Ishmael Butler: Yes, because I feel that shit happens naturally that might not seem like it makes sense, like it happens in recording too. There are songs, I don’t really like talking about it, but I didn’t really like them. I made them though and they happened, so there has to be something to it. I’m going to fuck with it.

How did you get to that place? Was it a maturity thing, is it the reps of being a recording artist for 25 years? How did you get to that place, or maybe that was always your demeanor to be so open to let those things happen?

Ishmael Butler: Nah, it wasn’t. Like Digable days, everything was mapped out, written out to the bar. Before I even went in the lab, before I even recorded anything on Reachin’, which was Digable Planets’ first album. That whole album was written down on paper. Samples, the link to the samples, when I would rap, when Knowledge would rap, when [Ladybug] Mecca would rap. You know what I’m saying. Everything. As I started learning how to play music more, and really started getting into Miles and reading Miles’s biography, reading about Sun Ra, I started to think about the Bitches Brew era when Miles would just come in and hand niggas a couple chords and shit and then press record. I started being like, “Man, natural occurrences are just as fly and determined (even though you might call it accidental) and valuable as things you’ve planned. Then I started thinking, like “Man, natural things that happen out of nowhere, they started being even more exciting and stuff to me. It was just a combination of stuff like learning and the more that you learn, the less you sort of have control over it. The relinquishing of control, you can find diamond shit in that as well, and that’s how all that started.

That’s dope. I don’t know if you saw the thing where RZA talked about watching the Thelonious Monk documentary, where he got the same thought watching the Monk at a jazz lounge, smoking a cigarette, holding a glass and playing with the band, and just get up and walk away and go get a drink and a cigarette, and then walk back and just start playing the keys again — just being in it. RZA made “Protect Ya Neck” like that, just playing and touching, rather than “here’s the plan.”

Ishmael Butler: See, no doubt. There’s this one dude here named Charles Mudede, he’s like a writer and shit with paper here, and when I was inactive, not making music, I used to see him. He’d be at the bus stop and I’d be on my way taking Lil Tracy, my son Jazz, to school and we would pick him up and I would give him a ride downtown because it was on the way. A couple years later, Shabazz came out and I realized that he thought Ishmael was gone from the music business or he had gone out of it and wasn’t tripping over it no more. But now, I realize that every minute in his mind is music. It’s not about when it begins and ends, it’s always going. You do it too. There’s never really a time when you’re not really thinking about me, a rhyme, or music. Now there are times when you capture it and record it, but it’s always afoot in the mind. That’s how it is with me. I’m like “Man, let’s do it and see what happens.”

Do you have the thing that I have, where every day I wake up I have a random rap lyric in my mind, and I just have that verse stuck in my head randomly? I’m like, “Why am I thinking of this song?” and am like “Oh, maybe I should do a song like this. Maybe I should play it and look up the sample.”

Ishmael Butler: Yeah, all my cats, we speak in 40 percent rap lyrics. Everything you can tie into somebody’s bar.

Do you remember what the last rap bar or phrase you had in your mind randomly? It’s hard because you get a lot.

Ishmael Butler: Yeah, cats will be like, “Yo, a thousand people died in New York from Coronavirus” and cats will be like, “Yeah, protect ya neck.” It’ll go on and on like that.

The one I had yesterday was, me and my son were playing because we’re on quarantine lockdown as day cares closed, and I remember in the video for “Through the Wire” with Kanye, where his man is like “Without an arm I spit, without an arm I spit.” I just kept saying that. And my son is like “What do you mean, you don’t have an arm?” And I was like “Without an arm I spit,” and then he would start saying “Without an arm I’d spit.” Maybe that would be a cool hook, I don’t know, it’s so random to say.

Ishmael Butler: Right. And then like a year from now, it’ll come up again, and you’ll be recording, and it’ll be fly shit you put down.

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