An Interview With Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces

Staley Sharples speaks to Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces about the loss of originality among creatives, their latest album Exotic Birds of Prey, wanting to pursue filmmaking and more.
By    June 11, 2024

Image via Stephan Gray

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Staley Sharples says that writing is telling yourself you’re worthless and a God at the same time.

In the wake of the breakup of Digable Planets in the late ‘90s, Ishmael Butler found himself at a crossroads. It was a time when labels controlled the landscape and the phrase “home studio” was nearly unheard of.

“At the time, it wasn’t so much that I was done with music, I thought commercial music was done with me,” Butler says. “My prospects were zero. That was a reality I had to face.”

Undeterred, Butler kept experimenting sonically until his creativity guided him towards what eventually became the Shabazz Palaces project. It’s been 15 years since those semi-anonymous first singles became a Seattle phenomenon, then a standardbearer for the next generation of the avant-garde. In this span, they have earned their place in the canon as one of the great experimental rap groups of all-time.

But at first, Shabazz Palaces’ success surprised Butler—as did the new set of challenges that came with being a DIY artist. In the early 2010s wild west of indie blogs and illegal downloading, Butler adapted to this radically independent new approach to the music industry.

“I went back to the basics,” Butler says. “I had to get the records pressed up, I had to put them together. Do the packing myself, go to the local record stores and convince the guys to put them on the shelves.”

From these grassroots efforts sprang seven studio albums and a long-standing relationship with Sub Pop. The latest release, Exotic Birds of Prey, finds Butler continuing to explore the astral future of sound.

This is a sonic world straight from a science fiction story.

“The influence of science fiction blankets my life,” Butler explains, citing Andre Norton, Richard Morgan, and Robert Heinlein as personal favorites. With an accompanying techno-horror short story written by KEXP DJ Larry Mizell, Exotic Birds of Prey offers a mystical trip into the chrome-plated beating heart of the Shabazz Palaces odyssey.

The seven-track album features regular Shabazz Palaces collaborators such as Lavarr The Starr and Purple Tape Nate, as well as other artists who may or may not be alter egos of Butler’s. Butler is fascinated with the idea of many realities being experienced through his music.

“Being an artist, me and my cohorts are able to embody all of our selves, if you will, through expression in music,” Butler says. “I like the notion of people living a life but having so many alternative approaches, personalities, and perspectives.”

This sense of heightened perception is evident in Butler’s presence. Each soft-spoken word carries an intentionality that stems from years of hard-fought wisdom and purposeful detachment from the “digital nature” of the music industry today.

“That shit is kind of whack for humanity,” he says.

Instead, Butler looks outside his window to seek inspiration from the “secret world of [his] local eagles,” who unwittingly became the catalyst for the new album’s title.

“The concept of them evokes fierceness and beauty—something natural and wild,” he says. “They are right around us, always communicating and working. They were endangered for a while, and I thought to myself, damn, only America would kill all of their symbols of themselves.”

While remaining a subversive and instinctively DIY musician, Butler is ready to face new creative challenges. The multi-hyphenate has recently branched out into different mediums, beyond his previous forays into comic books and art gallery installations. He’s very interested in filmmaking, and teased possible upcoming collaborations with Shabazz Palaces music video director and friend Stephen Gray. Recently, Butler made his big-screen debut as the star of Gray’s sci-fi short film LAST DAWN OF THE 6TH, which premiered at the 50th Seattle International Film Festival this past spring.

Despite this desire for innovation and artistic restlessness, Butler is always seeking a balance and trying to enjoy the present moment. He excitedly reflects on a recent performance with Digable Planets at Tennessee’s Big Ears Festival where the group shared the same stage as Herbie Hancock.

“We played the gig and [were] all in the dressing room, which was right by a hallway. Herbie comes in looking all smooth, looking good,” Butler says. “Then I find out he’s 82. This dude is doing dates back to back at 82. That’s roughly 30 years from now for me, and the thought that you can still be shaking and baking like that is very inspirational.”

With a European tour just wrapped, film projects in development, and more albums on the way, there’s no sign of Butler slowing down as he continues to forge his own visionary path through the vast expanse of our perpetually weird frontier.

Existing in society today, you’re living science fiction.

Shabazz Palaces: That was what it was. A concept of something you thought would never occur, but here we are. There’s online activity around our selves now. We’re projecting in another place. While we’re sitting here talking to each other, people are liking, commenting, and sharing stuff with us involved. That’s really sci-fi, you know what I mean?

Do you ever struggle to contend with all of your selves, your past lives and the remnants those leave online?

Shabazz Palaces: I feel that is a fortunate thing moreso than a hurdle. Just to be able to have any intention on things at all, period, much less things that were done thirty years ago. I never have too much negative experience with that, because my mind state doesn’t necessarily notice it or study it. I perform with Digable [Planets] a lot, there’s a lot of people interacting with Digable stuff online, and I try to participate with it, because it makes me feel good, and proud.

It’s good to embrace all of it and use that to observe how it fuels you into the future.

Shabazz Palaces: This lady recently came by to inspect the place I live—she had come by about six months ago to do the same thing. When she got here, she came into the studio and apologized for not recognizing me the last time she was here. I was like, I didn’t even—like that’s not a thing. But in her mind, for six months, she thought that she had upset me because she didn’t recognize who I was. That was weird to me because I never felt like that, but in her mind it was a fact that she was going to address the next time she saw me. That’s how it is. People see you, they find out stuff about you, and then they form solid opinions of you. They then live off of those opinions that might not have anything to do with who you are, what you thought, or anything. And once again, we’re back at science fiction. It’s wild to just be living in the world like this.

I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it definitely is wild.

Shabazz Palaces: It’s skewing towards… I don’t want to say bad, but it is dangerous, and it’s deadly, and it doesn’t seem to have any purpose or direction. It’s just a wilderness of self-centeredness and desire and branding and chase for money, fame, wealth, or whatever comes first, or some combination of it all. But why?

The desire for originality—which used to be the strongest goal amongst creatives, writers, rappers, musicians, painters, sculptors—has been lost. People are basically repeating what was successful, and that’s the way you get on and grow.

The quickest way to make something original is to go from your own experiences to the finished product, without it being filtered through anything external. That’s why I think we don’t see many things that we recognize as being original anymore, because you can’t be with all these distractions and influences when you go to create. It’s like ivy, it’s going to take over the building if it’s not actively maintained. You have to fight to not get involved in that shit, you have to be actively conscious of doing it. I have to do that. It’s tough, because [social media] is a seductive place, and it’s constantly attacking your attention. Everyone’s running art and culture through these places too, so it’s tough.

How do you protect your originality? Where do you go to get inspired, or keep that energy going?

Shabazz Palaces: I just try to practice a lot. I physically practice my instruments, write, try to mine the ideas from myself rather than something I’ve heard and been fascinated by. Or, if I like something musically, I’ll try to figure out what they did by working it out on an instrument, so that when it comes time for me to make something, I have the influences and the things that I like, but now I have the faculty to translate what i’m thinking and feeling into something with skill and precision and speed. Over the years, it’s become like second nature.

It’s one thing to have inspiration and influence, but being able to translate that idea into a real thing is hard. Being an artist is a lot of practice.

Shabazz Palaces: It’s toil, but it’s the positive connotations of that. You’re toiling, but you have purpose. You’re compelled to. You wake up and do something because it’s the first thing you want to do. You’re at work, but all you’re thinking about is getting back to this or that. That’s purpose in life, and that makes richness, more so than any material things. That’s why you see a lot of people with the desire to be famous or known, but no real purpose behind it. They don’t seem that satisfied with it. You see that a lot nowadays.

Do you enjoy working with other artists, or were there points where you wanted to work solo?

Shabazz Palaces: Making music is intimate. Collaboration was more of a crew thing back in the day. You didn’t just go do something with these people, or meet a guy in a studio and start a track, or send something to somebody and they send it back with something on it. I had to open myself up to that in the last six or seven years. I usually made music with friends that I knew. People would often ask me to collaborate, and sometimes I did, but a lot of times it never happened because of my reticence [regarding the process of collaborating]. Even if I liked their music, it wouldn’t always link up in my mind to do something with them. I grew into it. I like it, I respect it. It’s also a tool of the modern music industry.

That must be a different experience getting in a studio and making music with someone you don’t know very well. It’s a vulnerable process.

Shabazz Palaces: That’s how I felt. But people get paired up because it’s beneficial to the product, not necessarily to the creation. Now we see this proliferation of that idea, and it’s made for some cool stuff, but it’s also made for a lot of emptiness.

As a DIY artist looking back at this chapter, what advice would you give yourself when starting Shabazz?

Shabazz Palaces: As an artist now, you have to understand the Internet, marketing, and also expansion of product based on the main project. Instead of being humble, the new way is to assume that this thing you’re making is going to sell stuff, so you set up all of these infrastructures to let them grow with the music at the same time, and they also create revenue streams, and longevity through broadening your expansion into the public sphere. I’m retroactive—I’m about the music. Like, whatever happens, happens. But it’s not really like that anymore. You have to be a jack of all trades, and you have to be able to spend your time massaging those things in order to make everything grow. Otherwise you’re going to be stuck behind the eight ball by not having all your ducks in order to have this whole thing move along like a locomotive, with different kinds of cars that have different stuff in them based on the overall auspice. I would be more conscious of that, which is something I’m trying to do now. It is business, but it can be fun. it’s another way to express and create. I wish I had thought about that earlier.

Do you think you’ll expand into other creative avenues?

Shabazz Palaces: Growing up, I was the kid that was into the movie that everybody else was too scared to watch. As I got older, I really started getting into filmmaking. Really good movies would always get me excited. For some reason, I feel like there’s a lot more truth that can be told in these sci-fi horror films. I relate to them.

What was the last thing you saw in the theater?

Shabazz Palaces: It’s kind of funny because Napoleon was the last movie I saw in the theater.

Oh, really? Did you like it?

Shabazz Palaces: No.

I don’t think anyone did.

Shabazz Palaces: I went by myself and I was like, oh shit, I’m about to check this out, you know? And they said, you want to see it in 4D? And I’m like, 4D? Yeah, let me check it out. Yo, 4D is the whackest experience. Have you ever been to a 4D [screening]?

No, what’s going on in 4D?

Shabazz Palaces: Nothing! Your seat is connected to some moving thing where if a guy’s on a horse, they’ll move you around, and if there’s some mud in the air, they’ll throw some water. The seat only had like three moves. It kept recycling the same moves for different parts of the film. And I was just like, yo, this sucks, man. And the movie sucked. That was the last one.

I enjoy a really good series as well. Did you see Too Old to Die Young, by Nicholas Winding Refn?

No, I didn’t see that one. Have you seen Love Lies Bleeding? I haven’t seen it, but my friend said that it’s similar vibes to Nicholas Winding Refn. I like the director (Rose Glass) of Love Lies Bleeding, she made a movie called Saint Maud

Shabazz Palaces: Ooh, Saint Maud is tough. Very dope. Saint Maud, that was gangster. Saint Maud was one of my favorite films of the year. I thought it was beautiful and brilliant and edgy. Uneasy.

You gotta get on Letterboxd.

Shabazz Palaces: Okay, okay, cool.

What’s next for you?

Shabazz Palaces: I’ve got another seven-song album that I’m working on, as well as a proper full-length album, and a couple of projects with some of my self collaborators. Just making a lot of tunes, but also working on this film thing. Me and my boy are working on another film and want to finish that as soon as we can. Irons in the fire type shit, you know? I feel good, and I feel fortunate.

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