Shabazz Palaces are stretching the possibilities of rap music, so much so that Sub Pop decided to change the habit of a lifetime
Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler has been in the rap game for going on 20 years. He’s pretty much run the entire gambit. But hearing the tone of his voice as we begin our conversation, there’s absolutely no doubt about it – this is a man as hungry, as impassioned and as in love with his profession as if he were about to release his first record. “Shakin’ and bakin’ now, baby!” he enthuses about the upcoming Seattle hometown shows which coincide with the release of Black Up.
And he’s not alone in feeling that there’s something special about this project. It may seem strange that an individual who could justifiably be referred to as a ‘veteran’ now stands at the forefront of a new wave of American rap music, being mentioned alongside the likes of the barely-out-of-high-school Tyler, the Creator and his Odd Future cronies. But Shabazz Palaces, as pioneers of what some, but not us, are labelling ‘avant-rap’, are making intelligent, creative, fearless and boundaryless music, a world away from the relatively inoffensive, jazz-rap noodlings of the group which initially thrust a young Ish into the spotlight, Digable Planets. They became a US household name in the early-to-mid-90s, due largely to the phenomenal success of crossover hit Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) for which they picked up a Grammy at the 1994 awards.
And if the meeting of those early, tentative days of rap music entering the mainstream with the edgy, challenging and electronic realm of Shabazz Palaces seems unusual enough, add to this the fact that this record is being released by Sub Pop. Yes, that Sub Pop – then of Nirvana, Mudhoney, TAD and Soundgarden, now of Fleet Foxes, The Shins and Flight of the Conchords. It seems narrow-minded to linger too long on this fact – as Ish himself stresses, “at the end of the day, Sub Pop is a music label” – but it remains a fascinating move for both parties; a considerable shift in ethos for a label still best known for pioneering the ‘Seattle Sound’ in the late 80s, and also a huge leap of faith for the artist, trusting that a label with no track-record in this particular market would know how to handle a rap act.
But as it stands, it looks to have worked like a charm. It’s fair to say the affiliation has gathered significant attention, listeners eager to find out what Sub Pop have heard to lead them to decide, of the countless rap outfits that have passed them by over the past 25 years, that this was for them. And it does make sense. Black Up is as fresh, unique and alternative as anything Sub Pop have released in years. This isn’t a hip-hop record, it isn’t an electronic record.
Shabazz Palaces are an entity unto themselves. Lyrically it focuses on everything from the state of the competition, to ever-pertinent issues of race, to pure fantasy. Musically it shifts between futurist, glitchy soundscapes, dense, foreboding electro and elements of organic jazz and swing to create something which simultaneously appears to draw on the entire history of rap, and to be completely free of influence. In short, it sounds like it’s from the past, the present and the future.
As we speak to Ish he’s just emerging from the barber’s chair, honing that album-release look. Here’s what he had to say.
I read recently that you don’t really see interviews as being representational of yourself and Shabazz Palaces – is that something you stick by, and can you explain why?
I just feel that, y’know, there’s so many outlets for coverage of art that it’s somewhat diluted, and it seems to me that a lot of these kind of, anecdotal, personality kinda interviews where artists are just talking about themselves or talking about what their inspirations are – to me, that kind of diminishes and takes away from the artifact itself. For us, I think we just like to rely on doing the music and the people that cover it, that are supposed to be the talented observers and listeners, it’s incumbent upon them to go ahead and say what their impressions are of the piece. I think our role is taken care of with the music, then it’s up to y’all to do the other bit.
So you see going into listening to a record with a fresh outlook and no preformed opinions as an important thing?
I think it’s a luxury. When you come into something fresh then you’re allowed to be the most you, and have that clean palette of observation. And when you’ve been given these little indicators, you can already be off in a direction before you’ve even let the needle drop or pressed play or whatever. So yeah, I consider it a luxury to be free of that.
What initially drew a lot of attention to your work in the UK was the relationship with Sub Pop, and there’s been a lot made of yourselves being the first rap outfit to release on the label. How did that come about – was it a Seattle thing?
I think at the core of it, yeah. But at the end of the day, Sub Pop is a music label. If you asked a lot of the groups that are signed to Sub Pop, I’m sure that they’d feel that they are very different from the next group. So I think, without being cliché, music is music, and as purveyors of music, Sub Pop are experts at it, and are exemplary at signing groups that they feel that they like, and have a chance in the marketplace. So if you take all the superficial aspects of it away and get down to the bare bones of it, they’re a music label and they dug our sound. It’s cool to be the first, quote-unquote, ‘rap’ act on the label, but the label’s rich, dope history is what had us feel fortunate to be welcomed in by them. I understand where it comes from, but it’s not that big of a deal.
But do you not think that there’s something perhaps alternative or leftfield in your approach which makes you fit into the Sub Pop ethos? I mean, they could have been signing rap acts for years, but have clearly heard something in this record, right now, that’s led to quite a significant departure for them.
Yeah, I do, but I don’t know what that is. That’s a question you’d have to pose to them.
What is Shabazz Palaces’ approach to playing live?
The album is kind of a point of departure for the live shows. The live show is rooted in the album, of course, but it’s very, very different – a lot more embellishments, more elements which are conducive to a live performance that aren’t necessarily the way that we get down in the studio. It’s a lot wider and with more depth, a lot more spontaneous and improvisational. The live show is something.
An intriguing element of the project is the names – from Shabazz Palaces, to your pseudonym Palaceer Lazaro, and also the song titles, like A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer). So first of all, the name of the group and your title – what do they mean to you?
To be honest, it means so much that we don’t really explain it, and that’s not to be mysterious or cryptic, but we really don’t have an explanation to do it justice. Inspiration, when it comes to you, y’know, you might have a thought and write it down, and that thought can be a combination of a lot of different things filtered through you to create this outcome, and I don’t profess to be able to chronicle what all those things are, but when those feelings come and they produce a thought, or a line, or a title, we trust that thought. The length of it doesn’t matter. We’re not gonna say, ‘hey – that’s too long for a song title’ if that’s the way that we felt. It’s about just trusting your instincts and believing in them and then not having any preconceptions or having to edit them to achieve something that hasn’t been achieved by your own instinct.
I think that freedom of form and creativity, from content to titling to artwork, has played a big part in people getting so excited about this record.
I hope so. Y’know, you always have a lot of anxiety about how something you produce is gonna do and how people will receive it, so the fact that people have been liking it for the most part, you feel lucky and it makes you excited about going out and doing shows and everything.
So has the reception been a pleasant surprise, or were you confident that people were going to dig this record?
Well you know how it is, man. It’s a mixture. You’re confident cause you know you’ve worked hard, but at the same time you know that in no way guarantees it’s gonna be accepted in any way. So each time something positive comes around you feel good, but then you get that feeling like the bottom could fall out at any minute too. So, it keeps us with an ethic of just paying attention to what we’re doing and just to be thorough and appreciative, and showing that appreciation by working harder and not looking at the good things as if that’s truth and what’s defining us at the time, but the next thing that we do.
From the originality of the album’s artwork and iconography to a statement I read about the Cherrywine record’s title Bright Black being a Rothko reference, it appears that art is an active part of your work. Was there a specific artistic vision for Shabazz Palaces, and is that something you hoped to express through the record?
We take influence from art without question. Some influences are direct, like the Rothko thing, but essentially we like to look at art. Like, if we look at a Chris Ofili, who we dig, it serves as inspiration to us, but we also see in that the inspiration from life that’s similar to us that may have inspired him – that cycle of it is something that we live inside of, y’know. So yeah, it’s definitely a pronounced influence on us as people, and on what we do.
Obviously, you yourself have been in the game a while. How do you look back on those days in Digable Planets? Are they good memories?
Oh yeah man, great days. Great days.
Shabazz Palaces is the third main project you’ve worked on in your career. When you think about Digable Planets, then through Cherrywine to what you’re doing now, do you see them as phases and progressions of each other, or do you prefer to look back on them as three separate entities?
I think for my own sake, I just don’t look at things in that way. I guess when you’re living it you’re always in that music, so we’re always working on something new. So while I know that in a way they were steps to get to get to here, consideration of that isn’t something that I’ve got much time for.
While the album certainly feels very unique, there is something very current about this sound. How do you see it fitting into the musical landscape of 2011? Are there any people who you see as contemporaries or peers?
Well yeah, I think of everyone as that. We’re in it, y’know. It’s rap music. To us it’s rap music, straight up. Of course, I stay in touch with what’s going on, I’m aware of all the popular stuff and a lot of the underground stuff comes my way too. I like or dislike something based on my instinct and the way it tastes to me.
So is there a lot of new rap that’s got you excited at the moment?
Well … not really man. I do like all the Odd Future stuff, and I like the Rick Ross and I like those songs Wayne and them come out with. I like a lot of that stuff, I mean the songs are good. I do think it’s a bit of a personality-driven thing, but the music, some of it’s really good and I do like it.
With Odd Future there’s definitely a dark, electronic tone that’s also present in a couple of tunes on Black Up. Do you think there’s a reason for this darker edge to rap music at the moment?
Well, I think to an extent, because of the massive success of Odd Future there’s gonna be a lot of cats that just try to mimic that style, that’s just the way the marketplace goes. But I think with those guys, it’s such a singular motivation for them that it’s going to be difficult for people to copy or duplicate it. So I don’t necessarily think rap music is going in that direction, I just think those guys had good ideas and good skills and were able to do their thing and to represent their own style and feeling. I don’t know that the whole industry’s gonna head that way, or even if there’ll be a shift, because I don’t think there’s many people out there who can mimic that. But yeah, I dig that stuff, but I definitely don’t feel like we’re similar to it. At all.
But I think it’s safe to say that the popularity of this music at the moment both in the UK and the US is a reflection that people aren’t the happiest. I mean socially, politically, there’s a lot of frustration out there and that’s reflected in a lot of angry and dark music, cause that’s how the people who are buying records are feeling.
Yeah man, well we both come from these ‘democratic’, quote un-quote, powerhouses, y’know, and we’ve become involved in a fucked up war, so yeah, it’s definitely gonna be reflected in people’s state of mind and in the music. This is very sensitive and grass-roots music at its core, so the best of it, and the most feeling of it, is going to be dealing with and reflection the sentiments of the nation, and it’s often going to be counter-government, counter-hierarchy, counter-culture even. So yeah, I believe what you’re saying to be true, and I believe those are some of the reasons why.
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Words: Geraint Davies