Back in 1987, Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Mary Anne “Ladybug Mecca” Viera and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving came together to form Digable Planets, eventually moving into the hotbed of black artistry that was New York in the early 90s. With their laid-back, jazzy style of hip-hop, the group earned worldwide acclaim and success, particularly for the Grammy-winning single Rebirth Of Slick. Despite flattering reviews, their second album Blowout Comb failed to replicate its predecessor’s commercial clout, and the group split soon thereafter. Years later, Bulter and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire formed the psychedelic group Shabazz Palaces. Ahead of the simultaneous release of the third and fourth Shabazz Palaces LPs: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines, we caught up with Butler while he cruising around his hometown of Seattle.
Early Years: Seattle to New York
Living in Seattle when I came up, a lot of people moved up to Washington State from the South, so it was kinda like living in a Southern city: black-led, very familial, very tight-knit. But everybody that came up here had a very explorative mind and personality. It fostered an environment that I was able to flourish in. Thanks to my mom Barbara and my pop Reginald, I never saw myself in relationship to whiteness. I was able to look at human beings on an equal level and not feel like I had to recognise some hierarchy, and that in turn freed me up to feel like anything was possible. I went to college in Massachusetts, and then I left and went to New York in pursuit of music.
1993: Releasing debut Digable Planets LP Reachin’
Back in those days cats would run up and down the coast like, go to DC for the Howard [University] Homecoming, go to New York for the West Indian parade and all kind of shit. So I would see the guys from Digable Planets in different places all the time and we ended up drawn to each other and started making music. It wasn’t until I started working at Sleeping Bag Records [in New York] that I met a dude that had a studio. It was rare man, like the amount of people that you know who have a Rolls Royce? That’s how many had a studio. Then when we released the album it was so fast, every day a new surprise, every day a new dream realised, like surfing on the crest of a wave that you’re just trying to stay on. You couldn’t believe the view from up there.
1995: Second Digable Planets album Blowout Comb and subsequent split
People always took a reaction to Digable as being other than NWA or other than regular black music. I didn’t feel that it was, we weren’t from any place other than where everybody else was from. So I think that record was trying to put an exclamation point on that fact. Then we moved apart and wanted to do different things. The industry is funny and you’re young. Early 20s man, cats move in and out of stuff fast. People said we should have stayed in the group but it’s like: ‘why?’ We did our thing.
"I'm an observer from another place, or another realm"
1997-Late Noughties: Moving back to Seattle, forming Shabazz Palaces
I moved back to Seattle from New York because my mother got sick. I was glad that I came back and I was here, it was bittersweet, but there’s some destiny in that too. Then later myself and Tendai was living close to each other, he knew my girl at that time. I was still making music but I didn’t really tell nobody, I had figured that my time had come and gone. Then Tendai was saying to me, “Why you not making music?”. He was the catalyst. I’ve always liked to be a member of a group, so I said: “Yo, let’s do it together.”
2009: Signing with Sub Pop
We had released a few EPs that were popping in the city. People knew who we were. Sub Pop being the city label, they was cool with it so we ended up getting on. [In 2013] I became an A&R, I think they liked my musical taste and thought that I could bring some valuable recommendations. You should check out this brother Yuno out of Florida, he’s cold.
2017: Releasing two albums with Shabazz Palaces
Like all of my musical ideas, Quazarz come to me from someplace that I can’t really put my finger on. When I recorded the first album [Born On A Gangster Star], I started thinking about Donald Trump’s stance on what he calls ‘illegal aliens’ – what being an alien in this country. I started to feel like I myself was an alien being a black man born in America – I’m from a land that is not home. I’m an observer from another place, or another realm. It slowly developed over the course of recording it. It’s still developing now.
Quazarz: Born on a Ganster Star and Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines are released 14 July via Sub Pop