Shabazz Palaces Arrives

We don’t need no words, just feelings.
—George Clinton

“Sitting in the car in my mom’s lap. I don’t know how old I was, maybe five. We’re on a beach, this really wide beach. She’s letting me drive. Might’ve been in the East, but I think it was the Washington coast. You could imagine in 1973 it was probably a little more laid back.” 

Ishmael Butler is looking out the second floor window of Caffé Vita, like recollection resides down on Pike Street. He’s wearing a grey Sub Pop T-shirt under a gold chain and a fitted, grey leather jacket. Mingus-like salt-and-pepper goatee, matte mahogany-brown skin. His recollection fades and his eyes turn to mine. “That’s my earliest memory.”

Butler’s sentences consistently start and end this way. He finds his words somewhere out there on Pike, then brings them inside and leaves them on the table between us. Eye contact as punctuation. He speaks deliberately and lucidly about big things, like his family history in the Northwest and the ethos of innovation it bestowed. 

“The Central District was kinda like being in a city down south,” he says, describing Seattle in the ‘70s, decades after his grandfather moved here from Louisiana around World War II. Back then, West Coast industrial concerns recruited Southern blacks to work the Boeing plant in Seattle. “The whole hood was mostly black people but everybody knew each other because they were the second generation of people that came up to build war shit for Boeing. The cats that ended up here were adventurers and explorers. And also this is new territory, so you’re talking about a mentality that was ingrained in cats from the time we even got here, you know? So it’s just a frontier.” 

Full gaze. Full stop.

Raised by bohemian intellectuals on both coasts, Butler, 42, has inhabited the frontier his whole life, from the trend-setting sonics of his first band, Digable Planets, to the haunted introspection and satire of his next project Cherrywine, to Shabazz Palaces, his latest. His steps have been few, but they’ve been consequential—a handful of albums, EPs and guest appearances, each one rich and deep and dense. They are an evolution, a studied reflection of life in the moment. 

For more than 20 years, Butler has maintained a creative focus as intense as his eye contact on this damp spring morning. Since the days of Digable, his uncompromising personal vision, peerless talent on the mic and forward-thinking production have yielded musical experiences that are both challenging and effortless. He’s right now making the best music of an already all-star career, unleashing fresh ideas with an authority that renders Shabazz that much more compelling. More than most artists, he recognizes the value of his offering. 

“I understand what is important to me and what matters,” he says. “It’s the music. There is no interest in the backstory as far as I’m concerned. Everything should be placed on the outcome, which is the song, the album, the artwork, the titles.”

Music is precious. If you believe otherwise—or if you’ve never given it much thought, or if a thousand 99-cent downloads have made you forget—Shabazz Palaces will set you straight. Black Up, the band’s debut on Sub Pop, comes out June 28. It’s a 35-minute sound sculpture—chain-rattle rhythms, echoey incantations, subsonic bass, Butler’s balletic vocals. It spans a half-century of Black American music—hip-hop, jazz, gospel, soul, rock, techno—plus a thousand years of African percussion styles. It’s not really any of those things, though, or any specific combination of them. It’s simply Shabazz Palaces, and it’s mesmerizing. 

“The album’s just gonna be what it sounds like,” Butler says, looking at me intimately. “Not too much talking about it.”

I could be lying to you and you wouldn’t know it!
—Lester “Prez” Young

Garfield High School’s librarian keeps a collection of old yearbooks in a small room locked off from the school’s main library. She’ll let you in if you ask. Leave a piece of ID and you can browse old copies of The Arrow by year. Check out the class of ‘87. There’s the color portrait of Reginald Butler—Ishmael Reginald Butler, the name credited for much of Digable Planets’ songwriting—smudge of a mustache, pronounced eyebrows, familiar smile like a { laid sideways. Below it reads:

Love Mom, Dad, Gran
“Keep on tryin”
I’m out of here

Towards the back is the Varsity basketball team photo: Ishmael Butler, #25. That year, Garfield beat Roosevelt 63–62 to win the Class 4A state title. 

“Ish let his play speak for him more than anything else,” says former coach Al Hairston. “He was one of our leaders and one of our captains. He led Garfield and went to UMass, made that team and was a prime mover in that program. I was surprised he dropped out of basketball to move to a music career.” 

Butler left UMass Amherst and moved to New York, where he took an internship at Sleeping Bag records, label home to pioneering hip-hop acts EPMD and Nice N’ Smooth. 

“That was at a time when hip-hop was like an energetic, brilliant teenager, looking at life very positively,” Butler says. “There were no barometers for success or failure, so it was about quality. It was about substantial things.”

Sleeping Bag was run by three principals, including Arthur Russell, whose outré disco productions of the early ‘80s echo in Shabazz Palaces’ oblong song structures, filtered vocals and buffed-smooth percussive edge—though Butler says he knows little of Russell’s music. While at Sleeping Bag, Butler recorded the demos that would get him signed to Pendulum Records as Digable Planets. 

Digable’s first album, 1993’s Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) went gold on the strength of “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” a boho hip-hop anthem that won the group a Grammy. Reachin’ also spotlighted Butler’s unparalleled production chops, his fascination with proto-rap agitators the Last Poets, his appetite for innovation and his metaphysical bent. (Consider the claim made in its title.) Blowout Comb, its follow-up, was more serious, more nuanced and more powerful. It lacked a single, though, and because the band switched labels before its release, sales were low. Shortly after its 1994 release, Digable Planets dissolved. At some point, the prodigal son returned to Seattle, where he’s making the best music of his career, 20 years after it began. 

“I don’t think back at all,” he says. “I just don’t. I never have. I don’t remember shit like high school, like when cats will be like, ‘Remember when we did such and such?’ I don’t. I remember when they tell me, but it’s not in my head. I was always thinking about something else. I was always thinking about something other than where I was at.”

Push a little harder, think a little deeper.
—Sly Stone

Shabazz Palaces appeared seemingly out of nowhere in mid-2009. The magic of the Internet: King Britt, Digable Planets’ sometimes-DJ, posted a song on his blog. Sets of cardboard-sleeved CDs appeared at Capitol Hill boutique Retail Therapy; no liners, titles or credits on the outside, only embroidered patches sporting stylized, vaguely Arabian Shabazz Palaces logos. These were EPs Shabazz Palaces and Of Light. A website appeared without fanfare, making the music available for download around the world. Despite the lack of available information, Butler’s voice was unmistakable. Word spread. Shabazz Palaces made their live debut at Neumos in Seattle in January 2010. 

Black Up plays differently than the EPs. Butler’s voice remains one of the most distinctive in music, relaxed but assertive, urgent but patient, carrying equal parts wisdom and information. But here the backdrop feels softer, more balanced and accessible, mainly due to the collaborative nature of the record.

Though none are directly credited, guests abound. Multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, born to a Zimbabwean percussionist father and vocalist mother, is Butler’s primary musical partner in Shabazz; his entire life has been immersed in African percussion styles and song traditions. Also present are multi-instrumentalist Thaddeus Turner and female rap/soul duo TheeSatisfaction, kindred spirits in progressive personal politics. There are certainly more. Shabazz previously carried the hermetic density of an auteur’s mission. Now it’s open to a wider, more beautiful, more tragic world. For a few brief moments, Black Up even revels in romance. For all his sensitivity, love songs were never before part of Butler’s MO.  

Butler produces alongside Seattle musician Erik Blood, who’s ear has assisted Seattle rock mainstays like the Moondoggies, the Lights and the Tea Cozies. The pair works with inscrutable sounds, often developed from scratch, generated by conventional instruments and mutated beyond recognition. Impressionistic, the music contours to any given environment. Is that a muted saxophone wafting through, or your earbuds buzzing with an incoming cell phone call? A digitally filtered snare crack or the shimmy of the 358 bus rolling through an intersection? Maybe you aren’t hearing what you think you’re hearing. 

“I did my best to not think of any existing music,” Blood says. “My thoughts ran more towards fictional spaces, alternate-universe realities—Nairobi as Tokyo, Africa as technology center of the world, that type of shit. And making each sound its own being.”

Butler shrouds his voice in reverb and squishes it low in the mix, demanding a closer listen. A deliriously romantic litany of niceties is barely audible in “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer).” Yes, that’s a song title. Others include “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” and “Swerve… The reaping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding).” Go back and read them again: These titles are stories in and of themselves, narratives that exist beyond the songs they’re attached to. They’re also really hard to put in print. 

The through-line to the record—to the entirety of Shabazz Palaces, in fact—comes seven minutes into its 35-minute run-time, track three. The chorus: It’s a feeling, sampled and repeated and modulated in key. The song oozes like luscious sunshine, surges tide-like over chromatic percussion. Words and music come together, the sum greater than the parts. You can’t lie to yourself / to yourself you can’t lie how it felt.

Butler’s lyrics refer to dazzle, sparkle, diamond dust, stars, shine. Maybe he’s waiting for substance to emerge from behind the ephemeral gleam of material existence. Maybe he’s caught between light and darkness, suspended between experience and illusion. Maybe he just really likes gold. 

If you understood everything I say, you’d be me.
—Miles Davis

In every project, Butler performs under a different pseudonym—Butterfly of Digable Planets, Cherrywine of 2004’s Bright Black album, Palaceer Lazaro of Shabazz Palaces. Operating this way separates one chapter from the next. It allows Butler to let go of the past and engage the present more directly. 

“You can’t be Butterfly in Shabazz Palaces’ world,” says Craig Irving, aka Cee Knowledge, aka Doodlebug, Butler’s compatriot emcee in Digable Planets. “Each one of his projects is a different language and the interpretation of who he is requires a different word.”

Artistically, Butler’s mercurial persona is an intelligent adaptation to a fluid life. Commercially, it’s a risk. It may have led to the poor sales of Blowout Comb (like sophomore albums by the Beastie Boys, the Pharcyde and De La Soul, only in hindsight was Comb recognized as a masterpiece). It certainly led to bewilderment over Bright Black, the missing link between Digable and Shabazz. 

Bright Black’s dark, electro-funk production—claustrophobic synths, disembodied voices, filtered electronic beats—points in Shabazz’s direction. But critics and fans of Digable’s humanism were put off by Cherrywine’s explicit songs about cocaine, cheap sex and expensive liquor. The possibility of satire, of meaning beyond the superficial, was never broached. Bright Black went largely unheard. 

“It was too soon after Digable Planets,” Irving says. “People were like, ‘Where’s the girl and the other dude?’“

“It was a step,” says Jake One, one of Seattle’s most internationally recognized hip-hop producers. “I think he had to do that to get to Shabazz from where he was. I’m really happy to see someone like him—so successful on a big level—switch gears and reinvent himself. In other genres it’s easier, but rap is so much about an artist’s personality, and everyone thinks they know that personality, so it’s hard to accept anything but who they were in the past.” 

“There’s a reason Ish was a star,” he continues. “That’s just who he is. A lot of artists try so hard to be avant-garde. With him it’s genuine. That’s probably why he’s able to reinvent himself this way.”

“You’re taking a guy who made up the backpack hip-hop thing without making it up,” says Tendai Maraire. “He’s an icon. But what everybody made him is not what he’s looking for.” 

“I’d say Butterfly created Cherrywine to make points that would seem too self-serving, too pretentious, too bitter if they came from Butterfly himself,” wrote New Orleans-based music writer Mtume ya Salaam on his Breath of Life blog in 2005. “(Who wants to hear a used-to-be-famous rapper complain about how hard it is to be a used-to-be-famous rapper?) I dig the Cherrywine album because it’s got two things that very few examples of youth music ever have: 1) truth and 2) consciousness.”

From all appearances, Digable and Cherrywine ended due to external factors. With the support of Sub Pop and the cultural clout he’s gained over the years, Butler can keep Shabazz alive as long as he likes. 

If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.
—Louis Armstrong

Here’s the part of the story that goes into cosmic, Sun Ra territory. The part that’s most fun and thrilling and inspiring to talk about, because most musicians don’t inspire the elevated discourse Ishmael Butler does. He explores intellectually and spiritually ambitious territory miles beyond most pop music. That he does so with an infectious curiosity rather than pretense is part of what makes the music feel both universal and personal. More than a mood-enhancing groove, Shabazz Palaces is head food, and it draws thinkers and listeners from around the world. 

Take the 31-year-old, London-dwelling Oxford Masters graduate who goes by Brother O and maintains a blog called Ishmaelites, an online archive of essays, reviews and videos that pertain to Shabazz Palaces. He recently wrote via email: 

“Thematically Shabazz has 2 sides to me—the problem and the solution. On the one hand it holds a mirror up to the age we live in and what modern Western man has brought into the world: the corporate greed, the choice to go with lower moral choices, the money, the automation, the information overload. On the other is the ‘response’ to that, and it’s radical. He’s not directing us to any man-made theory or philosophy. No Marxism, no Black nationalism, etc. It’s something much more primeval and elemental, according to Palaceer: KNOW THYSELF. ‘Find out who you are and be it.’”

Or Graham in South Korea, who maintains the blog The Scroll of Bifurcating Considerations and quotes the same lyric Brother O does above (“Find out who you are and be it,” from “Not splendored/Find Out” off of Of Light) and relates it to a quote Frederick Nietzsche borrowed from ancient Greek poet Pindar. Graham writes:

“When painted over a deeply beautiful bass line, it’s a powerful sentiment, one I think Nietzsche would have overwhelmingly approved of. Maybe that’s what he meant when he said, ‘What does your conscience say? You shall become the person you are.’

According to Thaddeus Turner, who’s provided “sound design” for Butler since the Cherrywine days, Butler’s avant-garde-ism emerges even in nuts-and-bolts studio recording sessions: “He’ll use a lot of metaphors: ‘Make it more shiny,’ or ‘Make it sound like day,’ or ‘Darken that up a little bit.’ ‘I need something more round’; ‘Can you do something brighter?’ He’ll use colors and light and darkness to describe where he wants you to go.” 

I suggest to Butler that he may be a synaesthete, someone who hears color. It’s a condition well-documented in psychology in which one neural pathway involuntarily stimulates another. Synaesthetes are often unaware there’s a name for this neurological fusion, that it’s anything extraordinary.

“Maybe it’s unique that I see it like that, but I don’t think so,” Butler responds. Then he considers further. “I think these notes are colorful. Literally. It’s so literal that I’d never even thought of it that way until you said it. I hadn’t noticed it. I just thought that’s the way it was. Because when you hear something, it feels colorful.”

Music is a language, you see. A universal language.
—Sun Ra

You may be wondering: What the hell is a Shabazz Palace? Who is Palaceer Lazaro? What’s with all the imagery and allusion? 

“Certain things need not be asked,” Butler raps early on in Black Up. The answers are in the music. 

“Ish is a poet, man,” Blood says. “He owns major shares of the English language and he does with them what he sees fit.” As much as Butler aspires to transcend language with his music, he’s deeply invested in language as a medium. The instinct to communicate overrides everything else. If he must be shackled by words, he’ll make up his own grammar.  

“This is a new set of letters and notation,” says filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, who directed Butler in Shabazz Palaces’ short film Belhaven Meridian. “It’s a new language. It’s what evolution is about, whether in music or architecture or humanity.” 

Shabazz Palaces is not entry-level stuff. It inspires esoteric conversation, which in turn fosters an intimate, more meaningful experience with the music. Though don’t claim you can’t dance to it. Says Maraire: “That’s a challenge as an artist. You can’t dance to it? Really? Come to the show.”

This is not blog-today-gone-tomorrow trendiness. It’s a cosmology 20 years in the making. The music demands—and rewards—commitment, the kind we’re often unwilling to risk in 2011. There was a time when we believed in bands, in genres, in music—before these things were lifestyle accessories, disposable, as ubiquitous and underappreciated as water flowing from a tap.

“We don’t have the tools to [commit] anymore,” Butler says. “You gotta be patient. You gotta know there’s something at the end of your patience that’s gonna make you feel fulfilled and rewarded. There’s no context in which to feel the things you wanna feel. We understand luxury as the ability to be able to do less. To remote-control things. Instead of walking to the store to get something, I can just get it from here. Think about how we have more information but we don’t do anything to get it physically. I think people are getting lazy. Fat minds. 

“The music, we believe in it,” he continues, seeing the world beyond the café window. “We believe it’s gonna take care of us if we give to it what it deserves and what’s in us to give it. Music always lives up to its expectations for me, as long as I live up to my own.” •