Shabazz Palaces Is Ishmael Butler’s Path to Understanding

We speak with the Seattle legend to figure out how, exactly, he always stays one step ahead of the game.

Ishmael Butler has always been ahead of his time. He will remain so until the very end—not his end, but the very end—though by then he’ll probably have figured out how to save our bumbling selves from destruction, so never mind. Butler has turned rap music upside down twice over, seeing a world unavailable to the common eye.

Butler formed Digable Planets in the early ’90s with Craig Irving and Mary Ann Vieira. The group released two outstanding albums—Reachin’ in 1993 and Blowout Comb in ’94—and broke up shortly after, citing creative differences and disappearing into the ether. Back then, Ish was rapping under the name Butterfly, and in the mid-2000s he made music under the name Cherrywine. He returned to Seattle and eventually became Palaceer Lazaro, the man we now know as the creative engine behind one half of Shabazz Palaces, along with multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire.

As you’ve no doubt discerned, Butler is a big fan of aliases and alter-egos. He changes his name, he writes from all sorts of different perspectives, and the wobbly shifts of Shabazz Palaces’ discography reflects these many states of being. When I talk with Butler over the phone from his Seattle home, he reflects on how his work with Shabazz—and subsequently, everything he’s done—is an attempt at self-discovery.

“The notion that people—a person—is just one thing, behaves and acts in a linear way… I don’t subscribe to that belief,” he says. He’s eloquent and intentional in his speech, but he also sounds like he’s making these discoveries as he speaks them. “It’s not like [these personas] delineate or derivate from who I am; they’re actually deeper investigations of me as far as I’m concerned,” he continues. “The more time you spend doing one artistic endeavor, the more you can reveal over the course of time. I’m at that stage with Shabazz where more is being revealed.”

While the Shabazz Palaces project may be an outlet for Butler to examine himself and reveal previously undiscovered states of being, that doesn’t mean that the group’s two new albums—Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Starare exercises in radical transparency. They’re hypnotic space-rap odysseys, full of complicated twists and turns, which means the man behind the music is still very much a mystery. The vibe is looser on these records than on works of Shabazz past. Is there a reason why? “I don’t know but I believe you,” he says.

Butler, it should be noted, does not like talking about his music, the motives behind it, or what it says about him or the world. The music is dense and unfiltered, somehow stream of consciousness while showcasing his thread-like precision. These new records were made during and after the 2016 campaign and election, and while they don’t always reflect this historic atrocity in theme, there’s a ferocity to the music and Butler’s voice that permeates throughout both albums.

“It’s all a reaction to that. But tangible—it’s not literal,” Butler says. “If somebody comes at you and the people you feel close to and that you’re kin to, and you’re making some art, that whole attitude is gonna be in it.”

“I don’t fuck with the future; I’m all about expanding the now.”

But these new Shabazz records are really about technology: our relationship to it and succumbing to the passivity it allows. On “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell,” the second track on The Jealous Machines, Butler raps, “Gluttons for distractions / Swiping all the time / Everybody rappin’ / Everybody trappin’.” Butler sees technology—and more distinctly, our phones—for what they are: glorified ego strokes for when we’re lonely.

“Everybody has a very intimate relationship with their phone. Because their phone and their device is there at times when no other human beings are around. It’s hard to really talk about it in an honest way—or to even want to,” he says.

We’re unwilling to acknowledge the way we commodify shared experiences, because then what would we have left?

He goes on: “I try to temper the amount of time I spend on my devices because it’s just too narrow of a vision, physically, symbolically, and literally—just staring into a screen too long… It’s not good for you. But at the same time I spend a lot of time doing it. It works out for me as well. Everybody’s gotta find their own way.”

Aside from the technological focus, Butler’s coming for more heads on these new records. The music is less insular than on albums past. The aggression gives these records a propulsion that allows our modern, technology-addled minds to consume these two records in one sitting. With the focus pushed outwards, Butler is here less to offer solutions and remedies and more to reconcile our issues in a way that allows forward movement.

He stresses a positivity that reigns throughout these records, if not in sound then certainly in spirit and intention. We talk about staying hopeful in these times, and his answer is simple: “Make music, listen to music, enjoy music with other people, dance to music. All that: music. Music keeps it manageable, you know?” Express your world through the ways you know how and it will get better.

So how, exactly, does he keep moving forward? “I love it and I lived it and I have a reverence for it,” he says of the golden era of hip-hop that he helped define, “but I don’t adhere to it as a ballast or anchor.” But when we discuss making future music, he’s equally bristly. “I don’t fuck with the future either; I’m all about expanding the now. I feel like that mentality keeps things fresh in my mind,” he says. It circles back to our relationship with technology and the need to avoid using it to fill a void. “The vista—the landscape—is always promising to me. Because it’s not tied to nothing and it’s not trying to achieve nothing. Me and the cats that I fuck with, we’re all about the now. Not no futuristic shit and not no throwback shit.” It’s hard to see the horizon if you’re staring at your phone.

Butler insists that these two albums aren’t linked by anything other than the fact that they were made at the same time. Considering that Shabazz first burst onto the scene with two EPs of far-out, psychedelic hip-hop, it’s hard not to view the two Quazarz as the end of a cycle. Butler would likely find this incorrect, or he probably wouldn’t care to examine such a statement in the first place. He’s just making music, channeling selves he never knew existed. From there, somehow, Shabazz Palaces emerges. Whether these songs are a harbinger of the future or a reflection of a time doesn’t matter. That it exists at all, does. FL

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