In Conversation: The Abstractions and Absolutes of Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler

The ambitious rapper/producer opens up about his legacy and family, and how they inspired The Don of Diamond Dreams.

Like every Shabazz Palaces record that came before it—to say nothing of Ishmael Butler’s work with 319, Knife Knights, Cherrywine, WOKE, and, famously, Digable PlanetsThe Don of Diamond Dreams is a brilliant, buoyant work of provocation and invocation from the rapper-writer-producer. Holy, wise, abstract, and contagious, Don is intergalactic hip-hop that burrows as deep down as it does fly high.

Calling Butler an experimental hip-hop auteur is like calling Sun Ra or Lester Bowie avant-garde jazz lions—true, but it hardly says enough. Like those icons, Butler has created his own universe where art, activism, and ancestry move from the ancient to the future, to quote Lester. And yet, he is grounded, pragmatic. Other Afro-futurists may have picked up icy and incendiary elements of Shabazz Palaces’ sound and vision, but Butler gave it a vibe and a beat first, then spread the seed. 

We caught up with Butler from his home—and that of his label, Sub Pop—in Seattle, just waiting and watching the coronavirus slip by.

You were touring with the Digables until the strike of coronavirus, as well as working on the new Shabazz Palaces album—to say nothing of whatever additional projects you have brewing. Do you feel you need to compartmentalize what you do for each separate project? Or is it fluid?

I think that it’s a little bit of both. Partially, it is very fluid, but, there are always other considerations—maybe what entity I’m with at that given moment. With that, there are different, separate aesthetics and epochs of time. Different processes. It’s not difficult to compartmentalize. It naturally happens.

Do each of these acts satisfy something different for you?

Each production satisfies that surrounding period of time, that moment. There’s something new that I might learn, or something that comes from one of my collaborators that wasn’t there before. Even if it is something that happened in the past—if it’s new to me, then I’ve learned something. I’m exploring. So, yes, it is satisfying some new curiosity.

Don of Diamond Dreams is the fifth album from Shabazz Palaces, dating back to 2011. Is there a recognizable trajectory? Are the signatures more apparent? Or are you avoiding that?

I haven’t found any, but, I believe that they exist if you believe they exist. That’s more of an outside observation, as I am not thinking about that. I’m not looking to pin it with this ideology or that notion. But, I know it’s there, got to be there. That’s only natural.

“I listen to my son Lil Tracy a lot, vibe with him. My daughters are into music and we share sound. It’s a deluge—a waterfall of sounds, rhythms, and feeling.”

What agenda did Tendai “Baba” Maraire—who recently departed the Palaces—have when he was part of Shabazz Palaces, and what would you say has changed now that he is no longer with you?

Whenever he would come in on a song, there was an added dimension of rhythm that few people could do because of his skill and imagination and his approach to things. And then, even when he wasn’t in on the recording, I thought of the live performance aspect. That was always me and him together—that consideration seeped in.

I do hear a difference in Don of Diamond Dreams, in opposition to past recordings, in that the rhythms are warmer, but the arranged instrumentation is chillier.

Your observations are correct if that’s how you feel. But everything you have ever heard from Shabazz is all from the same source. I always did all the music. Always mixed it with [Erik] Blood. The fact that Tendai isn’t around isn’t a contributing factor to your observation.

Can you tell me then what influences might have shifted or arisen within you on Don of Diamond Dreams

Touring with Digable and being around the musicians in the band. Playing more instruments myself. Learning more about music. Learning more music. Studying songs and learning how to play songs and the insight you get from practicing at home. So I would say that the music I learned influenced me—mentally learned, physically learned. Definitely.

You have always been an avid reader and an activist, so political and socially relevant elements, known and learned, have crept into your lyrics since Digables’ Blowout Comb. Anything turn your head on the lyrical tip?

I read a history-biography-fantasy-thriller-novel I found in the offices of Sub Pop. It took me a while to read because I never digest a book in one whole sitting. I do a lot of other stuff and pick a book up when I can. It changed my life and the way I looked at things, including my approach to music. Also a book called Toward a “ratio”nal aesthetic by Faruq Z. Bey.

Those two books sunk in. Very influential. Musically, I’ve been listening to Ariel Pink. Colin Stetson. The new rap shit—so much goes by, you don’t even know names, but I listen for production. I listen to my son Lil Tracy a lot, vibe with him. My daughters are into music and we share sound. It’s a deluge—a waterfall of sounds, rhythms, and feeling.

I know you’ve collaborated with Flying Lotus and Thundercat, but honestly, you were doing this space-is-the-place brand of Afro-futurist hip-hop before anyone. Without getting corny, do you feel as if your motivations were a spiritual predecessor to what they’ve done, and is there a dialogue among familiars as such?

Well, if my music has motivated somebody, great. More than it’s helped them out, it’s helped me. Whether I know it or not, it’s the energy of being able to help somebody find something like I’ve been helped finding somebody—countless artists and thinkers before me. If I’m contributing to that line, that’s cool. I don’t listen to somebody else’s song and think, “That’s me.” Who cares? Credit is ephemeral. 

“I don’t listen to somebody else’s song and think, ‘That’s me.’ Who cares? Credit is ephemeral.”

The brotherhood of it, however, is cool, and those guys have specifically and physically taught me how to do things on the computer that has changed my life in terms of what I can do, what I can be capable of in production, and—let’s break it down—how much money I can make. If Flying Lotus has ever felt inspired by me to do anything, he has already given me more than he can imagine. Plus, we’re cool friends—we chopped it up about life on the tour bus, check in with each other.

What was the genesis of the new album?

Leading up to when I mixed the album, I had a wave—a vibe—like a novelist who is preparing his book, writing down ideas, putting them somewhere, a place where you hold these keepable, actionable ideas. I narrowed things down to, like, a hundred actionable ideas. Then I hit a wave where I was feeling a kind of way and finished, like, thirty of them. That’s when I bounced them off Blood, who mixed it and narrowed them down. 

On the day that we went to Studio 4 West in Los Angeles, my father was hospitalized, and then he died. That was everything. He was everything clichéd that was good about what a good father should be. He was substantial and a good friend to me. So there’s a song on the album, “Reg Walks By the Looking Glass,” with a sax part…sax was my father’s favorite instrument, so there’s a sentimental thing there.

One thing that you have touched on before is technology as sort of flummoxing, something with which you are at odds. On “Chocolate Soufflé” you say that your smartphone is not so smart. You have treated tech as off-putting in the past, too. Why?

It distances us. Because of my age—I’m fifty now—I’m thinking. Infants know how to swipe right to their favorite game apps—I had a rotary phone. Without call waiting on it. To me, technology is as absurd and ridiculous as reading something in a sci-fi story. All the stuff that helps you do, that you can’t live without, I did without. I did on my own. So, I don’t buy the legend of the smartphone, because it’s not really true.

“Artistically, everyone is striving to continue to further our legacies that we have been gifted—as African Americans, as Americans, as hip-hop and R&B people, and as adventurers and creative people.”

On “Ad Ventures,” your connection with The Black Constellation comes up. In 2020, what does that collective mean to you, creating and embracing their values?

It’s familial. It’s a support system, an imagination system, a brotherhood/sisterhood that helps one another get through unimaginably cruel, hopeful, beautiful times. These people have their skill sets that can help you make a sculpture or an album or build a building—all while taking care of their kids. It’s the family you have and the family you have built for yourself. The support is invaluable. Artistically, everyone is striving to continue to further our legacies that we have been gifted—as African Americans, as Americans, as hip-hop and R&B people, and as adventurers and creative people. It’s good.

Talking about family, you mention the inspiration of your father, and the inspiration of your son. How do you believe the spirit of father and son flow through Diamond?

I had heard about this when my father passed away, and I thought about this with my kids too: You live a possible version of your parents’ lives. You are what they might have done, what they have realized. Time is not an arrow that goes in one direction. The arrow is without end, without direction or distance, round and around, collapsing inside of and flourishing outside of itself. I’m living my dad’s life. He lived a life that was a possibility that I could have lived. My son is living my life. The same. 

So he’s one of my biggest influences and I’m probably one of his, by virtue of our proximity and necessity and my responsibility to him for his safety and development. Inside of those connections is every diamond you can imagine. From the pressure and the elements, that’s what is formed: the diamonds of life. The more you think of it, the more you can realize. That’s pretty dope, right? FL

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