On the day The Stranger announced this year's Genius Award winners—via traditional delivery of a sheet cake—Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler was in Miami and had to accept his baked goods over video chat. It was perfect in a way: Butler's face appearing on the laptop screen held aloft by percussionist Tendai Maraire, the image backlit and distorted by digital interference. You couldn't quite get at him.
Shabazz Palaces originated in an air of carefully crafted mystique. At first, Butler feinted at keeping his identity hidden—he gave interviews under the alias Palaceer Lazaro, and the act's website and self-released CDs offered no information beyond the eye-catching Arab-esque artwork by ace local design team Dumb Eyes. (When Shabazz Palaces made their live debut in Seattle, Butler kept things under literal wraps, taking the stage in a head scarf and shades.) But it was obvious who was behind this: Butler's voice—sly, insinuating, pinched yet richly resonant—was instantly recognizable, and even before the first word of the "anonymous" project made print, fans knew what was up.
This is because, before Shabazz Palaces, Butler had another life in hiphop. He was one-third of the boho-rap trio Digable Planets, which scored a Grammy Award in 1994 for their popular song "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)." With their debut album, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), Digable Planets—like peers A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and P.M. Dawn—brought a flowery, jazz-influenced spirit to hiphop that briefly flourished before being pushed off the charts by the harder talk (and more funk sample–heavy) "gangsta" rap of the mid-1990s. Digable released a sophomore album, Blowout Comb, which added live instrumentation and took things in a more militant, still poetic, Afrocentric lyrical direction. The album performed relatively poorly compared to the breakout debut, and Digable disbanded shortly after, though they've occasionally reunited. Butler continued to record music both solo and with the live band Cherrywine, to less notice. For Shabazz, he has teamed up with Maraire, who has an album of traditional African mbira tunes due out soon.
Before a recent interview at a Capitol Hill coffee shop, Butler is standing outside talking into a phone. He's dispensing advice: "You gotta just be you, be true to yourself"—that sort of thing. Inside, one of the guises of oddball NYC rapper Kool Keith is playing on the stereo. It is a temporary zone of hiphop eccentrism. If self-knowledge is a guiding principle of Shabazz Palaces ("Find out who you are and be it," Butler advises in a song), disclosing information decidedly is not. Asked when the project began, he ruminates, then replies, "Why?" Asked who contributed to his records, he says, "Don't talk about that."
On his initial attempt at anonymity: "It wasn't about anonymity, really. I knew we would do shows, and we want the music to be as broadly heard as possible. It was just like, to me, a lot of the focus, especially in rap shit, is on the things that happen prior to any music being made—it's image driven, it's backstory, and all these anecdotes are supposed to equal some kind of legitimacy or interest. It seemed corny to me, and we didn't want to participate in the music industry that way. So that's all it was about."
Partly, this is about getting listeners to his music with as little clogging their ears as possible ("It's the most fun hearing a song that you don't have any information about and that you end up liking"); part of it is a certain strain of creative haze ("I could be real with you, man—I don't know how your process is, but I don't remember making that shit"). But then part of it is that Shabazz Palaces understand the power and allure of a mystery. Much of the joy in their songs is that they're puzzles you can spend hours inside of, uncovering embedded sonic tricks or decoding another tightly locked lyric with each new listen.
Butler's lyrics reflect his life both in hiphop ("First they wanna fuck with you 'cause you one of a kind/Then you can't get them on the line") and at home ("See, I'm just like you/Yeah, I know I'm a mess/Take a minute to think/Take an hour to dress"), but the details are often silhouetted in shadow. His songs sample familiar sources, but his digital manipulation and arrangement of those sources render them obscure and transformed. It's all right there—you just can't quite touch it.
The only recorded works available so far are two mini-albums, released in 2009, Shabazz Palaces and Of Light, with a combined total of 15 songs and a running time of 45 minutes. In that three-quarters of an hour, Shabazz travel from Seattle-specific sites (an after-hours speakeasy casino that may sound familiar to Capitol Hill nightlifers, the Starbucks at 23rd and Jackson) to the mythic and archetypal (the Night, the Street, the Club, "Where we all go," the Universal), detailing scenes and sentiments with rhymes that are both contortionist and conversational, high-minded and street-level, precise and often perplexing. But even Butler's more compacted couplets explode with history and politics: "Yeah, we racing toward freedom/Fuck some chains/We don't need 'em, we don't see 'em"; "Crime depends from who you stole/Rich is good, black is no."
In addition to writing the tracks, Butler also produces them, and he mostly makes them spare and ominous, with dread snippets of minor-key jazz riffs or paranoiac funk muddled, stretched, and echoing over cold drum cracks, stereo-panning sniffs of white noise, and thick subterranean bass thrum. When an unaltered, unaccompanied doo-wop vocal harmony emerges out of the shouts and gun clatter of "100 sph," it's startling how untroubled the song suddenly sounds.
Shabazz's songs aren't built with the usual 16-bars/chorus/repeat structure of most hiphop—they take a more free-flowing form. When Butler locks into a groove, he often rides it until it's comfortably exhausted, or lets one otherwise unobtrusive line repeat until it becomes a mantra or a chant, not so much a traditional, song-anchoring chorus. "Blastit," for example, begins with more than a minute of nothing but a spark-firing mbira melody, a grainy gut-thumping beat, and Butler, every couple of bars, chanting "Blast it" before a verse kicks in. These might sound like small formal deviations, but the effect is to greatly disorient the songs from the main current of hiphop. Instead of feeling like you have a map of every song from the first 45 seconds, with Shabazz, there is a sense of aimless night driving, of cruising without a fixed destination, eyes and ears open, the trunk rattling.
These two records are only a beginning. Shabazz Palaces have a 7-inch on the way via Dumb Eyes' quarterly magazine I Want You and have recently signed a contract with Sub Pop records. And their live shows? Butler operates behind a table with a laptop hooked up to an industry-standard MPC sampler, playing samples live and tapping out beats, building each track up before he begins rapping (which might account for those atypical extended grooves). Meanwhile, Maraire supplies live hand percussion and thumb piano to Butler's digital triggering. Some shows have included African dancers, most feature a few snarling verses from guest MC Silk (aka Dougie, "your dad"), and every performance is charged with Shabazz's casually regal presence, the sets loose but authoritative, the songs buzzing with electricity.
And the show, says Butler by way of explaining his tight-lipped interview style, is where Shabazz Palaces divulge what they will of their secrets.
"We're really honored to be performing," he says. "And that's where we want to put all the information."