Shabazz Palaces mastermind Ishmael Butler walks and talks as if he's just had the best sex of his life. His voice, a laid-back drawl, exudes radiant cool, and even the slightest movement—a tilt of the head, a handshake—is chill. He has the unparalleled nonchalance of Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, and Lou Reed—people so gifted, they don't ever need to get in your face about their talents. They vivify the air in any room they occupy, rivet you with their charisma and the laid-back sagacity of their utterances. Even when Butler murmurs an offhand "yeah," it's musical.
Butler won a Grammy Award for Digable Planets' 1993 smash hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)"—but instead of doing what other 1990s rappers did, fading away or slipping into irrelevance, Butler has flipped the script on the usual artistic trajectory and created his most adventurous music 20 years on with Shabazz Palaces, which also includes producer Erik Blood and percussionist Tendai Maraire. To date, they've released two albums and two EPs, and they are about to issue two more full-lengths.
While Digable contemporaries like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Kool Keith have maintained relatively high quality control over the ensuing decades, they haven't evolved like Butler has done with Shabazz Palaces.
Given Shabazz Palaces' continual ascent, though, it's strange that Seattle native Butler (aka Butterfly) would revive Digable Planets, which play Seattle on May 27 at the Showbox. They'll continue to tour the United States just before Shabazz Palaces' two new albums drop on July 14 on Sub Pop: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines.
Though he split with fellow MCs Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira and Craig "Doodlebug" Irving in 1995 due to that ubiquitous euphemism "creative differences," Ish (as he is known to his friends) refuses to divulge details. Digable Planets returned to the live circuit from 2005 to 2011, took four years off, and then resumed sporadic touring in 2015.
Why go backward, when so much of Shabazz is about looking forward? As Butler, who composes all of Shabazz's music and lyrics, explains, when promoters and fans clamor for your presence, it's hard to refuse. It's also a testament to the durability of Digable Planets' two albums, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and Blowout Comb. The trio's ingenious adaptation of jazz samples, consciousness-raising lyrics, and uncanny vocal interplay have aged better than most mid-'90s rap efforts. But rather than wallow in nostalgia over canned tracks from those beloved records, Digable assembled a live band composed of Seattle all-stars like keyboardist Darrius Willrich, guitarist Thaddeus Turner, drummer Conrad Real, bassist Gerald Turner, plus Shabazz's Maraire in order to revamp them for contemporary ears.
"That music being so old, it wasn't in the forefront of our social or creative landscape," Butler says when asked about the motivation to tour this quarter-century-old material. "But when you hear people are excited about you performing, that's not something I can turn away from. It becomes about not you as a person, but about the music that you made at a certain time, and it still lives."
When Digable Planets won their Grammy in 1994, that award wasn't exactly revered by hiphop's vanguard—including Digable themselves. They went up against Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill, and Butler admits that he was surprised Digable triumphed, as both Snoop and Cypress had higher profiles and bigger fan bases. "I didn't know much about the Grammys. I didn't invest much into it, but the event was one of the most amazing ceremonies I've ever been to. Bono was there presenting an award to Frank Sinatra. Aretha Franklin was there. We played 'Cool Like Dat' and had [jazz trumpeter] Clark Terry playing in the band. It was pretty dope."
Not many Grammy winners can be found walking around Seattle, but Butler says it's hardly ever mentioned. "That's ancient history now. I'm proud of it. But it also lets me know that things happen over the course of a career, the highs and lows. For most people who do music, it's not something you sustain at the highest level for a long period of time. It ebbs and flows. You can have that in your career and still be doing other stuff later on... It's just a memory, not a paramount thing in my mind. But it's cool to think about."
AN AVANT-GARDE APPROACH
As with Miles Davis during his mercurial electric period, Butler wears garments that are as distinctive as his music and words. At our first interview in May, he strode into Sub Pop's office—where he works in the A&R department—in gray sweats and white kicks that contrasted with a flowing navy-blue robe embroidered with a stalking panther, designed by Nep Sidhu, a celebrated conceptual artist/designer who collaborated with Butler on Malcolm's Smile for the Genius / 21 Century / Seattle show at Frye Art Museum.
This is just his daytime look; onstage, Butler's threads make most other underground-hiphop artists look like schlubs. Yet, for all his sartorial bling, Butler's ostentatious clothing only enhances his art, as if words and sounds this extraordinary would seem wrong coming from someone in jeans and a T-shirt.
Now 47, Butler has gray in his beard, but he otherwise looks youthful and moves with slick vigor. He is a voracious music head, working in the lab daily, while also keeping ears attuned to various strata of modern music in his Sub Pop job and digging deep into jazz, funk, electronic, punk, and rock history as well. On his bookshelves you'll find several titles by British sci-fi author Richard K. Morgan, whom he had recently seen speak at the University of Washington.
"I get immersed in the worlds he's creating," Butler explains. "I like how accurate and plausible his speculative fiction seems—his takes on where things are headed, how he creates this world and inserts things matter-of-factly into the fabric of his stories is brilliant." Butler is also fond of basketball. He and Tendai Maraire kept their eyes on the Warriors/Spurs game during our second interview at Butler's swanky South Seattle pad with views over Lake Washington.
Butler even extends his creative explorations to the kitchen. "I'm always trying to learn how to make something new," he says. "Lately, I've been slow-roasting stuff, making a lot of greens, making salads. I just go through phases, learning new shit about food and nutrition and trying to capitalize on it. I used to bake a lot, but I don't anymore because I don't eat wheat or bread. Breads, muffins, and cookies were a big part of my repertoire, but now I do a lot of vegetable stuff and try to do different cultures: Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese... shit like that."
Butler has had an odd career arc—huge commercial success early on, then a precipitous dip in profile (who remembers his early-'00s band Cherrywine?), and then a renaissance to auspiciousness with Shabazz Palaces. In any musical genre, it's rare for someone to come back after that long and do innovative work.
"I think radical disruptions can be a part of a continuum—and usually are," he says. "One thing I realized is, I did have a passion for music after Digable, but there was no question in my mind that my commercial music career was over. First of all, I was getting older. I didn't think rap was something people over 30 or 35 years old should even participate in. I thought it was a youth thing, and to a certain extent I still do.
"But I just realized that it's not about a genre. I was making music with equipment in my house every day with absolutely no notion of releasing it commercially. Mostly because if I did have that notion to try to pursue it, there was no one in their right mind who would want to partner up with me in that endeavor. But I was still making music, mixing, trying to get shit right. That's what gave me the energy to even think forward."
Nevertheless, without Maraire's urging, Shabazz might never have materialized. The Zimbabwean American percussionist lived near Butler in Seattle in the mid '00s. They would often chill on Butler's porch, and one day Maraire asked why he wasn't making music. Butler said he was making music, every day. Butler relates, "He said, 'What are you doing with it? What the fuck is up with you?' I remember him looking at me incredulously. 'You gotta put the music out, man! We need that. It would be good for Seattle.' He had this whole long-term outlook that, weirdly, has been kind of realized. He saw that at a time when I really didn't."
Spurred by Maraire, Butler forged two Shabazz Palaces CDs in 2009: Shabazz Palaces and Of Light. Designed enigmatically by local artist Christian Petersen and bearing no credits, artist photos, or traditional hiphop signifiers, the discs announced the arrival of a new strain of music—alternately menacing, mystical, and inspirational—that I dubbed "Afro-Eccentricism" in a Stranger feature published that year.
But Butler's star had dimmed so much that he encountered hesitation from Easy Street Records when he tried to get the shop to carry the CDs. Clerk Troy Nelson (now a KEXP DJ) told Butler he needed to listen to the music before deciding whether to stock them. Fuming, Butler exited the store with his goods. He sat in the car thinking about the situation, and then he returned to Easy Street and agreed to Nelson's terms. The now-defunct Queen Anne outlet ended up selling many copies of those EPs. Henceforth, whenever Nelson and Butler meet, they laugh about the incident. "I had to grow up," Butler says sheepishly.
Eight years later, Shabazz Palaces are headlining huge festivals, touring the globe, and brandishing enough clout to convince Sub Pop to issue two full-lengths simultaneously. Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines—which is accompanied by a book containing illustrations of each track by Joshua Ray Stephens and published by Fantagraphics on August 18—was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Sunny Levine, who is Quincy Jones's grandson and who mixed Ariel Pink's Before Today, one of Butler's favorite albums. Butler says working with Levine in his studio a block away from a Marina del Rey beach threw him into "a whole nother zone." They'd swim in the morning and grind in the studio at night.
Both new albums further Shabazz's distortion of hiphop conventions like four-on-the-floor, head-nodding beats and self-aggrandizing lyrics into futuristic convolutions that sound at once street-level gritty and spacey; Shabazz's off-kilter rhythms consistently keep you off-balance.
Butler's lyrics are as sharp as the music is surreal. "His mastery of language is unparalleled," said former Frye Art Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, who worked with Butler and Black Constellation on the 2012 multidisciplinary project Mw [Moment Magnitude]. "It is precise, dense, taut, and concrete while simultaneously encompassing the infinite and times past, present, and future."
One impressive example occurs on Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star's "Shine a Light," in which Butler folds in the personal and the apocalyptic, while flexing clever internal rhymes: "Lost friends, floss for them gloss gems / Often it's thought that I'm lost in / Weighing out what all this chance takings costing / Sliding cornered by more law enforcements / Feeling like I'm ridin' with the Four Horsemen."
The Erik Blood–produced Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is suffused in an otherworldly glow, light years away from most hiphop. There are hints of Prince's new-wave moves in "That's How City Life Goes," blatant homages to Kraftwerk's proto-robotic sound, and "The Neurochem Mixalogue" grotesquely inverts the neo-R&B ballad.
"I love that R&B shit," Butler says. "I was raised on Prince, Ready for the World. I love all that syrupy, singing-to-a-lady ballad shit." Unsettling rather than seductive, it's also the least hiphop-oriented track in Shabazz's catalog.
The first single, "Shine a Light" (featuring an Auto-Tuned Thaddeus Turner singing the indelible hook), epitomizes the Shabazz Palaces paradox. Its relative conventionality ends up sounding weird within the context of the rest of Born on a Gangster Star's trippy explorations. Riding an irresistible sample of Dee Dee Sharp's orchestra soul classic "I Really Love You," it's the most easy-to-process track that Shabazz have ever done.
"But it's no more or less weird than any of the other thoughts that I've had on any of the other songs," Butler insists.
Producer Erik Blood praises Butler for having a "vision of exactly what he wants and the rarer quality of being receptive to ideas that alter that vision for the better," he says. "I've seen his impact on Seattle music cause artists to expand their perception of what they are capable of. As a person, he is exceedingly giving of his humor, support, and wisdom."
While Butler's value as an artist continues to rise, he has also become a mentor to younger local hiphop artists. He wisely tapped SassyBlack (ex-THEESatisfaction rapper/vocalist Catherine Harris-White) to guest on Shabazz albums Black Up and Lese Majesty. She rhapsodizes that Butler "is as mysterious and mystical as you would believe, as well fearless and kind with deep intent to express himself and see those he loves succeed," she says. "Seattle wouldn't be the same without his artistry and leadership, and it benefits supremely from it."
Seattle MC Porter Ray, whom Butler signed to Sub Pop, calls Butler, "completely original and extremely thorough. He's the alchemist."
Butler's alchemy extends to his rhythmic prowess in the studio. He understands that seduction relates to rhythm, but he rarely chooses the easy option. In hiphop's so-called golden age (the late 1980s and early '90s), funkiness was the default setting, the ultimate goal. Now, not so much. We're far from the era dominated by "Funky Drummer" and "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" samples.
"For me, [the rhythms are] always different, because isn't life? Isn't the emotional roller coaster of life constantly changing?" he asks, sitting in an office at Sub Pop headquarters. As we talk, he looks over at Sub Pop owner Jonathan Poneman, who is on a stationary bicycle and talking on the phone.
"Your relationships change. I'm just trying to tap into the current rather than relying on tropes."
For Butler, trying out an unconventional rhythm isn't weirdness for weirdness's sake. He's just cool... yes, like that.
"It's not like you have to be in 4/4 and anything else is weird. Can you still get a groove going if it's, like, off?" Butler asks, flashing one of his Cheshire Cat grins. "Sometimes," he says, "that offness is the most interesting part of it."
This article has been updated since its original publication.