The music of Shabazz Palaces often sounds submerged or subliminal, like a radio broadcast fading in and out of reception—and that’s how Ishmael Butler, the rapper and musical alchemist behind the experimental hip-hop duo, likes it.
“It must remind me of the way that information comes into your life,” Butler, 48, says from his Seattle home. “You go through a tunnel of sounds and images and understandings and notions and clarities. It blurs. It’s just how you process the world around you. Things are going on in your peripheral that you understand as having mass, but you might not recognize what the shape and sound of it is. As you turn to it, you do, but then the thing that you left becomes a little hazy.”
Butler clearly has a lot of perceptions spinning around his head, sometimes more than can fit in a single album. Last month, Shabazz Palaces dropped two at once: Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star. They both present a character from a faraway place coming to grips with a strange new world, one that echoes our own unsettled environment.
“It’s coming from emotions before anything political,” says Butler, who waxes poetic about gun-toting killers in what he calls “Amurderca” and the “glowing phantom limb” of cellphones. “I’m not that politically savvy or knowledgeable. I go for the way things feel and look, and I try not to be judgmental without having some kind of facts, but I do feel confident in my intuition.”
Shabazz Palaces play the Sinclair on Sept. 5.
It’s part of his attraction to “pulp-thriller expression in sci-fi,” in film and visual art. “I like sensationalism, violence, conspiracy—forecasting of certain things that we deal with now and will affect us in the future,” Butler says. When he forgets his cellphone, he explains, “I start to feel around on my person for it, but there’s this ghost notion that I don’t have it, as if it’s a part of me… We totally interface with these things, and it’s daunting to think about how fast, and why we did it, how this machine has this emotional connection with us.”
Musically, with percussion partner Tendai Maraire, Butler explores impressionistic sounds with samplers, sequencers and drum machines, reflecting such Afro-futuristic influences as Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince and Sun Ra. Butler made Jealous Machines with LA producer Sunny Levine, laying a thread that bled into sessions with hometown producer Erik Blood that became another full-length album in Gangster Star. That second album suggests a wider prism, from the strings-iced soul of “Shine a Light” to the bubbling lurch of “Since C.A.Y.A.,” a nod to Seattle’s Central Area Youth Association that features bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, who jumped on a Butler rhythm track during a jam at LA producer Flying Lotus’ house. “It’s like being at a wizard’s house,” Butler says. “Wizards come by, all day long, and hang out.”
Butler grew up in a household with jazz-loving parents, encouraged by his father to play alto sax in his junior high jazz band. Then he discovered hip-hop through Run-D.M.C. and Rakim. “That’s when I said, ‘This is something I want to do.’”
And he did, launching the jazz-inflected Digable Planets, which won a Grammy for its 1993 hit “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” But the group’s success was short-lived, and Butler eventually dropped out of the game. He was working in his home studio when Zimbabwean-American musician Maraire stepped in. “I was making music, but I never thought that I’d release it,” Butler says. “Tendai heard it and said, ‘You should put it out.’”
Butler overcame his doubts. “It was a bad look for a guy of my age to still be rapping. And to a certain extent, I still do kind of think that, which I know is a fucked-up thing to say, but it’s a young man’s game,” Butler says after several years of recording for Sub Pop and international touring (which extends to a Sept. 5 stop at the Sinclair as well as dates with a reunited Digable). “I’m always striving for more, but I’m also ‘This is cool to have made it this far, at this age.’” ◆
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