The Strange And Unenlightening World Of Hip Hop Illusionist Ishmael Butler
Originally published in the Stool Pigeon
The combination of the words ‘Seattle’ and ‘hip hop’ is only the first thing about Shabazz Palaces that turns conventional wisdom on its head. Their first two EPs, for example, were limited run, largely unpublicised affairs, hard copies of which came with sleeves that doubled as sew-on patches embossed with strange iconography. Their Belhaven Meridian video is a one-take, black and white homage to Charles Burnett’s 1977 movie Killer Of Sheep, much of it shot upside down. And their song titles are short poems that make a mockery of the age of digital reductionism.
Then there’s the issue of identity – the vague implication that Shabazz Palaces is the sort of bohemian collective who share each other’s socks and eat brown acid for breakfast, versus the near-certainty that it’s largely the work of one man, Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler, formerly of Grammy-winning ’90s hip hop trio Digable Planets. Nor does Ish much like giving interviews, though when he finally picks up the phone he’s affable, articulate and eager to be helpful, if still elusive on what’s happening in the studio.
“I’m kind of the spokesperson for all the people involved, but I’m not going to talk about the process. It’s hard to speak about it with authority, because we believe that so much of it comes from a place that we can’t really understand. And that’s not to sound mystical or anything, it’s just hard to go back and figure out where a song starts, where an idea comes from and how it flourishes. We prefer it when people come up with their own takes on what we do. And most of the time they’re correct, even when they’re incorrect. What people ascertain through listening to music is always true and real, I think. And it’s always more interesting than anything I could say about how it started.”
And the music is undoubtedly the most interesting and unusual thing about Shabazz Palaces; the Black Up LP – released, with typical disregard for received hip hop wisdom, on Sub Pop – is a patchwork of psychedelia, soul and sweaty jazz that is at times blissful and druggy, at others heavily thugged out, all stitched together with Ish’s darkly meaningful rhymes and the ethereal tones of an unnamed female vocalist. As an unexpected collage of influences and ideology it feels like what hip hop should be – not that Ish is hating on those following more conventional paths.
“I’m definitely not the guy sitting back with my lips pursed acting like everyone making music isn’t up to our level of creativity. If a song is good – Rick Ross, L’il Wayne – I try to go case by case and deal with it. But of course, at the same time, they’re making music for a different outcome. And while I don’t share that desire, I don’t knock it, and I don’t feel that it’s completely impossible to make good music or powerful music in that field. There should be a spot for all cats in this thing. Music is huge, and it’ll never be overflowing – it can contain everything that comes out.”