That wasn’t the case when I spoke with Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces just a few days after he and bandmate Tendai “Baba” Maraire tore down the stage at Churchill’s during a performance for Sweat Records’ big Record Store Day shindig. Melding ethereal, innergalactic soundscapes with jaw-shattering drums and trance-inducing African percussion, Shabazz’s sound is light-years away from the jazzy, bohemian hip-hop of his former, seminal group, Digable Planets — this one’s an aural journey at once darkly arcane yet strangely familiar. Is it a musical testament to lost knowledge of African antiquity that has always been present in the world, despite efforts to snuff it out? Is it a karmic echo from a previously unrevealed past life, or a transmission from the dark matter of the universe?
It turns out that the deep blackness I imagined it emerged from wasn’t too far off the mark. Late in our conversation, just as I mentioned that the group’s music conjured up for me visions of ceremonies in Haitian Vodou and various esoteric traditions in which an initiate must undergo a few days in complete darkness, Ishmael explained that Shabazz’s music (released on the legendary Sub Pop label) is actually recorded in a similar fashion, back in their studio in Seattle where every door, wall, and surface is painted in deep black. I was stunned, but ultimately, I wasn’t surprised at all. It felt right.
“For me, the darkness is where I find illumination,” he mused.
SimplyGood: I caught your Miami show the other day — your second time here as Shabazz Palaces. How was it for you, and how do you feel about Miami?
Ishmael Butler: I like it a lot, man. I like to play smaller clubs. The sound-system there was good and the vibe was good. People came to party. Miami’s cool, and I really like Florida. The landscape, the topography is amazing — the Keys, the marshlands, all the birds, the way the sunsets and the clouds look. It’s an ill physical environment. I’m just in-and-out when I come though, but I like coming through.
Before you arrived on stage, you played Space is the Place by Sun Ra and “Eulogy and Light” by Funkadelic. It really set the vibe right. A lot of people didn’t seem to know those tracks but were connecting to them. It felt like an invocation — almost like the beginning of a ceremony.
I think it’s best when people aren’t familiar, because taken alone, the words and the sound inaugurate the performance. We like to listen to those tracks as preparation — mental, physical, and spiritual preparation — for the performance. When we hear those, we know it’s time to go. It’s beautiful expression, some of the most powerful art I’ve ever experienced.
Is there a ritualistic or ceremonial aspect to your performances?
Yes, but most of it happens instinctively. There are things that happen ritualistically, meaning we repeat it before we get on stage every time, but they’re not things we were taught and they don’t come from a ceremonial history. They came out of the natural order of what we do to prepare for a show. But that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this comes from some cellular knowledge from however long ago, from all the people who came before us who made us who we are. I know that might sound a little confusing.
Nah, I think I understand what you mean. Years ago, I was recording a project and before each session, I’d start slapping a machete around on the floor. It was something that came instinctively. Years later, I was at a Vodou ceremony in Brooklyn and saw the same thing and it blew me away.
That’s the thing that I’m really trying to get to with Shabazz Palaces, although Shabazz is just one incarnation of what I’m talking about. Forget the Westernized approach to art, in which there are hierarchies of observers of art and different levels of engagement in each of us. For example, like how there may be those of us who understand an album’s track-listing or have some anecdotal knowledge of what happened behind the scenes of that creation. Fuck all that.
That thing you did with the machete was in you. It was in your cells! You were creating something from the real you. It didn’t have to be intellectualized. I’m trying to live there, trying to live in that place. Forget all the structures and meanings that this market delineates. I’m trying to get away from that. Trying to get away from any definitions.
It’s interesting: we’re living in a moment where we see a lot of Black iconography becoming popular, and that’s coupled with a lot of new discourse about racism. I tend to fear that these images might get watered down or become commercialized. All of a sudden, Afrofuturism has become very fashionable… even the Black Panthers have become fashionable. I was just wondering how you might feel about that.
A lot of it reads and feels superficial. Once you give a hard look at the surface of it and maybe scrub it a little, there doesn’t seem to be anything there. People seem willing to attach symbolic meaning to the imagery, and this imagery is supposed to have meaning, but it’s difficult for me often to make my way to the meaning. There’s not a lot of imagination past the image. I guess, maybe for the younger generation who understand processing of imagery a little differently, they can do it, but for me, from another time, it’s difficult to feel engaged. I’m not saying this about everything I see, but in a disturbing amount of it. It’s hard.
It’s like standing in the middle of a sand dune and the winds are blowing in different directions. At any given moment, you could look down at where you’re supposed to be solidly planted and the terrain is moving in a different direction, and there’s sand in the air as well. It’s wild.”
Rampant commercialism, these days. Everything is being commodified. I know you reference our “me” culture a lot in your work — all these glorified costumes people are putting on. In the music that you’re putting out there, are you trying to stand in opposition to it? Are you trying to break a spell, cast a spell, or neither?
There are a lot of motherfuckers bad enough and skilled enough that their process is one in which they identify a problem and then solve it with their art. I’m not nice like that. My way is through action, to find a result and then continue from there. To be in opposition to it, to understand it, to participate with it, sometimes even get seduced by it. To not cut off the avenues that are presented, but to explore them. It’s not a rudderless path, but it’s meandering with determination and purpose. To say, “Yo, I’m gonna change this or that or come at commercialism”… Naw, nigga, no you ain’t! I think when you don’t think of it that way, you stand a better chance of actually doing it. My way is the more natural way.
Can you tell me a bit about Black Constellation, the collective of like-minded musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, and fashion designers you work with? Why do you like working this way?
You find who you are, and you gravitate towards your kin. That’s what happened with us. We connected with a lot of cats who are real bad at what they do. When we get a chance to, we work together and present together. If somebody needs music, we do it, if someone else needs a video or artwork, there’s someone to do that. We get motivated by each other and proceed that way.
It’s an important way to work, and it stands in opposition to the “me”-focused culture these days, with people constantly celebrating themselves on social media. It’s said we’re more connected than ever through these digital networks, but I don’t know if that’s true.
It’s not true at all. Things are just the opposite of the way they’re presented. These are all channels for advertising. It’s about what you say you do, rather than what you actually do.
It’s at a point now where most of the successful people in the rap game, for example, have Trojan-horsed their way in on ideas that other people invented. It’s not that they’re not skilled, but it’s all been done before.”
We’re not really celebrating the art; it’s more about the machine that gets it in front of people’s eyes. We lose when this happens. You’re a younger cat — I’m curious about what you do in all of this. How do you get away from it?
I try to disconnect from the force-fed streams of information. I try to go inward, or get out in nature. The signals we need are really out there, aren’t they? Trust me, I’m not always the best at it, but I do know that Facebook isn’t telling me what’s important to pay attention to. CNN isn’t doing it either. I look for signals I can trust. That’s why I connect with your music so strongly. It feels like it runs counter to the programming that is forced upon us, and that there’s something to be gained there.
Especially with this musical incarnation. You’ve had two prior: Digable Planets (which won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group) and Cherrywine. Shabazz feels like something else entirely though. How did this come to you?
It grew in my mind. A lot of the earliest Shabazz music I made without any intention or notion whatsoever of re-entering the commercial music world. I made those songs just because I’m compelled to make music. I didn’t have a record deal anymore and the whole landscape of the record industry had changed. I was getting older too and everything in hip-hop was switching to a hyper-young focus. That music was made without any expectation of an accomplishment. That’s how I developed my current philosophy that you should make things with an understanding of where you are, living in a big marketplace.
You make what you make for the sake of making it alone, and wherever that takes you is something you should be happy with; you put something essential into it, and the results you get from that are your just due.”
There’s ambition in that. It’s not world domination, no Soulja Boy-type of success, but you learn more about yourself and your surroundings that way. You’re participating in life. Try not to look down on any expression but try not to look up to any of it unnaturally either. The distance that you can see is in you, not in the world before you. I can’t say that I know how I arrived to that… you know how shit is; it can take you a year to arrive at one thought. But that’s where things made a turn for me ideologically in my life.
Last question: how did the name Shabazz Palaces come about? I have some theories.
I’d rather you write your theory. The poetic image — and by that I mean, that which you imagine — is always correct, to me. We’ve been hammered out of putting stock in that, and put form to everything so that it’s understandable, because what? At the end of the day, we’re trying to sell everything these days. Everybody looks at everything with a bottom line to it. I bet what you imagine is thematically closer to how it really happened than you might think. It’s probably about the same. You gotta trust that. It’s real.