Story by: Kyle Lawrence Mullin, Photos by:
Shabazz Palaces won’t deal in specifics. In fact, the Seattle bred hip-hop troupe (comprised of MC Ishmael Butler and multi-instrumentalist Tendai ‘Baba Maraire) were lauded for the moody ambiguity of their 2011 debut, “Black Up.” It was a wholly original album, devoid of catchy hooks and clear lyrical references. Instead, it favored brazenly meandering beats, along with stubbornly esoteric lyrics and song titles like “An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum.” Mere songwriting wasn’t the aim — they were delving into the subconscious, caressing the synapses and capturing the sonic essence of what ensued. Their elaborate synth riffs, samples and rhymes felt eerily familiar, like a recurring dream that always fades from memory by daybreak.
Butler is equally vague offstage and outside the studio. When asked about Shabazz Palaces’ sound, inspirations or methodology in interviews, he frequently offers cerebrally snarky answers that could never fit into a convenient soundbite. Even his identity was unclear at first, with Shabazz Palaces releasing a few initial EPs that were blank and uncredited. Butler declined most interview requests at first, including one from premium music outlet Pitchfork. But before long, those publications were connecting the dots to the MC’s recent past — his tenure as “Butterfly” in the Grammy winning, jazz-infused early 90’s trio Diggable Planets. Butler now seems far removed from that smoothly accessible sound, its success, and the expectations that come with it.
Shabazz Palaces will perform in Seoul on July 4. In a rare phone interview with Groove Korea, Butler — in a voice that’s slowly mellow and deeply nasally — insists he’s not trying to be mysterious or opaque, before elaborating on his favorite sports stars, making strange allusions to Karl Marx, and much more.
The production is so interesting and unique on Black Up. On a technical level, how difficult is it to recreate those sounds live?
Nah, we have absolutely no intention of reproducing anything live. Like, if you’re not takin’ off in a new direction from the record when you perform, then what’s the point? Everything that happens should be newly made live. So no, we never thought about that.
Even so, how is it challenging to try and play such complex songs live, in any form?
It’s like an athlete. You’re there because you want the challenge, you feel good to confront it.
Who are some of the athletes that inspire you, in terms of the way they take a challenge on?
I really like (American football player) Percy Harvin, he used to play for the Vikings and the Sea Hawks. Alan Iverson was a big influence on me. But just sports in general, they’re inspiring.
Is there a game or play that really stands out in your memory, one that might have inspired your music or lyrics?
I don’t think in terms like that. I know a lot of artists these days who know what their tag line should be. And I get that—push the product, push the product, ya know what I’m saying? They can name the inspirations that stand out in their minds, but I never experienced inspiration like that.
What sport would Shabazz Palaces be best suited to soundtrack? What kind of athletes might get amped up by your songs?
They could play any sport. It would be good to listen to Shabazz Palaces while they practiced their fundamentals.
How are you athletic onstage or in the studio? Do you impose that kind of discipline on yourself?
Yeah. As a musician you practice, you go through your fundamentals. You go through your reps, so that when it’s game time you don’t have to think. You want to have so many fundamentals under your belt, that you can just react when you play.
What are some of the fundamentals you go over to be ready?
That’s actually a little bit intimate to talk about. It’s a secret, it’s what you feel like you gotta do in order to perform at your best, and ultimately compete. So I ain’t got nothing to say about that man.
You’ve told other interviewers that you don’t try to be secretive or mysterious. But many people see you that way. Is it annoying, or are there benefits to that kind of mystique?
Nah, it’s not being secretive when it’s nobody’s business to know it in the first place. If a person sits in a studio, and doesn’t go home to their girlfriend, shoves responsibilities to hustle, does all that to make a record that might take six, seven, eight months to a year to finish, how come that’s not enough? We’re talking about music here, man. It’s all about music. So what’s all this talk and fluff stuff coming out after? The only thing it can be is marketing, to sell you something.
But nobody’s keeping a secret, just because they don’t choose to tell you every thought that happened in the studio or the writing process. It’s not that we kept it a secret, we just chose not to participate in that.
Do you see any benefit to talking about your music in the press? Might it help fans connect to your songs in a new way if they have some background or anecdotal knowledge? Or is it all really just fluff?
Ahhh, nah man, it’s not always fluff. There’s just some bad cats out there, who are good at talking. They can wake up at 10 o’clock in the morning, and on their sixth interview with the same questions, they can really come off the hand with something that’s profound, and loose and not redundant. But how often does that really happen? And why is it the responsibility the artist to do that?
I’ve been inspired by what people do. And sometimes what they say, if they’re writers and stuff. But I never thought ‘Oh, Karl Marx felt like this when he wrote his manifesto.’ Ya know what I mean? I’m into the manifesto, or I’m into the guy, but never what he said he was thinking about when he did it. That’s just me. But I don’t think it’s all fluff. A lot of it is though. A lot of it really is.
So after a long marathon of boring interviews-
They’re not boring. It’s all up to the artist to make the most of it, really. It’s on them to try and be creative, and engage, in a conversation, and then see if the reporter really cares. And sometimes they do. So nah, I’m not bored man.
Glad to hear it. But if these interviews are draining, or redundant, what do you do to cope? For the chorus of the Black Up song “Recollections Of The Wraith,” you spit: “Clear some space out, so we can space out.” It’s a really relaxing line. So what do you do to ‘space out’ after a long day answering reporters’ questions?
I exercise, steam room. Uhm, read. Spend time with my lady. Look at books, art books, sports books. Other recreational endeavors. And uhm… yeah. Daydream and shit. Sit in the park, in the sun. Yeah.
You told Pitchfork that you don’t like to interpret your music for reporters, or assign meaning to your songs.
Yeah, it’s a different situation for writers, as far as I’m concerned. The writer has assumed the responsibility of being the observer, because of their passion for music. So I don’t understand why that writer wants to ask the artist what they were doing, I thought it would fall on the writer to explain all that.
So what should I write, if I were to describe what you’re working on next? How does some of your new music sound? Is it similar to Black Up or is it a departure, and will it be available soon?
I’ve actually been in the studio a lot lately. Shabazz Palaces’ new music has been five or six months in the making. We’ll put it out soon, I can’t say when though.
Do you think it’s sonically different than Black Up, or in the same vein?
Black Up, it was like, I dunno… that was just a mood, really. And I ain’t in that mood no more.
What kind of mood are you in now?
(Laughs). I’m in a different mood than before, different from the mood called Black Up. But I don’t know enough about this new mood yet, and I don’t know about the next one still.
Shabazz Palaces will perform at on Club Keu Keu on July 4.
For more information visit www.subpop.com/artists/shabazz_palaces