A Conversation With…Shabazz Palaces

Ishmael Butler’s personality is pretty consistent with the art he produces in the hip-hop collective, …

Ishmael Butler’s personality is pretty consistent with the art he produces in the hip-hop collective, Shabazz Palaces, which he serves as half of. His spacey and semi-vague answers matched up with Shabazz Palaces’s cosmically odd but pleasing music. Amidst the ambiguity Butler made one thing clear: he was interested in doing than coming with post-rationalizes for his inspiration. Though Butler wasn’t quick to give details or dates, he did make it known that Shabazz were diligently working on their album. This came in between interesting reflections and musings on music and art and their functions to Butler and the world.

You guys are from Seattle. No one has come into the national spotlight from your hometown of Seattle outside of Sir Mixalot until now with you and a few other people. Why do you think it took so long for Seattle hip-hop to gain notoriety?
Ishmael Butler: You could look at it like why did it take so long or you could like at like that it could have never happened. You know what I mean? I don't know man. I think everything happens the way it's supposed to in situations like that. It's far, it's isolated, it's up in the Northwest. Also it's not just hip-hop. We've had grunge and all that shit which took off a long time ago. [Seattle's] always been a pretty big music scene. It was just a matter of time before the hip-hop thing caught on. It's happening now, so I never really thought about it.

Geographically, cities or regions tend to have a sort of unified style. Seattle hip-hop doesn't have that at all. From a national perspective the only other Seattle artist I have to compare you to is Macklemore and you guys don't sound similar at all.
We make rap music, hip-hop. I don't know what that music that [Macklemore] makes is, but it's not the same. A lot of that though, is because of the internet. Before the internet you didn't really read about other things. Your city was your world. Now with the internet, your city is just a point of departure for that. Now you find that real distinct characteristics are falling away because marketers, promoters, and people selling clothes and lifestyle stuff are trying to reach everybody at once and they're doing it over the internet. That kind of local flavor is being killed off by that and I think that trickles down into everything.

Do you think that on the internet you could belong to a group of people that make music or do you stand completely away from that like how you do now, in Seattle?
Yeah, I think we stand with a broad base of people who kinda all want to be, I don't want to say original, but doing what they want to do. Not doing whatever it takes for some people to love them or to be a popstar. So yeah, I stand with those people for sure. I mean there's a lot of folks here. I think the best people here sound like themselves. That I can say.

As a music writer, you can usually somewhat pinpoint something to it's geographic or artist influences. What made you to make music like you do with the Shabazz project, because it's very not describable and easy to pinpoint.
You go with what's in your mind to a finished product without trying to filter it through what's playing on the radio or what demographic you're trying to reach, or what gets signed. If you don't do those things and just do your thing, it's gonna sound like you and that's what we did. So that's why. I think if more people did that you would have a lot more varying styles of music. Most people now days see music as an opportunity to do other things or for the fame or fortune it might bring them. [Music] is secondary to their desires. Instead of doing music because I love music, [people will say] "I'll do it because like I want to be famous, I want to make a video and I want people to know who I am, and I want to wear these clothes and be seen so I’m gonna do it through music." You don't have to put as much work in as you would to be an athlete or an actor, or some type of other professional, you know what I mean? You can just kind of get on a beat and maybe everything will start and you'll be popular. That's why. We don't roll like that, we just do our thing and whether or not we get famous for it, or rich or not is kind of beside the point. We like music so we do it, and once you get older your responsibilities are laboring on you, so you gotta figure out a way to make bread and be keeping up with music without doing other shit, so then you start really figuring out ways to make a business out of it. A lot of people start off with the business and the fame part and the music comes way letter. They figure, "Hey, all I gotta do is make a beat like this, say these words, and that way I'll have a chance," and unfortunately, or fortunately for them, you do have a chance if you follow these certain rules and that's the way it is now.

Those are things you don't aim to do in your music. What specifically are you trying to do and express through your music?
The destination of it is in the expression. It's not about saying, it's always about doing. The only thing that I could say to explain it is that you just have to do it. It's all talk. Everybody's doing their own thing that have nothing to do with reality but with their imagination which is fueled by their desires. It's not necessary if you do it. The subtleties, nuances, and beauty of it are things that can only be expressed in the doing not necessarily the saying unless you're a poet or a novelist or something like that. This is an indescribable, indefinable, thing that we try to bask in when we create music. That inspiration happens, you're a writer, you know. Sometimes you're thinking, "What am I going to do? How am I going to say this? How am I going to start it off. It all comes to you. You don't know where it came from. Because you're trying to do it, you're channeling these things, you're open to it, they come. It is what it is being an artist. It's not just a personality in a business. That's all I could really say.

At the very least, do you think there are experiences that lead you to create and think in the way that you do?
I don't know man. I can't point it to one thing. It's so broad to ascribe so much weight to one thing. To me, that would be a disservice. I think people say shit like that to help create this myth and then associate it with broad amounts of people to further their own trajectory. Now all skateboarders are like, "Yeah, yeah!" Everybody skateboards when they come up. I played basketball, I played football, I was into art, I played in band. My mom, my dad, my uncles [all influenced me. I mean, it's too much. It's too much. I can't thing of one specific thing that led me to be this way though, sorry.

Why did you pick music over all of those are things?
Music chose me. This is what happens to me. If you're into art of some kind, you find yourself compelled to do [art] often regardless of responsibility, health, all reason. You find some way of making a beat. Music finds you. Or, it found me. It made me the way I am because of the way that I feel when I do it.

Are you guys working on anything new anytime soon that you can talk about?
Yeah, definitely. We are working on the new album now.

How do you think it will sound compared to the last one?
I don't know. I doubt that it will sound much like it. It will probably sound... I don't know. We've left that. That [last album] is kind of far behind us now. There will be some similarities I guess, because we are who are. Other than that, it's not gonna sound much like it at all.

You've worked on a lot of different projects. Do you see yourself ever moving past Shabazz?
I'm not sure. I don't really see it now but he likelihood of it happening is pretty high. You don't stay in one place forever. You establish it as a place that even when you move on from it, you can come back to it. It's a reliable and sturdy place and it brings you good feelings and stuff like that. I know me and Tendai [Maraire] will always do music together in some kind of way. To revisit this era would be likely because it's been about five years and we've probably done about 300 shows or something like that. We could probably come back to it if people wanted to hear it.

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