Interview: Shabazz Palaces
We chat to Ishamel Butler before Shabazz Palaces come to Australia this January.
In a mere matter of weeks, Australia will get to experience the space-y, velvety sounds of Shabazz Palaces – a group that likens themselves to 'Bedouins who herd beats instead of goats'. The former frontman of Grammy-winning Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler has teamed up with producer Tendai and this year released Black Up through Sub Pop Records. The album has been a critical smash success, appearing on plenty of 'Best Albums of 2011' lists, including the one from NPR Music who described it as "the sound of being digested by a black hole." Another reason to get excited? Digable Planets have just announced they are re-forming. Shit just got real. We spoke to Butler, leader of the Seattle hip-hop group.
Ariane Halls: How are you today?
Ishmael Butler: I'm good. I feel good. I'm in Miami.
How's the weather? Is it warm still?
Yeah it's very beautiful, very beautiful.
Oh awesome. I noticed your mailbox is full. Are you the sort of person that doesn't listen to your voicemails?
Your mailbox is full on your phone, are you the sort of person that always has their mailbox full?
Oh yeah, I just got back from Europe and I didn't have my phone on out there so with the amount of days that it was off, the messages just piled up and I didn't answer them yet.
I never listen to mine. Mine is constantly full, so I totally understand.
Oh eternally full, perpetually full. OK! I got you.
I know when you first started releasing your music as Shabazz Palaces you guys declined to do interviews which I do understand to an extent, so why are you doing this interview for example?
Well, because in a business partnership, like with a label, you take on the responsibility of promoting in the practical ways, so you just understand that this is something that you gotta do. You hope that it's interesting at least, but understand that it might not be, but it's not even about that. At this point it's good to have the opportunity for somebody to get educated on what it is, because now that we're touring it helps to bring people to the shows and shit like that so it's just necessary but it's at least an opportunity to talk to people about something interesting.
Well, thank you for giving me your time. Black Up is really amazing, it's definitely one of my favourite albums of the year and I know it's on a lot of other people's lists. How does it feel to be on people's favourite lists?
It feels like getting kissed by someone that you've been wanting to kiss for a long time.
[Laughs] So it's a good feeling, essentially?
Is it better than winning a Grammy? What was winning a Grammy like?
That was like, floating on a yacht, but very close to the shore, but you couldn't really get to the shore. The space in between is something that you couldn't really understand. It was cool, but it was somewhat disorienting, and we didn't really have a context for it, and the context that we did have wasn't really that good. So, it just was kinda disorienting, really. Briefly.
What have you been doing for the past ten years? Like, you personally? What were you doing throughout the 2000's?
I was involved in living in all ways that one could imagine. I mean, you know how it is, same thing as you going over the last ten years, it's just living life.
You said that you listen to lots of podcasts, what podcasts do you listen to?
My dad's friend sends me these ones that I like. Fifties doo-wop music. And I like this punk rock one I listen to a lot too, but I forget the name of it. There's new ones coming out all the time. I just listen to them, you always hear one or two songs that you just never woulda thought you heard, they're just amazing, so that's what I like.
What have been your favourite albums of the year?
I don't know, people have been asking me that. I didn't really have many. I did like Ritual Union [by Little Dragon]. I listened to that one a lot. And I like this group called Weeknd who had an album that I liked a lot. Other than that I didn't really listen to albums.
You're more into songs?
Yeah, songs and shit you got on your iPod, you just listen to that.
I read an interview where you said that Lil Wayne and Rick Ross are making music for a different outcome to what you're doing. What are you hoping to achieve with your music that's different to them?
They have a lot of responsibility to maintain that level of putting out music and having things come in, it's really like a stream that they maintain, 'cause they take care of so many people's wishes and hopes and dreams in their lives. And they're involved in huge businesses and everything like that so it's just different for me. A lot of people look at that and think that, 'Oh they're making that type of music and it's not good, it's superficial' and this and that but they don't really take into account the realities of the situation and I get where they're coming from.
Do you think that their situation means that you have more freedom in what music you can make? Compared with them?
I don't wanna get involved in any comparisons, really. It's an observation. I get it, but, nothing really compares to anything else, you know?
Why do you think Sub Pop hadn't signed any hip-hop acts before Shabazz Palaces?
Sub Pop doesn't look at their roster like, "OK, these bands are this genre." They either like the music or they don't. And when I say they don't, they might like it but still not think it's something suitable for the label. The thing is, they're not gonna look at it like, "Oh, we signed a hip-hop band." They just liked the music, they liked us as people, they felt like we could work with it together and relate on this artist thing and that's what it was. Maybe nobody had made anything that they liked.
What was the first record you ever bought?
Are you still a big Prince fan? Have you seen him play recently?
No. But yeah, I'm still a fan.
I just missed seeing him in LA, in May I think it was.
But I heard he was unbelievable. Anyway, I look forward to seeing you guys when you're out here.
Yeah, come say hi.
Check out the official album short film for Black Up here:
Shabazz Palaces will play the following shows on their Australian tour:
Melbourne – January 12 2012, RAOBGAB Buffalo Club
Sydney – January 13 2012, Sydney Festival at Keystone Festival Bar
Introduction: Alanna Bromley