Ishmael Butler from Shabazz Palaces
Ishmael Butler has had the sort of successful (yet unpredictable) career path most musicians can only dream of. The Seattle native rose to prominence in 1994 as part of the pioneering jazz-rap trio Digable Planets, and then again in 2011, under the moniker Shabazz Palaces — a project that sounds just as fresh today as Digable did in the ‘90s.
After three years without a release, Shabazz Palaces has returned with two high-concept companion LPs, both exploring ever-topical themes of alienation, violence and cell-phone dependency through the eyes of Quazarz, an extraterrestrial. In advance of their simultaneous release, we spoke with Ish about creating his new alien alter ego, expanding one album into two and drawing influence from unexpected sources.
DOPE Magazine | Since your new album, Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines, is about our dependence on social media and technology, how do you try to temper your relationship with the two in such a digital age?
Ishmael Butler: Just try to mind excess, dependency, filling up idle time with endless swiping. I’m not totally against it, and I see it for what it is in terms of marketing, and the social aspects of it. I just try not to get too deep or spend too much time with it.
Q | How did you decide to explore that through the lens of a sci-fi character, Quazarz?
A: Most ideas just dawn on me. I don’t really think of them myself, they come from some other place and I just distill them through my musical predisposition and tastes. It just came to me and started to take shape like a tadpole. I read a lot of science fiction. I watch a lot of basketball. It’s hard to say.
Q | How did you decide to expand to a second album, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star?
A: I knew that Quazarz was the new takeoff point I was going to be coming from. The Jealous Machines was recorded and completed first. After that, I recorded Born on a Gangster Star over the course of two weeks, so it happened fast and took everybody by surprise. It had good songs, that the label thought were good songs, so it was like, wow we got an album here. So it wasn’t a plan until it actually happened, because we just had that much material.
Q | When did you record Born on a Gangster Star relative to the election?
A: I think it was during the election, or a little after.
Q | Did all that was happening affect how much new stuff you had to say?
A: Probably. I don’t literally come out and be like, ‘Trump is bad,’ but the feeling you get watching the news and hearing shit that’s going on—when you go record music, that stuff’s gonna sink in, because you’ve got these emotions and these feelings around it. Whether it’s a direct line to it, it’s still very present in your creations.
Q | Does weed have any influence on your creative process, in general?
A: Yes, it does. Just cause I smoke it, it alters your state of mind. I usually record like that and do a lot of my creations like that, so yeah, it affects me, sure. [laughs]
Q | How do you feel about the part legal weed has had in changing Seattle’s Central District, since Uncle Ike’s has become sort of a poster-business for gentrification?
A: I don’t know enough to say. But I will say that progress can take many forms. The notion that progress means this one thing, that people who live in a desirable location get replaced by more affluent, mostly white people who drive up the cost of living and existing in that area. So you get a whole cultural shift without any consideration for the prior people that lived there. I don’t subscribe to that model of progress. Things change, demographics change, that’s all well and good, but the style in which it happens seems like it’s some bullshit. It’s also imperialistic, redundant, not very colorful, not very inclusive. Any situation like that, whatever you call it—gentrification, progress, expansion—I don’t fuck with it. I think it’s kinda whack.
Q | What were your biggest non-musical influences while recording the albums?
A: My romantic relationships, past and present. Wangechi Mutu’s paintings. The ocean. But I’m probably wrong. Probably the most influential stuff is stuff I didn’t notice was influencing me—it’s just too instinctive and down in my chromosomes.