Shabazz Palaces Talks Space-Time, How Social Excess Impacts Art, and ‘The Don of Diamond Dreams’
As Shabazz Palaces, emcee and multi-instrumentalist Ishmael Butler creates what sounds like hip-hop from an alternate universe. He spent the ‘90s as one third of the trio Digable Planets, with whom he still performs, and has seen the oddest phases come and go, somehow never quite getting swept away in any wave, but staying ahead of the stream all along. He introduced the Shabazz Palaces moniker with the 2011 debut, “Black Up,” an album that suddenly cut directly through all the nonsense, with an unprecedented, otherworldly, eclectic strain that revealed a path forward. Every successive release has expanded on a singular vision, leading up to the latest Butler’s latest record, “The Don of Diamond Dreams.”
The new set of songs cull sounds from disparate genres, juxtaposing hard-hitting funk and indie fuzz with free jazz indulgence and psychedelic iridescence. Butler fills his tracks with signs and signifiers that traverse genres and transcend temporal stylistic confines, continuing a longstanding fascination with space and time that makes its way into various facets of the music. Afrofuturism seeps its way into everything from lyrics about Ethiopian carats to scattered sax outpourings placed alongside warped vocoder. Butler flows atop the grand spectacle, emanating endless swag, in a jargon replete with approximately equal measures of slick slang and rich references. Butler spoke with Entertainment Voice about his approach to sound, lyrics, and art in general. He delved into specifics of new songs, and shared insights on the evolution of art and society.
When you released your debut album, 2011’s “Black Up,” its hard-hitting, forward-thinking sounds came as a breath of fresh air in hip-hop, and you continue to advance boldly forward naturally. How does your new album “The Don of Diamond Dreams” represent your sonic evolution?
Well, albums capture a certain time in your development, but all throughout, you’re always learning new shit — getting new equipment, getting new keyboards, getting new software, getting new plugins and stuff, so you learn all of this stuff over the course of a couple years, touring, playing shows and everything, and then when you sit down and actually capture ten, twelve, fifteen songs, then it’s like the combination of all of the stuff that you’ve been learning up until that point, so it’s like a snapshot of that period in time. Since that album has been done, I’ve already made a bunch more songs in new directions too, so it’s kind of like a photograph of where you’re at at the time
Are there any particular musical changes or trends that you see depicted in the most recent snapshot?
Well, not really, because it’s so comprehensive, it has to do with things that are specifically related to music, but also things that are not, like living your life, or maybe you went to another country, or took a few days off in Latvia or something, you know what I mean? All of these things seep into you, and then come out, but I will say that I got another group, Digable Planets, and there’s a band that we have, and they’re all really good players, so getting to be around them — learning at soundchecks, and just cooling out in hotels, and learning all this new instrumentation has really put me where I am. You can learn one chord, and that shit can take you into a tangent for the next five or six months or something, so yeah.
Your lyrics aren’t quite like anyone else’s — freeform, loosely structured abstractions that dart whimsically between esoteric street slang and erudite cultural references. How do you generally write your lyrics? And how do you manage to memorize lyrics who’s non sequitur structure seems to defy any such attempt?
Well, I don’t really have to memorize them until after, because I don’t write them, you know what I mean? I kind of just do them each time I’m recording the vocals. And then I just learn them through repetition after the song is done.
So it’s pretty much all freestyle?
I would say like seventy percent.
Your lyrics, freestyled or otherwise, are so dense that they invite a wealth of interpretation. Will you pick out a couple of your favorite lines or segments from the new album, and unpack them, to give fans a glance into your mental workings.
I like the line “All types of girls like me like I’m Fenty,” you know like Rihanna’s makeup line? Because I’ve got daughters, and they’re in their twenties, so my daughters were telling me that Fenty, all types of girls love them because they had really thought about all the different kinds of ladies out there — different skin types, different colors, and I thought that was cool. Let’s see, another one — I like the one where I say, “The incentive is bending bills / Pursue tremendous thrills / And don’t get killed.” That sums up, basically, my outlook on life (laughs).
One priceless line that stands out is “My phone’s really not that smart” from “Chocolate Souffle.” Expand on this nugget of wisdom.
(Laughs) Yeah, because with my phone, I’m always saying shit to Siri or typing some shit, and she either doesn’t understand me or spells the shit totally different than what it is I’m trying to spell, so I was like “Man, my phone really isn’t as smart as they would like you to believe.” It’s really ham-handed when it comes to the things that they sell as the most intelligent parts of it, so that’s what I was thinking about.
The album begins with what sounds like a portal to another dimension on “Portal North: Panthera” and ends with comparably psychedelic “Reg Walks Through the Looking Glass.” Would you consider this a concept album? If so, how might you demystify the core concept?
Yeah, I feel there’s artists that really can lay out a concept prior to making the music, and then execute and achieve that because of their level of skill and expertise. I don’t really have that. I go off instinct, so I record the music first, and then try to look and find things that emerge naturally, and then try to discover the concept and name it after the stuff has already been done. So that’s what I kind of did here, and it really is defined by my dad dying in the middle of the mixing of the album. When that happened, it basically consumed all of my thoughts, obviously early on when he passed, and even until now. It’s very all-encompassing, all-consuming — thoughts of joy, longing, beauty, pain, happiness, reflection, wondering, you know. That’s really what defined it, and then the song “Reg Walks By the Looking Glass,” my dad’s name is Reginald, and he really loved the saxophone, so that is really kind of a sendoff, like a swan song, if you will. That’s why it sits where it sits in the album, and sounds how it sounds too.
The theme of the album is really not specific, but it’s about dreaming — the difference between sleep dreams and real dreams are really not that much. It’s all about your imagination and what you see as possible, and making it happen. It’s an abstract but also specific to each person. It’s about your potential, really.
Expand on what you mean by “real dreams.”
Just reveries, sitting down and looking into space, and postulating other reality, some other occurrence and stuff, because that’s really what futurism is: forecasting a desire, and then changing your behavior in the “present” to get to that future, so that’s how I look at it. TIme don’t move like an arrow. It moves kind of like water, around and around, and you never know how the future and the past and the present will fold and bend in on each other and expand each other, so that’s kind of what I meant by that.
Your music seems to mess with our perceptions of time and space with every successive release, for example with the double-tracked, out of sync vocals on “Ad Ventures” to the trippy slurred reverberating percussion of “Thanking the Girls.” Explain your fascination with the space-time continuum and how you seek to explore it in your music.
Ok, that’s a great question. When I was younger, I read a book called “A New Refutation of Time” by Jorge Luis Borges, and that was the first time I ever thought of time as something other than on a grid, and it really made sense to me that through your memory, through your wishes and your dreams and your plans, the past, the present, and the future are all connected in a material. It’s not like it proceeds in increments — a second ends, and then another second begins, and then that ends, and then another second begins — no. It’s a flow that goes back, forth, sideways and all ways, so applying that to life and music, I just try to get off the grid, off the quantizations of things. And in music and in life and in art, visual art and stuff, I always like the things that sort of melt, that whisk through time rather than are rigid, and so that’s why I approach a lot of that stuff sonically, rhythmically, and also in terms of non sequitur things, in terms of lyric writing and shit like that. It’s not about incremental things, but overall feelings and impressions.
Your song “Money Yoga” has a striking title and a refrain of “Phase two, I’ve got money on my mind.” Is this about materializing wealth through visualization? If not, what is it about?
Well, I always feel like people’s observations are just as valid as whatever it is I might have thought I was doing in the first place. A lot of the time, when I make music and do lyrics, they come to me, and I believe in them because they came to me, but I don’t necessarily try to define them in any certain kind of way, so your observation of what it means is just as valid as what I might say. But I was just thinking about how people be online doing yoga and shit, on the phone, while recording themselves, but really, yoga is a thing where you’re really supposed to be outside of yourself, and very unconscious of yourself, trying to lose your thoughts and clear your mind, so it just seemed oxymoronic to me, but also a sign of the times. And everybody always really wants money, and their life is a mantra to money, so it was just kind of like playing in those themes a little bit with the “Money Yoga” song. And then, phase one is like when you’re young, you’re just thinking about romance and love, life, and stuff like that. You’ve got honey on your mind. And then by the time you get to phase two, all you’re thinking about is money because that’s just the way the world is kind of gearing you to think. All your responsibilities take over, and the whimsical, wistfulness of life is gone, and you’re just thinking about the bottom line, which is kind of crazy, so that’s what that song is loosely getting at.
On lines like that last, and in general, how much of an element is irony, and more broadly, humor, in your music?
I think quite a bit of it. And at best, the way we experience horrors now is like, you know, somebody will get blown up in a car, in a video, and cats will turn it into a meme like “How you feel when you leave work early” or something, and people will be laughing about it, but somebody just got blown up in a car, you know what I’m saying? So the way we take things and immediately co-opt it into the memosphere, and take any horrific sentiments and value out of it — now we’re just kind of laughing about it. We vacillate back and forth between that nowadays, between comedy and dead seriousness really seamlessly. It’s like a characteristic of the new world and the new society and the new culture, so that is true about comedy and seriousness, ebb and flow, back and forth like that. Yeah, for sure.
As someone who has been in the rap game for over a quarter century, you stand apart starkly from most of your peers, as you boldly explore uncharted sounds, while so many others revert to retro fare. Do you think classicism stagnates art?
Yeah, I do. The funny thing about that, speaking of irony, is that cats that was around in the golden era and made music like that, they know for a fact that when they were doing that there were people saying that the very thing they were doing was not substantial, didn’t have value, was ephemeral, wasn’t going to be around, wasn’t really music. So to stay that way, in that mindstate — it would be the most embarrassing thing for me to be stuck in some old way, and unable to get out, because it really limits the value of experience in your life when you’re closed off from new things, just because you think when you were in your twenties, everything should still remain that way. That seems wack.
Your son has made a name for himself as Lil Tracy, largely in the ‘Soundcloud rap’ genre. How, if at all, have you and he both influenced each other, in terms of sound, style and perspective?
Well, I influenced him probably just from him growing up and hearing all the music on his way to school and back home, and riding around in the car, and shit being played at the house, and me talking about stuff on the phone to my friends, and he’s overhearing things that we specifically spoke about to each other, about music and stuff I introduced to him. And with him, him taking that influence from myself, from his mom, and then stuff he found out in the street and in school, living his own life, and then how he made it into his own music influenced me. He brought a perspective, through him being my son, and me being ultimately interested in everything that he does and thinks, I was able to find out about a whole new side of life and music and expression that keeps my creative juices flowing as well, so it’s just a cycle of exchange and sharing and experience that he and I go through, so it’s been really good for me.
On a related matter, you have witnessed trends in hip-hop that no one would have predicted such as trap, Auto-tune, and you seem to nod to such trends on the new album, for instance in some of your cadences in “Wet,” and, of course, with the Auto-tune. How do you feel about the direction and state of hip-hop?
I think hip-hop music, art, is always going to be microcosmic of the greater society at large — things going on politically, economically — so boom, it’s going to be expressed in the music of that era and that time, so the materialism, the individualism, the self-centeredness, the need and desire for excess, it comes from our society, and then it trickles into the music, and it’s expressed in the music. That being the case, you’re going to get a lot of trash, just because it’s a fast food, disposable atmosphere that we live in, a reality show, every-man-for-himself kind of situation, so it’s going to come out in the music. But that being said, there’s always going to be genius. There’s always going to be inspired things. There’s always going to be flashes of brilliance and hard work and people that have passion and love for it too. So it’s just a lot of shit that comes out, because people just use it to get fame and recognition and notoriety, but within that, there’s always going to be really, really cool, groundbreaking things that happen too, so I’m cool with it, man. I get why people have hang ups about the new stuff, but I see that prevailing in all facets of society, not just in the music, and until that changes or redirects, it’s always going to be reflected in the art of a society — so good and bad.
The new album is full of colorful sounds, some of them so otherworldly that one wonders how you even create them. How do you usually go about creating a track? What’s your workflow like?
I usually do it at home. I use Ableton. I got a whole bunch of keyboards, I got a whole bunch of software, I got a whole bunch of pedals, I got guitars and basses. I usually don’t use a raw sound. I usually take a sound and morph it through pedals and effects and shit like that, so everything you’re hearing is a keyboard or a guitar or drums of drum machines, saxophones and everything, but usually trying to find, through morphing, through pedals, and through different kinds of gears, some different textures of the sounds, because I like foreign sounds. I like things that you can’t necessarily trace back to the original thing just off hearing it. That’s pretty much how it’s done, and that’s how I’ve always done it. Basically, it’s just trying to get to a new sound.
Out of all the sonic experiments on this album, which has the most interesting backstory. Tell us about a particular track, or aspect of one, that was a particularly wild experience to make.
“Thanking the Girls” was a song that I had had the basic beat for, and I was able to find this pedal that just was cool. It made everything sound hella big, even though there’s not that many elements to the song. So that really snapped together really quick, because it went from something that I just thought was a throwaway to something that I really ended up liking a lot, with just a few elements to the song. And also, “Reg Walks By the Looking Glass,” just the saxophone part and the solo and everything, I really, really like the way that song came together.
As your music is already rather trippy, it seems an abundance of free time during the current pandemic could just as well usher a new stage of brilliant art as drive you over the edge. How are you dealing with the circumstances, and how is your art responding?
(Laughs) Kind of the way you said, it’s pretty far out — man driven over the edge. It’s like music from the edge, from inside the quarantine, from inside the trap, but it’s been cool, man. I was learning a lot of Earth, Wind & Fire songs, trying to learn the chord progressions, and unpack it as much as I could, and that really sent me off on some really cool little tangents and shit, man, so that’s basically what I’ve been on in the month or so of quarantine, is an Earth, Wind & Fire kick.
“The Don of Diamond Dreams” is available April 17 on Apple Music.