Shabazz Palaces: in a position to act

Interview by Alain Brunet

A close collaborator with Montrealer Pierre Kwenders on his latest album, a beatmaker and rapper of great influence since the ’90s when he tore things up with the excellent Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler is reached in Seattle. We must talk about Shabazz Palaces, a hip hop project he’s been leading for nearly a decade. The group’s fifth opus, The Don of Diamond Dreams, has just been released on Sub Pop. Here are our questions, here are his answers.

Genres and styles : Hip Hop

Additional Information

photo: Patrick O’Brien

PAN M 360: In your opinion, what’s changed with your new album?

Ishmael Butler: I don’t really think about the things done on this new album. The objective is not to achieve something specific, it’s more about relaying these unspeakable things, guided by the laws of nature. When you get high and make music, vibrations are generated, emotions are translated into music and words.

PAN M 360: Yes, but… deep down, what do you think you’ve accomplished with this new album?

Ishmael Butler: I hope that this is not a rehashing of what I did before. I always try to do something different. I try to grow artistically by incorporating new ideas, which is what I’ve been doing since I was a child. You know, artists have their own personality, I don’t really know what mine is and I think it’s better for me to see it that way. I wouldn’t necessarily describe my own music as ‘advanced’ hip hop, as some people say. For my part, I’m not in a position to analyze or define. I’m in a position to act. It’s about living and doing things, having the idea of a form and developing it.

PAN M 360: Specifically, how did you work on the concept of The Don of Diamond Dreams?

Ishmael Butler: I’m always creating songs – on my computer, in the studio, in people’s homes after a show, wherever possible. When I have free time, I compile the work I’ve done, then I distill it into smaller, more precise formats. Then there’s the lyrics, the instrumental supplements, the final reduction and the mixing. Some patterns emerge then, an overall sound, an atmosphere, an environment. The whole thing took place over a period of about a year.

PAN M 360: What is your creative equipment and how do you use it?

Ishmael Butler: Here is my gear: Ableton sequencer, guitars, keyboards, effect pedals, vocal filters, wind instruments, string instruments, bass, percussion. I always buy new material, it induces new ideas. Also, I’m looking to meet artists who have new approaches, new ideas. I also like to learn how to play popular songs and understand how they are made, that leads me to a thousand new ideas. It’s like a snowball that gets bigger when it goes down a slope.

PAN M 360: In front of an audience, do you perform with a group of musicians?

Ishmael Butler: Preferably yes, but… If you’re paid a certain amount of money for a tour, you can’t take ten people with you, because your budget doesn’t allow it. Often the restriction is directly related to your tour budget. There are also other considerations. Let’s take the example of Flying Lotus, with whom I’ve already toured. He’s chosen to offer a visual experience in line with his music, so he devotes a large part of his financial resources to this visual aspect, and therefore chooses to simplify his musical presentation. And you know, fans often want to see and hear one person. But things can change; we can see some hip hop or electronic artists on stage with the baddest cats.

PAN M 360: Who are the people who collaborated on this album?

Ishmael Butler: I first composed all the music, beats and preliminary arrangements. I then worked with Darrius Willrich, keyboards and guitars, Evan Flory-Barnes, bassist extraordinaire from Seattle, Otis Calvin on keyboards, Erik Blood, bass, Carlos Niño, percussion, Carlos Overall, saxophone. Purple Tate Nate, Stas THEE Boss, and Carlos Overall are each featured in one song. They all add their own interpretation of the original mood, taking my songs to different places. I then fine-tuned by grafting their sounds to my songs. Erik Blood and I then mixed the whole thing at Studio 4 Labs in Venice, with the help of Andy Kravitz. As a result, we have a quality of sound that we have never had on other Shabazz Palaces albums.

PAN M 360: Can you briefly describe the purpose of the three songs on The Don of Diamond Dreams?

Ishmael Butler: “Thanking the Girls” evokes all the beautiful women I have known, who have shared their experiences and generosity with me. “Ad Ventures” is dedicated to the people of Black Constellation, my artistic family in which I create and grow. “Reg Walks by the Looking Glasses” is dedicated to my father, who loves the saxophone.

PAN M 360: Looking at your lyrics, you’re a chronicler of both public and private life – neither sphere seems to prevail.

Ishmael Butler: I have the impression that all these things in life, public or private, flicker together. Heaps of layers overlap and make up our perception of reality. When you try to distance yourself from your emotions and your life experience, you find that there is no dividing line. In my mind, everything fits together. At first glance, I’m not hyper-strong in all the subjects I deal with, but rather I have a global approach. I’m guided first and foremost by my instincts. 

PAN M 360 : Beyond hip hop, do you listen to other music?

Ishmael Butler: Yes, a lot. New alternative music, experimental music, weird music of all kinds. I like music in general, if a song is good, that’s what counts. What do I like at the moment? Jpeg Mafia, Kamasi Washington, Ariel Pink, Yves Tumor, a hundred others! I go through the playlists, podcasts and videos I get sent. I’m interested in young people, I don’t think the new hip hop is lame or weak. But I think a lot of young hip hop artists don’t have that sensitivity for what older people like me consider substantial, but that doesn’t make them any less substantial in my mind. The value of a work rests on the emotional responsibility and instinct of the artist observing reality. People my age might describe recent works as empty, repetitive or lacking in creativity and… none of these impressions are my concern.

PAN M 360: What is your general perception of hip hop in 2020?

Ishmael Butler: Hip hop is a form that is less easy to circumscribe than it was at its beginnings. Rather, hip hop has become a global, multi-genre phenomenon. The term hip hop cannot perfectly describe this phenomenon, this hip hop that has become global nevertheless remains a reflection of its time. We are going through a period that is at the same time materialistic, nihilistic, absurd, excessive… and hip hop creators are a reflection of this through their creative work. In the United States where I am, just look at our political situation, the crisis of the pandemic and the resulting stock market crash – hip hop will testify to this as it has done since its early beginnings.

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