Shabazz Palaces are an anomaly in hip hop, but only if you take that word at face value – as something that deviates from the standard, normal or expected.
If however you choose to see hip-hop as something that’s big enough to fit the likes of Kanye West, YG, The Roots and Mac Miller while leaving space for a new generation of kids to leave you dumbfounded, then Shabazz Palaces are perfectly normal and, more to the point, vital to the music and culture.
The duo of Ishmael Butler, formerly Butterfly of 1990s outfit Digable Planets, now Palaceer Lazaro, and Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire, a.k.a. Fly Guy ‘Dai and son of Zimbabwean musician Dumisani Maraire, Shabazz Palaces didn’t as much burst into our collective consciousness as slyly inject themselves while we weren’t looking. The pair, both Seattle residents and with a long standing friendship and musical partnership, created Shabazz Palaces sometime in the 2000s and self-released two EPs in the summer of 2009. A couple years later they fully materialised via Sub Pop, a legendary Seattle label hat had made its name pushing punk, rock and grunge bands. Black Up, the duo’s 2011 full length debut, made their intentions clear: hip-hop that prioritised freeform creativity. The titles were bizarre, the art captivating, the structures unconventional, the beats cracking.
Three years later Butler and Maraire return with Lese Majesty, an album that is just as inspired as their debut and just as hard to decipher. Sub Pop’s promo for the album describes the tracks as “reveries sent to Palaceer Lazaro and Fly Guy ‘Dai in the year of gun beat battles in excess; in a succession of days, whilst walking in dreams and in varied transcendental states” In an age of PR bullshit and transparent shots at quick fame and money, any artist and label willing to play the game in this way deserves credit – especially when paired with those promo shots of Ishmael with two giant snakes.
Was there any particular intention behind the three year hiatus between albums?
Ishmael: We don’t really look at it like ‘we haven’t had an album out in this amount of time so we need to do something’, you know? We basically toured non-stop from the time our debut came out til we had to really stop and say ‘tell our booking agents that we need this time to write something new.’ We felt at that point we did want to put out a new album, we had so many ideas so we just stopped touring.
There were also several other elements that played into it. We have lives outside of the music obviously, which played a part in the timing, and we were also building a studio. So we weren’t thinking of it with the intention of doing anything other than taking it day-by-day and letting things take their natural course.
One of my first reactions to the album was that it felt sonically close to the first one but perhaps more realised. How do you see the relationship between the two bodies of work?
I: I mean, I hope there’s a link. We don’t really sit back and analyse the music like some might in the press or fans. We just do it. Since the album’s been done, completely turned in, scheduled for release, we’ve probably done 20, or 30, more songs each. So… it’s kinda left in the wind. But we did build this studio and we put in there a lot of equipment that we had dreamed of having, and we had the time and space to realise, as you say, much more than we have before. So as an observation that you have I could see how it could be true.
Is there a particular aesthetic that you are, consciously or not, trying to put forward with the Shabazz project?
I: It’s a very hip hop, urban aesthetic, everything we do we tryin’ to crack everybody else, you know what I’m saying? It’s that. So you’re trying to have the freshest raps, the best sounds, the newest flavours but at the same time you’re not doing it for the sake of… you gotta do it, in your mind you gotta think, that it’s a realisation of your instincts. You gotta go in there and basically jump off a cliff and hope that the parachute of your instinct and ability saves you. That’s how we do it. You gotta push yourself sonically, it’s a balance you gotta ride: going too far and not going far enough. That’s the planet we live on, that’s the edge where we try to compose and come up with styles and concepts and things like that for the music.
How is your composition and writing process? You’ve mentioned you work on your own, so how does it come together as Shabazz in the studio?
I: It’s any way you can imagine it, that’s the way it happens. Because again we have a headquarters/studio where we might split time and sometimes we’ll be in there together. Or he’s in there and he’ll call me down to do something or vice versa. A lot of songs are made up during the show, on the road doing improvisations during the set. There is no one way and there isn’t even a hundred ways. Sometimes we work a certain way for a week or so but then never return to that process of working again. We haven’t come to a point where we have a specific way of doing things and hopefully we won’t anytime soon.
Do you think that might be part of the Shabazz magic?
I: Again, we don’t really consider what we’ve done in that way.
Let me rephrase – perhaps it’s part of the enjoyment you get out of the creative process?
I: When you meet somebody, like your parents might take you to a friend’s house and you have to go play with their kids but you’ve never met before. By the time you have to leave you’re crying, they’re the best friend you’ve ever had. There’s just a naturalness, a youthful exuberance and a trust musically that… we’ve been music friends for a lot of years, been around and worked with a lot of people but we just have a rapport where it goes beyond language really. Once a groove is on, the reaction we both have. We usually end up appreciating it and liking it, so that’s basically what it is, this kind of friendship.
Tendai: For me… I think the easiest way for me to interpret it is that the music industry, the radio, all of the elements that take part in the commerce of people buying music, actually is the thing that to me is our worst enemy. Otherwise we’d just make music, put it out, let people hear it and it’d just be continuous, people would hear the continuous creations we make on a daily basis together, individually, with other people… we have to narrow it down to a certain amount, whatever you wanna call it, IDs on a CD, so that you can digest it. So… for me I love the creation process, after that I don’t pay too much attention to it all.
There seems to be a lack of formula to the songs you release as Shabazz. No one is ever quite the same. Is there any intent behind that or is it you just playing with the creative process as you just described?
I: I think that for the most part there’s a notion that every decision a musician is making in the pop realm is intentional, you know? The time, when the hook occurs, how many times etc… I understand that but just because we don’t do that doesn’t mean that it’s intentionally not doing that, you know? We come from musicians that play off instinct and feeling, so no decision is cerebral, it’s all emotional. That’s it. There’s no reason that happens other than this groove was going on, felt like long enough, another idea came and then we switched it out. We leave ideas behind when they’re exhausted, that’s it.
Is there a similar approach to the naming convention for the tracks then? As a writer I find them really fascinating, and again without necessarily knowing or understanding the intention behind it they become even more attractive, you want to try and understand them.
I: Yeah I don’t want to say they have no intention, but the intention isn’t the same as every other artist. Or what the other artist is saying that their intention is… ok the album says ‘shake your butt’ so we’ll call it ‘shake your butt’ because we say ‘shake your butt’ three times during the course… and then at the end we say it six times… we’re trying to develop a story around this song ‘shake your butt’ because when people hear it we want them to recognise it… all that marketing and business stuff, we don’t have to do that. But we do have intention. Every point in the creative process is an opportunity to do something cool, have fun, represent the music in a certain kinda way. So we subscribe to that outlook rather than trying to develop a marketing point that everyone can recognise for the duration of the life of the record. It’s just that…
Did you decide to split the album into suites after you wrote it?
I: Yeah, we do the music first. And then as the music is completed certain things are pronounced naturally, they just come up. And then you start to see things that could be put together, hidden meanings are revealed that might have something to do with titling, certain songs work better with other songs so that’s where the suites come in.
Considering all you’ve just said, do you perhaps see Shabazz as a project that aims to give people an experience, arching back to a time when the music industry did invest in creating experiences?
I: I don’t know if it’s different, but I know we’re trying to give people an experience that’s more akin to the ones that we have when we sit down with something new. To know that the people that made whatever you’ve got in front of you, a film, a painting, a piece of clothing, an album, to know that these people understood the weight and the possible influence of this ceremonial endeavour and put a lot into it, you know? Rather than musicians… a lot of rappers now they want something from this thing, they want something from the fans, basically money and adoration. And they want to try and give the least amount, time, effort and energy and we just feel like if you get to make a record you should make the most of it.
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In an early interview, back before the first album, you spoke about earning real fans through a slow process, through letting the music speak for itself. Four years on do you think you’ve managed that?
I: Well we have some fans, so… we didn’t really get them through any propaganda so I guess I do…
T: Yeah, of course. Three or four years ago when I would go home to Zimbabwe nobody had any idea what Shabazz Palaces was. But through a process of going online and discovering things on their own they’ve stumbled across it and respect it enough.
Do you think it perhaps also boils down to a certain degree of being honest through your art?
I: Yeah for sure.
T: Going back to his reference of a relationship and meeting friends, I think one of the things that right off the bat we respected about one another is that we’re always honest. Whether we agree upon everything or not the honesty is there, so it’s impossible to approach music or a song or anything without this honesty. Everything we do, we’re honest people. I trust that, when we’re in the studio or whatever he writes or says I know it’s going to be honest and it’s coming from a good place. There’s no reason for there to be… I don’t know… there’s no reason to question that. We’ve got beyond the process of calling one another to figure out what… the intention is. We’re not there anymore. Just trying to create music on such a platonic level you know? To where we can just show up and make a good song and walk off and do it again the next day.
Do you find a place like Sub Pop gives you the freedom to be the way you are, especially considering everything you’ve just talked about with regards creative process and the industry?
T: It’s like this… There are certain rules that are given, so it’s not about not wanting to play by the rules. It’s just there are stereotypes. For example: all rappers wear chains and want certain type of women and wanna pop champagne. We respect that, we pop champagne and do all of it, we love gold chains, everything. But we don’t make it a point to propagate that and push that and go down that lane.
There are rules of engagement for music, the commerce and everything behind it. And we understand that, and Sub Pop knows we understand that, otherwise we wouldn’t have packaged up CDs inside cardboard boxes with patches the first time around. Sub Pop is a place that understands and knows that, they know that they don’t have to come in and tell us ‘when you get to the show be nice to the promoter, don’t yell at staff’ etc… they know that, they just give us a place to make the music. You see? When it gets to a certain point they may educate you on things you may not know and it’s a perfect marriage between group and label.
Do you think experience comes into it too, theirs and yours?
T: Yeah I think so.
Well talking of experience, longevity, how do you see rap and hip hop in its fourth decade?
I: I just don’t know if there’s enough time to really give a comprehensive answer that represents how I feel about all of that cos it’s deep and complicated, it has more to do with social, political and economic structures going on in America, you know? Everything trickles down into art. What’s happening in the country is first, then it comes out in the music. But to answer, it’s everything, it’s vibrant, it’s superficial, there’s depth in the superficiality in terms of the reasoning, it’s become uniform but at the same time the uniformity has branched out and bred a lot of eccentricity, some of the eccentricity is kept down, some of it has reached mainstream levels… it’s an enigma as much as it is predictable, you know?
I wanted to touch on the visual side of Shabazz too. Is that something you have a direct hand in?
I: Yes, definitely. It’s as important as every musical aspect. There’s natural, instinctive philosophies going on that we share with a lot of different people. Artists, other musicians, just human beings that aren’t into art and music at all. So it’s like… a wave if you will that we are all riding on. It’s all the same, the music, the art, we take just as much time with each aspect. It’s of paramount importance definitely.
You touched on the importance of packaging before, so did you spend time after it was written to figure out the best way to present this new album?
I: That’s one way to look at it, but it’s a little superficial. Let’s say the brother who did the artwork, Nep Sidhu, he’s a friend. We talk to him on the phone. Even before a song is written he might show us stuff he’s working on and I might show Tendai. In turn Tendai is working with someone who does graphic design and he might show him stuff. Everything you see, come across, feel and hear whether or not you can point to it, it’s influencing what you’re into and what you’re doing, creating. There’s a wave of creative activity we’re all riding on that’s cyclical. Everything we’re seeing, doing, hearing or that’s happening contributes to the stuff we make. At some point there’s a corner turn where you get specific, I want to use this for that, but I don’t know if it’s more important than the stuff you don’t realise and which also influences you.
Ultimately it feels like you’re creating a world that for those willing to go there is quite engrossing and challenging, forcing you to explore it without a map, to take risks and let things go in a way that music and art doesn’t always do today.
I: Right. We’re trying to make it so there’s an endless area, when you listen to us you can go endlessly, in your mind you’re putting two and two together to equal four but it’s a different four every time. It’s open ended in the sense that you can explore it endlessly, but it’s close ended in the sense that instinct is always a result. It always has a result. And this is it. It’s not a bad thing to not have a specific ending or a specific conclusion to catch onto.
I was in New York these past few months and saw you were part of King Britt’s Afrofuturism event at MOMA. I was wondering how you looked at this idea of afrofuturism today, whether or not you felt interest in it or kinship with the movement?
I: For me I have no idea what afrofuturism is. I haven’t defined it yet nor heard a definition that I understood but in terms of kinship with it, a lot of people who work in that realm I do feel a kinship with. I do like the music, the art, the writing that comes up. I’m down with it, I just don’t really understand what it is. And also as a category, I don’t know how much I agree with the need for there to be a category. You know? It’s kind of a duality with it, I get it, I rock with it, but I have no idea what it really is.
T: There’s some similarities in the answer for me. I grew up in a different household. Afrocentric wasn’t a goal of my parents who were both musicians. I look at it more… the diaspora, the communication of Africans and African Americans coming together and working. Ish introduced me to King, and again right off the bat we became cool and started working together on projects. My relationship with him on a personal level, that’s what it meant. Finally being able to carry on a legacy on one side and on the other keep the tradition and the music that I was raised on, continue to play the instruments, while also bringing an African American music, hip hop, whatever you want to call it, bringing that back to Africa and letting the two meet and see where… what it evolves to become and what the future is with it. That’s what it means for me. I talk with King a lot about it and continue to learn. I’m always a student of music.
For most of hip hop’s past two decades we’ve had the MC as the face of the music. Do you feel that perhaps what you’re achieving with Shabazz, in terms of letting the music speak for itself and shying away from being at the front of it, is perhaps an evolution?
I: I think you have to differentiate between normal evolution in terms of business and marketing and then a normal evolution culturally. The rap I knew at first, Grandmaster Flash was the name of the person who was on the record, you know? Jazzy Jeff, DJ Mark The 45 King… the rapper was respected but everybody that was down with the music when I came up also knew the DJ. They knew the producer. We knew to differentiate who did what on songs and albums. But that’s culture. Marketing, yeah that’s happening. Business people were looking for ways to sell, so OK, now producers are in so we’re going with them. Now rappers are back in? OK. It’s pretty much been the same the whole time culturally though. We all know who everybody is. And we respect them and they know who they are as well. That’s always kinda maintained in my eyes. But commercially, yeah it has evolved.
T: If you’re talking to MCs they’re never going to separate themselves from the beat. But because of technology and the internet it’s also opened things up for producers, and now you can travel the world and I see producers who just make beats and become household names to the kids, within that demographic, that age bracket. They do a whole show just playing their beats.
I like the growth of hip hop. I like everything that’s happened. Of course the bigger something gets the more saturated it’s gonna become with pop culture. You’ll see so much commercialism in it, people milking a formula compared to what it was 10 years ago. We see it everyday somehow. But I think everyone should do what’s good for themselves. If as a producer you can’t find a good rapper then make beats and put them out, and you might have a career out of that. Everybody can do it how they want but there’s opportunities now to be able to find producers and rappers, if you do research and take the time there are opportunities out there to find good matches. It’s just going to be hard for someone who loves rapping to give away a beat. It’s very hard for me. Even among each other, there are times where I’ll be like ‘nope I’m keeping that’ and that’s that. Even if I hold it for two years. MCs hear something and they want it all to themselves. It is what it is.