There's not a lot of music coming out in 2017 that sounds like Shabazz Palaces' alchemical electronic afrofuturistic rap. But there are not a lot of artists out like Ishmael Butler—who saw early success winning a Grammy with Brooklyn-based "alternative hip-hop" outfit Digable Planets in 1994, weathered a group breakup/subsequent period of "acceptance of falling off," and reemerged as an evolved new entity 14 years later, alongside the wide-ranging Seattle musician Tendai Maraire, once again to critical acclaim.
"To fall off is the fate of the majority of the motherfuckers that do this," Butler says with a calm matter-of-factness, seated in an office chair at the head of a conference room table at Sub Pop Records' North-Downtown Seattle office, where he now works as an A&R. "It's all about how you process that reality, you know?"
Since Shabazz Palaces emerged anonymously in 2009, their music has been focused on processing reality through Ish's creative lens—via agile, insightfully seasoned rhymes and booming electronic-tinged beats incorporating elements of jazz, funk, dub, traditional Shona music, and other varied influences—rather than trying to rehash the past or blend in with any current wave or trend.
"We got this phrase, 'expanding the now'—there is only now," Butler, now 48 (only detectable from the streaks of grey in his beard) explains. Leaning back in his chair, rocking a silky black tunic shirt and grey ropelike scarf bought on one of his last overseas tours, and a custom-made scimitar-like earring on one ear, he exudes the kind of effortless swagger that only comes with real experience. He speaks deliberately, without wasting a word, in almost the exact same tone as on record. "And our thing is, can you get into the now? And like, push out more so that the now becomes wider, deeper, bigger, taller, more spacious? And that's involved in action, actually participating in the moment, always on the edge as much as you can."
The third and fourth Shabazz Palaces albums/latest exercises in expanding the now Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star aren't a part one/part two series, Butler says, but "monozygotic twins" that were recorded in different settings and situations. Vs. The Jealous Machines was recorded first over a longer span on multiple trips to LA, with producer/engineer Sonny Levine (a grandson of celebrated producer/composer Quincy Jones, who attended the same high school as Butler in Seattle's Central District neighborhood). It's the first Shabazz project that wasn't recorded with engineer Erik Blood, who had been working on his own solo material. Born On A Gangster Star was what Butler calls "an energetic reaction" after returning home to Seattle, recorded with Blood in two weeks when their visits home happened to coincide.
"They don't have any links sonically," Butler says, "Other than it came from the Quazarz point of view, which was a new wrinkle in the Shabazz tapestry."
"Earth is the Gangster Star to me. I feel like this place here, like in the galaxy, I couldn't imagine no place being much wilder than this."
The different recording settings are apparent after listening to both records. Vs. The Jealous Machines is a deep meditation on the state of technology and people's relationship to it, an indictment of "The United States of Amurderca," "Self-Made Follownaires" and "your favorite rapper" ("parodying our sufferance / all for a pittance"), posing questions like "what came first—the rapper or the trap?" It takes place in foreign states ("Atlaantis") and dreams ("Julian's Dream (Ode to a Bad)"), with the minimal, warped grooves veering towards the abstract, contrasting with Butler's dense, focused lyrics, letting phrases like "feudalist guilds upload holy wars for fascist jihad with hashtags" really resonate.
The "Jealous Machines," Butler says, are the iPhones, e-notebooks, devices themselves—our "glowing phantom limbs"—that seem to be getting between human interactions in every way possible.
"They wanna take over our humanity, and make it more automated, more digital, more B-Y-T-E sized, and we're letting it happen," Butler says, sounding more concerned than angry. "We're integrating these motherfuckers into everything we do. I feel like they're jealous… I know mines is always calling to me when I'm trying to relax and have my own time… And it's been put there by this other figure that we're looking to for guidance through this thing that we're calling life, and its insertion and presence and power in our lives without us really thinking much about it… it's wild, man. And we don't know what the consequences are. We see some of it, but what's the consequences on a cellular level? And how is that gonna translate into evolutionary changes that we have?"
Born On A Gangster Star deals with many of the same modern lyrical themes as Vs. the Jealous Machines, but sounds more personal, nostalgic, and grounded by more recognizable reference points. The opening track "Since C.A.Y.A." starts with a Thundercat bassline that sounds like it could be looped into a Digable Planets beat, referencing the Central Area Youth Association (where Butler and many other "C.D." residents grew up playing sports and attending programs) and other local staples. "Shine A Light" rides a sample loop of Dee Dee Sharp's "I Really Love You," a Philadelphia soul hit (produced by Gamble & Huff, who actually went to school with Butler's father in Philly) that Butler remembers from growing up. There's shades and distortions of disco ("Eel Dreams"), jazz ("Parallax"), doo-wop ("The Neurochem Dialogue"), funk ("Moon Whip Quaz"). It sounds like Butler was at home when he made this record. The familiarities make more sense when Butler explains where and what the "Gangster Star" is.
"Earth is the Gangster Star to me. I feel like this place here, like in the galaxy, I couldn't imagine no place being much wilder than this, you know what I'm sayin?" Butler says with a sudden spark of enthusiasm in his eyes. "And the things that humans have adapted to in terms of facing tragedy, enacting survival… And those people, they still are having concerts, having art shows and making clothes and trying to dress cool and falling in love… This is the coldest star in the universe."
These answers help explain the narrative accompanying the Quazarz press releases and promotional material. The story of Quazarz is the story of Butler himself—or some cosmic/astral form of himself. Stars and Light have been recurring themes in Shabazz Palaces' music since their debut EPs "Shabazz Palaces" and "Of Light", and just as actual quasars in outer space are the brightest objects in the universe, Butler has long been one of Seattle's brightest—or "a bright light / on the dark side (of town)," as he said on the S/T EP track "Capital 5…".
With these grandiose interwoven narratives and layers of meanings in between the music, Butler and co. are tapping into the same ancient/cosmic mysticism as pioneers of Afrofuturism—musically, visually, stylistically, and otherwise—like Sun Ra and Parliament, creating their own version of a P-Funk Mythology.
"I mean that's our most familiar link to a reference for it, and I personally spent a good portion of my life immersed in that music and was enamored and fascinated by all the approach that they had to it… like, 'yo we comin at this from a full angle: our stories, fantasy and the music,'" Butler says. "But I also believe that they are ancestors, we are ancestors, of beings that aren't necessarily confined to this terra, and these extravagant sci-fi ideas that we have to express come from a cellular memory of wherever it is that we came from," he muses. "Yeah, they are the arbiters of it and the originators of it in my mind, but I bet you that we all come from a pool of minds and blood and cells that make that possible in our imagination. I think it comes from another reality that most people think is fantasy but I don't."
These "extravagant sci-fi ideas," coupled with Shabazz Palaces' minimal, anti-trend "on the periphery" sound, might seem like asking a lot of listeners used to viral singles and free streams—"these aquadescentdiamondized ethers of the Migosphere here on Drake world," as one press release put it.
"Total comprehension isn't even the goal, its total participation," Butler says. "These things, these Quazarz… the music and the songs and the titles, they happened to me. I just happened to write it down or press record."
Mike Ramos is a writer and DJ based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.