Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces on staying current, Quincy Jones and Miles Davis
Image by Leif Podhajsky, photo by David Belisle
Shabazz Palaces is the brain child of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire. The two met in Seattle when Butler moved back from New York after his stint in the critically acclaimed, jazz inflected hip-hop group Digable Planets. While the Planets have occasionally played since splitting in the mid-'90s, Butler has focused on this project with Maraire since its inception in 2009.
Like a finely assembled puzzle or mosaic, the music of Shabazz Palaces draws on numerous sonic ideas to form an experimental form of hip-hop that amalgamates jazz, Islamic music, African music and experimental electronic composition into a vibrant collage. The act's 2011 album, Black Up, was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year. We spoke with the easygoing and insightful Butler and talked about staying current, his interview with Quincy Jones and his admiration for Miles Davis.
Westword: Were you involved in music in Seattle before you moved to New York?
Ishmael Butler: Yeah. I played in band and stuff in high school and junior high. I played tenor saxophone. I really liked Lester Young when I was a kid. My father turned me on to it.
When you were growing up, did you get to see any of that other music going on in the '80s?
Well, yeah, I mean a lot of those guys that ended up being in the grunge movement were my age, kind of, so I knew them from different high schools. A couple of cats went to my high school. I forget their names. I was living in New York at that time so I would always hear, "You know, such and such is in a band and they're doing this and that." I would see them and do stuff with them but just school activities and stuff like that.
How did you meet Tendai Maraire?
We just met being around. We knew the same people. He asked me to be on a song with him and that's how we got started making music together. We later found out we had a lot in common but music is just an instinctive thing and you can kind of tell off the top whether you like somebody and what kinds of musical endeavors you can make. We were just cool as friends, really, and the music came secondary and then it became primary.
Did you ever get to see his father perform?
In an interview you did with Passionweiss, you mentioned that you liked the band Weekend. What is it about them that you appreciate?
Uh, I like their music. I mean, I don't really have a cerebral approach to making music or listening to it. For me, it's about instinct and feeling. I never try to break down anything other than that reason or what characteristics about things make it relevant or important to me. That's not my thing.
In several interviews you've indicated that you like to be surprised by music and other art. A lot of people, for various reasons, seem to prefer the familiar and act like they can't be surprised by anything past a certain point in life. Why do you feel this capacity is important and what do you do to cultivate it?
I'm not sure why. But to cultivate it, I just try to go... The Internet is good for that because you can just surf the Internet and happen upon different shit all the time. There are a couple of places I go reliably and then I usually follow the leads pretty much after that and go where it takes me. There's a lot of music out there, man, and as soon as guys get done with it, they pretty much put it on the internet.
It's there; it's just taking the time to do it. I'm not on the computer a lot unless I'm working but sometimes in my leisure time I surf around and try to listen to new music, see new artwork, see short films. It's not just music, really. Music isn't really the only thing that inspires me to make music. It's one of many things.
What sites do you usually start out with in looking for new music?
I like Awesome Tapes From Africa, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Gorilla Vs. Bear. Pitchfork kind of keeps you up on a lot of the later stuff. Fader's cool. Those kinds of sites. But that's just a starting point and where you end up is often far from that.
You seem to have a broad taste in music. Does that relate to finding inspiration more broadly in general?
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A lot of times when people have smaller outlooks, it's because, in their formative years, their exposure was limited. I was fortunate enough to have people around me that encouraged a broader spectrum, just a broader outlook, and music was included in it. So I always grew up just kind of looking all around and going off my instincts in terms of music.
A lot of times people's social standing is reflected by, and indicated by, the music they listen to so it's difficult for them to journey outside of that because it will mean so much in their world. I didn't have that so I was able to be freer younger and get accustomed to it, so I was just kind of lucky.
You recently did this incredible interview with Quincy Jones for City Arts. How did that come about?
Oh yeah. [Jonathan] Zwickel over at City Arts had that idea and he said they presented it to Q and after a couple of months they just thought, "He's not going to do it." Then he hit them back and he was on deck and they set it up.
Was that by phone or in person?
Dude, that was by phone. I wish I could have got up around him but he's a little busy, you know?
How would you say his music, or just the way he is, impacted what you do?
He's kind of ubiquitous. Okay, so he's a Seattle cat with Seattle ties. Number two, even if he wasn't, I came up with the Thriller and Off the Wall albums -- also all the soundtrack work -- also The Wiz, The Brothers Johnson, all that shit. You just knew Quincy, man. He was everywhere that I heard, that I looked, that I felt. The auditorium I first performed in was the Quincy Jones Auditorium.
Obviously you knew you both went to the same high school.
Yeah, we both went to Garfield.
Black Up is dense with ideas. Did you have a vision for the whole thing when you put it together? It seems like a true fusion of traditional and modern like Dead Can Dance but a completely different kind of music.
I didn't have a stated idea or approach. I wanted to be sort of a Quincy Jones, where you could be a kind of Svengali that could kind of see and hear things prior to the execution of them. But alas, I'm not really that type of guy. I wasn't able to do that. So I changed it up to where I just did everything on instinct like getting shit down as quickly as possible, getting as many ideas down as quickly as possible. Then themes emerged and announced themselves and I was able to catch them in post and then put it together cohesively after that, you feel me?
The titles are also interesting. Was that a similar process?
It was afterwards as well. To me, titling is the opportunity to further represent the state of mind or describe the mind, and it's literary, not musical. So you can evoke some images, tell a story, like that. I don't expect them to be memorized or even the songs really to be called that. I never call a song by its title. I either sing a melody of it or there's a certain line that sticks out. Rarely am I, "Oh, hey, put on this song by this guy." I like that people can name the songs themselves because the titles prohibited you by being like, "Hey, this is the name of the song."
You grew up playing jazz and hearing it. Somewhere you said that Miles Davis was kind of your idol and did you ever get to see him play live?
I have a lot of idols, some of them I see every day -- you know, like cutting hair at the barbershop. But Miles, I came to know him, the way that I could, by reading his biography and then listening to him talk and listening to his music. I always felt he had, I don't even want to call it, a work ethic. He just had a desire to always be playing music. That's when I realized that music is the action you're compelled to do.
You can take it up and have all these external desires. It might be getting chicks, making money or having power or something like that. But at the end of the day you're going to love it and have a passion for it or you're not. All his recognition he got simply because he was always playing his trumpet. I looked up to that a lot. I respect that a lot. Then he was just a stylish, flashy dude. He was intelligent and irreverent. I got a lot out of that. I don't have a similar personality but I still dug his ways, you know?
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