“People will speak in definite terms about the different places we get our influences from—like they’ll mention artists or a certain type of genre, but it’ll always be some shit we never heard! We don’t even know about any of this stuff they’re saying Shabazz Palaces is a combination of.” With that, Ishmael Butler laughs.
Butler, the centripetal force behind Seattle-based rap ensemble Shabazz Palaces, is riffing on the pre-release reaction to the group’s new album Black Up. He has a point: Few hip-hop groups have their backstories likened to a Dostoyevsky tale, become burdened with the “avant-rap” tag, be accused of engaging in an anti-publicity ruse because of their low online profile, and have their record prematurely tipped as album of the year by the overheated (if bemusing) Internet peanut gallery. It’s a lot of analysis for a collection of 10 songs whose most repeated phrase is “It’s a feeling.” And that’s Black Up‘s predicament: It wants to be experienced viscerally, but it’s being stripped of life by over-intellectualization.
Butler finds a certain humor in what’s being written about Shabazz Palaces, especially the idea of the group being more highbrow than its hip-hop peers. He knows it’s all part of the publicity process—like the “hype and hyperbole” on Shabazz Palaces’ press releases—but he’s been complicit in the perhaps overwritten reaction to the group’s music by taking an early stance against making himself available for interviews. In theory, this would result in listeners judging the music on its bare terms. But song titles that read like Babel fish translations (“A treatease dedicated to the Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1,000 questions, 1 answer)”), plus a refusal to name the group’s other members, helped stoke a situation where the group’s biographical blank canvas quickly became filled up with fanciful assumptions and liberal use of words like “metaphysical.” Shabazz Palaces eventually signed to Sub Pop; that, along with Butler’s Digable Planets past (back then, he went by “Butterfly,” although now he raps as Palaceer Lazaro), sowed the seeds of a grand but mysterious narrative of reinvention.
But to hear him tell it, Butler’s path to Shabazz Palaces was pragmatic, not mystical. He sums up the move from his beloved Brooklyn to Seattle six years ago with one word: “personal.” He describes Shabazz Palaces’ music making as being hooked around a hunch: “We didn’t envision the album coming out a certain way. We go on instinct and then what ends up out there, we try to leave it untouched. We practice up to the time we do a recording, and then we leave it at that; when the live show comes around, we use that recording as a point of departure.” It’s a process propelled by intuition and inner feelings, so for every lofty line that invokes the spirit of hip-hop’s late, astral-traveling, gothic futurist Rammellzee—”New off the spaceship/Dipped in punctuation,” Butler raps on “Recollections of the wraith”—there’s another to ground things back down to earth. When on “Are you…Can you…Were you? (Felt)” he cops, “I can’t explain it with words—I have to do it,” it resonates like a humble, joyous shrug more than a rap lyric.
The songs on Black Up work best when they strike simply and evoke unadorned feelings. Ask Butler what he misses most about his 14 years in Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he refers wistfully to summer nights spent roaming a city that was “unique in just how many people are out on the streets as pedestrians in the evenings.” He’d take long walks soaking up “that energy that only New York has.” “Recollections of the wraith” is that vibe, with its scuffed-up, static-as-bassline tones mimicking feet pounding the concrete; a muffled, high-pitched wail brings to mind the sound of a nearby car’s blaring speakers. It’s that magical time when 3 a.m. is more brilliant than any hour illuminated by the sun. “All we do is answering the call—to tonight,” cries Butler, completely submitting himself to the moment.
Amid the ideologues’ attempts to figure out Shabazz Palaces’ hidden meaning, Butler appreciates the greater idea of creating music that allows listeners to dig in and figure themselves out. On Black Up‘s opening track he spits, “I run on feelings—fuck your facts!” Right there, he has just demystified Shabazz Palaces for you.