Ten Steps To Shabazz Palaces: Tracing Ishmael Butler’s Path Between Digable Planets And The Present


Back in the early ’90s, Ishmael Butler came to rap prominence as Butterfly in the group Digable Planets. These days, he’s taken on the moniker Palaceer Lazaro and records as the lead voice in Sub Pop’s first hip-hop signing, Shabazz Palaces. It’s a metamorphosis that Butler has left deliberately shady, refusing to flesh out the biographical details between his two rap lives and leaving Shabazz Palaces’ history defined largely by anonymity. But while it’s tempting to use some sort of cocoon metaphor to describe Butler’s grand artistic reinvention, he’s left behind a trail of musical crumbs and curios that map out his gradual development.

Dream Warriors, “Tricycles And Kittens (Remix)” (1994)

Canadian hip-hop duo the Dream Warriors are best known for their jazzed-up early-’90s singles “My Definition Of A Boombastic Jazz Style” and “Wash Your Face In My Sink” (it was some sort of metaphor). Possibly at the behest of an A&R who thought it a profitable idea to force all rappers who ever dabbled with sampling jazz songs to collaborate together, Butterfly joins King Lou and Capital Q on a song ostensibly based around the pesky matter of trying to avoid tripping up over tricycles and kittens. It’s left to the listener to decide whether they’re speaking literally.

Brigette McWilliams, “No Groove Sweating (A Funky Space Reincarnation)” (1994)

Chicago chanteuse Brigette McWilliams blipped onto the R&B radar with the Jermaine Dupri-crafted “I Get The Job Done,” but her debut album Take Advantage Of Me also granted Ish the opportunity the test his production skills outside of the rap realm. He comes through with the sultry “Blankets Of Playboys” and the low-slung funk of “No Groove Sweating (A Funky Space Reincarnation).” (The latter’s title would sound right at home on any Shabazz Palaces playlist). McWilliams’ first album also includes production from Tone Loc’s former label-mate and self-styled “poet with soul” Def Jef and West Coast rapper Domino, of “Getto Jam” repute.

Digable Planets, “Marvin, You’re The Man” (1995)

Culled from Inner City Blues: The Music Of Marvin Gaye, the Planets’ tribute to Marvin opens and closes with some ill-advised poetry club-styled chatter. But the nugget of a song nestled between is a smart amalgam of swaggering raps and a chorus based around a vocal sample of Gaye’s own singing. The track was released after Digable Planets’ second and final album dropped in 1994, so this might technically be the last thing Ish recorded with the group before they disbanded.

Tek 9, “Gettin’ Down Again” (1996)

Tek 9 is a recurring hip-hop-oriented side-project spear-headed by Dego of drum-n-bass practitioners 4Hero. Over a spacey beat produced by longtime Shabazz Palaces endorser King Britt, Ish renames himself Cheewa and lines up alongside the relatively unknown rapper Manifest. The production is a cozy fit for Ish’s timbre, and his verse sees him boasting about his “velvety style.”

Camp Lo, “Swing” (1996)

“I play my cards shark style, kings and aces/ Welcome to New York, the illest of all places,” warns Ish on his hook-up with the Bronx’s retro-superstars Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede. Originally the b-side cut to Camp Lo’s euphoric “Luchini AKA This Is It,” the jutting, heavyweight production courtesy of on-and-off Jay-Z cohort Ski is an apt bed for Ish to assert his straight-up bragging rights and outline his mission to “crush fools.” In a nicely referential touch, the guest rap is credited to “Ish AKA Butterfly,” in keeping with the album’s alternate titles for many of its songs.

4Hero, “The Action (Sean J Period Remix)” (1998)

In the late-’90s, British drum-n-bass unit 4Hero released the ambitious Two Pages, a double album that flipped between luscious, string-laden grooves and stark, electronic assaults on the synapses. Ish’s guest rap fits snugly on a track forged in the former style, while Sean J Period, who came to attention by producing Mos Def’s first solo single, “Universal Magnetic,” provided a remix that added an extra layer of keys to the mix. In a move similar to Shabazz Palaces’ own fondness for hiding coded messages in its artwork, the cover for “The Action” features symbols that translate into an explanation of 4Hero’s “star chasing” philosophy.

Cherrywine, “16th Minute” (2002)


After the non-appearance of Ish’s purported debut, Ishmael Since 1999, he went quiet until 2002, when a promotional 12-inch record credited to his new band Cherrywine popped up. The vibe of the music was rooted in hip-hop, but it dabbled with electronic influences and interchanged rapping with singing. Even though “16th Minute” and its b-side, “In Here,” were absent from Cherrywine’s critically acclaimed debut album Bright Black, the release represents Ish’s shift into the Shabazz Palaces zone.

The Roots, “The Seed (2.0)” (2002)

Enigmatic warbler Cody Chesnutt may have nabbed the headlining guest credit for The Roots’ re-working of a song from his debut The Headphone Masterpiece, but for Shabazz Palaces completists there’s an interesting curio buried deep in the credits to the track: “Musician (Guest Drop In)—’Butterfly’ Butler.” (Mos Def also receives a similar billing.)

Jeff Beck, “Seasons” (2003)

English guitar god Jeff Beck was apparently so taken with Digable Planets’ second (and superior) album, Blowout Comb, that he was moved to sample a snatch of “9th Wonder (Blackitolism).” The warped vocals are technically Ladybug Mecca’s—”Play me in the winter, play me in the summer, play me in the autumn, any order,” runs the grab—but Ish gets a songwriting credit and, presumably, a regular royalty check.

Jake One feat. Vitamin D, Note, Maneak B & Ish, “Home” (2008)

The final track on Seattle producer and Rhymesayers affiliate Jake One’s White Van Man is hooked around the concept of getting a quartet of local MCs to big up their home town. Seattle native Ish, who moved back there six years ago after a 14-year spell in Brooklyn, grabs the coveted closing spot on the posse cut and uses the platform to anoint himself as one of the “town rap scholars.” Jake One’s beat is an exercise in wistful simplicity and underscores the rapped sentiments in a lovely way, not least when Ish implores, “You do you and let me do me.”