A Fiendish Conversation with Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler
The experimental Sub Pop hip-hop duo returns with Lese Majesty.
Shabazz Palaces occupies its own unique slot in the Seattle music scene and it's in no hurry to homogenize. The experimental hip-hop duo's vocal leader Ishmael Butler (aka Palaceer Lazaro) does his best to actively expand the city's art consciousness whether it's through Shabazz Palaces' music or the art collective Black Constellation (which has displayed work at the Frye Art Museum). After making an impression with 2011's critically acclaimed full-length debut Black Up, Shabazz Palaces officially returns today with the release of its second Sub Pop LP, Lese Majesty. The album continues Black Up's sonic progression with 18 trippy tracks organized into seven suites creating an aural journey unlike anything else in the Seattle soundscape. The group celebrates Lese Majesty's arrival with a release show this Friday, August 1 at Neumos.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Butler about the new record, the importance of diversifying artistic output, and the flaw with always trying to understand everything.
What’s your favorite aspect about Lese Majesty?
We always try to set ourselves up in a situation in which we can capture things that happen instinctively. So we had the fortune—although it was a slow grind—of building our own studio and putting in the equipment in the rooms and actually building out the space to customize it. So, listening back, I realize and get a chance to hear some of the more instinctive and impulsive things that we were able to capture. So that’s exciting to me.
Were there any specific things you tried to explore on Lese Majesty to set it apart from Black Up?
I don’t think consciously, but it was such a long period of time—so many shows in between—that I’m sure that there was a shift. Even in the title “The Phasing Shift” that kind of came to us. I think that suite opening up the album represented that, in a sense, sonically. I mean, I feel like all of the things that we could explain or talk about… it really is in the music, you know? Not to be dodge-y or anything.
Shabazz Palaces’ live show is atypical in the hip-hop realm. Both of you are constantly playing instruments and entirely avoiding the typical MC running around stage routine. Do you feel tethered to the instruments on stage or do they make you feel more engaged in the performance?
We always feel like we wish we had more stuff on stage with us; more instruments. I don’t know why, but I feel like there’re just a few guys that can stand up there and just rap. I would probably say a single digit percentage of the people that do it can do it effectively and entertainingly. So we always feel like, man, we got to be doing something up here, you know? We’ve got to being doing something to support these words.
Which MCs do you feel like are on that level where they can stand up there and just rap?
I think Lil Wayne. A lot of the young cats like out of Chicago, like Lil Herb and Chief Keef. A lot of the younger guys have that really unbridled energy and confidence and exuberance. And I think that most of the people that try to do it, and aren’t good at it, they’re just mimicking something. You can’t mimic essence. You know what I mean? So that’s why it comes off underwhelming or lackluster.
How does having artistic projects outside of Shabazz Palaces, like Black Constellation, help free up your creative process and help you make the most of your music?
More than free it up, it provides an atmosphere of comfortable pressure. That’s provided by exemplary human beings and artists in their particular endeavors; always creating and exchanging at a level that makes me feel like I have to have discipline and have a work ethic that help me make things that keep me in league. Keep me in the conversation. Keep me able to be thought of in the same kind of realm as the people that I run with. So, it’s integral in terms of just keeping me sharp.
Do you have any sort of pre-show routine?
Um…yeah, but it’s intimate man, you know? It’s inside stuff. But it’s not illegal in Washington state, I can tell you that much.
And if you weren’t a musician, is there another line of work you think you might’ve pursued?
Yeah, I think I’d be a cake chef.
Do you have a cake-baking specialty?
Red velvet. And I like layered cakes, man. Any kind though: coconut, chocolate, red velvet.
I often hear people say they don’t totally “get” or fully understand Shabazz Palaces music, and I imagine you hear the same. Does that get frustrating?
Where did the notion come from that one must understand everything, and if you can’t understand it then somehow there’s something wrong inherently with the thing? You know? Like, the distance that you can see – it’s up to your vision, not what’s out there. You see what I’m saying? And, again, we’re speaking plain English; it’s made in certain combinations of letters and words and sentences. If you have to stay comfortable and digest only that which is familiar to you, then yeah, I mean maybe this music just simply isn’t for you. But the notion that it’s difficult to “get”… I don’t know. Maybe that’s not a limitation of the music is what I’m saying. And I’m not trying to point the finger at anyone, but, I mean, you know.
If I listen to something, I’m not trying to place over top of it my own requirements. I’m trying to get something possibly new out of it; opening up my mind to a new thought. But I understand that not everyone wants that from their music. A lot of people just want the comfort of familiarity, and anything outside of that is somewhat jarring.
Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty Release Show
Aug 1 at 9, Neumos, $15