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Won’t Black Down: Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces Takes a Royal Stance in His Music 

Wednesday, Apr 1 2015
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Whether he's in the pop spotlight or on hip-hop's experimental fringe, Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces accepts his position with humility. Soon after winning a Grammy in 1993 as part of the popular jazz/hip-hip outfit Digable Planets, the group broke up and Butler, then known as Butterfly, fell into near obscurity.

More than a decade and a half later, Butler re-emerged with a renewed sense of creativity, releasing two critically acclaimed EPs as Shabazz Palaces followed by the full-length Black Up on the legendary punk label Sub Pop Records. In Shabazz Palaces, Butler dropped his previous group's jazz vocabulary for wildly experimental excursions into hip-hop, rock, and psychedelia. Last year, Shabazz Palaces returned with Lese Majesty, which continues the sonic and poetic experimentation Butler's long been known for.

In conversation, Butler is soft-spoken, often giving simple, one-word replies and long pauses that say as much about his thought process as do his words. Fortunately, when we talked to Butler in anticipation of Shabazz Palaces' April 5 show at The Chapel, he was open about everything from his thoughts on royalty and politics to working with Jack White, Flying Lotus, and Herbie Hancock (though not all at the same time).

Speaking of Lese Majesty, there was a highly publicized case of lese majesty [the crime of insulting a monarch] in Thailand in February, after a Thai college student put on a satirical play called The Wolf Bride and was sentenced to two and a half years in jail. Did you know lese majesty was still an active law?

Yeah, but I mean, it's not literal. Lese Majesty, the Shabazz Palaces album, is artwork, it's not political. Using the term as the literal interpretation and application, nah, it's not that. We're talking about  a different royalty and a different concept and perception of it that has more to do with the entertainment "state" that we live in more than what they're dealing with in Thailand. I hope people don't take it literally, like we're trying to offend the majesty of the ruling class in Thailand.

I was just being a nerd. I'm not sure if the controversy over that particular lese majesty sentence is common knowledge here in America.

That same fascism is here. It exists here, whether it is in music or the government or the police force.

Since the release of your new album, it seem you've participated in some interesting shows and collaborations, one of which was Shabazz Palaces playing at Jack White's Third Man Records in January. What was it like to work with him? 

He really has a family setup there with him and his staff. They all obviously get along and know each other. As a social environment, [Third Man Records] is special because of the family atmosphere and the deservedly legendary mystique and aura that is around Jack himself. The facilities are very unique. That night, we played and recorded and it goes to tape right there. It's a very unique and rare musical experience. It was pretty much the most unique thing I've been involved with. It was really cool. You go and perform and they release the live performance on Third Man Records.

You shared a photo on Instagram of you, Herbie Hancock, and Flying Lotus. What was going on that night?

Well, I was in Los Angeles and I was at Flying Lotus' house working on some music. He called Herbie. He and Herbie have been tight after getting to know each other the last couple of years since Herbie [played on the Flying Lotus album] You're Dead. He came over and we were just there, making music. Then later that night, we went to get some food. That's how it went down.

Why haven't you talked publicly about your collaborations and working with Flying Lotus? Is it early in the development stage of you making music with him? 

Nah, it's just out of respect. People might not want to talk about it. If you're working on music, it only matters if it comes out and people get to hear it. Until then, to me, there's nothing to talk about, so you go around and work with people and get ideas and develop relationships and friendships. But in terms of sitting around and saying, "I'm doing this and I'm doing that," it's ridiculous to me. If we finish stuff and it comes out, that would be the only time I would feel comfortable talking about it because there are other people involved.

You're playing five dates with Flying Lotus on your upcoming European tour. Do those dates have anything to do with you currently working with Flying Lotus in the studio?

No, it doesn't have anything to do with us working with Flying Lotus. He's doing a tour over there and we have always talked about doing some shows together, so it's through his initiative and power to invite us to do some shows with him, but we were already going to tour at this time. To be able to be added to a few of his bills is cool.

You've surrounded yourself with a lot of super-talented people — like Khalil Josepth, the visual artist who created the amazing music video for your "Belhaven Meridian." Do you feel like a sort of magnet for creativity?

I've been fortunate to work with creative, exciting people with a lot of imagination and integrity that really have a lot essential emotions for their artistic endeavors. It's good that they are getting recognized for it, but I know all those people were putting the same amount of energy and passion into what they were doing before they got the recognition. The real special thing about them is the fact that they just live and breath the things that they make.

If money wasn't an issue, what would be your dream project?  

[Thoughtfully repeats the question to himself.] Probably to have a really cool recording studio on a beach in a place where it is sunny and there are cloudless skies and water. I would invite people to come and spend time and record there for whatever amount of time they could spare and stay. That sounds fantastic to me.

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