Unlocking The Eclectic The enigmatic leader of Shabazz Palaces says his process is instinctive, non-linear and, sometimes, beyond his own understanding. Read Ishmael Butler's extended interview with All Things Considered.

Unlocking The Eclectic: A Conversation With Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/332073982/333366932" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.


ISHMAEL BUTLER: We like the breeze, flow straight out of our lids. Them, they got moved by these hard-rock Brooklyn kids. Us floor rush...

MCEVERS: As hip-hop morphed and evolved in the '80s and into the '90s, a group called Digable Planets was one of a handful of bands to mix jazz and rap.


BUTLER: We be to rap, what key be to lock. But I'm cool like that, I'm cool like that.

MCEVERS: That voice belongs to Ishmael Butler who, again, is pushing hip-hop into new territory - this time with a collective, known as Shabazz Palaces. The new music has elements of Philip Glass minimalism, Brian Eno ambience and a little bit of George Clinton cosmic weirdness.


BUTLER: We don't pose or talk or move - stellar beings lock, step and groove. Hookah plot absurd our views. We don't wait on a word from you.

MCEVERS: When I talked to Ishmael Butler, I had a lot of questions for him. But first, we had to straighten out just how to pronounce the name of his new album. The album is called "Lese Majesty." Is that how you pronounce it?

BUTLER: You could say that that way. You could say "Lese Majesty," "Lese Majesty." Yeah, there's all kind of ways.

MCEVERS: Oh, you speak French.

BUTLER: I don't. I just act like I do.

MCEVERS: (Laughing).

BUTLER: "Lese Majesty."

MCEVERS: Yeah, that went on for a while. Anyway, the title of the new album, however you say it, is a French term for offending the dignity of a royal. I asked Ish why that intrigued him so much.

BUTLER: I like that. I like the concept of offending the dignity of a royal. But in this instance, it's like a sonic attack on the meme mania that's kind of sweeping over this - our culture of late.

MCEVERS: The meme mania - you mean like the world of the selfies. And, you know, I'm eating a sandwich, so I'm going to post that online. That's what you mean by me mania?

BUTLER: Exactly. It's a bit detrimentally superficial. It's made for a less richer human experience. It's seeped into the music business, into the marketing of music. And people really being more concerned about themselves, especially in the rap game - about kind of bragging about material things, rather than doing what one of the things I think music is really here to do is to unite people. We basically wanted to attack that philosophy.


BUTLER: Vanity, I love you for myself. Me and always you and I was never no one else. Sanity, a visage of my wealth, lost but always found before the idols that I knelt. Strategy, the only way to drive - keep it do-or-die, and always think in terms of I. Reverie, some legends you just pass. Revelry instead for real is hella fast.

MCEVERS: You're from Seattle.


MCEVERS: And the alternative newspaper there The Stranger called this album the future of hip-hop. How aware of that are you? When you go into the studio are you thinking, I'm going to take this to the next level?

BUTLER: No. Going into the studio, we practice, we perform. Instead of going in and thinking, OK, we got a try to, you know, satisfy this demographic. Or we have to let our fans that liked our last stuff feel familiar and comfortable with stuff. We just realized that, you know, hey, if we follow our instincts and work hard that wherever - what the result of these recordings takes us, then we feel pretty good and satisfied with that.

MCEVERS: And if it's a total flop, so be it.


MCEVERS: All right.

BUTLER: But we don't be doing no flopping, though. No, it's not that.


BUTLER: I just had to throw that in there.

MCEVERS: Right, yeah, sure. So the production on this record is really kind of shimmering and echo-y. It's almost like a dream state, sometimes. I mean how do you want the listener to feel when this music kind of washes over them?

BUTLER: It's like these sort of opposing feelings like utter relaxation and tension, confusion and certainty, joy and also the timbers of anguish and pain, history, futurism. But everything is an attempt to expand the now, to get inside of the moment that you're in and see how far you can stretch it in, in whatever direction.


MCEVERS: I'm speaking with Ishmael Butler from the group Shabazz Palaces. The forthcoming album is called "Lese Majesty." Why do I keep not knowing how to say that?

BUTLER: You've got to have confidence. You said it right. It's all good.

MCEVERS: The forthcoming album is called "Lese Majesty." I have read that in high school and college, you were a basketball player.

BUTLER: It's true.

MCEVERS: You went on a scholarship, even, to the University of Massachusetts.

BUTLER: Yes and played for great John Caliperri, who now coaches Kentucky.

MCEVERS: Wow and then you stopped playing basketball and...

BUTLER: I did.

MCEVERS: And spent your time on music. How - tell us how you got started in music.

BUTLER: I'm from Seattle, Washington. I went to Meany Middle School. And in Meany, we had a music teacher, jazz band teacher, named Mr. Irving - Wadey Irving (ph). He was a beautiful, charismatic and attentive, imaginative teacher who really was - showed us music in a way that basically stuck with me for the rest of my life. And that introduction slid me along a path that I am really grateful to have been introduced to at that time in my life. So I started playing alto saxophone in the fifth grade.

MCEVERS: And then with your old band, the Digable Planets, you, you know, mixed jazz with hip-hop, pretty famously. Is their jazz in the music of Shabazz Palaces, as well? It seems like you might want to call it something else, like more ambient or minimalist.

BUTLER: Yeah, I don't want to call it anything. I mean, there is jazz in it in the sense that, I think there's a confidence, an instinct and capturing instinct and improvisation and impulse and letting it stand. And in that sense, I feel like it has a jazz sensibility, for sure.

MCEVERS: Right. You know, I know that you said when you go into the studio you're not trying to like fit some genre or target some demographic. But when you hear something like the fact that your band is being called the future of hip-hop, what do you think about that? How do you respond to that?

BUTLER: I feel proud. It's exciting because, you know, this rap world is this endeavor that I pursue. And Shabazz Palaces - make no mistake like this is an attack. And we're trying to show off and really stun on all other rappers. You know, and let them know that, this is our style, this is what we do and we're ready to put it up against anybody else's stuff. You know, so it feels good to, you know, move people and have people say cool stuff about our music.


BUTLER: Meanwhile, plots and capers lots of flavor, lots of paper. Watch your neighbor, wondering who's really faking.

MCEVERS: Ishmael Butler is one of the creative forces behind the band Shabazz Palaces. The new album comes out on the 29. It's called "Lese Majesty." But starting tomorrow, you can sample every track from the album at our exclusive first listen. Find that at nprmusic.org. Ish, thank you so much.

BUTLER: I appreciate it. Thank you.


BUTLER: May be miles from your sink, where they sit you at. Life's a [BLEEP], treat her good or she'll get you back.

MCEVERS: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. Check out our podcast. Look for Weekends On All Things Considered on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. Eric Westervelt will be here in the host seat next week. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.