Shabazz Palaces is Tendai Maraire and Ishmael Butler. The former employs ancient instruments from his homeland Zimbabwe while Butler provides the group’s vision and vocals. Their album Black Up is arguably the best reviewed album of the year. For Butler, who never stopped making music since he released his classic album by Digable Planets, Blowout Comb, Shabazz palaces is his latest place to play with ideas. Those ideas have always been simultaneously global in their expansiveness and basement ceiling low in their commitment to hip-hop’s bottom line. Here we talk to Butler about what he likes to hear and wear.
Life+Times: What’s the best thing in your closet?
Shabazz Palaces: White cordoury coat. 3/4 length. Vintage. Pimpish.
L+T: What’s your favorite character from City of God? What scene made him so?
SP: Benny at the party when he was telling Little Ze he was leaving and he was like “Dude I’m about to smoke, read and listen to rock’ is one.” But the best scene in the whole movie was when the little kid got shot in the foot. I felt that. Like, my foot hurt.
L+T: Name three books that permanently shaped your thinking.
SP: [Ben Orki's] The Famished Road, [Octavia E. Butler's] Wild Seed, [Richard K. Morgan's] Altered Carbon.
L+T: Tell me about the high school music teacher you had who taught you about jazz.
SP: Wadey Earving in Meaney Middle School was the man who taught me how to play saxophone. He was a very regal and elegant cat. Attentive and smart. My mom liked him. The kids dug him, he was patient and firm. He wore a suit everyday, a nice one too.
L+T: What’s special about Seattle?
SP: Thee Satisfaction and OCNOTES are really doing revolutionary things. OCNOTES is really walking on the outer reaches of music. These kids are kids of frontiersman, people who read a flyer and moved to a city in the 50s where no black people were. So we all innately have that explorer spirit. When Seattle kids go to other places like New York other people know and like them. Then there’s Punctuation, run by Maikoyo Alley-Barnes who’s making good shit and curating monthly art shows for local artists and providing a space where he’s designing functional and socialwear that’s well made and well designed. His spot is an epicenter for all of us.
L+T: He made those African inspired masks you wore when you played the Natural Museum of History last year, yes? Tell me what masking means to you.
SP: Yes…we talked about doing some theatrical and african stuff for the shows. He executed them and we wore them for the Stranger show too. Masking. It’s an understanding that when you’re given creative thoughts you know that it’s not all you. The mask is an extension or an indication that you’re representing something other than yourself.
L+T: Eric Dolphy pioneered what came to be known as “free jazz”. I know it’s not your term, but what frees music? And if you’ve ever found yourself feeling confined in any way musically, how’d you rediscover your musical freedom?
SP: Early on I wanted to be like Q Tip. When I came to hip-hop everything was constructed with 16 bars and a hook. I think at first you have to be involved in following in the footsteps of someone’s who’s done it. So you learn how it’s “supposed” to be done and you do that til you feel free enough in the foundation to depart from it. Going from your instinct to the finished product. After I learned how to follow the rules I abandoned them.
L+T: Artists Mikalene Thomas and Wangenchi Mutu, who you shout out on this album are favorites of yours, how do they influence you?
SP: That’s a good question cuz most people ask other musicians which musicians influence them. They both do sampling, pattern on pattern, color, texture, layering, title…like the text in Mutu’s work, or even how she approaches naming are all things I’m absorbing.
L+T: On the first album you did a lot to obscure of obfuscate your identity. On this album you relaxed.
SP: It was never about being an MF Doom or being mysterious or even anonymous. I just wanted to start fresh from Digable. Plus journalists are just wack they just ask the same mundane questions, they claim to be observationists but most of them are lazy. So I wanted to limit the extent that I participated in that whole dance, at least for the beginning, the first album. This is the second Shabazz Palaces album, and doing it this way felt right for this album.