In the second part of Ishmael Butler’s story, hosts Larry Mizell Jr. and Martin Douglas dig deep into his work as Shabazz Palaces and breakdown his lyricism, influence, and the familial bonds that stretch throughout the Black Constellation.
Following the break-up of Digable Planets and a return to Seattle, hip-hop visionary Ishmael Butler begins his rebirth with a new project called Shabazz Palaces. From selling handmade copies of his CD to local record stores to signing with Sub Pop and touring the world with the likes of Radiohead, Butler finds new life and sounds that inspire a new generation of rappers.
In the second part of Butler’s story, hosts Larry Mizell Jr. and Martin Douglas dig deep into his work as Shabazz Palaces and breakdown his lyricism, influence, and the familial bonds that stretch throughout the Black Constellation.
Listen to a playlist of music from the episode and read the transcript below.
[ MUSIC CUE: Digable Planets - “9th Wonder (Blackitolism)” and Shabazz Palaces - “Endeavors For Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though.)” ]
LARRY MIZELL, JR.: Welcome back to Fresh Off The Spaceship. I’m Larry Mizell Jr., DJ and writer here at KEXP in Seattle. And your guide in this podcast.
MARTIN DOUGLAS: And I’m Martin Douglas, your co-host and staff writer at KEXP.
LARRY: In this series, we’re illuminating the different stars of the Black Constellation – the artist collective that’s transmitted revolutionary sounds, sights, and ideas through space and time. If you’re just joining us, make sure to clear some space out and check out the first two episodes. Those set up some important context for this episode, where we witness the reinvention of Ishmael Butler, as Palaceer Lazaro of Shabazz Palaces.
MARTIN: At the end of our last episode, Ishmael Butler had just planted the seeds of Shabazz Palaces. This week, we watch as the musical project goes from a local sensation to amassing an international cult following, touring with bands like Radiohead and My Morning Jacket, releasing critically acclaimed albums beloved by some of your favorite rappers, and eventually bringing together the voices that make up the Black Constellation.
LARRY: At the end of this episode, Martin and I will break down some of the themes we find coded in the music and lyrics of Shabazz Palaces. But I want to start today with a moment in the story that has particular significance to me.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces 2009 KEXP In-Studio ]
LARRY: I’d never heard anything like this before. It’s 2009. I was hosting Street Sounds on KEXP and we were hosting the very first performance of Shabazz Palaces that anyone had ever heard. Ishmael, Tendai, and Dougie were performing songs I had just recently become utterly obsessed with, live, before my very eyes.
There wasn’t a photographer. This was before we had started doing video of all our guests, before we had a billion-views strong Youtube channel of live performances. Myself and the engineer in the booth that evening were the only ones who were seeing what was happening: the birth of Ishmael’s second life.
LARRY: But mere months before that in-studio, Shabazz Palaces were wholly unknown, trying to get their music into peoples’ hands. I had received a couple of copies from a mysterious benefactor and was immediately struck by the CD packaging — these beautiful, handmade cardboard CD cases with collectible, embroidered patches glued to the front, a physical embodiment of the group’s outlaw mystique. I’d later find that Ishmael and his daughter Dania were assembling those CDs by hand at home. Those two EPs, the self-titled Shabazz Palaces - Eagle Soars, Oil Flows and Of Light were at first only available directly from the truly mysterious Shabazz website, and the local boutique Retail Therapy.
Ish, looking to get the EPs into more stores in town, pulled up to the sadly now-gone Queen Anne location of Seattle’s beloved East Street Records, a block from where KEXP sits today. KEXP DJ Troy Nelson was the buyer there at the time.
ISHMAEL BUTLER: I was with ‘Dai. I had printed up a thousand CDs of each record, and I went to Easy Street because I knew they did consignment on CDs because I looked through the stacks and I see every like everybody CD was in there. You feel me. And when I went to go to the counter, it was Troy up there and he was like, All right, yeah, I'll tell you what. Leave me. Leave me one of each. I'll listen to it and see if we want to sell it. And I remember thinking, like, Man, this shit has seen over there, like y’all are just taking people's stuff like hold up. There was the process and shit? So I got kind of like, I got kind of like tight at him. You know like who’s this motherfucker like, you know, like askin he gotta listen to mine. I was like, Man, I took all my shit. I didn't leave em. I didn't leave him. I'm like, Man, yeah, aight homie, you know, saying, I get back in the car and stuff.
So Dai was in the car. He didn't come in with me, so he I get back in the car. He's like, wassup, I said man he talking bout he gotta listen to my stuff, right? So we sat in the car. I didn't pull off and we sat in the car for a minute and I thought about it, you know, I said, You know what I man? It is what it is, you know, saying, don't be no prima donna. You know what I'm saying? Do whatever you got to do. So I went back in there and I remember saying to Dai, "I got to grow up," you know, say, when i hopped out the car.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Kill White T…” ]
But I went in there, I gave them to him and he got back to me. I ended up selling every, basically every CD that I didn't sell online. I sold out of easy street for real, hundreds of CDs for real.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “32 Leaves…” ]
LARRY: The elusiveness of the Shabazz project extended way beyond the CD packaging.
MARTIN: The packaging, not just of the physical media, but of the whole project was mysterious, and it made you like unlike a lot of things that kind of come across mysterious and they fall flat. This was some mystery that you really did want to learn more about, especially when you got to the music. When you listen to the mbira all over these tracks like that, you know, that's something that had not happened in hip hop before. Like, if it has, then it's deep in the crates shit that I don't know about. The things that Ish is rapping about, like it's so Seattle from like the beats to Ish's rhymes talking about the old head Africans at Starbucks like it felt of this place. And there are few albums that were so powerful that kind of evoked this place of Seattle, especially in rap.
LARRY: Those EP's made me understand that this was a beautiful, game-soaked, space age, dangerous place, depending on who you were and how you were moving, what you were doing. There was full of ancient wisdom, you know, all of that being very true. It's not just like, fanciful. All that was presented in a way that felt super true. But at the same time, the music was very unfamiliar and kind of exotic.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Sparkles” ]
LARRY: So there was a groundswell of support surrounding Shabazz Palaces, first two EPs and a bunch of people advocating being like, you got to hear this, you got to hear this, you got to check it out. This doesn't sound like anything else. Either they're telling you it's the guy from Digable Planets, or they're like, “You've got to figure out who it is.” There's articles coming out that don't have that you can't see a clear face of anybody in the picture. And it just rung out everywhere, everybody was kind of talking about it who was really kind of on the edge of trying to know about new art, new music in town even got up into the Sub Pop offices and was ringing bells up there. And Sub Pop CEO Megan Jasper here recalls the buzz that Shabazz had around the label's offices.
MEGAN JASPER: Shabazz Palaces was making a splash in Seattle. Already, there were shows that people were talking about, and it was clear that something really exciting was going on. It was really specific and particular about not wanting to use his past to launch his future. He really wanted this new project to stand on its own, to have its own legs.
LARRY: Sub Pop’s Head of A&R Tony Kiewel was intrigued by the new project.
TONY KIEWEL: And at that point, you know, there were some rumors of Ish's history with Digable Planets. But but it wasn't really known, right? So it was really just about like these crazy like these records are so crazy. Have you heard and there? This record is top ten easy street. This record. Top 10 at Sonic Boom. So it was these records were charting at the local stores, like for weeks and weeks and weeks.
LARRY: While Shabazz Palaces were catching fire locally, they were also garnering national attention. Larry Fitzmaurice gave the EPs glowing reviews in Pitchfork, music’s premier online tastemaker.
LARRY FITZMAURICE: So, you know, when Shabazz Palaces’ EPs started being circulated and building a lot of buzz, I think that there was kind of this feeling of like, “Oh, OK, there's some people doing some really interesting new things in hip-hop,” and Shabazz Palaces’ case of somebody who was already a veteran and making interesting sounds in hip-hop. So, you know, I do think that it did kind of kickstart a new groundswell of interest in terms of focusing on kind of out there leftfield sounds going on in hip hop.
ISHMAEL: I wasn't even hip to Pitchfork at the time. And when that happened, you know, it was a different, different little vibe at that point.
LARRY FITZMAURICE: You know, one thing about hearing the first two Shabazz Palaces EP's in the context I heard them was that at the time, the project was still largely anonymous. I and other people who have been talking about it online and listening to it didn't really have any idea of who was behind it.
ISHMAEL: It was never really about secrecy as much as it was about letting your music speak for you rather than cause, you know how it was back in them days, it was like the personalities were the thing that was driven and now you see where it is now. You know, so I was kind of rallying against that, not against it, but wanted to come in a different way. So I wanted to lead with the music. So it was like, yeah, when cats wanted us to come and perform, I was like, for sure, you know, it wasn't ever, Nah they gonna know my identity. I just wanted to earn people the interest rather than people being like, Oh, who is that? Oh, let me check it out and then kind of judge it with some preconceptions, you feel me?
LARRY: But we’re missing a crucial part here. For all the mystery Shabazz was soaked in… there was even another element, in the mix, literally, a quantity less known.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Hottabatch” ]
LARRY: I remember looking at those EPs and seeing something about “produced by Knife Knights,” and I was like, what is that, you know, and then hearing the name Erik Blood and being like, Who's Erik Blood? Well, that sounds like really... Is this guy a blood? I pictured some dude wearing like, locs. Is this a CD dude like that Ish knows from way back, what's going on? Erik Blood in fact, turned out to be a native of Tacoma, 40 minutes south of Seattle, who was a local rock wunderkind — a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. Ish had heard the album from Blood’s latest band, the Turn Ons.
ERIK BLOOD: … he was just like, “I like the sound and I think we should do some shit.” So I, of course, was just like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let's go. Let's go, let's go.” And finally, he sent me two songs. He sent me two songs. I ended up being on one of the first EP's, and I just kind of messed with them, sent him back and then. Yeah. Then it was just we booked a couple of weeks in MRX and just sat at the studio for, you know, every day just working on these beats and tracking vocals and that was that. I kept thinking it was going to be Cherrywine, I thought it was just going to be a Cherrywine release again, but he had other plans, obviously.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “free press and curl" ]
LARRY: Things seemed like they were getting serious with Shabazz Palaces. Shabazz had started working with Jonathan Moore; Jonathan was an artist manager who had helped build the Seattle hip-hop scene as we knew it, with his own group Source of Labor, his company Jasiri Media Group — bringing it into the the town’s wider music scene. Everybody knew Jon aka Wordsayer, the mayor of Seattle hip-hop, and anybody in the hip-hop scene who was really doing something worked with Jon.
Not long after that, Shabazz’s first live show was booked. The word went out, posters went up of a sword-wielding figure on camel-back: Shabazz Palaces had booked their first official show at the club Neumos — it would be the first week of January, 2010.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Gunbeat Falls” ]
LARRY: The very first ever Shabazz Palaces show was the stuff of legend in Seattle. I mean, I remember the excitement, the electricity around it. There was steam rising, it felt like. And Ish and Dai come out. Ish has got this like turban, kind of a head wrap. He's got some big mirrored glasses on. You can't really see his face. There's a couple of dancers who come out, and it was just kind of a setup I'd never seen. Him rapping him with a laptop and some samplers and Tendai playing mbira and the congas.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Blastit...” ]
LARRY: People had their phones up, trying to catch video of this new paradigm.
LARRY: Stasia Irons, aka Stas THEE Boss, who would go on to be a frequent Ishmael collaborator, also recalls attending Shabazz’s first show.
STAS THEE BOSS: They came on, this guy Ishmael had his headwrap on, glasses. The lighting was different. Nobody was doing that shit. He paid attention to all the details. It felt like I was transported, you know, I was front and center because I wanted to experience it. Like for real, for real. So I was like in the front row, just like. Shocked and amazed the whole time just vibing. I didn't know any of the songs. I was just like in it. It was so wild and so surreal. Yeah, I still think about that show.
LARRY: Sub Pop’s Tony Kiewel was in the house as well.
TONY: People were just like, “What the hell is going on here?” Like, this is insane. This is the craziest thing to seemingly come out of nowhere, this fully formed and this just interesting and cool and cool like just dead cool from minute one.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Chuch” ]
LARRY: It was just absolutely one of the illest things I've ever seen, and it was absolutely a break in the continuum of what was going on in local music. There was before that and there was after that, and anybody who was around at the time can probably tell you the same.
LARRY: That show was heralded by The Stranger as “the best concert of 2010” days after it took place… in January.
ISHMAEL: And then The Stranger these fools came out and I mean, next, on their next cover is — this is in January, mind you. They got a picture of me on the cover and it says "The best show of twenty whatever year that was already happened."
LARRY: Coming off the mixed reception of his last project, Cherrywine, there was some relief in the fact that Shabazz Palaces was already resonating powerfully with audiences.
ISHMAEL: You know, when you working on something, you got confidence in it in and of itself. And you know what you put into it. But, when you throw it out into a marketplace, you don't really know what's going to happen, so I was excited that, to have a good response, you know?
LARRY: It’s hard to overstate the power this first show had. It was the first time people were seeing Shabazz Palaces, but it was also a return. Seattle’s prodigal son, showing his city new sounds and a new future.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)” ]
LARRY: It was an easy call for Sub Pop to sign Shabazz Palaces in 2010, completing the dream trajectory of a buzzing NW band. The anticipation around Shabazz’s next move positively crackled in the air that year.
LARRY: Black Up, Shabazz Palaces’ debut full-length, was released in 2011 to rapturous acclaim. It received an 8.8 rating on Pitchfork, along with its coveted Best New Music stamp. The A.V. Club gave the album a perfect score. Sub Pop received widespread praise for having the foresight to put out such a bold statement in the field of hip-hop music, to the point where some erroneously thought Black Up was the label’s first rap release.
TONY: We're definitely not known for our hip hop releases. And some people, I think, did characterize it as our first hip hop release, which I don't think is entirely accurate.
LARRY: Sub Pop had, in fact released an album by the hip hop band The Evil Tambourines sometime in the 90s. And, of course, in that same decade had distributed the local label Conception Records.
[ MUSIC CUE: Da Grassroots - "Thematics (instro)" ]
TONY: Yeah, but but certainly it had been a long time since we dabbled in that world and largely just because we were always afraid that we couldn't do the job right, that we didn't have, that we didn't have the marketing acumen for that genre, right? And it was only finding someone like Ish who was like, I'm more interested in this and I'm not worried about you failing me at this. Like, we can work together on that stuff and we're like, OK, cool. Great. Because we would love to do this. We just don't want to suck at doing. Sure. Yeah. So it was. Yeah, but it was great.
MEGAN: Yeah, there were a lot of people who were surprised that we were releasing a hip hop record, and one of the things I always appreciated about Ish when that conversation would come up is that he would bring it back to and instead of labeling genres. He would just bring it back to it being music and expression. Yeah. And I love that because, you know, the world was ready for that. The world didn't wasn't at a place where we had to talk about indie rock or folk music or whatever. We were listening to all sorts of different music, all sorts of different genres. And it was music. It was an expression. It was art.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum" ]
TONY: You know, his creativity was driving all of this right? All of all of this stuff, and we were stoked to have somebody with ideas because frankly, that's a struggle for us. We're putting out a lot of records. It's sometimes hard for us to come up with the new different idea for something, and we really do lean on the artists to help us find new, interesting things to to do with each record release. So Ish is just a fountain of ideas, right?
ISHMAEL: And concepts come off of conversations all the time, with me, you know, which are, you know what I mean. Like, I can take stuff like that and go off into my creative world with a lot of material and a lot of things to draw from just based on talking.
MEGAN: You know, when Ish first came to Sub Pop, it was kind of a trip because he's, you know, like he's not really a quiet person all the time. He's a really good listener, but he's it's not like he shies away from sharing his thoughts or opinions about anything. But he was really quiet and he was, I think he was just really taking everything in. And when someone is quiet, you don't totally know what they're thinking. Yeah. And so I just remember thinking like, Oh my god, I hope that he's having a good experience here, but I'm guessing he did because we were so lucky to have Shabazz signed with Sub Pop.
LARRY: In a 2011 in-studio, Ish talks with KEXP’s Cheryl Waters about signing to Sub Pop…
CHERYL: What drew you to Sub Pop?
ISHMAEL: “Effortless, integrity, vision, you know, that’s exciting and motivating. The other artists on the label, listening to them and seeing them gives you a perspective on the amount of talent and expertise and just dedication to music and love…it seems like everybody at the label shares. We felt like that as well….”
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “free press and curl" ]
LARRY: OK, so 2011, Black Up comes out, there'd been all this anticipation over the last couple of years, knowing that, really hoping, that Shabazz Palaces and Sub Pop would link up, and they did. And then you're waiting to hear what they come out with and black up comes out and you get it in your hands. And whether you got the CD, which is covered in this beautiful black velour with like some gold foil writing on it or the wax which has this matte black jacket; it's made of this material, it's supposed to feel like skin. And I think it caused some manufacturing issues down the line there. So right at the gate, you're taking this stuff out, you're seeing the art and you're like, “This doesn't look like the other things I have to listen to right now, and this is the only thing I'm really trying to listen to,” and it just blew me away.
LARRY: And one thing I've seen, in the bio lines for Shabazz and different social media, has been the words “hard and clear.” And that, to me was like, really what Black Up sounded like to me, just super hard, just smashing, just incredible bass.
MARTIN: Mm hmm.
LARRY: Just cracking and just really clear. Just really cut through a lot of muddy communication, thought, culture at the time and just seemed really clear in asserting its values in clearly being a total break from everything else that was going on. Not sounding like a throwback. Not sounding like that. You know, alt hip-hop stuff that was happening at the time, it all just total different animal and felt like an advancement, you know, to the degree it reminded me of when I first heard Wu-Tang Forever and I heard those violins and I was like, What the fuck is happening? There's a lot more going on here. So Ishmael is painting with a new palette. He's really taken his vocal processing to another level and is really kind of getting off with that and has some stuff on there that is just like, you know, like Raekwon said, it's this crazy dangerous, bust ya shit open type beats.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “yeah you” ]
LARRY: Black Up was presented with a striking visual — a short film by Seattle native Kahlil Joseph, who’d go on to direct videos for artists like Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and of course Beyonce, as the primary director of her acclaimed Lemonade film. Before Black Up, Kahlil had directed a short called “Belhaven Meridian,” a tribute to Charles Burnett’s seminal Killer of Sheep, starring Ish and featuring two songs from the EPs.
LARRY: When Kahlil did the Black Up short film, I had never seen anything like that or just kind of used little snippets and kind of couched it in this really beautiful short. But there's a really striking part in that in the black up film where it kind of goes over. It's not a field, but there's like there's a bunch of rocks and stuff in like a jungle area and you just see all these black bodies wearing white just kind of strewn around, you know, they're dead. And you hear the voice of Gil Scott-Heron over that and...
You know, it really just outlined some of the things, some of the lyrical motifs from the record that that spoke to, that there's there's on screen. Huge letters when Ish raps the words heavy pain, megahertz. And it's not like megahertz, like the measurement of electricity, it's like eight megahertz heavy pain, and he's really speaking to. Really tragic condition of our people in America and really clearly with a lot of anger, but a lot of control and a lot of daring, and it just blew me away.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Recollections of the wraith” ]
LARRY: And also at the same time, amidst all of that is really fly is really sexy, is really fun. You know, really has fun talking, some good shit being really boastful in a real fly away. That doesn't sound like the way everybody else is fly.
[ MUSIC CUE: ]
MARTIN: I think to me — and I've thought this from the first time I listened to Black Up — is that it is rap's Kid A. If you look, if you look at the trajectory of Radiohead and the trajectory of Ishmael Butler like you have, you have two entities that made such phenomenal music. And then, absolutely flipped it upside down. With each of those, but especially with Black Up, these are things, these are sounds. These are shifts in movements that we haven't heard in hip-hop. And there are so many different styles. There's, you know, the ominous experimental stuff that you were talking about. There's like hints of jazz, hints of soul, just all like in this mish mash, this the gumbo of musical genius. And so for Black Up to, you know, be kind of like that cult phenomenon that you were talking about, like it's one of those things where. I feel as though people, they tend to conform to things a bit, and so when something is new and it's, you know, it's another point that you brought up, it's the burden of being first. When something is new, people are like, “I don't get this. You know, what's with this? What's with this guy?”
LARRY: I can't conform to this!
MARTIN: Yeah, exactly.
LARRY: I don't even know what it is to conform to it. So it's a threat. And, you know, I'm supposed to conform to this other stuff, so I don't want to look crazy. You know, so yeah, people definitely, definitely, definitely approach it from that place.
MARTIN: Yeah. And maybe one day it will be regarded Black Up will be regarded as this genre-defining classic. Kid A reached a phenomenal critical reception. And yeah, Black Up was critically acclaimed, but it felt as though it was very contained. It wasn't like this explosion where. You know, like Radiohead is like the biggest thing in the world, yeah.
LARRY: They were the biggest thing in the world already. Yeah, and then they flip the table over and that made them even bigger. I think that, you know, that probably has a lot to do with just the industry. You know, kind of flipping the table over and doing something completely out of the box is not going to make you the biggest thing in the world doing hip-hop. You know what I'm saying and flouting people's expectations and all of that. It's just it's not always a winning formula in the realm of rap music.
MARTIN: Exactly. Because because. The things that are propped up as the biggest thing in the world in hip-hop are usually the most commodified. And so like, how do you commodify this shit? [laughter]
LARRY: Trust me, it's difficult. It's very difficult.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)” ]
LARRY: Black Up also felt like ground zero for what would be the Black Constellation; by then the synergy with Erik Blood had really locked in, and it’s closing track, “Swerve”, gave us the first collaboration between Shabazz and THEESatisfaction.
LARRY: Black Up set up the modes of collaboration, and sent out the call that would bring future members into the fold. Even the name “Black Constellation” came from “Bop Hard”, a song intended for that album. Black Up almost functioned as a mission statement, a style guide, a map.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Swerve… the reaping of all that is worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)” ]
LARRY: From there, Shabazz’s body of work only grew.
LARRY: You had this incredible sophomore record, Lese Majesty, which really continued that trajectory we had for Black Up, going deep into space, the sound getting bigger, weirder, deeper, harder.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Ishmael” ]
The visuals were insane. Check out the video for the song #Cake, directed by Hiro Murai. It was the first time I'd seen his name, but not the last.. he'd go on the direct episodes of Atlanta and Station 11. Numerous things that you've seen, probably.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “#CAKE” ]
LARRY: A few years would pass and then Shabazz would drop a pair of records on the same day. The dual space-gazing world of quazarz.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Quazarz on 23rd” ]
LARRY: There was Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Moon Whip Quäz” ]
LARRY: And then there’s their latest, Don of Diamond Dreams, one of my favorite Shabazz records.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Chocolate Souffle” ]
LARRY: But beyond the sounds of these records, Ish’s lyrics have confounded listeners, sparked speculation and intrigue around their themes….oblique. Impressionistic.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Forerunner Foray” ]
I'm the icest, wait up on the bottom on some fly shit
Priceless, but down there at the top I can't find shit
Every time I rock it's a tongue-kiss
E.H. Starling, forerunners and a punk fist
MARTIN: It's getting back to what you said about him being interested in other perspectives of his music. Yeah, because he says, you know, “I can't explain it with words. I have to do it,” right? And you know, having spoken with Ish, you know, in an interview capacity and like trying to get into like what goes through his mind, like I can say first hand that he doesn't think about what he feels in the song, what he's putting into the song. He's just putting it into the song. And he wants the listener to feel and engage and think and process everything he's putting into it. It seems like an intrinsic process. It seems like something that is cellular, that's almost psychic that comes out of him. And you know, the stuff that the kind of stuff that that psychic energy, you know, like people, people can feel that for sure.
LARRY: Ish, he keeps alive a tradition, I think that is super crucial to the culture that is being lost in the days of, you know, add to cart, annotate on genius, explain everything to death, you know, full messy disclosure on the internet at all times. And that's coded language and means of subverting authority and connecting with the people who can understand what you're saying
LARRY: I spoke with Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes — artist/filmaker/Constellation member — about this in our interview.
MAIKOIYO ALLEY-BARNES: There's something nice about codes, you know, and I think there's a lot lost in the now because so much of the code is often given up.
LARRY: On genius.com. So.
MAIKOIYO: Right on.
LARRY: And, and it's funny, because that's the, that's that was the function of songcraft at some point.
LARRY: Here's a code-.
MAIKOIYO: Mm Hmm.
LARRY: To literally get your ass free.
MAIKOIYO: Yep, absolutely.
LARRY: They're not supposed to know.
MAIKOIYO: Mm Hmm.
LARRY: They can't crack this.
MAIKOIYO: Or and again, to not frame it from that space of-
MAIKOIYO: Those codes may have been the thing that communicated with something interstellar. And yes, absolutely. You know, uh the coded uh, songs of, you know, people in bondage is a very real part of our history. But simultaneously, in previous-
MAIKOIYO: There were, you know, means of communication with other realms, you know? So yes, get yourself free both literally and, you know, on more esoteric levels.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “The King’s new clothes were made by his own hands” ]
LARRY: When people talk about Ish’s lyrics, shabazz palaces, stuff, it's it's always kind of referenced how spacey and cosmic it is all that is there, of course, you know, sci fi themes, really futuristic stuff going on. But the part you can't miss and that is there from the very beginning, the first the first lyrics you hear in any shabazz palaces, music, it's street stuff. You know what I mean? He's really speaking to where he's from. And it really tangible and coded way. And you just kind of really speaks like Seattle CD better than just about anybody. He really keeps it alive. You know, when you hear him say stuff like safe to say, you know, that's that's real Seattle game, that's what cats say or used to say, you know, older heads. So he really kind of keeps a really like icy, Seattle street menace that I don't think a lot of people know is present but is very tangible in Shabazz is music, and I really, really appreciate how he keeps it alive.
LARRY: I think about his line from the EP's. “We ride around the city like ghosts. Why would I tell you in a song where the toast is?”
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Capital 5...” ]
LARRY: His kind of. His very seasoned game really stands out among younger heads who indict themselves at all times in their own lyrics[...] But I guess that's encouraged it the way that we engage with technology and social media in particular. And that's why he in particular has been very distrustful of it and made songs thinking about its effects on our psyche.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Welcome to Quazarz” ]
Behold the soft cyber caress
My television who's my lover
But jealous machines and devices
Struggle to find a light switch
Followers following, leading nowhere
LARRY: Another big theme that you heard in Shabazz Music that popped up is that growing attachment between people and their mobile devices, I mean, there was basically a whole record about that: quazarz versus the jealous machines. And on the cover of it, you see a really cool cartoon rendering of a bunch of the constellation. It looks like they're in some kind of like bar in space someplace and some space port wearing some crazy clothes, and they're all looking at their phones in even their phones look kind of kind of wild. But everybody's kind of just there together, but everybody's in their own individual world world looking at the phone, which is very familiar. That is very much the now. And I know that's something that the Ismail's always been like. I I this phone offers a lot of access and, you know, shows me a lot of things, but also like drains my time, in my attention, in my ability to, you know, communicate, even though it's supposed to help us communicate, right?
MARTIN: Yeah. He calls it on the record. He calls it his his glowing phantom limb. Yeah, which yeah. I mean, anyone who has a phone, which is pretty much everyone can relate to that. Yeah, like you, you have this the cellular almost psychic attachment to your phone where you make sure it's always on you or if it vibrates, even if it's across the room, you can tell. And it's it's unnatural for us as humans to be, you know, to have a device as a as a limb, as an appendage. And I think it speaks to that suspicion very well.
LARRY: Absolutely. And not even just some like Luddite Way. It's it's it's conflicted because we're all a part of it, right? And yeah, I mean, reprograms our brains and our bodies. Like, how many times have you felt your phone vibrate? And then you realize your phone isn't even in your pocket like that shit is crazy. And so just thinking about how you know, who knows what, what's at work there stuff that we don't even understand. Shabazz speaks to that really well.
LARRY: In a KEXP in-studio session from 2017, Ish spoke with Constellation member and Street Sounds host at the time, Stas Thee Boss.
STAS: What’s it like on the gangster star?
ISHMAEL: It’s not the crips but they do wear blue. Sharks. Out in the streets. Murderous mentalities. Unofficial, unimaginative, provincial thinkers. But we expanding now. We tend not to think about them much. We’ve always got our heads to the sky looking toward the light and bringing with us when we arrive and trying to jump on the moment and expand it out.
STAS: What do you do when you’re not on your phone?
ISHMAEL: I really enjoy life.I do more things, I see more things. I use my senses more like I feel like I should. I broaden them.
LARRY: This idea of life versus machine. I feel like Ish and I spoke further on this in a recent interview, how about getting back from touring with Lese Majesty, he felt a major shift in our relationship to technology.
ISHMAEL: …I think maybe I was like just feeling how the devices have really tipped the scale, you know what I mean and become, you know, a lot of people think like when the machines took over, it was going to be like auto automated machines coming to your house and attacked you, but is more like, can you live without this thing? Or if you don't have it, what can you do now? And it’s well beyond the point of being able to live without a machine.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell” ]
Feeling for my phone I was — my glowing phantom limb
Orchids in my room, I'm staring at the sun
Passwords pile up and so pulling on my gun
Holding to the air, as nothing could be done
LARRY: Ish remains a technologist nonetheless.
ISHMAEL: Technology to me, because I don't really understand the inner workings of it, is magic to me, and I'm able to operate and get around on it and like, get my ideas out. And that's the cool part about studio stuff to me expeditiously being able to do things affordably, being able to do things high quality, being able to do things morphs and expansionsions on ideas that push you and make you have different ideas. You hear things in a different way, on down to sort of the, you know, proliferation of product online and on social media, like all of these things are magic and fascinating to me.
But they also signal an end to a certain aspect of humanity that I remember that I grew up on, that I was reared on that's near and dear to me is difficult to see vanish for something that to my generation seems superficial, which is proliferation of your own image and allowing yourself volunteering for different types of judgment. And then those judgments mattering to you, not only in the physical world monetary world, in the marketplace, but in your mind and your heart. So. You know, it's a it's a it's a monumental invention into the into the arc of humanity. You know, and I think people feel all kinds of ways about it. I know I do.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Dèesse Du Sang” ]
LARRY: Beyond his own work, Ish’s energy permeates those around him and artists who've been touched by his work. I think that's why he's one of the very few hip hop acts that has toured with the likes of Radiohead, My Morning Jacket with Julian Casablancas from The Strokes, who are all big fans and specifically wanted to tour with Ishmael.
LARRY: And his influence, of course, is felt in hip hop itself. You hear name checked by such leaders of the new school as Earl Sweatshirt.
[ MUSIC CUE: Earl Sweatshirt - "Shattered Dreams" ]
LARRY: A$AP Rocky
[ MUSIC CUE: Tyler the Creator / A$AP Rocky - "Potato Salad" ]
LARRY: He’s collaborated deeply with Flying Lotus and Thundercat.
[ MUSIC CUE: Flying Lotus - “Actually Virtual (featuring Shabazz Palaces)” ]
LARRY: He even started a project with FlyLo, Thundercat, and George Clinton under the moniker WOKE.
[ MUSIC CUE: WOKE - “The Lavishments of Light Looking” ]
LARRY: Writer, curator, and healer Negarra Kudumu further illustrates Ish’s impact by citing a Tweet from one of hip-hop’s most significant names.
NEGARRA KUDUMU: I think it was very telling a few years back when Jay-Z made that tweet talking about his favorite rappers.
GABRIEL TEODROS: Yeah, I seen that Ish was on there.
NEGARRA: Ishmael was on there. You know and. I mean, and again, to. You know, thinking about Ishmael, I mean. There are any number of words synonymous with brilliant that we can use, but I think that. One way I would love to see Ishmael documented is thinking about the ways that he has successfully iterated and become more of himself and continued to raise the bar on the quality. And I think that has been part of what has secured his longevity. I mean, we're talking about an individual who has been in the game now for 30 plus years. It's rare and has intentionally not made a lot of the decisions that many of his peers have. That's right. He has not gone the commercial entertainment route.
LARRY: Filmmaker dream hampton reflects on what makes Ishmael so unique.
dream hampton: Anyone who's experienced Ish, it is about the present moment. It's one way to live your life, it's not the only way, but it's like, I would say, a really profound way. People don't walk away from Ish wondering if he was paying attention or if he was multitasking. He's super locked in every moment that he's in… But the thing around Ish being present all the time, it's what makes his musical output so exciting.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Ad Ventures” ]
LARRY: Now in his 50s, and he's still fresh. Still, the freshest cat in the room. Still hilarious, still vital. Still listening to what his kids are listening to. Understanding it, understanding why it's dope. You know what I mean? Like, he's been to me like a living testament of understanding that you never you don't have to fall off. You don't have to get swag. You don't have to, like, become a cornball just because you're older or you've got a family or, you know, you're not the the young guy anymore. And I think that's a really that's the thing we understand a lot better now. But when it first came out as Shabazz Palaces, I don't think people got that at all. And we're kind of like, Oh, what's this about? But at the time when he came out, he was fully one of the very best emcees in his age bracket, which included cats like Scarface and E-40 and Ghostface. You know, some of the most well-regarded guys on the mic and still putting it down. So it's Ishmael putting out such a bold thing to me. Really, really, really stands, stands up.
LARRY: His Sub Pop colleagues also recognize his brilliance.
MEGAN: Ishmael is one of the greatest thinkers I think we've ever worked with. He, I always say it. I mean, it's it's cliché. It's like he doesn't think inside the box because there is no box with him. He is. He's just so expansive in every single way. He his kind of expression and art is it's so layered and it's so deep and. And there's there is so nothing linear about any of it.
TONY: He sniffs out corniness like faster than anyone else on the planet, right? Like he just and has zero tolerance for it. He's — the intention is all I feel like with him... because his intention and what he believes is, is the role of an artist, right? I think he takes that very seriously. Like what what you're meant to do if you're an artist and you're saying something. And part of that is to push the boundaries of what art is and what art is done before. And so if you aren't doing that, then you're failing as an artist and or worse, if you're clearly your intention is just to make a bunch of money or be as popular as possible or have a lot of clout or whatever like that, then that's there's no no room for you right. Not that, I don't want to make it sound intolerant because he's not. I don't think he cares. But there's no room for you and in his world what he's going to ingest. And he certainly doesn't have any interest in participating in that sphere.
ISHMAEL: That's the sort of thing that… everything you do should be in, you know, in building the brand, you know, like and when you're not, it's a missed opportunity, to do that, which is a missed opportunity to basically to make money, which I always felt like that's a cool concept. And I get it. But I always felt like the fact that every single person wanted to subscribe to it was weird, because in this field of creativity, you would imagine that everybody would have their goals but get to the goals in different ways, you know? So the notion that every person wants to do the same thing and wants to go about getting it the same way. That doesn't seem authentic to me. So whereas I respect that way and I understand it and stuff like that, I just never subscribed to it myself.
LARRY: Not just an artist on the roster, Ish joined Sub Pop as part of their A&R team, signing the likes of Porter Ray, Cartel Madras, and Yuno.
[ MUSIC CUE: Yuno - “No Going Back” ]
LARRY: Yuno recalls Ish reaching out to him.
YUNO: [Ish and I] were talking about that. I don’t know exactly how he found my music but he just messaged me on SoundCloud one day and said he liked my music and told me he was working with Sub Pop. We kind of just kept in touch for probably like a year or two. I didn’t put out anything new in that time but he said he wanted to send my stuff to Sub Pop and play it for them and see what they thought of it. Apparently they liked it, and they flew me out to Seattle to meet everyone and signed a deal
LARRY: Ish also takes inspiration from someone close to home, his own son Jazz Butler, better known as the rapper Lil Tracy.
[ MUSIC CUE: LIL TRACY- “Beautiful Nightmare” ]
EL MIZELL: Tracy and his gone much too soon collaborator Lil Peep are huge influences in the world of what is reductively called SoundCloud rap. Their signature blend of rap and emo rock has basically become its own genre, and influenced others like Lil Nas X. Ish's own later work reflects an appreciation of his son's music, and his tastes incorporate lots of music that he's found out through his son and his two daughters, Dania and Kyla. He's got to be one of the only rappers to emerge from New York's golden age who could speak eloquently about G Herbo or the genius of the Based God. He never rejects new information. Never stops learning.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Fast Learner”]
ISHMAEL: “Stellie…shout out all Stellies…”
LARRY: As much as Ishmael's influence has been felt in ways that are seen and unseen, one of the biggest influences on him that keeps him relevant, of course, is his family and his chosen family. There's a feeling and an outlook that binds the constellation. It's a way, a common instinctive drive that they share. And it was Shabazz's articulation of that that served as the call that rallied them together.
ISHMAEL: Yes, so I feel there's a family that you are born into your blood relatives and then as the family of people that you meet throughout your life, that you somehow through the force of nature, were drawn to and around and stay around the this sort of nature of the relationship will change just like everything in nature does. But there's an underlying bond that even out of contact, out of contact with the person that you have that relationship with death, familiar relationship. They still play a factor in your daily life on your the way you react to things in your decision making because you're conscious of that person and their energy and their thoughts and the times that she was around them. So you support one another where they could be really physical, but also also be telepathic in a way, you know? But the bond is not really something you can explain, but it's something that you find in life. It’s the jewelry of life, really, that you stumble upon people that become your family, you know?
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Reg Walks By The Looking Glass” ]
LARRY: From around the continent, the constellation has grown, found each other, collaborated, laughed. This found family, the black constellation, is never stagnant, it continues to grow and evolve, create new works
ISHMAEL: So to find myself among these people and their families, the ones that brought them here and the ones that they brought here, you feel me like all kind of interconnections. ]
ISHMAEL: So again, it's age old, but at the same time, it's a, it's a revolution. It's a new, always a new thing, because through instinct is, is originality, you know? So everybody with that confidence that's being sort of bolstered up by the cats that surrounds you to do your thing and feel good about it and all and take chances and all those cliche kind of things... We feel empowered to do that.
ISHMAEL: So it's affirming. Like…
ISHMAEL: Yeah, when I think about the Constellation is…life affirming.
ISHMAEL: And you know, like, you know, we also talk about, you know, is always going to be ups and downs because, like I say, it's always life in real life is in nature. There's ups and downs. Things die and they are reborn. But you know, you grow and you do all that kind of on the same fertile ground that we all sort of ended up on. So it makes me know that. It's a groove, you know, like you could find a groove. That's that's rare, you know?
LARRY: When talking with others about Ishmael Butler, the word rare comes up often. I think part of what makes his energy unique is that in a time when our attention is constantly being tugged at, Ish stays present in the eternal now, responding and creating, first and foremost, from a place of pure instinct.
ISHMAEL: I don't know where I learned the, the notion that through instinct comes originality, like if you can um, if you can go from your instinct to the finished product without filtering it through a whole bunch of other considerations that come from the outside, that's when you had the best potential to be original. Which, to me, original, like when I hear something that's original, that's what really gets me going. You know what I mean?
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Shine A Light” ]
LARRY: Next week, we’ll dig into the music and life of a rapper, producer, and DJ whose own originality caught the attention of Ishmael and myself early on.
ISHMAEL (on THEESat): I was knocked out because conceptually, it was such a realized concept. It was always funky and imaginative, their play off of each other was sensational.
[ MUSIC CUE: Stas THEE Boss - “I Can’t, Without You” ]
LARRY: Join us on the next episode for the story of Stas THEE Boss.
STAS: I want to be on and poppin right now. I don't want to be remembered. I want like a continuous stream of, like, y'all fucking with me. Because everyone says that they're going to "in 20 years from now, they're going to put THEESat on. You guys are going to blow up. You're gonna have like a second, a third wave." I'm like, nah I don't — I want it now.