Touring The Universe: Shabazz Palaces Talks


Shabazz Palaces were the first hip hop act to be signed to the Seattle grunge icons Sub Pop – although to call SP hip hop is something of a simplification. The duo are made up of MC Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro, who first came to prominance with the Daisy Age outfit Digable Planets, and multi-instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire. Between them they pursue an abstract expression of hip hop – a place where live, sprawling jams collide with jagged slabs of bass and percussion, where songs switch direction mid-flow, and ideas shift through tempo and melody like Sam Beckett used to quantum leap through bodies.

At the moment Shabazz are in the heart of a European tour, culminating in a highly anticipated show with Flying Lotus to take place at Brixton Academy on May 1st – we managed to grab some time with Ishmael to talk Afro-futurism, the hip hop underground, and his unexpected love of pop…

Hey Ishmael. Hows the tour going?

Its going well, going real well

Do you get much of an impression of the countries that you’re in when your passing through them?

Well, an aspect of them, a layer of them. You enter this kind of artistic musical community and you get a sense of how the people move characteristically in that city. If you pay close attention you can get a feel for it – it’s a fast study, but we’ve been back 6 or 7 times in the last couple of years.

Do you find the language barrier is a problem imparting your message in Europe?

I’m sure some things are lost, but a lot is transmitted and translated. Coming into a situation like that, we don’t think about what isn’t possible, we think about what is possible to be translated and transmitted. So, you know cats don’t be speaking English that good, but man, they come and they look for some other understanding, so we try to provide that, and get it ourselves from them.

I'm curious – you’re on your way to London – do you know there’s an election on? How much is that engaged with in America?

Yeah I know there’s an election, but I’m not hip to too much about it. News in America is really like watching a half an hour sitcom. Its just entertainment.

Do you get placed on different kind of line ups over here to those you find yourself on in America?

Ummm.. no.. I mean it’s always different. We never really were people that got booked and put into a rap arena, or in rap genre shows. We’ve been malleable from the jump.

I have a theory that the last 10 – 15 years have seen Clear Channel with a stranglehold on hip hop; ever since Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, they've dominated hip hop radio, but that stranglehold has been somewhat broken by the internet in the last year or two. Does that sound credible to you?

I think it does. I’m hip to Clear Channel, and I understand that they’re an imperialistic conglomerate that desires domination, so it has to be countered by something that’s grassroots, something at a small underground level. But it seems also that a lot of times, when people have a new way of looking at the music and start approaching it independently, they quickly get grabbed up by some conglomerate entity and it starts to dilute it pretty fast. I dunno. I’ve been paying attention to hip hop, but not just by itself, just music overall. But what your saying is credible for sure.

There’s a lot of attention placed on the idea of afrofuturism and your often cited one of the handful acts people talk about when they refere to contemporary afrofuturist acts– do you feel comfortable being placed in that way?

Only by those who have some ability to corroborate it or contextualise. I don’t really know what it means I don’t have the definition or know the criteria. Y’know I don’t say that we’re not, but I don’t say that we are, we don’t approach it that way – we don’t say we make afrofuturistic art, naah, it sounds a bit pedantic, pretentious and unnecessary. I don’t feel any need to categorise. I understand when they say it, I get it, but I don’t know that much about it.

There’s an old tune you do, An Echo of the Hosts That Profess Infinity, were you drop into the Mbira half way through, which was traditionally a way of communicating with the spirits. I wonder how consciously you decided to put that passage in there – was it a decision taken before writing the song, or did it come about as you were creating?

Well, y’know it’s not a really cerebral approach to the music. It’s instinctive. Tendai plays Mbira so understanding and knowing all the things that come along with it, what it means and what it does, we’re obviously aware of that, and know what’s going on when we use it. But its not like we think, we’re about to do this here, we’re about to do this there – it’s a very natural and instinctive process.

We’re you happy with the results of that track?

Yes (chuckles) Yeah we were

And are you working on more stuff at the moment? Can we expect anything new?

Ahh yeah, definitely man, we’ve got the studio in Seattle and when we’re there we’re always making beats.

Im assuming your not taking on board too much stuff that’s going on around you- your music seems like you're out there doing your own thing.

Not really – we take on everything from pop to as much as the underground and clandestine music we can get our ears on. We listen to pretty much everything-

Tell me a pop record you listen to-

I like the umm… whats her name.. SZA. I like the FKA stuff, and I like also Arial Pink..

Hahaha I think what you think of as pop, other people might not consider pop…

Oh you mean super pop? Well I mean I like Beyonce..

Ha, who doesn't..? Thanks for your time man

Thank you. 

Shabazz Palaces play with Flying Lotus, Kutmah and MF DOOM on May 1st at Brixton Academy. More details over here

Words: @IanMcQuaid