Shabazz Palaces: A New Refutation

January 26th, 2017 | Category: Interviews

The history of hip-hop so far can be seen as split down the middle by the deaths of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. In the most oversimplified of terms, there was a reset when street sounds gave way to club bangers. Wu-Tang and Nas stepped aside for Missy and Puffy. Few survived.

Ishmael Butler has been on both sides of that divide. His old New York crew, Digable Planets, was all over the place in the early 1990s, and his new Seattle outfit, Shabazz Palaces, is firmly a part of the future, though he doesn’t necessarily see time and space like that. Time and space, like reality itself, are human constructs. “Every serious artist hopes not to be a success but to escape the gravity, the pull, the prison of their times,” Charles Mudede tells me. “Ish, I think, is the only rapper who achieved escape velocity and is now free in space.”

Of the 1993 Digable Planets song “Time & Space (A New Refutation of),” Butler told Brian Coleman in 2007, “That song title was part of the title of the album. It came from Jorge Luis Borges. I was reading a lot of his stuff at the time… Everything he wrote was metaphysical and circular, and things didn’t always happen for any reason. Time and space are conceptual and can only relate to you as an individual” (Check the Technique, p. 169-170).

— Shabazz Palaces: Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire
[photo by Victoria Kovios]

After having released one of the most slept-on records in the history of music, 1994’s Blowout Comb (Pendulum), Digable Planets split up in the mid-1990s. They haven’t recorded any new material since, but they’ve been performing live again since 2005. Don’t get it out of sync though, Shabazz Palaces is still Ish’s main focus. Their two (!!) new records, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines (both for Sub Pop), come out in July.

Roy Christopher: Now that you’ve done Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces simultaneously, how do you approach those two projects differently?

Ishmael Butler: I would equate it to how black families have family reunions like every two years. It’s like that: Getting back to a familiar situation that you don’t do that much, but when you do, it’s fun, it’s special, and it always reminds you of your home and where you came from. It also makes you think about how you behaved and how you relate to and how you seize the time in the present, you know? So, it’s like going back to that music is romantic and nostalgic combined, wrapped up in this present thing that you can touch, but it’s still coming from the past, from a past that was very formative. So, it’s hard to describe, but I don’t think of it like I’m doing them at the same time because I’m really not. The Shabazz thing is now, and Digable shows are shows of older music because we haven’t done any new music.

RC: Would you say that both projects are informed by science fiction?

IB: Yeah, the first book I ever really read cover to cover was this book called Z for Zachariah (Atheneum, 1974). I always liked science fiction movies. I always liked reading science fiction. Octavia Butler came to me in my twenties. I read a lot of that. Then of course there’s George Clinton. I don’t really call that science fiction, but I call it imaginative reality… Where you exist because you believe in different realms, different worlds, natural words, supernatural worlds. You look at a cat like Clinton, and you’re like, “oh, he’s wild,” but he’s living in these alternative realities different from ours but no less real. I came onto that early in life.

RC: The Afrofuturism movement connects the concept of alienation from science fiction with the history of the African diaspora being stolen from their homeland for slavery. Do you think this is a useful connection to make?

IB: I like the alien aspect of it only because white people were the first to construct this reality that was concrete, had reason, and had form and hierarchies and categories, and you could understand everything, you know? That just wasn’t something that African motherfuckers were concerned with. We didn’t need to lord over the land and the air and the space and ideas and people – not to that extent. So, when those that did came into contact with us and saw us, that was the birth of science fiction. This notion of a reality and that we had broken that reality therefore set into motion all these needs to put hierarchies and to control and to enslave and to have land and borders and all of this kind of stuff. I feel like we are the alien. We deal with this realm in a totally different way than anyone else. And I think that it’s shocking and disorienting and calls into question reality. Imagine seeing some niggas in West Africa back then! Who knows what they were capable of doing!?

What we did and what we knew and the things we had connections with, it was mind-blowing. It blew people away, and it set into motion all of these things like science fiction and abstraction and cubism and surrealism and all that stuff. I feel like we were catalysts to all of that stuff just by our existence. I look at the Towers in Luxor or the Pyramids or different types of structures, and I’m like, yeah, there was some different type of shit going on. I don’t think anyone knows what it was, and there are all kinds of theories that are interesting and entertaining and brilliantly conceived, but no one really knows… Something else was happening! It appears obvious to me. I hear that when Clinton and those guys get down, when Prince gets down… There’s something else at work in these constructions that these people are making…

RC: How do we tell this story right?

IB: If you could somehow get this point across: Every culture–forget race–every culture invented and was the author of certain enlightenments and certain constructions. Now, inside of that culture there’s skin colors that come from this certain culture. You heard me say I’m not talking about skin: I don’t see race like that. White people came up with this code for everything: We got language, we got writing, we got history, which we’re going to give an accurate account of… How?! How you gonna give an accurate account of a battle?! All these men that died can’t read or write, and they’re operating at the behest of someone who’s in control who’s going to author this history! So, forget history altogether! I can’t even fuck with it! These are just serial tales that vaguely hint at reality and the truth of some days past as far as I’m concerned.

I think you’ve got to figure out how to tell a language-less, history-less story, that is all about expanding the now rather than conquering and controlling the future. That’s where all this quote-“Afrofuturism” comes from is sly motherfuckers who was loving the moment so much that they wanted to blow more air and blow more space into the moment and push it out and hold it as long as they could. That’s what grooves and loops and sustaining one groove and one rhythm does: it bends time and melts it and blows bubbles in it. That’s what this Afrofuturism stuff is about.

If you came here across the sea in the hull of a ship, and you land, and you start to live this new life in this new territory where it gets extremely cold, and there’s all these kinds of seasons and abuse and terrors is being pushed upon you. Every minute of every day you live in oppression and terror of the sort that no one can even imagine anymore, no movie can show you anything close to what actually happened. Simple survival, waking up, standing up, greeting the sun, breathing in and out… You’re a futurist. You’ve tapped into something that keeps you moving that’s stronger than really anything we’ve ever seen before from humankind. Imagine getting used to that on a cellular level–you’re breathing that now–what’s going to be the result of that? I think we all are futurists.

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