Things Happen: An Expression Line
words/interview: Renko Heuer
A simple, unexpected, disarming “How are you?” – that’s how Ishmael Butler aka The Palaceer of Shabazz Palaces, formerly Butterfly of Digable Planets, answers the phone in his new office at Sub Pop records: it’s true, dude’s also an A&R guy now. Still first and foremost an unparalleled artist who, even after almost 25 years in the “game”, does and sees and thinks and says things differently, he simply describes Shabazz Palaces’ new album “Lese Majesty” (after “Black Up” another sophisticated, raw, sensual, otherworldly banger, this time presented in intergalactic suites) as a “collage” of “songs that ended up happening” in the new studio he set up with his mate Tendai Maraire. The following conversation is what ended up happening after he said, “How are you?”
How are you? Good, man, how are you? I’m pretty good. What are you up to right now? Yeah, actually now I’m at the Sub Pop offices, where I work a couple days a week as an A&R and learning the music biz from the very capable Sub Pop staff – that I’m part of. I read that, and I was surprised because I always thought you weren’t really interested in the music biz at all, that you rather cared about just creating music… Well, that’s the thing, that’s actually a actual fact but this place here cares more about music than the industry as well; I mean Sub Pop is very unique in their outlook on the business of music, so I think that’s why it’s not as surprising as you may think, because what you said is actually true, but I don’t have to check any of those sensibilities at the door in order to be here. It’s really a unique environment for music and the business of music. Has it changed your whole perspective on what the industry or selling music can mean? Ahem… no. It’s unique, and I’m not saying that they’re the only ones; I just think that this collection of people and the philosophy is unique. When I started to make music here and saw how they went about the business, I was very impressed, and it never felt like artistic-ness was ever compromised. So it didn’t really change my view, you know? I was able to maintain my view but realized that there are places where this view could be welcomed and is even useful. Knowing that you would again release an album on Sub Pop, did it affect how this amazing new album turned out, did it make you go even crazier in terms of creativity because you knew that it was really appreciated over at Sub Pop? Yeah, but also I was able to take the time that was necessary and also to never have these deadline restraints that are put on artists often, you know, “you gotta get the album in by this time in order to make these deadlines and be considered for these awards…,” you know? This is a place where you’re aware of all of these deadlines but no one is pressuring you to meet them, because everybody is trying to foster an environment of relaxation for an artist to achieve the maximum, you know, creativity that’s possible. That philosophy is just like saying, “Hey, if the artists are doing the best they can, without undue pressure – because there’s always pressure when you’re trying to make music and sell it – but without undue pressure, then the music is going to be the best it can be and that’s going to be the best for the label. It’s all about the sound of the music – more than possessing the product. So how and where did you and Tendai work on this new album? Especially since you took on this job as an A&R, was it easy to manage? Well, the really fortunate thing we were able to do from touring and also with some support from the label was build our own studio and put in this studio all of the equipment that we kind of dreamed about having over the years. So the environment was totally controlled and totally ours, 24 hours a day, and we pretty much used it that amount of time. I mean when the recording was happening, the job I took on here was understandably considered secondary to recording, so it wasn’t like I had to wake up in the morning, and after having been at the studio till four in the morning, get up at nine, come here and do this and that – everybody kind of understood that we’re working on the album and that took precedent. So was there a point when you said, “now we’re recording,” and was there a stage before that when you were actually just songwriting? Or did some of those tracks simply come about as you were jamming in the studio? Each one of those scenarios happened. It’s difficult to really remember when a song begins or ends, because ideas come from who knows where, you know, you’re trying to capture them, but yeah, we started recording this album in earnest and sort of fine-tuning ideas, jams, and getting them to the stage that they’re in now. Speaking of where songs begin and end, what made you decide to create these suites, to group songs together? Was it your idea? That doesn’t really matter. The thing that happens when we record, we don’t really think of anything like titles or how the album’s going to be set up, so the suites thing all happened after the recording was made, because we try to just rely on our instincts while recording – and then go back later, listen to what happened and try to find the themes that have come up. We then tie stuff together after that. How about the roles in the studio? Are the beats mostly Tendai’s? Tendai doesn’t do the beats by himself, no; everything we do, we do it together.
Does that mean he also has a say in what you rap about? Well, you’re looking at it like it’s a production line – it’s not. It’s an expression line, you know what I mean? It was not like we’re looking at things like, “Okay, this product can a) work in a market place or b) not,” we’re trying to capture moments of instinct, so we have pretty much ultimate confidence in each other, and it’s not really approached that critically. It’s more like: it happens, we make it, and then we move on to the next thing. I mean, it’s really not coming from that point of view. Sounds like some magic, like some special chemistry that happens in the studio. We do have that chemistry, of course, but it’s just the outlook; it’s not that we’re saying “that song’s gonna work,” it’s just: “that song happened.” That’s more like the outlook. We didn’t use all of the songs that ended up happening, but that’s when you kind of get together and make the collage that becomes the album. So there’s some criticism, but not much. It’s more about trying to find the gems in there, you know? So things happen in the studio – but people have different takes on why things happen: some say it’s fate, some say it’s chance… Fate and chance and all of these things, they’re words that we’ve been sort of programmed and taught to have meaning, but it all goes to describe – something that has already occurred. And if that’s not reason enough, then you can come up with some other word for it, but the product and the music existing… you know, sometimes there might be a song that I make or some words that happen, or some arrangement or something that I didn’t particularly dig, and he might say, “nah, that’s good,” or vice versa, but you gotta trust your instincts, believe in it, rely on it, even sometimes when the finished product doesn’t necessarily move you in a way that you’ve been used to being moved by some other things. The problem is that people are looking at music now like, “this is a hit, that was a hit, I need to try to make something that sonically comes close to that – or rhythmically or vocally.” We don’t really have those stipulations, those parameters, you know? Yeah. How did that KENZO clip come about that you recently did? Kahlil Joseph is a video director and a film director… Yeah, he’s amazing. A perfect match for your music. That “Black Up” short film… Yeah, so he got the call from KENZO, and he just kind of was brainstorming and we were talking around that time, and so it just kind of happened. It wasn’t really planned or anything, but everything kind of lined up around the right time. It was really fun and enlightening too. So, again something just happened… if everything just happens, how does it work, for example on a day like today, since you’re now in the office? I guess a lot of things have to be dealt with in a different way, right? And does that mean that you’re a different version of yourself, when you enter the studio? No, because when you’re in the studio, you’re doing something that you want to get out, that’s fun to do, so expediency is paramount in your own personal motivation. And it’s not totally foreign to operate with finish lines and deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed. So it’s not totally out of my character to just put my nose to the grindstone and get some things done on a certain kind of schedule; I mean in the studio you might have 15 or 20 songs working at the same time, and then if you don’t have some administrative and organizational approach to it, then that could go on for years, you know? Once you turn in the album here, they rely strictly and solely on scheduling and deadlines, but it’s just a balance. Like I said, it’s not totally out of character for me. I see. How is making music, creating new sonic worlds, comparable to playing basketball, in your mind? Ahem, that’s interesting. I mean I wish I was intelligent enough to draw a comparison that’s enlightening, but I couldn’t do it. (Cracks up) For me, I think you practice basketball, you do drills, you do fundamentals, you get your stamina up, you run lines, you practice with the team, and then you go out on the court and you perform – so the thing about what the studio is: you practice your skills, you write your raps down, you do all kinds of stuff, and then there’s a moment of truth in which you just go in there and you start jammin’ – and things happen. It’s about instinct again. Practicing enough so that you can rely on your instinct to bring something about that’s unique and original. So when are you going to perform those unique recorded happenings live, over here? We’re planning to come to Europe in September/October. Nice. Something else: “Blowout Comb” turns 20 this year. Any plans? Well, Light in the Attic has already re-released “Blowout Comb” as a double LP for the anniversary. But as far as performing or anything, I don’t think so because Ladybug doesn’t really want to perform anymore with Digable Planets. But you’d be up for it? Oh, yeah. For sure. Interesting. One other thing: Have you tried opium yet? Nah. But I’ll be glad when I do. I’ve been trying to get there for a long time now, but it’s not really something that you can get that easily here in the States. Good luck hunting it down then. Thanks, man. Take it easy.
Shabazz Palaces | “Lese Majesty” | album | Sub Pop