The following conversation with Ishmael Butler a.k.a. Shabazz Palaces took place over the phone back in May of this year, not long after the release of The Don Of Diamond Dreams—one of 2020’s best albums in any genre—for Sub Pop. During the call, we discussed the inspirations and practices behind his creative process, the way playing live with his original group Digable Planets impacts his newer works, and the future of his side-project Knife Knights with Erik Blood.
I find myself asking this a lot in interviews now but, how are you holding up? How are you doing right now?
Oh, doing really well, man, aside from not being able to tour. I’m just hanging out at home, got the studio at the crib, all my family’s healthy. So just trying to make the most of it, you know, no problems though, really, actually. I'm blessed in that regard.
How has being in self isolation mode affected you creatively? Have you been able to write new music and record new music or do other creative things during this time period?
Definitely. Practicing a lot, learning new songs and other people's songs, learning chords and practicing on piano and guitar a lot, when I'm bored and not necessarily feeling like making songs. But I also made a bunch of songs too.
You've been quite prodigious over the past decade, between Shabazz Palaces and Knife Knights. Now that you have this time at home, is it impacting the way in which you're creating?
Well, naturally if you’re creative, you're sensitive. You're observant and you have deep feelings from the things that you observe and how they affect your sensibilities. I'm not super cerebral about that, although I do acknowledge it as a fact, you know what I mean? I try to let that translate trough, through my instinct when it comes time to create and make music. But that observation that you have, I think is very true. Things are changing. It's a really, really, really, really absurd kind of time in America with what the president and the Republicans and all the stuff that's going on and with the police and all that kind of shit, you know? I pay attention to a lot of shit. I read a lot of stuff, I digest a lot of it. Then, when I go make music, I'm sure it pours out in many, many different ways, not just lyrically, melodically, the different stuff that's influencing me. So yeah, I'm sure that it is profoundly affecting what's going on with me—and everybody else in different ways.
Your latest album, The Don Of Diamond Dreams, is your fifth as Shabazz Palaces for Sub Pop. How has your approach to writing an album changed since 2011’s Black Up?
I've been learning a lot each year, from touring and also touring with Digable. We’ve got a five piece band of guys that's from Seattle and they're all guys that have been playing since they were teenagers and now they're in their thirties, forties and fifties. So I learned hella shit from that musically, keyboard stuff, guitar stuff, approach stuff, melodic stuff, you know?
At the same time I've over the years gotten more and more into instinct and improvisation. I’ve been progressively getting better at being able to make and play music, but trying to capture spontaneous things in the recordings rather than sort of planning and mapping stuff out.
What's drawing you towards spontaneity and that improv mode at this stage in your career?
I read The Execution of Sun Ra by Thomas Stanley, which was a really great study of Sun Ra and his music and his philosophy. Also, a book that was profound to me I read about five, six years ago called Toward A “Ratio”nal Aesthetic by a brother named Faruq Bey, talking about jazz music and improvisation and spontaneity. Those things, philosophically, made me feel like, in my opinion for myself—not that I feel everybody should feel like this—but in the more instinctive off-the-cuff, top-of-the-mind kind of things is where the jewelry of my creative output lies.
I'm not that good at instrument playing. I'm not that cerebral at writing and thinking things out like on some John Cage type shit or something like that. So I feel like that's my wheelhouse—practicing a lot, reading a lot, playing a lot, traveling a lot, observing a lot, listening a lot. And then getting in the lab and capturing some fire and being able to then take that and go into my hip hop phase of being able to sample and loop and arrange it with a hip hop state of mind.
Do you listen to jazz differently as a result of the way in which you're creating now? Are there things you listen for or catch now that maybe you didn't catch necessarily before?
I have to say yes, man. A lot of my growth has come sonically to studio techniques and equipment, understanding about compression and understanding about how to use the delays, how things make sense, using the ghost tones that come from putting delays on chords. I think I listen a little bit more comprehensively, not just what the musicians are doing and trying to postulate what they thinking and feeling, but also what's happening in a recording. I'm not on some purist shit, like only recording through analog. I still think there's a lot to learn in the things other than the obvious aspects of listening to music, like who's making the music, what their approach is.
It’s the sort of accidental things that occur when you're raising a joyful noise, making all these vibrations and sounds. I'm getting into the things that happen accidentally and trying to categorize them and, not necessarily controlling, but being able to harness them when they happen. That's something that I've been listening out for a lot. You get that a lot in Miles Davis, like Live Evil / Bitches Brew era type stuff, and definitely when you're dealing with Sun Ra. You know, them cats would just go in the studio, 12, 13, 14 cats, whatever kind of mic set ups that the studio had, they would just go in. You’d get so much variance from the time it comes out of the instrument to the time it gets on the tapes. I'm fascinated by that stuff.
Speaking of the studio in terms of its effect on the creation process, you worked on The Don Of Diamond Dreams, as you have previously [both with Shabazz Palaces and as a duo Knife Knights], with Erik Blood. I'm sort of wondering about your interplay with him, from his engineering and mixing side. Like, what sort of role does he play now that you've been doing this together for a bit?
Man, it's a brotherhood. It's an extension of my own mind and my own creativity. When I'm making things, I often try to achieve the final sound on my own, but I often find myself recording things, leaving them as they are, and sort of forecasting what my bro is gonna bring to it, the surprise and the wonder, really, that he's going to be able to, to make with the things that I sort of started out with. So I do have him in mind at all times. Even when I'm by myself, I'm creating music that I think about things in their potential rather than what they may sound like at that time. And often too, man, I learned from those pieces that I told you I read in my experience.
I have songs that I would have never put out or finished if not for Erik, without him saying, I know that that's going on the album, or no, no we're going to finish this song. Because I didn't like it, or I didn't think much of it, you know, where he came in and introduced a different side of it to me. So he's really invaluable to me at this point. It is what it is like that. I'm really happy that I know him, that I have him on my squad like that.
Are you guys planning on following up 1 Time Mirage?
Yes. Most definitely. We recorded at the 1 Time Mirage sessions, probably about 30 songs. So we got a lot of ideas and stuff to build off of. And of course with all of us—me, him, OCnotes—we’re always making hundreds of songs a month, probably, between all three of us. We went on tour with that too. It was good, man. We want to get back to that for sure.
That's really great to hear. On a bigger picture level, how has the mission of Shabazz Palaces evolved over the course of this past decade?
I never had a stated or concrete mission that I pronounced to myself, other than to try to challenge myself and the people around me to not do things for the sake of trying to be different or the sake of trying to be weird. Basically to try to act out on the challenges of trying to learn something new and implement it, and then just like materially to make music that can allow myself and the cast that I play with to tour and get to go around the world. I'm really at home on the road. So if I can get there, I've succeeded. It's to make music that will allow that to happen.
One of the common threads about your albums is this hybrid of sorts, mixing outer space with very down to earth themes, the corporeal and cosmic coming together, conceptually. Why is this approach so appealing to you from your perspective as a lyricist?
I just feel like it's a truth. I think they're the same things. Like, I never saw them as being separate, or at the opposite ends of something. The cats that I really like—George Clinton was very influential in my life when I was younger, Sun Ra, of course, my dad, Octavia Butler. Anything that you can sort of attach to that family of things, I was always attracted to. I always felt that they were real, that they're real things, these experiences, you know, people saying they're from outer space. Clinton talking about the Mothership, not as fiction, but as reality as life, as sense memory as atomic realities. We come close to them and we're predisposed to be attracted to them because they relate to us and we remember them in some way. We find ourselves before them when we are creating and making and living and thinking. So it's all the same to me, space and down to earth. Why can't they all just swirl together at the same time?
Among critics and listeners, a word that probably has come up more often than not in describing your work is ‘experimental.’ Do you find that word to be in any way bothersome or limiting, as the person who is actually making this music, that word experiment?
If you look at that word in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, it meant something, I think, a little more close to giving a real definition of the word. These cats were having instruments that they had made themselves. They were maybe classically trained musicians that were throwing all of their training out of the window, getting on these instruments that they had made or coming out with sounds and recording techniques, literally experimenting. Nowadays, it means, if you're not following the sort of blueprint of whatever genre that you have self identified with, then you can be called experimental, you know what I'm saying? It's kind of corny and lazy to me, at this point, but it was based on something that I do respect and I dig.
But I've never been an experimental musician. I mean, I like getting on new equipment and trying stuff out, but it's not a pure experiment. I think the brothers and sisters that really did that deserve to hold that space themselves. But I get it. And it’s kind of like, whatever. If you don't have the vocabulary to describe it in any other way and just want to throw that out there to evoke that kind of weirdness, not brand name sort of production and structures of songs then, okay, you know, whatever.
When I listen to The Don Of Diamond Dreams, I don't see them as removed from hip-hop nor removed from the jazz tradition either. I see them very much as part of both. I feel like using ‘experimental’ just makes it seem like they’re saying it's unlistenable, which is hardly the case with your stuff.
I appreciate that. I agree. I think it's very much grounded and rooted in those traditions that you mentioned. Experimental music is fascinating. And I feel like you probably feel like this too—when you hear it, you know it. It's definitely not. I think Shabazz music and Don Of Diamond Dreams’ music is closer to pop music than it is to experimental music.
Oftentimes, your music videos have been these elaborate, cinematic, really thought-provoking pieces. With what's going on right now in the world and the realities of quarantine, you did a video for “Chocolate Souffle” that was very much a rogue effort by comparison. Do you find satisfaction in doing something that's more rogue?
Definitely, man. As the years go on, if you're an artist of my stature, you're not a million seller. And so, [with] videos, it's not like back in the days when a video was kind of the main driving force to your sales and your notoriety. You're not going to have the budgets that you would have back in the day, because it's not worth it now. You have to figure out a way to get a little bit more creative using less. I'm into that. I like getting into the cinematic stuff too, and I like to do that at least once or twice for a project, and then the rest of the time go guerrilla with it and see what kind of cool stuff that you can come up with too.
Purchase or stream Shabazz Palaces’ music here.