On this week’s episode, we’ll explore Ishmael Butler’s journey from the West Coast to the East Coast and back again. Through all his stylistic reinventions and his current artistic life as lynchpin of Shabazz Palaces, son of the Central District and under-heralded hip-hop visionary.
Ishmael Butler is a renaissance artist who has lived many lives. You may know him from the Grammy-award winning hip-hop trio Digable Planets or the mysterious force behind the critically acclaimed Shabazz Palaces. But he doesn’t just use his powers to innovate and reinvent himself – he spreads love and inspiration as a teacher and guide to his artistic family. In his art and lifting up the Black Constellation, he’s helped put a beacon on Black art in Seattle.
On this week’s episode, we’ll explore Ishmael’s journey from the West Coast to the East Coast and back again. Through all his stylistic reinventions and his current artistic life as lynchpin of Shabazz Palaces, son of the Central District and under-heralded hip-hop visionary.
Listen to a playlist of music from the episode and read the transcript below.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Blastit…” ]
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: Through each episode of this podcast, we’re delving into the story of the Black Constellation – the artist collective that’s transmitted revolutionary sounds, sights, and ideas through space and time. As mentioned in our first episode, the Black Constellation contains many stars whose works continually overlap—if you missed that one, clear some space out and peep it. But if there’s one focal point to begin with, it’s the light beam that is Ishmael Butler.
MARTIN: On this week’s episode, we’ll explore Ishmael’s journey from the West Coast to the East Coast and back again. Through all his stylistic reinventions and his current artistic life as lynchpin of Shabazz Palaces, son of the Central District and under-heralded hip-hop visionary.
ISHMAEL BUTLER: On behalf of my crew, I’d like to say we accept this award on behalf of hip-hop music, Black culture in general.
LARRY: That’s the voice of the young Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler with his group Digable Planets, accepting the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group back in 1993.
ISHMAEL: I want you to think about all the people outside this door that’s homeless as you’re sitting in these $900 seats, $300 seats. They’re not eating at all.
LARRY: Ish adjusts his cap as a smattering of awkward applause comes from the audience. His shoulders shift back and forth in his leather jacket.
ISHMAEL: Also, we’d like to say to the universal Black family that one day we gonna recognize our true enemy and we’re gonna stop attacking each other and maybe then we’ll get some changes going on. We’d like to thank the Academy for recognizing us. So peace to the gods and earth and Nation of Islam. Digable Planets say peace. Thank you very much.
LARRY: Universal Black Family. You’ll find the spirit of family and collective informs the life and work of Ishmael Butler. From the Marx-inspired insect-collectivist vision of Digable Planets...
[ MUSIC CUE: Digable Planets - “Black Ego” ]
LARRY: ...to his now as the Black Constellation’s “Big Bro,” a mentor, a beacon who shines a light.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Dawn in Luxor” ]
LARRY: He doesn’t hoard inspiration, but fosters it and lets it grow among his family. And their family’s family. Think of Ish like the big bang, ever expanding and with limits we haven’t even discovered yet.
ISHMAEL: Every idea that I have was either shown or told to me, but it was given to me by some other example, some other human example,
LARRY: In the words of the immortal Sun Ra...
SUN RA: “Everything else comes from outer space. From unknown regions. Humanity’s life depends upon the unknown. Knowledge is laughable when attributed to a human being”
ISHMAEL: You couldn't really author an idea they came to you because you were a continuation of something else.
ISHMAEL: There's this book. Yeah, it's called Being a Writer by Dorothea Brand, and in it she gives you exercises on, you know, basically if you practice something enough, you, you become that thing. You know, you can do things, you can teach yourself things. You can discipline yourself enough to where something doing repetitively becomes instinctive. And that's exciting prospect, you feel me?
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “20 Gear Science” ]
ISHMAEL: I feel like learning is making some effort towards longevity. Activity of body and mind, you know, it is sets. It says the force of will to action and you live more. You know. So I try to have discipline around him because you never regret learning something, you never regret going and doing some exercise, you never regret reading, you never, you know what I mean? Never regret hanging with your people. You know what I mean?
ISHMAEL: Whenever you get some new information as dazzling to like, mess in is energizing, you know? And you believe in life more.
LARRY: Learning and longevity. Community and culture. This is Ishmael Butler, in his 5th decade of making music
[ MUSIC CUE: Digable Planets - “Where I’m From” ]
LARRY: Ishmael Butler’s life began in Seattle’s storied Central District.
ISHMAEL: I’m Barbara’s one and only son, Ishmael. C.D. 30th and Cherry. What’s happenin’?
ISHMAEL: Yeah, had a unique upbringing in a sense that my parents split up. I lived with them until I was about nine, I think. And then they split up. you know, they were very amicable. They saw the need and wanted, you know, each other to be involved in my life. So from that, I learned smoothness and consideration and also adaptation because they would always be living in a different place.
LARRY: Ish found in his family and his neighborhood the evidence of a people seeking change and finding like minded community in the process. Ish’s grandmother Emily moved to Seattle from Louisiana sight unseen to work at Boeing, met his grandfather, and set up shop in the Central District. Ish describes a neighborhood bustling with life.
[ MUSIC CUE: Jake One - “Home” ]
ISHMAEL: A lot of kids in the neighborhood running up and down in the summertime it was packed, cookouts, people riding around, people really enjoying the fruits of their labor, having a home, having a backyard and having you know what I mean, growing a lot of agriculture with the people from transplants from down south. Everybody had turnip greens and tomatoes and cucumbers. Some people even had various livestock. My next door neighbors had chickens, you know, straight up in high school. So yeah, man, shout out the Whitfields & the Foches and the Singletary's the Davises. These are all people on my block. I was in and out of their house and they was in and out of mine.
ISHMAEL: …you know, the one thing that I will say about my upbringing was my parents, even when they weren't together, they both, through example, they exercised freedom of their thoughts and will, you know, so I never felt caged in, I never felt different. I never felt less than, you know. I never felt that anything was was out of my reach. It was all about, you know, work and passion.
ISHMAEL: …my parents, you know, they read, they liked popular culture. They collected things like music and paintings. They had a political history that of involvement and their friends all respond from that. So I had a rich environment. You know, whether I was getting babysat or going to a cousin's or a friend's house to spend the night or to a party or a slumber party. All the adults around was flawed ahead. They had done something in this world and they had believed in something, and they were now sort of the embodiment of the progress that they fought for, you know, so we always had that initiative as kids. You know that you were something, you were everything. But you were also part of something that was that that everything was contained inside of, you know..
LARRY: Ishmael remembers watching Sun-Ra’s masterpiece Space is the Place with his father, Reggie, when he was five or six years old.
[ MUSIC CUE: Sun Ra - "Space is the Place" ]
LARRY: He remembers him putting a trumpet in his hand, an instrument he ended up playing for years.
[ MUSIC CUE: Digable Planets - “Jettin'” ]
LARRY: Ishmael soaked up game living with his father in New York, Philly, and Baltimore, as well as his native Seattle, where his mother lived.
Ish went to Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District – the same school whose halls were roamed by Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, and Bruce Lee.
When Ishmael returned to Seattle from living with his father, he’d absorbed style cues picked up back East. B-Boy shit, Lee Jeans, Triple Fat Goose, parts cut in his hair — when cats in the CD had jheri curls and dressed like Prince. Though he initially stood out from his classmates, Ishmael’s talent on the basketball court made him stand out in a different way, while earning their respect.
ANNOUNCER (1987 Garfield Boys Basketball State Championship Game): “At the other guard, a 5’ 11’’ senior, Ishmael Butler!”
ISHMAEL: …I was really, really, really the only thing that was really my interest in life was playing basketball. I had that passion at that time, playing in high school. We won the state championship my senior year and I went on to play Division One Basketball.
LARRY: It was during that time, while hooping at UMass, that his musical ambitions started to crystallize.
ISHMAEL: I had musical aspirations since high school and there was a brother that lived in our dorms. He lived on the bottom floor. He had a room next to one of the cats on the team, and we spent a lot of time in each other's room. One day I went past this cat’s room. His name was George Logement. Real, small, tall. Do we have like a cast on? He had really messed up his legs, so we were cast for like a long time and he had a real pretty girlfriend too. She was nice and he had a keyboard in his room and I was in this room. One day, boom knocked on his door and we got to talking and he ended up letting me learn some stuff on his keyboard and let me make a couple of beats.
And I always had dreams of like going in New York and, you know, getting on a label and, you know, saying that that was always a dream of mine. You know, so after my sophomore year, I left school and moved in New York, and just to pursue that dream, I had stars in my eyes. You know what I mean? I was going to try to make it happen.
LARRY: Ish started interning at Sleeping Bag records, the label founded by avant-genius Arthur Russell; it’s subsidiary Fresh Records gave the world rap acts like EPMD and Nice & Smooth, as well as house legend Todd Terry. Ish checked the trade mags at the office and found the addresses of every label he could submit demos to.
It was the dawning of New York rap’s Golden Era, and Ishmael was right in the thick of it, entranced in particular by a certain experimental masterpiece.
[ MUSIC CUE: De La Soul - “Plug Tunin’ (Original 12)” ]
ISHMAEL: …3 Feet High & Rising was out around then, and Al B. Sure, you know, uptown soundin’ music, R&B like that,Guy, Keith Sweat. Bobby went solo and then the hip hop was just, you know, it was just there, all the next level stuff, you know — but 3 Feet High & Rising was the grail for the kid, you know?
[ MUSIC CUE: De La Soul - “Eye Know” ]
ISHMAEL: We danced a lot. You know, everybody was into dancing, and I remember that's when “milk is chilling” was out.
[ MUSIC CUE: Audio Two - “Top Billin'” ]
That was a big song, and then Spike came with School Daze, you know? It was a rich cultural time. Not that it was richer than any other, but in and of itself. It was fertile. A lot was going on a lot of things that still ring out to this day, you know?
LARRY: He’d also by then become acquainted with a kindred spirit in Howard student and Philadelphia native Craig Robinson, aka Cee-Knowledge, who in turn introduced him to Mary Anne Viera, aka Mecca.
When a label finally bit, and wanted to actually see the 3-person hiphop group, Ish recruited the pair, and the rest…is history.
[ MUSIC CUE: Digable Planets - “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” ]
LARRY: Long before the Constellation was a bar or a notion, its future members were entranced by Digable Planets. Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes recalls noticing something unique about their music.
MAIKOIYO ALLEY-BARNES: Digable was some of the first music that I reconciled that elders who were driving us around might turn on. You know what I mean, like in it, has certain resonance for them, which is interesting. I mean, it had a cross-generational, intergenerational effect that was wider than a lot of the other hip-hop that we were listening to at the time. You know, somebody 10 years older than you, 15 years older than you, being into something was one thing, but somebody 30 years older than you or 40 years older than you, and it's still being dope, was rare.
LARRY: Erik Blood—the Tacoma-born studio ace who would become one of Ishmael’s closest musical collaborators, an absolutely integral piece of what was to come—was naturally, also an avowed Digable fan.
MARTIN: So. I heard you're one of those many people who listened to Digable back in the day. Tell me about the first time you heard Digable and how you became a fan.
ERIK BLOOD: It had to have been Yo! MTV Raps, it was some day after school, and it would have been the “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” and I just remember instantly being mesmerized just by the coolness of it. It didn't have the kind of aggressive, “Look at me, listen to me” thing that was going on in hip-hop at that time. It was just so mesmerizing; I was just taken by it immediately.
MARTIN: My co-host, Larry Mizell Jr., had a special connection to the music of Digable, via the work of his father and uncles, the Mizell Brothers, the famed production team who’s sound helped define 70’s jazz-funk.
MAIKOIYO: Larry Mizell who's again from another long, long line of people who make and have influenced um, makers and worked with the most brilliant and been often the most brilliant makers in the room.
LARRY: Well, you know, I loved Digable right out the gate. I loved 'Reachin'. But I remember by the time I heard Blowout Comb, things were a little different. Me and my mom had moved out to Bellevue — Bellevue, that’s a suburb of Seattle. We didn't live there very long. But I remember being out there, I was still taking the bus to go to Franklin. And so that would take an extra 20 minutes. And I just remember feeling isolated and I remember my dad at the time, he would send me CDs for albums that had sampled Mizell stuff.
[ MUSIC CUE: Bobbi Humphrey - “Blacks & Blue” to Digable Planets - “The Art of Easing” ]
LARRY: And one of those times he sent me Blowout Comb, and I remember being so excited I didn't know there was a new Digable Planets album out. I opened it up, I remember it had a distinct smell, the paper, even the kind of recycled paper of the liner notes. Really interesting. And looking through the liner, it kind of looked like the Black Panther newspaper. I think that's what it was trying to evoke. And really sinking into the music, which didn't sound like anything I'd ever heard before, it definitely didn't sound like the first Digable album. And looking in the credits and seeing L. Mizell, A. Mizell – my dad and my uncle. It really kind of took me out and just connected me to this music that I was getting my, you know, my wig flipped over at the time and really understanding this music that my people had had a hand in creating. It had come back to me in a different form and had informed somebody who I admired.
[ MUSIC CUE: Johnny Hammond - “Los Conquistadores Chocolates" ]
LARRY: So that made me really go out and check out the Mizell Brothers stuff – Donald Byrd and Bobby Humphrey and Johnny Hammond – in a way I never had, and you know, I didn't really trip on it before. It was just like, "my dad does that, but you know, I'm my own man or whatever." And it really fostered an appreciation and understanding of my dad's music. And later on getting to write liner notes for reissues of those two Digable albums on wax and interviewing ish about it, we were both just kind of taken out by that and by the fact that, you know, we were connected by by something outside of ourselves. But, you know, obviously very intimate. And that's part of our bond and kind of mirrors a lot of the relationships. I feel like folks in the Constellation have are really lucky to have. So that was that was that was a real thing. I got to tip my hat to Ish. He put me on to my own family sound, you know?
MARTIN: That's dope.
LARRY: Not long after the release of Blowout Comb, Digable Planets would disband. Ishmael. He spends some time studying film at New York University, working on new music in silence. The one musical artifact we’d hear from him between the group’s break-up and the turn of the century is his guest appearance on Camp Lo’s 1997 single “Swing.”
[ MUSIC CUE: Camp Lo - “Swing” ]
LARRY: During that time, Ish recorded a solo album, but the label folded before it ever had the chance to be released. Ishmael even tried his hand at acting during that time — working with filmmaker dream hampton, who he’d known since 1994.
A note about dream for those who don’t know: she is a triple OG of storytelling and cultural criticism. She executive produced work such as Terence Nance’s directorial debut An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. You might know her as the co-writer of Jay-Z’s memoir, Decoded; I know her as one of my personal writing heroes, who’s prose inspired me in the pages of The Source, Vibe, and Spin. Here she is talking about working with Ish.
DREAM HAMPTON: We collaborated on my first film out of film school, I Am Ali. He starred as someone who opposite Aunjanue Ellis, who's like in all these things right now. My friend Greg Tate recommended her to star in this film about a brother who is rapidly degenerating or rapidly coming apart around schizophrenia and severe bipolar. And so anyway, Ish played that role like incredibly and just like the collaboration was everything I dreamed it would be. And then he went back to making music like Ish could’ve then, at that point… go to Hollywood… he could have gone to L.A. and just like, posted and got gigs and. But obviously, as you know, his first love is music, and he's just wildly independent and going to go his own way in his own path.
LARRY: That path, it seemed, led back home. As his mother’s health began to take a turn, Ishmael packed up the life he’d made in The Big Apple and headed back to the Emerald City.
ISHMAEL: For me, because of the fortunes that had come to the Digable Planet endeavor, I had traveled a lot around the world. And I always was hungry and lusted travel. And when I had done it, a lot of it, I was always like, Damn, man, Seattle still remains really fly. You know, the people, the environment, the vibe. And as a kid, you always grow up where you grow up. You kind of take it for granted. You know, not all the way, but in some ways you're looking out towards the world. You know, you want to get on your exploration, your troubadour, you know.
LARRY: But now Ish was back in Seattle, appreciating the beauty of his childhood home, and the people in it — but creatively, he was struggling.
ISHMAEL: Musically, I was in a funk though. You know what I'm saying? I thought it was all over, basically, musically. I was getting older and I hadn't really done nothin’ for a long time. The music industry was changing. The Internet was comin’ about, you know what I'm sayin’, cell phones and all that, things was getting real different, you know? So I was alienated from that.
LARRY: Part of hip-hop’s brashness and bravado has always been in its energy as a young person’s game — and it’s only fairly recently that growing older gracefully in hip-hop has been a possibility for veteran artists. At the turn of the century, the idea of being aged out was still a very real possibility.
ISHMAEL: I was always like, if you was old, if you was old rap, like that wasn't the move to me, you know what I'm sayin? I thought it was a thing where you like, you get to a certain point, 25, 26, 27 and then you go, do something else. You know what I'm saying? You out of that, you know? But that's because I was, wasn't that yet? You feel me?
LARRY: Ishmael’s first musical project after returning to Seattle was a band called Cherrywine. Bright Black, Cherrywine’s sole full-length, received modest critical praise but ultimately came and went with little fanfare.
[ MUSIC CUE: Cherrywine - “A Street Gospel” ]
LARRY: Yeah, just real quick, you know, I just wanted to note that Cherrywine album, that's definitely one you can look at and hear where he ended up with Shabazz. And you hear him working with a lot of the same musicians who are currently in the band. You know, when you see Shabazz live, you'll see him playing with Thaddeus Turner and a lot of these same cats who are on the Cherrywine record. So there's definitely some continuity there, but not everybody in Seattle got it. Now that Ishmael was back home in Seattle, you know, the guy who's had a platinum hit a Grammy, in their midst and he's doing this record, but he's not really rapping as far as they think. He's it's a little bit more funky, rock, R&B kind of thing. He's still spitting on it. But people just didn't take it well. It wasn't the sound they were used to.
LARRY: And I remember... I'm not saying that people didn't take it well, but it was kind of taken as a lot more mid than it actually is. It's actually a great record. Bright Black is very dope. And I just remember I wasn't there, but I heard from a few people. There were some Cherrywine show at Chop Suey and there was there was like, one cat I think I know who was booing, just like "Booooo." And I mean, that's got to hurt when you put that into context of somebody who's come back home to see after they're their ailing mom, they're kind of stoking their creative fires again. They're back home debuting music for the first time ever that I think that they've done that and instantly get the whammy like that. I mean…
LARRY: I asked Ishmael if he recalled that moment at the Cherrywine show.
ISHMAEL: Yeah, I remember that. I didn't see him doing that. Because [laughs] Hey, he might. He must've been booing in his shirt or something like that, it was a boo nonetheless. But, you know, I don't really look at that as whack, you know? Because for me, everything that comes my way got to be generated by me. And if I didn't make something that move people to endear to it, that's that's my fault, not theirs. You know what I'm saying? Now they might be myopic. They might be small minded and all that. But that's still a reality that I have to deal with. You know what I mean? So you go back to the drawing board and keep going, you know what I'm saying? So that's how I look at it.
[ MUSIC CUE: Cherrywine - “Dazzlement” ]
MARTIN: I feel as though, Ish is not the type of person that follows trends. And so like in 2003, when you have like the best synth led hip-hop with like, you know, like Timbaland and Swizz Beatz is still like blowing, blowing, blowing up. And then on the other side, yeah, you have like Kanye and Just Blaze like with the classicists sort of sampled hip-hop soul. And so Ish coming in with funk and rock and live instrumentation. Like, of course, is it's confounding because this is one of the major eras of people following trends.
LARRY: Absolutely. But part of the reception to Cherrywine, why it was so kind of cold for him was because people who had all this expectation, because he's Ishmael Butler. And I think that was a big part of the reason he didn't want anybody to associate his past works with his next ones.
LARRY: As he spent the next few years moving past his creative block, Ish slowly started gravitating towards creating music with regularity again. But he had to familiarize himself with an entirely new terrain.
ISHMAEL: I always had my equipment, you know? Because that's just — whether I, and honestly, I didn't have any prospect or notions of putting no music out because at the time it was like I was a get signed mentality kind of guy, you know what I'm saying? And things were starting to move towards DIY, you know what I mean? And I wasn't on the internet like that. Cats are doing this, cats are on MySpace, cats are on the.. And I was just like, Ah. So I'm feeling like I'm getting too old, and I don't really understand the landscape so I'm making music, but I'm not thinking it's coming out. I'm just making it because that's just my compulsion. You know what I mean?
[ MUSIC CUE: Jake One - “Home (Instrumental)” ]
LARRY: A few years into this period of musical exploration, Ish made an appearance on Jake One’s White Van Music. Andrew Matson, music journalist, recalls hearing Ish on the track.
ANDREW MATSON: He sort of popped up on this Jake One song "Home," and that was him rapping with all these Seattle guys and talking about how Seattle is his home. And that was something that was sort of missing from his career. I think up until then, he had never really rapped about where his roots were or about what they meant to him. A lot of people thought Digable Planets was a Brooklyn group because they rapped about Brooklyn so much, and I guess it was at the time. But Ishmael has always been Seattle.
LARRY: Also around this time, Ish was kicking it with a multi-instrumentalist named Tendai Maraire. Tendai comes from a long line of Zimbabwean master musicians; his father Dumi had popularized the mbira in the west, and had come to the NW to teach about it at UW.
ISHMAEL: So at the time, me and ‘Dai was just kind of hanging out, talking sports and sh-stuff. And um, you know…
LARRY: You can cuss, man.
ISHMAEL: And so we used to just hang out, and every time we would hang out, he asked me one time, “Yo, be on one of my songs.” So he said I told him, “I don't do music no more” when he asked me the first time, which might be true, you know? But eventually I did it with him. We was over at Kevin Gardner's house. We did the song. And ever since after that, he would always be like, “Now you got to do music, you got to do music, man,” you know? And then finally, one day he was saying it to me. I was like, Man, “I do music, bro. Like, I do music every day.” And then he's like, “Let me hear it.” So I played some for him and he was like, “You gotta, you gotta put this out.”
LARRY: With verses from Ishmael and his longtime friend, the rapper known as “Ur Dad” Dougie, and traditional percussive elements added by Tendai, the Shabazz project started to take form. A bold new era in Ishmael’s creative life was on the horizon.
[ MUSIC CUE: Shabazz Palaces - “Blastit” ]
LARRY: In our next episode, Shabazz Palaces goes from myth to catalyst for a new paradigm, for Ishmael and for the individuals that would heed his call. From Shabazz Palaces’ first show, to signing to Sub Pop Records, to influencing and finding fans in fellow change agents across genres.