KEXP Exclusive Interview: Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler on Quazarz, Migos, and the Absurdity of Our Reality

Interviews, Local Artist Spotlight, Local Music
Dusty Henry
Photo by Renata Steiner

Every Shabazz Palaces record feels like a transmission from a far-off planet. In 2017, the Seattle hip-hop duo took this aesthetic a step further with two records -- Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. The albums collectively chronicle the story of an alien sent to observe a place called Amurderca, only to find a land of brutality and disconnect. It serves both as the catalyst for some of Shabazz Palaces most adventurous, fantastical, and vivid work yet as well as a salient commentary on the modern era. To hear rapper Ishmael Butler put it, "What imagination could be more absurd than the actual reality that we're living through right now?"

Beyond just a prolific output, it's hard to think of an artist better to reflect on a year that's been, well, complicated to say the least. As 2017 finally comes to an end, warts and all, Butler is finishing strong. Shabazz Palaces will play KEXP's Yule Benefit this Friday, December 22, at Neumos alongside The True Loves, Saun & Starr, and Falon Sierra. Ahead of their performance, we caught up with Butler to reflect on the past year, his dual releases, working with Porter Ray, the artistry of Migos, and the absurdity of our current reality.


KEXP: You put out two Shabazz records this year. When did you know you wanted to release two separate records instead of doing a double LP?

Ishmael Butler: Well, the first record that was finished was Quazarz versus the Jealous Machines and that was turned in and got on the schedule and everything like that and then Erik Blood, who is living in L.A. now, he was back in town. Whenever he comes in town, we try to get together and make music. So, when he got back, we got together and it ended up going faster than we had expected and we end up finishing like 11 or 12 songs. Among those songs was "Shine a Light," which once people at the label heard that — and we also thought it was a good song, too — we wanted to include it in the next batch of music that was coming out from Shabazz Palaces.

So, we had enough for an album and it was up to our standards in terms of how we thought it sounded. And, you know, we're like kind-of a low-level exposure group so gotta get eyes on you. Gotta get attention your way so, you know, coming out with two albums since we had that much material it seemed like maybe we could develop a story around it too. It was kind of a challenge as well. So all those factors mixed in to make it seem like something that the group and the label felt like we wanted to try.


KEXP: Throughout the two records, we see the world (or at least a version of our world) through the eyes of Quazarz. What made you want to approach the state of things from an alien perspective?

Butler: Really, I think it was sort of the pinnacle of that notion came when you know Trump was running and he was always talking about you know illegal aliens and people from outside the country and making America great again. All the type of stuff and that was obviously exclusive of, you know, brown people and people that weren't white basically, know what I'm saying? So I started thinking, like... damn this is kind of crazy to be, you know, I'm 47 or 48 years old now, and like to be living this long as in an American but still feeling like an alien in this in this place by certain groups of people. It starts to sink in in a way and seep into the recording process. And then into even the writing process in terms of lyrics and stuff like that. So, that's really kind of what it was. I mean it's a lifetime of things that are some lead up to it. But at that time you know I was a catalyst for sure.

KEXP: On first listen, the records and concepts around may seem a bit abstract or out there, but these are also pretty absurd times we live in. The way  you're portraying the world on these albums may seem foreign, but it's actually pretty indicative of how things really are.

Butler: I mean, what fantasy, what imagination could be more absurd than the actual reality that we're living through right now? You know what I mean? We just become accustomed to basically heresy. A complete absence of statesmen and women who, you know, lead and are involved in a country's government. It's all about returning favors to people with large amounts of money and income and property. The dream of America is totally being sold out by the very people that are supposed to uphold it. So, yeah, some album about a guy who's an alien from some other-where is hardly as the reality of what goes on in everyday life that we accept and agree to allow to happen.

KEXP: Do you think the process of making these two records as you were reflecting on these ideas helped give you guidance or purpose in trying to navigate through this strange reality?

Butler: Definitely. I mean, you know, through work and toil and exploration and challenge, collaboration. dedication, discipline; you're always gonna progress. You know, even if it's a small progress, you're gonna build bonds and make mistakes and solve problems and have fun, basically. It's a way to survive. Making music is definitely a way to survive for me and my cohorts, you know, the people that I run with, we don't do it as a way to do anything. It's a compulsion, feel me? So, yeah it does help. I'm not sure specifically how, but it doesn't really matter because I'm compelled to do it and I would be doing it in all situations — including this one. It's tough because when you see the world and some of the realities and unfairness, lack of compassion and somewhat erasure of humanity and human traits is difficult to accept that, you know. But, at the same time, there's a lot of cool things happening, beauty and creativity and all that kind of stuff, too. So it's balance in those things.


KEXP: Do you have any advice for how people can keep their heads above the water these days? It sounds like having creative outlets helped you.

Butler: I have some ideas. I'm open to ideas also. I think that the notion that you're in this pool and then like you have to accept being in the pool and then you have to try to find ways to sort-of keep your head above water and all that... These are all methods that come after you accept that you're in it. I would stress to people, or ask people, to analyze if they really want to be in the pool because you don't necessarily have to. But there's just a of collective agreement now that, "Hey we all are in this. We all have to have phones. We all have to have email. We all have to have cable." But do we? You know what I mean?

So that's what I've been thinking about a lot lately is just my participation in it or if it's as necessary as I'd make it seem like it is. Because you all — I don't know about you — but let's say you go on vacation to Mexico or Jamaica or something and you see people that don't subscribe to this and haven't given into the rat race and they're alright [laughs]. You know what I'm saying? So it's like, do we really need to be doing this? Not really.

KEXP: And in the press releases for the albums is the kind of talk about this fly Drake world and Migosphere and on "30 Clip Extension" you have some descriptions of modern traits for people's favorite rappers. How do you feel these artists are influencing culture and creativity in 2017 and going forward in the future?

Butler: I don't know, man. You know, I mean, I like Migos. I think they presented great vocal and rhythmic innovations. But nobody — I won't say nobody — but by and large, when people analyze or talk about Migos it's never from a artistically critical point of view. Like they don't get into the merits of what they're doing artistically, you know what I mean? It's always about celebrity or who was in prison or how much money they have or who they're dating. I hope that people that sort of hold up the culture, who rely on the culture, who are part of the legacy of the culture, can learn to use the culture and recognize it for more than superficial things, for more than surface things. And I think that a higher standard and will thus raise the awareness. And when your awareness is raised and you settle for less, I think as a whole everybody gets elevated and life is richer.

But I don't know, that was sort of poetic, you know. Using those words in that time and in those terms and lent well to the description of the world that we were trying to create. But with entertainment and celebrity and wealth seems like the things that we look to for leadership. And the leadership only has to be superficial, it doesn't have to be essential. And that is difficult to predict where that might lead to. I mean it's led to Donald Trump being president without any notion of the inner workings of any kind of government. You know I'm saying? Which is beyond preposterous and absurd, but it's a reality. So it's difficult to imagine where we're going to end up. You know [where] the next turns and twists will take us.


KEXP: The landscape of Seattle changed a lot this year too, both figuratively and literally. What do you make of the changes in our city? How do you see artists fitting in the city's current iteration?

Butler: That's difficult to say, too. I want to say first off, I don't speak with authority. These are just my opinions. I don't know enough about everything to really give a good answer, but I think that it's happening all over the world. We travel a lot and everywhere we go there's this young, affluent, business-minded group of people that are replacing what used to be there. And it's boutique, it's artisanal, it's organic. These are the labels and titles. And it also has the notion that technology is best when it's new. That's it. If it's new it's better. If it's younger, it's better. And if a city or government or a neighborhood sort of takes away essential things and is willing to replace it with superficial things and things that just have to do with money? Then a lot of the richness is going to be lost and in that is artistic stuff.

That's just the way that it goes. If our city makes that choice, which it seems like it's kind of shown a proclivity to do, then it's for artists. The artist that can live in Westlake or Capitol Hill, I'm not saying that he or she is wack, but I don't know where they coming from. And also, it's not a broad representation of art and what's possible either. So I don't know man, it's difficult to say.

KEXP: Another release you had a hand in that too was Porter Ray's Watercolor. Tell me a bit about how you two first linked up and when you started to work on his latest record? 

Butler: Yeah, I met [Porter Ray] when he was working at... my boy Maikoiyo [Alley-Barnes] had a spot called Punctuation right next door to where the Honey Hole is now and Porter used to work in there and working at the front counter. It was a store that sold art and clothes and was a multipurpose sort-of space. I met him there. I liked him. I was impressed. Young dude with some intelligent, personable... you know, had a lot of imagination and determination. When I heard his music a couple of years later, I just thought that the way that he was observing his life as a kid and then how he was able to memorize it and his command of the language to put it in such poetic and clear and concise and floral terms, I'm like, "Man, the kid is really really talented." And [he] kept getting better.

Him and as producers start making better music. No, I won't even say better, just sort of cleaner and more uniform. The natural sort of matriculation those guys getting older and learning more about the thing that they're passion has pointed to that direction. He's an impressive dude. So yeah, it's cool to be associated with him.


KEXP: On "Sacred Geometry" and "Beautiful," we hear you talking to Porter and giving him guidance and checking in. Do you feel like it's important to continue to build-up the next generation of artists? What role do you see yourself continuing to take in the Seattle scene?

Butler: I mean it's funny. I mean, I never liked taking credit for, you know, people say like, "You discovered this guy." I'm like, anybody that heard him would know that they had something. If not, then they're not probably musically inclined [laughs]. To be a person that thinks like, "Oh I'm about to go and teach these guys this and I'm gonna show these guys that,"... I never felt like that about myself. But what you mentioned, like the way the sound on those records, that's Porter really requesting that from me because that's the way that he sees me. So when he did that and sees me in that way, it makes me reconsider my responsibility, really, to the situation in the scene and to the young people and to my culture and things like that. So, you know, that's why they say you always learn, man. You never know who you're gonna learn from. Even about yourself.

I would like to help people in as much as I can. I'm a private person and I like being by myself. I'm working on my music and keeping my head down, but where I can I always try to help people out. If I like their music and I think that they deserve and people need to hear them. I do as best I can for them.

KEXP: What were some of your favorite records of 2017, local or otherwise? What really struck you this year?

Butler: Yeah, I like Stas THEE Boss' release S'Women. [It] was really dope. I like the way she put it out. It's really got some good songs on it and I just like Stas' outlook artistically. She's such a professional, like always doing music. DJing out at the clubs, DJing at KEXP. She could produce, she can write, she can sing. She can get all aspects of a product together, so it was cool to see that. I always like Ariel Pink. You know I listened to him a lot and the Alice Coltrane Singers was something that I don't know if it came out this year, but I certainly listened to it a lot this year. I liked the Migos album. I really like the song "T-Shirt" and I forget the name of the lead off on that album was, but I liked that a lot. My bro [Nep Sidhu]. He had an art opening up in Canada that I went to that that was his. But he's been doing a lot of cool pieces.


KEXP: You mentioned "T-Shirt." Are there any songs that resonated with you this year as well?

Butler: Yeah, like I said, there's a song "Om Shanti" on the Alice Coltrane Singers that was really my jam and it still is. And "Another Weekend" by Ariel Pink on his new record. I must have listened to that song a bunch of times.

KEXP: Do you have any favorite books and films from this year? Any non-explicitly-musical art that inspired you?

Butler: I read Arcadia, which is a novel by author Ben Okri. Now it didn't come out this year, but this is the year that I read it in. There's tons of stuff that came out this year. The only movie that I saw I think was called The Square. It just came out. It was pretty good... Zadie Smith, I read her latest book [Swing Time]... it was hip. That's all I can remember.

Oh, this is what I will say though. I saw Solange perform at Day For Night Festival a couple of days ago and I have to say that that was one of the best pieces of art and performance that I've seen in my life. And I like her, but I wasn't super into everything that she's been doing. I have to say I just didn't know about it, you know. But the performance was rich, man. It was incredible. So, for me that's the pinnacle of what I've seen and heard in 2017 was the live performance of Solange.

KEXP: I was curious about books and film because because the story of Quazarz feels so massive, so I was curious if you looked to other sources as you were building this world. 

Butler: I do. I watch a lot of films, man. Like, I probably watch two or three films a week and I sort of see life cinematically, especially when I start to make work I bet you it seeps into my music quite a bit — that cinematic life that I live.

KEXP: The world you've created with Quazarz is so rich and multi-faceted. Do you think we'll see more of it in future releases and projects?

Butler: Nah, I think I think there's a lot of ways to get back into it, you know musically, visually, even in writing, you know, fiction and stuff like that. So I'm glad that that stumbled upon me and opened up. We did a comic book that went over pretty well and thinking about doing some animated stuff so Quazarz is definitely open for business.


KEXP: What can we expect from you in 2018? Anything from Black Constellation we should be looking out for?

Butler: Yeah I'm sure the Constellation will be busy doing a lot of stuff. OC Notes is recording a lot of music, I've heard some of it and it's dope. Stas is always in the mix. JusMoni is working on music. Silver Jackson up in Alaska is prolific in his disciplines of music and making art. Maikoiyo's working on pieces up in Canada with Nep. Nep's always doing hella stuff as well. Erik Blood mixed an album of a guy that's coming out on Sub Pop, his name's Yuno. [Blood]'s doing a lot. He's doing another solo record as well as producing Irene [Barber] who's in the Erik Blood group with him doing her music. Everybody's shakin' and bakin'.

Shabazz will release another album next year. Although it's not the sort of boutique project. More to come on that.

KEXP: Shabazz Palaces is playing the Yule benefit this Friday. For people who haven't seen you perform, what do you think they can expect at the show?

Butler: Well, we added a running visual that is being composed and played by OC Notes while we perform, so it's very synchronized because tempo and mood and subject of the images is all being done by OC with us during the performance. Shabazz, we play our songs, but we do a lot of improvisation and different versions of songs and stuff like that so it's always some different. Playing at home, a lot of energy, and surprises, and special stuff. So it should be cool.

Tickets for Yule Benefit are available now.

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