Coasting On Clouds: Shabazz Palaces Double Down
Ish aka Palaceer Lazaro puts it down for the Quazarz
From his Honeycomb Hideout in Seattle, Ish Butler, 47, is coasting on clouds right now. As an artist who’s been able to reinvent himself, he occupies a rarified place in rap with a career that has caught a second wind. The jazzy debut by his first entity, Digable Planets, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time And Space) won a Grammy in 1994 before the group crashed and burned after their slept on follow-up, Blowout Comb, the following year. The one-time college dropout and former intern at the legendary Sleeping Bag Records went to film school for a minute before returning home to Seattle in 2003. After a prolonged obsolescence, Butler shed his identity as Butterfly and joined forces with Tendai “Baba” Maraire, son of the late Dumisani Maraire, master of the Zimbabwean mbira, only to rise from the ashes in 2009 with a new outfit, Shabazz Palaces, signing with Seattle’s storied Sub Pop label. The duo’s eccentric, left-field approach has had them riding hip hop’s cutting edge over the course of two critically-acclaimed EPs and three albums. MASS APPEAL caught up with Ish aka Palaceer Lazaro on the eve of the release of not one, but two new records: Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on A Gangster Star.
Creativity and Inspiration go hand in hand in that you can’t have one without the other. Where does your inspiration come from?
I don’t know, man… I make music every day, you know,, and what comes out when I do that, it’s difficult for me to go back to it and put my finger on it. I mean, obviously some of the things you consume and digest—in terms of, like, music you listen to, shit you read, books, art you see, but also what’s goin’ on in your personal relationships, also working relationships—I think that creeps in. Also imagination, you know? Things you haven’t seen or heard that you want to that’s just in your mind, too. I don’t know, I think I’m compelled to make music. It’s been that way since I was a kid so it’s like my inspiration [to make music] is inextricably linked to my inspiration to live and breathe. It’s just something that’s really in me. I try to have a child-like curiosity and interest in everything that goes on ‘cause I know that that helps when it’s time to ignite creatively. So I’ve just been tryin’ to—over the years as I learned that that was important to me—train myself to have that kind of outlook, so when I do sit down and create, it can come out as instinctively as possible.
The music you make today is a far cry from what you were doing with Digable. Was that a conscious reinvention of yourself or just natural progression, evolution, and maturity?
I think a little of both. I love music so I’m hyper-aware of the musical landscape, and I never feel—like you were sayin’ earlier—I don’t feel like it’s me making the music. I feel like it’s me processing this inspiration through myself and my own tastes, you know what I’m sayin’? So I’m not stuck in a particular sound or particular aesthetic or era or nothing like that. So I’ve been really able to embrace the modernity aspects of all of the genres, ‘cause I don’t look at hip hop as its own thing. I’m looking at the entirety of music. I get the categories and all that and I respect it for the most part, but that’s not the way I look at it. So I don’t think like, “Oh, man, my era was the era that was the realest and all this shit niggas is doin’ [today] is weak.” Like, I’ve never felt that way about stuff? Even though I recognize that that’s the truth in some cases. But I go with today, yunno, cause there’s still richness with what’s going on today, and there’s definitely a richness of the sonic palette and also a lyrical palette to draw from. So I don’t see why you can’t come up with something new. You can’t just keep doing the same thing for 20 years, you know what I mean?
Even though there were a lot of things wrong with the music industry back in the day, at least artists had access to a revenue stream through record sales. This has not necessarily translated to the digital era. What are the challenges you face as an artist trying to balance making a living and making your art?
Well, you gotta find a situation in which you don’t really have to compromise or somebody likes your music enough to partner up with you to give you the distribution mechanism. Then you gotta get the right deal in which you sharing in the streaming and you sharing in the new ways that money is being generated and stuff like that. It’s tough but you gotta be frosty and first have a product that is viable and then try to position yourself where you could participate in the viability of the product as well as the people that are putting it out. I just knew that I’m not gonna do nothin’ that I’m not gonna be proud of. I’m not going to fuck with nobody that I don’t like or that I don’t respect, and if the consequences are I gotta hustle and not make music or I gotta get a job or whatever, know what I’m sayin’, then that’s what it is. I don’t feel no fuckin’ type of way about that. I feel more better that I didn’t sell my soul in any kind of way. I wouldn’t be embarrassed about having to return to the work force or nothing like that. I just wasn’t raised that way, so I appreciate that my parents instilled some logic and some sense in my mind about those things. ‘Cause there was times when I knew in my mind like, “Dude, you ain’t never gonna make no music again and sell it. There’s nowhere for you to do it. You’re too old, and nobody trying to hear it.” Yunno? So it’s tough. I went through tough times, having to deal with all that kind of shit, but like I said, my core beliefs pulled me through and actually got me to the other side to where I was able to be where I am now, which is amazing to be able to even be doing this shit, at my age and all that kind of shit.
And it’s also pretty amazing that you’re on a label like Sub Pop, which is known as an indie rock label. How did that relationship start?
In like 2007 or ‘8 I guess, I finished up the Shabazz records I did on my own. And my man who’s in the group with me, I played ‘em for him and he was like, ‘What you gonna do?’
…‘I don’t know?’
He was like, ‘Yo, you should do something with ‘em,’ so that’s when I came with the plan. I pressed ‘em up as two EPs. I only put Shabazz Palaces on it. I didn’t say I was Ish from Digable or none of that. It didn’t have no credits on it. I released ‘em, and in the city they started popping—like all the independent record stores was ordering them. Me and my daughters would put them in the packaging, and take ‘em out hustling in the city, you know what I’m sayin’? So Sub Pop, they always got their ear to the street—especially in they own city—so even they though they didn’t fuck with it, I was in the local papers, yunno, did a show and it was sold out. So I was on they radar.
So when it came time to actually start talking deals and stuff, they kind of, number one, they knew that I was seasoned in the game. Number two, they had seen me kinda take matters into my own hands, and they really respected that too. Also, Pitchfork had already said something about me, you know what I’m sayin’? So they knew that I had certain entrees into the world that mattered. And so they was like, ‘You know what? Why not try something out? It wasn’t going to cost them a lot of money—like, they not giving out major label advances or million-dollar deals—so it was like, “This dude seems like he’s going to work hard and try hard and people seem to take to his stuff in some way.” So let’s try to fuck with it.
So you’re kind of doing the same thing with the new albums, putting out two at once. Talk to me about the reasoning behind that.
So what happened was, I finished one album, which I recorded in L.A. with my bro Sunny Levine, and when I finished that album it was in the queue to get put out and I just went back in the lab back home in Seattle and I ended up—I was just going to do some songs that I didn’t get to finish and some other ideas I had in my mind–but I ended up finishing up 11 songs in the 12 days that me and my other bro Blood was working. And we was like, ‘Yo, this shit sound cool.’ I took it to the label and there was a couple songs off there they really liked, and everything like that. And I was like, “Damn this is really an album.” I had come up with the Quazarz, and the new platform and my new outlook with the Quazarz thing, so I was just like, “You know what, man? I’m trying to make a splash. I’m trying to make a little noise and get some eyes and ears your way. Why not just come with some big shit and come with a little different approach? Put out a bunch of songs and singles before the album comes out and just see what happens.” It was really like an idea that we didn’t really know how it would work, but since we had the material we tried it.
Do you have a preference for either album?
I’ve had a preference for each one at different times. When I finished the Jealous Machines, I had a feeling that I loved it, but I also wanted to express something different from that in the Shabazz vein, too. That was kind of the catalyst for me having so much energy to go in and do this other thing. Even though I didn’t think it was going to be what it was. But, it’s like, music for me, when I finish something I don’t necessarily have to like it to know that it’s done. I respect the fact that, like you said, it came through me, so I contemplate it over a period of time, and over that period of time there’s all kinds of different emotions and feelings and decisions attached to it. So I like it and sometimes I think I could have did it different, or something like that, but yunno, it changes, man. From song to song, from album to album, over the course of my life, really.