Shabazz Palaces' Ishamel Butler wasn't just at his label Sub Pop's office because he had a set of interviews promoting his summer release Lese Majesty. See, he works there now, too. Not just as an artist, but, as was announced weeks ago, in the A&R department. And he's already helped sign his first artist, another local rapper by the name Porter Ray. It's been a busy year for the experimental artist whose boundary-pushing new album with collaborator Tendai Maraire (they're called Palaceer Lazaro and Fly Guy 'Dai, on record) is constructed as seven astral suites creating "a dope-hex thrown from the compartments that have artificially contained us all and hindered our sublime collusion." Heavy and heady stuff, typical of Butler's ultra-ambitious projects, like Digable Planets' Grammy-winning single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)."
Butler and Maraire will play at the Bishop in Bloomington on Sunday with locals Oreo Jones and DMA.NUVO: You've just started working at Shabazz Palaces' label Sub Pop, in the A&R department. Tell me about that.
Ishmael Butler: I'm really just looking, internationally, [to] sign innovative, passionate artists. Not really of any particular genre. My first person that I [presented] to the label – you don't just sign people, there's a team of A&R people and they have to get voted in by the team, so you present people, present your case, usually try to see people live, listen to some of the stuff that they've done previously and make a really good decision. [It's] not only on whether or not they'd be good for the label, but whether or not the label would be good for them too. The first person that I presented that got signed was a rapper from Seattle named Porter Ray, so he's getting ready to prepare his Sub Pop album in the next couple months, and we'll see how that turns out. It's been really good. I've been learning a lot, and that's really what's been going on so far. I'm new here, and everybody's been here quite a bit longer than me. So I've just been paying close attention and trying to pick up some stuff.
NUVO: I'm still wrapping my head around this album, but I love it a lot. I was going through Twitter and came across this tweet today: “This record seduced me so subtly with low-key mind games, that when Ishmael Butler stole my brain, I didn't even see it coming.” That's how I feel, too.
Butler: Oh, shit! Yeah, that's exactly what's going on. We're in the studio rubbing our hands together, like, 'Yeah, we're gonna get them.”
NUVO: It's solicited quite a few interesting descriptions – The New York Times called it sci-fi rap, which I liked a lot. Has there anything surprising about reactions to this album as you've rolled it out?
Butler: Not really, but I don't really see too much of the press. Sometimes, from working here, I guess everybody knows that I don't really pursue seeing that kind of stuff, so they don't really push it my way that much. I get all the emails because the press department and everything is doing such a good job, and getting so many publications and posts, stuff like that. So I see that it's happening, but I don't really read that much of it.
But with shit like [“sci-fi rap”], I like it because when you make a record, and you put it out, it's a situation and a position of vulnerability. You really want to be accepted, want your stuff to be regarded well. It's cool to hear anything that anybody has to say, because that denotes that at least people are listening to it, which is a big thing in and of itself. … Even listening to something all the way through is a big deal to me.
NUVO: I'm really intrigued by an interview you gave to NPR where you discussed performing as a ceremonial undertaking (“We see performing as ceremony, so we prepare for it, and we treat it that way when we go and perform”). What does that mean to your performance? How does that effect what you do before and after a show?
Butler: I'll put it to you like this and hope it makes sense: when we get ready to perform, and even when we record, there's an anxiety that washes over me. There's not a nervousness, because I'm confident, but I've come to find out that there's a channeling of sorts that's happening. My body is a vessel for something happening in the aether [and] that I'm a conduit for this thing. So before a show, or before a recording, usually to take in some kind of transcendental inebriate of some sort, nothing too major, but maybe smoke a little bit, relax, get into a frame of mind. I usually like to exercise a little bit, get a little perspiration and my heart rate up a little bit. Because I feel like there's an inner light or something. When you click on the light, there's a certain combustible things that are happening in order for that light to happen. And I feel like it's happening inside of me. And I don't really know the sources of it, I've just figured out a way to deal with it, to harness it as best as I can. That's kind of what I mean. We come in the name of ancient ancestors that, aside from business, were given this calling of rhythm, harmony, melody and cadence. More so than it's me preparing myself, [it's that] this is happening to me, so we have these ceremonial things that we go through. And we see it as that, and respect it as that.
NUVO: You're echoing a lot of the sentiments from a previous interview I conducted with electric autoharp player LARAAJI, about channeling an ancient, inner power during a performance. He says he actually has trouble after a performance speaking English and communicating with people after a performance, because he had been such a vessel for something else during a performance.
Butler: For sure. You're coming out of some realm, back into this realm, and there's going to be an adjustment period. Depending on the level of sensitivity and excitement and electricity that was going on where you're coming from, it will probably dictate how easy or hard it is to get back into this realm and adjust. I do understand that for sure.
NUVO: What is the hip-hop scene like in Seattle right now? What's exciting and vibrant right now?
Butler: The reason I was drawn to Porter Ray is because I feel like Seattle is a place that its proximity, its location, its isolation, being way up high and Northwest – but it's been a hub internationally for a long time. People have always come through here and dropped off styles and dropped off influences. This is a very mentally fertile and intelligent place. You can see, from Ray Charles up through Quincy Jones, up through the grunge period, really dynamic and exciting thinkers. Porter's interpretation and his absorption of the old school, the new school, the drug era, and the '90s era as well – I just like how he was able to put all that together and still have a distinctively Northwest sound. That's what I really dug about him, and there's a lot of cats in this city that are taking a swing at that as well. It's cool up here. It's always vibrant, it's always intelligent, it's always funny, it's always dangerous to a certain extent. I like it a lot.
NUVO: You built a studio into an old brewery to make this record. Why did that feel like the right place to make this record?
Butler: We've always been wanting our own studio. It's cool to be at home, but there's always distractions and shit at home. It's cool to have an office if you're a writer; it's cool to have a studio if you're a painter. It's a place dedicated to that. At first, it was just an opportunity that came up to ind a space, first of all. It's a very old building in Seattle, so it's historic. It's made out of poured cement, so it's good for sonics. We had these huge ceilings and different types of reflective surfaces and walls that we were able to capitalize on. It started out as just being an opportunity to get a space, and then we were able to customize it and make it how we saw it and wanted it. It really worked out good.