Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler, known within the group as Palaceer Lazaro, doesn’t consider his experimental hip-hop duo a pop group.
Eschewing such a tag, he and multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire aren’t limited to traditional constraints when releasing their music.
“It’s not about the singles, so we don’t have to really approach marketing and stuff that way,” Butler says.
He is speaking of the release strategy behind the group’s pair of 2017 albums—Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. The latter was complete and ready to be released when Butler and Maraire returned to the studio to work on a couple songs with friends, he says. The sessions yielded more than they expected—a full conceptual companion project.
“We just got stuff that we had finished out there,” he adds of concurrently releasing the albums. “We tour a lot, and so it’s not like we kind of have to adhere to the standard marketing and rollout of records. So, we did things in the way that we thought was cool for us.”
Over the past near decade, the Seattle duo has received acclaim for its futuristic blend of hip-hop with out-there rhymes and world instrumentation. Butler and Maraire debuted as a group with two EPs in 2009. Their first full-length album, Black Up, was named the No. 1 album of 2011 in both The Seattle Times’ local and national/international lists. Its 2014 follow-up, Lese Majesty, was also acclaimed.
For their 2017 duology, Butler and Maraire birthed the concept of the titular Quazarz, or “a sentient being from somewhere else, an observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary,” according to Sub Pop’s press release announcing Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star.
Though various influences such as jazz have at times been apparent in the group’s music, Shabazz Palaces’ sound serves as a departure from Butler’s days as Butterfly in the Grammy Award-winning ’90s jazz rap outfit Digable Planets. That trio’s final album, Blowout Comb, was released nearly 25 years ago.
“I just think life experiences, lessons learned, different techniques learned, recording methods changing, and just time, maturity, all of those things sort of combine to affect changes in style and motivation over the years,” Butler says of his musical evolution. Shabazz Palaces isn’t necessarily as “mapped out” or “mathematic,” he says.
“I’m not really cerebral in terms of my approach to making music,” he continues. “I’m more instinctive. So, I think that it’s more an issue of instinct and how that has been shaped and changed over the years rather than a decided direction.”
Being instinctive, though, is the group’s direction, he says.
“I think that pursuing your instinct is a direction,” he says. “You practice a lot, perform a lot, learn as much as possible and then in the recording process try to capture the spontaneity and the improvisation, the first thing that comes to mind, the instinct, try to capture that.”
Perhaps Shabazz Palaces occupies its own space in hip hop. Butler, though, doesn’t view his partnership with Maraire as an outlier. He still enjoys much of what is going on in the genre—and others as well.
“All music reflects whatever country is producing it; it’s kind of what’s going on in that place,” he explains. “So, yeah, it’s going to be materialistic, it’s going to be self-centered, it’s going to be somewhat self-interested, and whether that’s good or bad can be argued and debated, but as a reality, that being the climate, there’s still cool (expletive) that is made, good stuff that’s made, thoughtful stuff that’s made, and even some of the stuff that doesn’t fit into those descriptive categories can still be fun. A lot of times the richness that’s contained in something isn’t just in the thing itself, but in the person who’s observing and what you can try to get out of it.”
Shabazz Palaces will perform at Heard Museum’s Not a Block Party on Friday, May 4. The First Friday event serves as a launch for Dear Listener: Works by Nicholas Galanin. The exhibit will run at the Heard Museum May 4 through September 3. Galanin’s band, Indian Agent, will also perform.
Shabazz Palaces and Galanin are members of Black Constellation, a collective of visual artists, fashion designers and musicians. Toronto artist Nep Sidhu, who is one of many collaborators on the exhibit; Seattle artist Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes; Seattle rapper and visual artist OCnotes; and the now-defunct Seattle alt-R&B/hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction have also been involved in the collective.
“We like to have the surprise elements, so that we’re not just recreating what you heard on the album,” Butler says of Shabazz Palaces’ live shows. “It’s not an exact rendition of anything that we’ve already done. We’ve never done the same show twice. We don’t have setlists. We do a lot of improvisation, feeling out the situation, the crowd and the venue and how it sounds in there to make up songs on the spot and take songs that we’ve already recorded into different directions.”
OCnotes does the group’s visuals, and his involvement is just as unpredictable, Butler says.
“It’s all happening live and we’re vibing off the feeling in the room, so I think you can expect to have a visceral experience, an energetic experience, a passionate experience and a unique one,” he continues. “Being in a different environment like a museum and having all our brothers and sisters there and their exhibitions going up, that kind of exciting energy is poured into what happens in a performance like that. So, it’s going to be exciting to see what happens and how everything turns out in that environment.”
Not a Block Party w/Shabazz Palaces, Indian Agent, Heebie Jeebies, DJ Byron Fenix, Heard Museum’s Steele Auditorium, 2301 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, 602.252.8840, dearlistener.org/events, 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, May 4, $10-$25.