Artist Spotlight: Ishmael Butler
by Mosi Reeves | July 31, 2014
For rapper and producer Ishmael Butler, Shabazz Palaces continues an evolution that dates back to the early '90s, when his Digable Planets earned a gold plaque and a Grammy Award for the clever jazz-rap of "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)." Though separated by 20 years, the two projects share a thread beyond Butler's restless creativity. Both are imbued with his love of urban culture.
However, the two hardly sound alike. Butler's production for Digable Planets was strictly jazz, funk and soul samples, and his raps with Ladybug Mecca and Doodlebug were tinged with sunny views of "Blackitolism." But Shabazz Palaces has a "dread" outlook in tune with its walloping bass thumps and wood drums. As Palaceer Lazaro, Butler holds a severe, uncompromising perspective on identity and ethics, particularly when it comes to "selling out." The music is abrasively low-fi and difficult, and a challenge to the overly processed, anti-lyrical rap found on urban radio.
Nevertheless, Shabazz Palaces found a cult following: Their 2011 full-length debut, Black Up, landed on numerous year-end best-of lists, and the just-released Lese Majesty seems poised to earn similar praise. In a way, Butler's career mirrors that of Daniel Dumile, the Long Beach rapper in '90s crew KMD who relocated to Atlanta, adopted a metal mask, and changed his name to the supervillain MF Doom. By reinventing themselves, the two were able to straddle eras that effectively snuffed out or diminished their peers.
The outlier is Cherrywine, a failed concept from 2003 that found Butler exploring the politics of pimping. Bright Black was insular to a fault, but it nevertheless set the stage for his Shabazz Palaces revival, and anywhere else he wants to go.