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Band to Watch: Shabazz Palaces Make Heady, Atmospheric Hip-Hop

Seattle rap collective is led by former Digable Planets MC

July 28, 2011 6:00 PM ET
Shabazz Palaces
Shabazz Palaces
Image by Leif Podhajsky

Click here to listen to Shabbaz Palaces' album "Black Up"

Who: A deliberately enigmatic hip-hop collective from Seattle led by the Palaceer, the rapper otherwise known as Ishmael Butler. The group released two EPs last year – Shabazz Palaces and Of Light – but their first full-length release, Black Up (which came out June 28th on Sub Pop), is their creative breakthrough. Over the course of 10 tracks, Butler and his collaborators pair thoughtful, sharply composed rhymes with beats that recall the grimy, claustrophobic sound of early Wu-Tang Clan and Company Flow as well as the blissful, atmospheric instrumental hip-hop of DJ Shadow.

Practice Makes Perfect: Shabazz Palaces achieve their unique sound in part by improvising in the studio. "When we're working, we try to rely on our instinct and the results of that," Butler says. "We believe in it and stick with it. Everything has to do with grabbing the spontaneous moments and then kinda keeping them as un-tampered-with as possible." Though Butler and his collaborators – who are intentionally left uncredited on the album – achieve this spontaneity by playing together and rehearsing, their writing process isn't anything like that of a traditional band. "We don't necessarily practice the songs that we end up recording, but I mean that we practice a lot, in general. Just playing and doing music all the time."

Elder Statesman: Butler is a hip-hop veteran who started off in the celebrated jazz rap trio Digable Planets in the early Nineties – they won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1994 for their hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That)" – and later released a series of records as part of the bluesy hip-hop group Cherrywine. Though rap is often said to be a young man's game, he says his experience is more of an advantage than a detriment. "You have a better definition of what you consider a successful outcome," says Butler. "You do the best work that you can and then wherever it takes you, you're satisfied with that. It's kind of a cruise control, emotionally, because you don't necessarily have that sort of perspective when you're young."

Looking Back: Though Butler spends the vast majority of his time working on new material, he's surprised by what he hears on his old Digable Planets and Cherrywine records. "It's kind of like looking at a photograph of yourself when you're younger and just looking at what you had on, and the people you were around, and what you thought," he says. "It's revealing and surprising and familiar and it's kinda shocking. It changes every time you listen to it too, it's really wild. It's very ethereal, really, listening to the oldest stuff."

Outlier Rap: Their unique sound, lack of mixtapes and emphasis on anonymity may set them apart from the rest of the contemporary hip-hop scene, but Butler says that he's up on all the latest trends in rap. "My kids are teenagers and my oldest daughter is 21, so I'm pretty plugged in," he says. "Even without them, I'd be into it a lot too, just because I came of age with hip-hop and have always had a very involved and kinda bright-eyed way of looking at the new stuff that comes out." He's unsure whether any of that music has influenced his work work, though. "I don't really think much about why I'm doing what I'm doing, I'm just satisfied with the fact that I'm doing it. I just try to stay as distinctive as possible and leave it at that."

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