When the Seattle-based label Light in the Attic Records told Ishmael Butler that they wanted to put out a vinyl reissue of 1994's Blowout Comb – the second and final album he recorded with the jazzy hip-hop trio Digable Planets – he was pleasantly surprised. "I was flattered," says the MC, who used to go by Butterfly but is better known today as Palaceer Lazaro, the enigmatic leader of Seattle's Shabazz Palaces. "That album is like a time capsule – it's an artifact from an epoch of time, you know what I'm saying?"
Blowout Comb emerged from the heady months after Digable Planets' 1993 debut, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), spun off a hit single with "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)." Butler remembers soaking up all kinds of sounds in those days: Miles Davis, Mobb Deep, Parliament-Funkadelic, Chicago house. Suddenly, the limit looked a lot like the sky. "After the first album," he says, "we wanted to . . . I don't know how to really say it, but to expand musically, you know?"
The trio – Butler, Craig "Doodlebug" Irving and Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira – began by booking two months at a recording studio in downtown Manhattan, taking full advantage of the bigger budget afforded by their first album's success. "We recorded on a daily schedule," says Butler. "We would get to the studio at, like, noon, and stay there until one, two in the morning, and just do as much as we could."
In 1994 – the year of Illmatic and Ready to Die, among others – New York felt even more like the center of the universe than usual. "That was the place to be, man, for me," says Butler, who had moved East in the Eighties after growing up in Seattle. "Hip-hop is more spread out now, which I think is a good thing. But back then, it was a very New York-centric genre. Being there was exciting."
While Digable Planets perfected their luminous psychedelic grooves, they often ran into respected peers like Mary J. Blige, Nas and AZ in the studio. "You understood that you had to really put your best foot forward, because super-talented and creative and inventive people were out there, performing and executing music at a super-high level," Butler recalls. "I didn't think of it as a competition – but in order to be throwing your lot in with them, you better come with some shit, you know?"
Critics and fans hailed Blowout Comb when it arrived in October 1994, but radio didn't quite know what to do with it. "The album just really wasn't selling," he says. "But it wasn't really that discouraging to me, because we were still touring – and we didn't really give a shit about the pop world like that, anyway. The album itself we were always happy with."
Digable Planets broke up in 1995, for reasons that Butler says he still isn't quite sure of. They've reunited here and there over the years, but further activity seems unlikely. "I talk to Doodlebug all the time, but we don't talk to Ladybug, really, because she doesn't really want to talk to us," he says. "So I don't know." But he's proud of what the group accomplished in its brief lifespan. "The two albums that we made – some people look at it like it was an abbreviated situation, but I don't," he says. "I feel like that's what happened and it was supposed to happen that way. To think that more should have happened, I understand it. I wished it. We all probably wished it. But we had a nice run, and we made some music."
Anyway, Butler has plenty to occupy him in the here and now. He just got off tour with Shabazz Palaces, and he's deep in sessions for the follow-up to their 2011 debut, Black Up. "We built our own studio in an old brewery here in Seattle that's been renovated," he says. "That's been the driving force around the way this shit sounds now – the new sound."
True to form, he prefers to leave all other specifics on the new material unsaid. "Shabazz Palaces is a realization of the power and the originality that lies in instinct," says Butler. "So adhering to that, philosophically, for the music, is the way that we've been going. If it has some strangeness to it, it's because it's an authentic strangeness – we're only trying to do what's coming out of us, rather than trying to fit into what we see or hear, or some market or genre. We never try to predict the outcome."