For eight years now, Seattle hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces have been repainting the genre in thrilling, abstract ways; creating Afro-centric, sci-fi rap with elements of Zimbabwean percussion, spiritual jazz, dub and electronic music. The unique mix has resulted in no shortage of critical acclaim, a deal with venerable indie Sub Pop, tour dates with Radiohead, and collaborations and remixes with Flying Lotus, Animal Collective, Battles and more.
This year, Shabazz embark on their most ambitious project to date, two jointly released albums, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz Vs. the Jealous Machines. The former is a crazy Seattle improvisation (you can hear “When Cats Claw” from this disc below). The latter is a conceptual piece recorded in Marina del Rey about addiction to one’s mobile device (“your phantom limb”) and image (“your phantom self”). The amazingly titled “Love in the Time of Kanye” has lyrics about not jumping on the latest wave crashing through your social feed.
Of course, social media didn’t exist when 47-year-old principal rapper/producer Ishmael Butler first appeared as part of jazzy, Grammy-winning Nineties act Digable Planets. Things are different now and Butler is sympathetic, especially since his Gen Z son Lil Tracy is a chip off the old block, himself a factor in underground rap due to his millions of followers on SoundCloud, Twitter, and Instagram.
Rolling Stone talked to Butler to find out if social media is all bad.
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Your new lyrics contain strong indictments of the culture around social media and online devices. We’re all forced to play along to some degree, but would you personally rather just live off the grid?
I don’t like to think about things that aren’t really that possible. But I just feel like it’s excessive, hella gratuitous and somewhat pornographic the way in which a lot of people do it. Children. Older people. Seems hella invasive. Hella cold. Unfeeling. So you’re dealing with your emotions, sort of pouring it into this thing that only processes data. What is that relationship like? What’s it about? Why is it cute when a two-year-old knows how to get to that app? And why, when a kid is doing something cool, somebody grabs a phone and physically places it in between these two human beings? This elicits some … corroboration about life? But I’m not on some Grizzly Adams shit. I just wish more people found it weirder.
It seems like your critique of social media culture and online devices is mostly negative. Do you regret that your kids were born in this era?
No, it’s not mostly negative. I just feel like it’s too much. It’s too widely accepting without being considered. That’s all. But being able to communicate with people who are far away is cool. And doing things faster. I guess faster is better? But c’mon, man. It’s a lot of extra shit. If you think of your brain as a computer processing things: Are we supposed to be taking in this much imagery in a day? Or a waking period? That’s a lot of shit. What are the effects of that? Revving an engine for a long time, without really moving. I don’t know, man.
In your song “30 Clip Extension” there’s this great passage about “your favorite rapper,” who is basically the archetype of the rapper who is super active on Instagram. You describe that person as “preyed on by adoring fans.”
Yeah I don’t personally have that experience. But what I poetically imagined is that cats gotta walk a line now. You almost gotta be zany and madcap in your daily adventures … to be in that upper echelon of what you’d put in quotations as “ultimate success.” Your Chris Browns, your Kanyes. The ones that those other guys want to be.
Producer Sunny Levine recorded you for Jealous Machines. Do you know the Quincy Jones family?
Sunny, Quincy Jones’ grandson, his mom was my manager’s … good friend [in the Digable Planets days]. So I used to see Sunny when his mom would come around, and he was this little, cool dude. I didn’t know he was going to grow up and be sonically inclined, much less dope at it. Eventually I heard some of his mixes, and cats told me he worked on the Ariel Pink Before Today album, and that was one of my favorite records. Then he played me his own shit, and I was like, “This is ill.”
It’s interesting Sunny has a tie to Digable. And it’s crazy that Digable is a going concern at the same time as Shabazz.
It is. Ha ha. It is, man.
And him making music with Ariel Pink. All this overlapping is a lot.
There’s all kinds of overlap. Julian and the Voidz, Radiohead, My Morning Jacket, that’s all stuff I used to listen to when I lived over on 19th, like, a lot. All of these guys, TV on the Radio, all of these guys have reached out and asked us to do shows. I realized if you make music, you can directly be influenced by people and sound like them, but you can also send out a sonic beacon to them. Which is way more intimate than trying to steal a style. Then that person will answer back.
That’s happened to me so many times. Animal Collective. I can name six to 10 bands. Helio Sequence. Bands I was listening to when I was thinking, for a fact, “I’ll never make commercial music again. I’m too old. Nobody cares. I’m not going to get a record deal. I don’t know nothing about the Internet.” These bands, I would listen to. When I got back into music, I got close to them. Not close friends, but we share stages and they invite me places I could only dream about back then. So that was a deep cycle. A deep cycle of happenings and occurrences.