Shabazz Palaces like to keep a low profile. So much so that it wasn’t until almost a year after the release of two EPs of tripped-out rap collages that the men behind the moniker were revealed to be Ishmael Butler, one-third of the 1990s hip-hop group Digable Planets, and percussionist Tendai Maraire. Since signing to Sub Pop in 2010 — the first rap group on the label’s roster — Shabazz Palaces have only momentarily surfaced for interviews, and have stayed out of promo photos and album artwork for both their debut album, Black Up and, now its follow-up Lese Majesty.
On Lese Majesty, Shabazz make a case for distancing themselves from the spotlight, examining the superficiality of social media celebrity, and criticizing what they see as the hashtag-friendly, style-over-substance culture of current rap. In Butler’s mind, everyone is staring at their reflections on a screen, but no one is actually doing any reflecting.
We talked with Butler about his favorite fellow Sub Pop bands, the pitfalls of chasing after fame, and why his band is no more experimental than 2 Chainz.
You kept a low profile going into the first Shabazz Palaces album. After it was released and enjoyed a positive reception, how did you feel about being in the spotlight again?
I didn’t really notice it that much. It’s not like people notice me when I walk down the street. We just keep a low profile rather than being in the public eye.
Lese Majesty feels like a continuation of the last album, and in some ways it’s a bit more leftfield.
People call us experimental all the time. I understand what that means — in terms of time signatures, approach to structure, sonic palette, stuff like that — but for us it’s not an experiment. Rather than be traditional, we adhere more to our imagination. 2 Chainz is experimenting with vocal processing on his new song, but no one would say his music is experimental. I don’t really see a big gap between what we’re doing and what other people are doing other than our instinct and personal style.
What are some of the themes that run throughout the album?
The materialism, individualism and superficiality shaping Western pop culture was ringing real corny to me. We were calling bullshit on that to an extent. We don’t really say, “That’s weak,” because individual people’s choices aren’t something to be clowned about. But we were looking toward the overall direction [in which] we’re being led and talking about that. It’s a bit more abstract. It’s not direct or specific to certain people.
What does selfie culture mean to you?
My daughter said something interesting to me. She’s 23 and she was describing a scene on Instagram. I was asking her who this person was with and she was like, “He was on stage with such and such and other famous guys.” Fame now, you go on Instagram or Twitter, and you see someone with 10,000 followers but you’re like, “Who is this person?” They’re posting pictures of themselves like, “I’m about to go work out” or “This is the food I ate today,” and they make it seem like we’re getting a chance to express ourselves. But in reality, it’s a ghettoization of individuality, because you have a certain amount preset filters — literally and symbolically — that you can run your life through. It’s a little scary. It’s something that I think we need to analyze a little closer. So that’s what we were into on the album.
It seems like you’ve always been pushing against fame-hungry culture. You’ve avoided traditional marketing. You didn’t even release images of yourselves leading up to the first album.
If we have to promote a single or an album, we look at the cycle as an opportunity to be creative. We don’t want to box that creativity into stale tradition. Fortunately, we’re on a label [Sub Pop] that sees these things as an opportunity to try to do something cool. I don’t like to point the finger and say other people aren’t doing things the correct way but we feel like we have a right to make these choices and reject what everyone else is doing.
In that way, you really stand out from everything else going on in hip-hop. That’s why I think it’s surprising to hear you compare yourselves to 2 Chainz.
It’s funny. The way people view hip-hop, I often wonder if they’re viewing it from their own perspective, or if it’s an installed perspective that they’ve taken on as their own. You see rappers saying, “This is my story. I came up from this situation, and now I want to have material things, and I’m willing to break the law.”
My thing is, at some point — especially as black people — if this “your story” involves pain, imprisonment, death, murder and crime, isn’t it a little off-putting that so many of us have the same story? Don’t you then start to realize that maybe this isn’t our will that’s putting us in this situation? If these storylines are popping up all over the country — that is really alarming to me. And we need to understand what’s going on. Even though we’re using different words and our subjects are different, our experience is similar to every other rapper. The black American experience is diverse — it’s not just this one thing. Why is the proliferation of this one thing happening? I think that question needs to be asked.
Obviously you have a big indie following but do you think that Shabazz Palaces should be a larger part of the conversation on a mainstream level?
I think we get what we deserve. I do wish it sometimes but I don’t feel unsatisfied.
Talking to you, it doesn’t sound like you’re motivated by fame, yet your ideas do deserve a large platform.
Yeah but the thing is this, when you see someone at the upper reaches of fame, you realize it’s almost like a golf club. You don’t get into this private club unless you fill these prerequisites. The way we approach life, we don’t have the prerequisites to get into that place. And I don’t see it as a higher place. It’s just a different place. It’s just not for us.
Nowadays, it’s not like, “That song is so good, now that person’s famous” or “That ideology was so good it caught on.” Really famous people are in a position where the stuff they do and say is shoved down people’s throats through these various mechanisms. We don’t have access to them and if we did I’m not sure that we’d participate.
What kind of mechanisms?
I think when you wake up in the morning and everywhere you go you see certain people in ads or hear certain songs — people know how to get in front of YouTube viewers and they know how to use Twitter. In the past couple of years, you’ve seen obviously mediocre things become stratospheric. It’s business. These are machines in place.
What new music do you think is better than mediocre? What have you been connecting with?
I really like Ariel Pink. There’s never a dull moment in anything that man makes. I saw Panda Bear perform at Sasquatch and I was like, “Man, this cat is a bad dude.” So I really like Animal Collective. Working at Sub Pop, I get to hear a lot of music that I wouldn’t have ordinarily heard. I’m lucky to be in a position where things come to me and I keep up with music on my own as well. Signing Luluc was a cool thing. I was hip to clipping. after [A&R head] Tony K introduced me to them. There’s a lot of stuff coming through the office. It’s a rich musical environment.
I also really like the Chicago drill scene like Lil Herb, Yung Chops and even Chief Keef. I felt like they had a revolutionary, avant-garde approach to making music. They kept it traditional in a sense but they’re basically living in a war zone, so it’s music from the front lines. That really struck me as very energetic, cerebral, conscious, and brave.
Your music has been called “brave” a lot. Do you consider it brave?
I feel that about myself. It’s a compliment if someone says it. There’s no real consideration of outcome. We’re not really tripping on if anyone is going to like us, if we’re going to get a lot of Twitter followers, or where it’s going to go. It’s just pure. It’s music for the sake of trying to make people feel something; make ‘em dance and make ‘em chill. Without those result-oriented leanings we have the ability to be courageous.