More than a year after Shabazz Palaces released it’s third offering, Black Up — the first hip-hop album to call Sub Pop Records home — the American underground music scene is still quietly chattering over the group’s seemingly abstract excursions into atmospheric beats, atonality, rhythm, and texture. Black Up arrived as a dense but captivating listen, but it's an album that the music’s principal mastermind Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro, a.k.a. Butterfly of Digable Planets) doesn’t see as eschewing the naturally non-linear pace of waking life — even in the collision in musical narratives unfolding in both the construction and titles of such songs as "Free Press and Curl," “Swerve...the Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding),” and “Endeavors for Never (The Last Time We Spoke You Said...)."
This town was in an uproar when word spread that Shabazz Palaces was playing in Athens and not Atlanta.
Yeah, I wish we were playing there too, and I don’t even understand why we’re not.
It’s difficult to address this without sounding petty, but when the Athens show was announced, I had people nudging me at the bar asking things like, “Why aren’t they coming here? They must not like Atlanta hip-hop …”
Atlanta can get both protective and defensive when aesthetics enter the conversation. There are a lot of different hip-hop aesthetics being explored in the local underground scenes, but the music that gets heard the most outside of Atlanta isn’t often associated with “intellectualism” or “abstraction” — although those elements are very present in certain underground scenes here — both of which are qualities that I associate with your music, from Digable Planets to Shabazz Palaces. I think other people do to, and when they start connecting the dots on their own they draw all kinds of crazy conclusions.
That's true ... The main misconception here is that bands go and play shows where they want to. The reality is that they go where they’re invited and where they’re booked. Atlanta is a destination that we would love to come to and play a show. The music that comes out of there — even though like you’re saying isn’t always very intellectual on the surface, we don’t really feel that way. A lot of times the intelligence in music lies in its instincts, and we love Southern music and Southern hip-hop — crunk music, and all that. We love all that music, a lot. … But when you set out on tour you don’t say, “We want to play here, here, here, and here.” It’s more like, who’s putting out offers, and who’s inviting us. But yeah, it’s not like we wouldn’t come to Atlanta because of some kind of aesthetic choice. We wouldn’t do that to any city.
Do you ever consider how the music that you make or how your position as an artists is perceived?
No, not really. It’s not that different from the other stuff, to me. I don’t doubt that people see it as being different or as you said, abstract, but I didn’t mean to approach it like that. We go off of instinct and do the things that seem natural, and just go with things that feel like a groove and harmony and melody or whatever. Whatever comes out, we just leave it like that. So it never really seemed all that different to me. It has been taken that way, but we don’t mind.
When Black Up was released last year, I don’t think I read anything about the record that didn’t allude to you not doing interviews, or that you keep you presence or history Digable Planets concealed. Was that real or just some sort of media virus?
No, it wasn’t real. It was just some peoples’ original take on our whole stance. I never understood the purpose of talking to a media person or a critic about the music. It’s like, … the music is there. To me it’s incumbent upon the person who has positioned himself as the critic, or the observer, or some kind of cat who can really analyze music. I never understood why they just didn’t do that. Instead they want to talk about, “hey, what’s your process? What kind of groups inspired you?” To me, that’s a misrepresentation of inspiration. To sit down and say, “This group inspired me to make this record …” That is so linear and so narrow that it seems impossible and somewhat myopic. So I always thought, look, you do your record, put it out, and then anything that happens subsequent to that in the media doesn’t necessarily need to include the person that did it, because the cat already did it. He made the artifact, so now go and do what you do with.
It wasn’t about secrecy or mystery. This talk that we’re having right now is pretty good, but during the last five interviews that I’ve done, the questions have been, “What’s the name of your group mean?” “What’s the process in the studio?” And I’m like "c’mon …" To get someone on the telephone and say "tell me something profound right now," doesn’t do the music any justice, and it veers away from the simple fact that we already put so much of what we feel and like and are sensitive to into the music.
So much talk about it kind of created an all new sense of mystery around the band, and a minor sense of mania in and of itself. People have a tendency to be really drawn to something if you tell them there’s a void in the information chain.
Yeah, but the only way that can be done properly is if whoever is doing it, really means it. It can’t be done as some sort of stunt or manipulation, which we never really wanted to do. It was what it was.
Shabazz Palaces play the 40 Watt Club in Athens with !!! on Thurs., April 19. 285 Washington St. 706-549-7871.
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