Ishmael Butler talks innovation, inspiration, intergalactic travel and the sense of humility found in travel
For 30 years, Ishmael Butler has been dominating the sounds and minds of the hip hop world. From his time as part of Digable Planets through his current Shabazz Palaces project, the rapper-artist has continued to be at the forefront of the music scene. And with Shabazz’s new double album Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star & Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, Butler continues to push music and ideas forward.
Recorded in both Los Angeles and Seattle, the new double album takes a look at the world of Quazarz, who came to earth as a musical ambassador. On Jealous Machines, Palaceer Lazaro tells the story of Quazarz, painting his Odyssey in this new world. Menahwile on Born on a Gangster Star, the ambassador’s philosophy is handed out with a concentrated look at modern issues of superficiality, violence, and awareness.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Ismael to discuss the new double release, find out how or if we can escape our current world, and learn about Butler’s lifelong inspirations as well as appreciations.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release a new double album “Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star” & “Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines”. Just to start, how is your mood?
Ishmael Butler: It’s good. I feel pretty upbeat about it. It’s exciting to have finished them and worked on the artwork and got it packaged up real nice and s***, so it’s like fine. But it’s also anxiety to because, you know, jumping in the marketplace and it’s crowded out there too, so just thinking about how it’ll be received and all that kind of s***, but I feel good about. I’m upbeat about it all.
CF: This itself is a huge project. It’s a double album, and as part of Shabazz Palaces you’ve only released two albums. What brought along the creative explosion?
IB: I don’t know. The first album that I finished was The Jealous Machines. I recorded it down in L.A. and I live in Seattle, so I would go down there and spend blocks of time working on it, so it took a long time to finish. The Born on a Gangster Star after the first album was done and already turned into the label, I actually was just here in Seattle, went to the studio for about 12 days and finished that recording in that amount of time, so it just happened really fast.
But I don’t really know what’s behind the creative explosion as you call it. I guess I just had a lot coming through me. A lot of energy coming through me to make it happen.
CF: You said the albums are “monozygotic twins”. Can you tell us what makes each album unique, but also allows them to exist together?
IB: Well the new perspective, the new persona Quazarz is developed during the recording of the first album and they’re sort of carried through on the recording of the second one. Aside from that, there’s not that any similarities or linking of the two. They were recorded obviously in two different places with different people. I just think aside from the perspective, they’re very different, sonically, the content is very different, but it’s all coming from Quazarz point of view. That’s where the similarities lie.
CF: To me it seemed like “Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines” is like The Odyssey. It’s a story, a journey from a distant land. What does telling another character’s story allow you to do differently as a writer?
IB: I feel like every person, well I won’t speak for everybody, for myself, I feel like the notion that you are one thing, and that you continue to be this thing that may make directional changes, but you still are one sort of being, I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. I feel like there’s a lot of different ideas, ideologies even, predispositions, instinctive things that may seem counter to one another that are all inside of me so adopting a new personality may loosen up the mechanisms to get to those things and also give you a little bit of cover for being able to represent those things as well. For me that’s kind of what it did, but I hadn’t thought about it until you asked.
CF: Born on a Gangster Star seems to be more about a philosophy. Why do you think image and devices have taken over our lives? And how do we escape – and how do YOU, as an artist escape the demands of it all?
IB: I don’t think that we can escape. It’s just more like… it’s kind of like saying, “How do you escape what is liked or the sort of ravages or circumstances about being a black American,” or something. You are not going to, but once you identify, recognize it, then you start to have more tools to navigate the situation.
I don’t think we’re going to get out of it, but right now I don’t think many people that engage in it and participate in it and use it with their kids or their other family members, I don’t know if people are even aware of the prevalence of it. It’s almost like something that’s remotely controlling us that we don’t even acknowledge. So it’s going to be tough to get out of it, if that even is a possibility.
I think acknowledging it then starting to realize that it’s going to have some effect, and then start to think about what those effects are, just like understanding, “Ah man I can’t eat bulls*** all my life,” those kind of things, it’s about recognizing it first.
CF: You discuss an “escape from the fleeting and superficial nonessential” – other than your own music, can you describe something in art that you as a point of reference that also offers an enduring perspective of quality and substance?
IB: There’s a lot. Returning to Octavia Butler’s work always has those characteristics and qualities to me, Wangechi Mutu paintings, Arthur Jafa writings and films he’s directed, and I think like you said, it’s happening quite a bit. I think the commercial world is becoming so exclusive that it’s very difficult to see a lot of stuff that doesn’t capitulate to the commercial tastes and demands. It’s harder to find what I might think is an essential thing. I’m not saying that my thoughts about things are always correct, but those are some of them.
CF: There seems to be at least an underlying discussion of what is happening currently in our world, maybe it’s not in the forefront, but it’s obvious in some ways that Quazarz and the philosophy that follows is a reflection of our reality. How do you view the artist’s role in these challenging times?
IB: I would have to start out by saying, I don’t really know enough to speak for artists in general because that, for me, would make it seem like my opinion was lucid and deep enough to be able to say, “Hey, this is what everybody should do, if that’s what they say they are.” being an artist. I don’t believe that I know, but for me it’s like love, to be challenged and to challenge with thoughtfulness, passion, some notions of words that have all these crazy associative means like integrity, thoughtfulness, to approach your passion with some energy and work at it and challenge yourself to do things that you wouldn’t normally do when you are making and creating and trust the outcome of it and be brave enough to. If you are jumping into some commercial marketplace, to step into that with at least what you believe is some originality, meaning that it has come from your instinct and it’s a true observation of yourself and the environment that you are breathing in, living in, and sharing and loving in, s*** like that.