Shabazz Palaces

Intrepid rappers take the genre into uncharted terrain


SHABAZZ PALACES with THEESATISFACTION at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor West), Tuesday (April 23), 8 pm. $20. RT, SS, TF. See listings.


Ishmael Butler has been rapping for a long time, so when he expresses discontent with the current hip-hop landscape, it doesn’t seem bitter or rash.

“Engineering this art for success has made hip-hop very thin, myopic and impotent. There’s still moments of really intense colour and beauty, but it lacks depth,” says the MC over the phone from his hometown of Seattle.

“It’s been imperialized,” Butler continues. “People came down, figured out what was valuable and threw the value into the capitalist system. Hip-hop used to rally against that. Now the people at the forefront – I like to say, down at the top – are willing to propagate this whole kinda life. We didn’t come from this artistic-expressionless place, and it’s sad to be here now, with no respite in sight.”

Well, not exactly no respite. As the voice of hip-hop collective Shabazz Palaces, Butler delivers that colour and beauty in technicolour, along with instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire. Hip-hop is young, but Shabazz Palaces sound rooted in any number of ancient civilizations.

Their lane of rap music is relatively unpopulated, and unencumbered by the pressure to make radio-friendly hits, Shabazz Palaces’s songs grow in unlikely directions – to the immense relief of rap fans wanting more than predictable four-minute bangers.

Butler is contagiously laid-back, but when he wants to talk about something, his answers are like little poems, peppered with evocative language and echoing sentence structure. It’s not surprising that even on some of their intense, shouty songs, Shabazz Palaces sound more like spoken-word poets than commercial rappers.

Their debut 2011 album, Black Up, doesn’t follow typical rap codes. There is no verse-chorus-verse pattern, songs change mood and direction midway through, and while the words are simple and straightforward, the deeper meaning is often inscrutable.

Themes range from the serious (racism) to the not so serious (being in love). You can listen to the album many times without fully understanding it and, like good lit, new meanings emerge with each study.

Living and creating in Washington state, they lack the geography-specific musical attributes of hip-hop makers in New York, Atlanta and L.A., but Butler says that’s besides the point.

“We wouldn’t feel restrained to do anything a certain way even if Seattle did have specific characteristics.”

Backing up this claim is the fact that Butler lived in New York for 14 years, never subscribing to any particular formula. Among a plethora of other projects, in the mid-90s he rapped under the moniker Butterfly with the Grammy-winning alt-hip-hop trio Digable Planets.

Butler promises a follow-up to Black Up soon, and half-commits to a 2013 release. Those too impatient to wait should check out their tour mates, fellow Seattle hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction, an equally exploratory, all-female act who first appeared on a Black Up guest track and subsequently signed to Sub Pop.

Butler once described an album as the station his live show leaves from. If Tuesday’s point of departure is Black Up, fans should be ready for an exquisitely unpredictable ride.

Interview Clips

Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces on returning to Seattle after 14 years in New York City.

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Butler on the pressure to make generic, popular music.

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julial@nowtoronto.com | @julialeconte

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