An Interview with Ishmael ButlerInterviewed by Dujie Tahat · August 2017 · Seattle, WA
Ishmael Butler is a rapper and member of the hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces. After growing up in Seattle and graduating from Garfield High School, Butler moved to Brooklyn in 1989, where he and some friends started the rap group Digable Planets, which quickly gained attention and won a Grammy for the 1993 hit single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” In 2003, Butler returned to Seattle, where he eventually started Shabazz Palaces with his neighbor Tendai Maraire. Initially concealing their identities, performing only under pseudonyms, Butler and Maraire self-released two cryptic, densely-structured EPs, earning them a Stranger Genius Award. In 2011 ShabazzPalaces released their debut full-length Black Up on Seattle’s Sub Pop, becoming one of the label’s few hip-hop acts. The album got rave reviews and appeared on numerous year-end best of lists—as NPR put it, the album “thrilled and flummoxed critics with elements of Phillip Glass minimalism, Brian Eno ambience, and George Clinton cosmic weirdness.” Butler started working for Sub Pop’s A&R department in 2013, helping to build the label’s hip-hop list and bring greater attention to Seattle’s rap scene. Shabazz Palaces recently dropped a pair of wildly ambitious concept albums—Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines—which tell “the tale of Quazars, a sentient being from somewhere else, an observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary.”
I wanted to start with something that may not be directly related to your work itself: what are you reading right now and what’s the most interesting book you’ve read in the last year?
The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last year is an old leaflet called “Anarchy and Ecstasy: Visions of Halcyon Days,” and I’m re-reading now a book called Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan. I liked “Anarchy and Ecstasy” because it was about wilderness—it conceptualizes what’s wild. It’s really about the disconnect between man and nature and how man used to be a part of nature and now we separated ourselves from it in order to conquer it, to shape it to do the things that we want it to do, to prune it—how we’ve lost our connection with nature because of that.
That seems pretty far, thematically, from the two Quazarz albums. Is there any relationship between “Anarchy and Ecstasy” and that project?
Nah. I don’t think if you make an album with twelve songs, with all kind of different sounds and concepts—I can’t trace it back to one or two things that somehow influenced it or, you know, were the catalyst for it. I mean, your whole life can go into a single word, which your instinct creates. Only one word or one poetic image can be the result of a long list of things. You know what I mean?
I’m not the type of person that can pinpoint influences or talk about, you know, “I remember this and that made me do this.” I’m not able to do that kind of thing. I don’t even believe that’s really possible. Some people seem like they can, but I’m not one of them.
I have no interest in explaining or figuring out the history of anything I’ve made. To me it’s all about instinct. If somebody else can point out some influence, that’s fine—say a writer or reviewer, because that’s their job to be an observer, somebody that has some breadth of knowledge to put things together by looking and listening to stuff.
I’m only here to use my instinct to make the things that I’m compelled to make. Beyond that, I have no interest in any sort of cerebral approach to it myself. It can be done by others, but for me, it’s all in there. It’s already a Freudian endeavor, you know what I mean? I don’t know Freud. I don’t know psychoanalytics. I don’t know anything about making a tree of influence that somehow starts at the root and gets to the fruit of the result. I don’t do that.
Can you talk a little more about that instinct and what it is that compels you?
Compulsions are things that you only realize after doing them, because it’s so instinctive. It’s such a predisposition to pursue these things that it’s almost thoughtless, you know.
I’ve always been attracted to music and melody and rhythm and groove even before I was conscious that these were predilections. I was too young to have any frame of reference or any language for the stuff that I was naturally doing. Once I developed the language for it, I realized I have this instinct, I have this desire for music. Then I started thinking about responsibility and choices in writing and in life and then I realized: I can practice. I can play saxophone. I can learn these programs. I can learn how to play piano and then I can get a job.
I just don’t take an intellectual approach to art. I don’t look down on it. But I personally think that it’s impossible truly to get to the root of inspiration and get to the root of motivation, or even influence. I think so much of the stuff that influences a person is so natural that it’s not something that the person can really point to. It’s a part of something in their chromosomes, not in their thought process.
It’s strange to hear you say that, because I think one of the main characteristics of your work—critically speaking—is its intellectualism. Like, people listen to your work and they think, “This is really smart.” I certainly think so. The writing itself, for instance, is very clever. There are literary devices and extended metaphors and they’re used in sophisticated ways. So I’m curious, how do you take that reading of your work, if your approach is necessarily not intellectual?
I think that’s an intellectual view of what I’m doing. A person can be intellectual, and they can be coming from an intellectual place. I think that’s totally valid.
But I’m not an intellectual. You know what I’m saying? I’m not trying to flex intellectuality with what I’m doing. I’m really trying to get to an instinctive natural state without filtering it through anything other than my thoughts and my feelings at that time. Now of course I read, but I don’t read to conquer the information that I’m taking in. I read to enjoy and to learn and to be exposed to some new concepts. I listen to music the same way. I’m not going to listen to a song I like then go chase down the credits and figure out who writes what and when it was recorded and what kind of machines they was using. I don’t go through the museum and listen to the audio tour to figure out what the painter was wearing or thinking while he was painting. For me, I don’t believe in that part of art.
I understand it and respect it, but I never was attracted to it long enough for it to have ever caught on to anything personally. You know what I mean?
Totally. With that in mind, I did have a couple questions about the way that you write, and about your approach to your work.
When I first heard that you were doing these Quazarz albums my first thought was of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”—in part because we just published a great poem from a young Seattle poet, “Whiteys on Trappist-1”, but also because I’m obsessed right now with outer space, and this idea of arriving in a new place and seeing it with fresh eyes—especially through the eyes of an alien, something distinctly other. What does that free you to do once you’ve accepted that as the premise?
That was linked, I think, to when Trump was running and there was all this talk of aliens and stopping people at the border—and also the underlying white supremacist rhetoric that he was using: “Hey, look, all these brown people, all these people that look different and talk all these different languages, who you see when we go to the Wal-Mart and on our avenues and streets—moving down the street from us. We’re gonna stop all that. We’re gonna get America back to what it used to be.”
And he didn’t say “back to a White America” literally, but that’s the underlying current of information that was being spread through what he was saying. That’s why the David Dukes of the world and Sean Hannitys and the young white supremacists and the neo-Nazis—they all fell in line because they understood what he was talking about. You put that with the police terrorizing black people by murdering people in the streets, shooting people in the back, choking people over cigarettes. These are terror campaigns that were being waged by a group of people that saw themselves and their power being challenged and diminished, so this is their reaction to it.
So the whole alien thing sort of spun up from that because that’s how myself and a lot of the people I run with, my peers—and even the generation before and the younger kids—we feel like aliens in this place where we’re supposed to feel at home. At the same time, we do feel it’s home as well, so it’s an interesting set of emotions and feelings that you have to navigate through this life with and through this world with. That’s really the point of view that Quazarz was coming from.
Do you ever think about the absurdity of it? That, like, if an alien came down and saw the way we treated black and brown people and the arbitrary nature of white supremacy, they would rightly see it as absurd.
I mean yeah, but that’s the early realization, you know, the absurdity of it all. We’ve come to live with that as a baseline assumption—it’s normalized. It’s not just brown people and black people, you know. It’s everybody. It’s the rise of the personal device and the notion that social anything takes place with just you and a computer screen or phone screen—that collective lie that we’ve all bought into. The way that makes us treat each other or treat children or handle political issues or handle societal issues—it’s all a race towards an abyss really. We’ve all just been like, “OK, yeah: faster, newer, brighter, quicker—yeah yeah, that’s progress.”
Our notion of progress is getting to the next new thing whether or not it’s being properly developed or tested or if it works or if it’s good for us. That doesn’t matter—only whether it’s newer and bigger and brighter. Then we all agree that we did need it. That’s what the album was talking about: being from a time or mentality that doesn’t subscribe to this notion.
There’s an irony that everything that we perceive to be ‘social’ now is really done by yourself with your smartphone. Social life as determined by social media. In what ways is that limiting the truth you’re talking about?
But I’m also curious: what is the underlying truth that the smartphone is getting in the way of? Is there one? I don’t know. I don’t think that matters… we as Westerners have come to suspect that we can tie things up in a sentence, or that we can get to the bottom of something, or that we deserve to understand fully the way that something works. Or, if we choose to ignore it, then it doesn’t matter to us. Like an either/or kind of thing: either you can conquer this knowledge or we can ignore it.
This isn’t a critique as much as it is an observation, because I’m participating in it, and I accept it as a new reality—although I do see it as a difference between truth and reality. And the truth of the matter is that I just think we’re not paying the type of attention that it would behoove us to pay. With the presidency where it is now, like, what is the next year going to look like, when we have the notion of alternative facts or “my truth”, and we have leaders without any ballast at all, without any tie to truthfulness?
Are we even thinking about that? Of course some of us are, but it would take a majority of people to be thinking about it in order for it to have some weight. We’re just giving phones with the internet to kids—man you know what I’m saying? That at nineteen or seven years old—we think it’s cute when a three year old knows how to open an iPhone. We think that it’s cool.
So that’s what Quazarz was really all about—thinking about that. And I guess it’s a device to question my approach, you know… coming from a new perspective, a slightly different angle, without carrying the pain from before—a new person. It opened up my mind to at least some slight variations on my observation, in order to get to some new poetic image in the writing.
For sure. That’s something I love about your work—the point of view, and how it plays with point of view. I think the process of writing always involves finding new perspectives, new ways to see and approach a subject. Which also makes me think about your path from Seattle to Brooklyn, then back to Seattle. Beyond the biographical details, how did you arrive at writing in Seattle? How did growing up here in particular influence the way you write—either your style or your approach?
Man, you know, there are so many tentacles that I don’t really know. One thing I could probably point to is just, music always being a part of life growing up. I understood and I was attracted to lyrics and rhyming and singing—and then the colorful cadences of my uncles and my mom and my dad and his friends. Like I said, I was predisposed to be attracted to sound and rhythm.
The people that were around me provided that, whether they knew it or not. Just the rhythm of their life and the swing and the melody that they lived their life by really spoke to me and probably set me on my way to where I eventually got to.
The Northwest is interesting because most of the people I grew up with in the Central District were second generation or third generation removed from down south. The people that came from down south were very courageous, curious explorers who heard about this place up in the northwest. You were coming from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas like, “Shit, I’ll go up there and check it out—sight unseen, really.”
Those are the people whose blood, whose predisposition flowed in us. And all of my peers and all my friends, once we left high school, we went here and set up shop there and moved places brought stuff back. So we were all very world oriented, and we wanted to explore and find out and participate in what was going on around the world. That was the environment that I grew up in, and we all took it for granted.
The rapper and the role of the emcee has changed so much over time, and you’ve been there for a lot of it. From your time at the start of Digable Planets to where you’re at now with Shabazz Palaces, obviously hip-hop itself has changed and the role emcee has changed with it. What do you call yourself? A writer, a performer, a rapper, a musician—what feels spiritually right to you?
All those things. I’m comfortable with being identified with all of them. I don’t personally think of myself as a writer because I don’t really write to publish. But yeah, I’m a rapper—you know, that’s what I do the most. I will say writing is rap. Rapping is writing. Rapping is poetry. Some of the coldest poems I’ve ever heard were by rappers and emcees.
So what’s your overall assessment of where rap is at right now?
I think that rap is always going to reflect where we’re at as a country first. Because with the rise of materialism and the rise of the smartphone and the device—and just the notion of artificial intelligence and the ability to access information fast without having to do the legwork, what’s going to be the result with rap? It’s going to get simplified, you know. It’s going to be more direct. It’s going to have less ornateness to it. It’s going to be more bare bones. And also, the commerciality of it is going to require that there’s less variation because it’s now a solid marketplace, and the marketplace doesn’t want change. It doesn’t want variation. When you go and get Tide, you want to open the box get that mountain fresh scent even though it’s completely manufactured, you know what I’m saying?
That’s what rap is dealing with. But inside of that, the succinctness of Migos—how they are basically able to freestyle these songs and have a set of poetic images that they can go to and vary and tinker and tweak just a little bit, and come out with these really ill anthems that speak to the culture and what’s going on in fashion and in people’s desires—it’s very poetic. It’s very strong. It’s very muscular. And the notion that these guys aren’t rapping or they’re not keeping lyricism alive—well, why would they?
It’s another day, another time, and it’s not up to the artist to always be able to extract the poetry from stuff. A lot of times you have to be a talented listener; you got to know what you’re hearing and be open to it in order to get the value out of it as well. It’s a two-way street. So I’m with it. I like the new shit.
And that’s the thing with the Internet, the cheapness of equipment. There’s just hella motherfuckers that can do it without any filter. You don’t have to make your bones. You don’t have to go through any tests. You can just do a song on your computer and put it online. Of course there’s going to be hella bullshit, but that’s okay. That’s the way it is now. I just look ahead and I look at expanding the now and try not to judge. When you judge, you often can miss the essentials of the whole thing.
So you’re saying the poetry isn’t just in the writing itself, but also in the act of doing the thing—not just the writing itself? The act and action of Migos itself, what they do is itself a poetic approach.
Yeah, I think so. I think of that cat Gaston Bachelard, a French cat, who later on in his career started getting into the poetic image. The poetics of space. The poetics of furniture. The poetics of wind. The poetics of sleep. The poetic image being the most powerful thing. That instinctive thing—the thing that is inexplicable being expressed, and you can endlessly unpack it.
So the act, the vision, the sight, which is also new—we’re not used to seeing the person who is doing the poetry as much as we are now. The sight of them is poetic. The movement is poetic, and then you start to mix all of these things together and now you’re mixing chemicals that can explode and spark and smolder and boil. Who knows what kind of stuff this is indicating. I’m excited about all of that, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
A lot of your work is political. Is it the responsibility of artists to reflect the times? Or to be political? Is there any way to not be political?
It’s the responsibility of every person to be as political as they can.
But politics is like rapping now. Cats know, “If I can sort of wax and play the game, work my way up to city council and maybe become a congressman or senator”—there’s perks in that. It becomes less about public service than about a career path that can get you to the things you desire. Also, politics is entertainment now—like, when’s the last time you had on the TV and it wasn’t about some Trump shit on some controversy, or some he said she said, or a criminal investigation, or collusion with a foreign enemy. It’s just gone crazy.
I don’t know what politics is really, these days, but I think everybody’s political because you got to be aware. You have to put your two cents in. The founding fathers, as flawed as they were, the idea they put forth in the Constitution is still holding up pretty well if you take it at face value and try to apply it to things. But it’s all about participation, and I think everybody has that duty.
We’ve talked a little bit already about all the changes that you’ve seen as a rapper and I’m curious what you’re seeing in terms of form. Obviously conventional rap songs have three 16-bar verses but you’ve taken a pretty significant departure from that. What about your own personal writing development or musical sensibility changed over time, to move you to what you’re doing now?
Instinct. I understood instinct as the only way to originality, which was my goal. Instinct unfiltered is gonna be original because it’s just you and your innate sensibilities. So over time, with that as my goal, I was able to come up with a set of practices. And once you start following your own path, it’s going to look, feel, and sound different than the next guy, ’cause his instincts are going to be different. Now, you always find your family in the world. You’re drawn to these people, and you’re not really sure why. They have the same instincts. Maybe not the same but similar. And that’s how you get to your people. You always find them if you’re open to it.
I wanted to be… not ‘different’—I wanted to be original. So I figured out a way to try to do it. I may not have figured out the correct way, but it’s the way that I thought was correct in my pursuit, and I learned some things along the way.
Can you share a couple specifics of your practice? What are some of the techniques you use?
Well it’s not just about writing, but we can use writing as a microcosm to break it all down. I’ll tell you one thing: there’s a book called Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, and if you read that book, you could apply it to anything—it could just as well be called Becoming a Saxophonist or Becoming a Bank Robber. Basically, it says that if you have some passion, you have to cultivate that passion with practice.
Once you cultivate that passion with practice and discipline, when you’re at the point of some creative inspiration, you’re going to rely on all of that practice to get to the essence of your instinct because you have the facility to do it—you can write fast, you can type fast, you can play fast, you can listen to the tumblers in a lock fast. And now when you’re in front of one of those locks, you can do it and you have the style and you have the grace and the ingenuity because it’s practiced. It’s just about that really: practice hella. And in the end, believing in your instinct at the point of departure.
How do you feel about the place of hip hop or rap in the literary tradition?
Man, I tell you what. There’s a guy that’s from Seattle, Porter Ray—I did an interview with him yesterday, and I realized, if you really listen to his music and go back to his Sound Cloud albums called Black Gold, White Gold, and Rose Gold, he basically is telling the history of the Central District and the surrounding areas of Seattle for his cultural set in those songs. I was like, damn, this guy is a historian and he’s telling stories that no one would ever even think about writing down. And I think as we go further away from books and writing—not to discourage you guys—but I think the further we get away from it, the more specialized, and the more rare, publications that are even thinking about things like you guys are thinking become. But the value actually increases, even though it might not reach as many people. The people who do consume it, they value it more than ever before. So I was just thinking about him as a literary historian and even though it’s not being written down, it’s still being written in the ethos; it’s being written in the hearts and minds of those who listen to it. That’s what I’ve been thinking about the last day.
And I really like that title Moss. I love moss. That neon green shit, when it really gets going, the way it feels, and that it’s so unanimous in the spaces it occupies. That’s a dope-ass name. I like that.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.