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People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Shabazz Palaces: An Interview

By Pat McGuire; Art by Christian Petersen on July 22, 2014


People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Shabazz Palaces: An Interview

[Phone rings.]


Pat! What’s going on, bro?


What’s up, Ish? I’m good, how are you?

I’m good. I’m real good.


Hey, so what should I call you, considering your long breadcrumb trail of names? Ish? Ishmael? Palaceer Lazaro? Butterfly? Mr. Butler?

You gotta go with what your instinct tells you, what you’re drawn to, which one relates to you the most. I’m not picky, man. I can relate to all of them. [Laughs.


OK, I see how it’s gonna be. It’s funny, I just read a bunch of interviews with you and over 20 of them qualify the experience of talking to you as “rare.” Where do you think this clearly false image of you as this reticent artist comes from? Why do people like to paint you in the shadows?

I think nowadays it’s just a marketing world and everybody’s trying to sell what they have, so when you’re not super forthcoming on all these quote-unquote social media outlets, trying to promote yourself, that people take it as enigmatic and mysterious. You have to be as open and overly giving with every last detail of your life and your process, so if anything goes a little bit below that, it’s mysterious and enigmatic. Cats ain’t even going beneath the surface for their information or their investigation of anything before they get into it. It’s kinda crazy. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to sell something these days, so it has this ad firm, marketing sound with everything; you need a quote, a sound byte, something you can break down in a sentence. I don’t really dig it, but I get it.


So it’s not that you prefer to be in the shadows…

Nah, nah. This is how I feel most comfortable. The likelihood of every artist that comes out, disparate and varied as an artist’s sensibilities could possibly be, the likelihood of everybody wanting to go about things the same way seems really small. So the fact that it’s happening seems to me to be a glitch in the way the system is working rather than a glitch in the way I see things. It’s not about being mysterious. It’s just how I feel most comfortable.


[Aside: “Alright, bro, thank you. You can let me out anywhere.”]


Sorry, I’m just getting out the car. Now I’m free. Yeah!


Without lifting the curtain too much, can you describe the physical spaces where you felt most inspired to make this record? I think, like all the best art, Shabazz Palaces’s music inhabits a physical space; it takes me to a very particular place and creates a new world there. Do you think about what you make in those terms?


It’s funny you should mention that. This album was made in a physical space that was designed by us from top to bottom. We found a raw space in an old brewery in Seattle and we made the space into what we saw. We constructed the rooms, we dealt with the materials that the building was made out of, keeping in mind what kind of shit we’d be trying to do in there. The space that this thing was made in is the first time that we realized  our sonic dreams, really. So the physical space has everything to do with it. We call it Protect and Exalt Labs: A Black Space. You can imagine: a monolithic, stone, cement building with all these little offshoots and caverns. We got one of them and we go inside this place and make this music. We got tall rooms that we use for echo chambers… There’s no light in there, there’s no sound, its just what’s going on in there. So the space is the album, really. Nothing else on the album was recorded anywhere other than in Protect and Exalt. Black walls, purple foam, cheetah rugs…like Fela; Earth, Wind & Fire; outer space; Sun Ra…but with a modern, clean little twist on it, too.


Do you need to be in a specific physical place—not just mindset—to be creative?

It doesn’t have to be a certain place, but whatever the place is has to have some certain characteristics: quiet, dark, late night, it’s gotta smell good and it’s gotta be clean. I can transport that to a lot of different spaces but those are some things that have to happen if I’m doing something creative and relaxed enough to hit the marks that I would like to hit.


We’ll call it your creative rider. So you don’t demand that your palaces have walls, then? Could it be outside?

Yes it can. I like the sun, man. If the sun’s out, then I’m not in a studio or enclosed place; I’m out in it. I like to record from midnight to 4 a.m., that’s when all that shit that you hear us do got made.


I couldn’t imagine that you were in some sterile, illuminated place at noon writing this stuff. So, now, with Lese Majesty’s announcement, you’ve literally diagrammed that idea of a physical space that accompanies the music by labeling the album’s songs as suites on a physical blueprint. How did that idea manifest?

The answer is very revealing. My developing brotherhood with the artist Nep Sidhu, who did the architectural drawing that ended up being the suite spaces—he’s been making outfits, sharing drawings with me, talking about sacred spaces, ceremony, symbolism, myth—those are all the things that kind of tie into what Shabazz and definitely what the Lese Majesty is about. So making music, making art, I always feel a place. I feel a space and then I try to make something that feels like that space as well. And it’s all instinct, it’s not like I’m sitting up there constructing and crafting it, I’m not a super dope thinker-technician like that, but I know: This is our instinct, this is how we feelin’ right now, let’s try to capture it. We built this space, we’re wearing these clothes, we walkin’ around in whatever transcendental state we in, trying to capture those moments and those feelings. We practice, we go through drills and we learn new programs and all that but we only do that so when we go press “record” we have the acumen and the abilities to exercise our instinct with some skill.


Do you have specific considerations for the way Lese Majesty is meant to be experienced?

Yeah, kinda. You feel like you got a good side or something, but that’s not really true. People see you and then they like what they like about you, or what you have on, or whatever way you’re sittin’ and turnin’… Yeah, I do, but I realized that it ain’t really about shit. I don’t want to go to the museum and put on the headphones and be told what the artist was thinking and doing, I just want to look at the piece and take it in myself. It’d be cool if cats could sit down in a warm, quiet room and be high with some good pair of headphones on and listen to the album through. But, hey, you know. One time I got caught somewhere and somehow the album was on shuffle and I was like, “Damn, that’s kinda cool when this happens after that!” So it don’t really matter, man.


Tell me more about your conception of the album’s structure. Did you see this thing in eight suites, pieced together, as a whole at once before you started working on it?

For me, instinct has to prevail and patterns and themes have to be pronounced after some amount of work is done. Basically, cats go in and make shit first and then you kinda look around for tendrils of things that coincide, and then they pronounce themselves and make themselves evident after the work’s already been done, rather than trying to come up with something and then funnel everything into what we’ve already come up with. I guess it’s the opposite of the way that you asked me. Titles and shit are changing up until the very last minute, because everything’s changing around you. You wake up in the daytime and hear some information, you see something, you’re like, “Damn, I understand now, I get that, and here’s my take on it, and that relates to the way this song ends and can go into that one, so let’s change that here and we’ll call that…” It’s gotta be always action, you gotta keep your palms up and be able to catch whatever’s coming your way.


You gotta be in that three-point ready-position basketball stance.

Always, man. Triple threat: you might dribble, you might pass or you might just pull up and… Come on, man! [Laughs.



Does each of the suites have its own structure, and were the songs within intended to live together or did you mix and match?

I guess you would look at it like painting with oil. You finish it, the suites kinda happen and then according to the verbiage—what the words in the suites are evoking—maybe there might be some taking away…never any putting in, but maybe some paring down to make everything fit and relate and also have some element of surprise and intrigue and enigma, even to us. You might think of a title like “Murkings on the Oxblood Starway,” like, “OK, what could it mean, what does it mean, where the fuck did it come from?” Then you forget about all of that and just listen to everything and realize how these things work together. I gotta say, bro, all these transformations are happening up to the minute that Sub Pop is like, “Today’s the last day that you can do anything ’cuz we gotta go to press,” and you’re like, “Alright, alright, we’ll call it this, move this there and ‘boom!’” Up until the last possible minute we’re shaking and baking.


I don’t want to presume anything, but what is the song “Ishmael” about?

Hmm. I don’t really know. I think your presumptions would be closer to any truth that I might be able to come up with. Because, again, it’s so full of so many messages that just poured out as instinctive things to say and play, but then it’s like, “Man, ‘Ishmael’…” Even now, I look at it and it’s crazy. It’s like seeing a photograph of yourself and trying to figure out who you were at that time, what you were thinking about…  [The song] happened and it is about me, but “about” in the sense that someone is lurking about. It’s about me, it’s around me, and through me and in me. That’s what it was more so than anything else—it’s the atmosphere of Ishmael that that song kinda spelled out for me.


I imagine you as more of a conduit than an architect when it comes to writing lyrics. Is that accurate? Do you ever set out to approach specific topics within a song thematically, or is it more organic?

It’s like this: I’m sure you might roll around and see some shit or hear about some shit and say, “I’ma do a piece on that.” It’s kinda like that; shit’ll happen and I’ll be like, “I’m gonna address that.” I usually don’t write anything down; I might sketch out a few words so I can remember that basic basis. And then I rap it, and when I reach some impasse, I might stop and then continue on at the end of that line. It’s not like I’m mapping everything out, it’s just happening; I record it and keep going to the next part.


Do you enjoy a different level of creative freedom at this point in your career? If so, where does that come from and how hard was it earned? Or is it always there for any artist to take and uphold at any stage of their career?

I think [the latter] is the more correct statement. You gotta think of what cats want. Some cats just wanna be famous, man. You got somewhat vetted people telling them how it’s gonna happen, so a young impressionable person might listen to them if that’s what their aim is. That was never really my aim so I never had to worry about that. Bending over or selling out or making some type of concession, that just never struck me as a thing to do because if it was a requirement for the deal then I just wouldn’t have taken it. I don’t know why. I don’t down people that make those decisions because I understand them but it was never a problem for me because it was never a consideration.


When you encounter something you made in the past, how do you greet it?

With a mix of pride, embarrassment, criticism… It’s cool to sometimes hear it after a long period of time and have that distance from it but I get a physical reaction; it’s very revealing. It’s like seeing a photograph of yourself when you were young. “That’s what I was doing.” It’s a mix of embarrassment and pride, man.


Is the ghost of Butterfly a friendly one?

Oh, yeah. I fuck with him. He’s cool.

How would you sum up the Digable Planets ride and how you look back on it?

Supremely fortunate. Lucky. The fact that I was alive and participating in that era of hip-hop is the backbone of my abilities, freedoms and outlook, and my concepts and ideas now in my approach to music. Having come up in that era when individuality was the only thing that could separate you and get you any kind of respect, when everything now is getting homogenized and uniform… People always say you gotta sound different; I’m just like, “You have to, right?” You have to use your own instinct in order to get to your final product. But I get it. Nowadays, rap is basically one thing: you gotta get your shit off within this cadence, within this sonic palette, and that’s where rap is now. But back then you had to create all of that shit yourself.


When did music present itself as a path for you?

I was in jazz band in junior high, through high school. I played alto. My teacher, this silky smooth cat, could play all the instruments and compose, and at that time, just him—his look, his demeanor, the way he related with me—that was a goal for me. If I could be as cool as this cat with a little bit of my uncles and my dad mixed in, I’d be good. I realized then that music was something you could live your life to. My parents always let me know if you got passion for something, no matter what it is, you just have to be about that action and pursue it. You have to do it all day, every day, that’s how you know it’s a passion.



Did you fall in love with hip-hop around the same time?

Definitely. I was into “Rapper’s Delight” and all that when it came out, but this cat had a single of “Check Out My Melody” and “Eric B. Is President” at school and we went to the library and listened to it and that was it. I knew what was gonna be up with me from that day on. It was just that instinctive, innate draw and attraction that really doesn’t have words—it really doesn’t even need none. It’s strong, familiar and exotic at the same time, and motivating as well. If there wasn’t an Eric B. & Rakim track on that dude’s tape in the library, I wonder when you would have found them, or if whoever was on that tape would have set you off on a different path. It’s that sliding doors philosophy that could totally change your view of art and your whole life. I think that’s kind of missing now, too, serendipity and destiny and things happening in the world to get people in positions that set them on paths and courses. Now, cats are like, “Yo, I just wanna be famous, man, there’s a couple of ways I can do it; I can rap, or do thisand that,” and if you can cultivate this air of reverence about yourself, regardless of whether it’s true or substantial, if you can package it convincingly, you have a pretty good chance of being successful at it. So you don’t really get these people that are destined for certain things; you get people that have really figured out the means to it and went that direction. To me, it’s a little less exciting; you get a lot of superstars, quote-unquote, that really aren’t that engaging and it’s somewhat watered down. It’s still cool, but I see that having a lot to do with it.


It’s like Kim Gordon says: “People pay to see others believe in themselves.”

Yeah, “Come believe in me, come support my beliefs…” These Kickstarters, these fund-my-dreams kind of programs are bizarre to me! People like, “Yo, I’m trying to finish my album, gimme five Gs…” That’s craaazy to me. To even conceptualize that someone else should help you underwrite your dreams is a concept that is hard for me to understand. I’m glad to hear you say that because I feel like old, miserly Larry David when I say that to my friends. You gotta lay it on the line, right? I don’t wanna hear or read or watch or see anything from some motherfuckers who just didn’t lay it on the line. I’m good. It’s sort of a slight to all of you guys who have bled for it  for all these years. But I thought that’s what this thing was: To walk out on this ledge was you saying, “You know what, it’s sink or swim.” And then you put all that into whatever it is you need to swim with, and you’re like, “OK, now we got something here.” I think it should be essential. But again, it’s a waaay brand new day, bro. A brand new day.


Considering the other things that you do with Sub Pop as an A&R staffer, why is developing other artists so important to you? When you’re working with these artists, do you think of yourself more as teacher or student?

Both. It’s not work, man; it’s play, make no mistake. That’s what I like about Sub Pop. You’re in meetings, listening to a demo, and their phenomenal knowledge of music is fascinating. The way they approach it, you can tell it’s all passion, musicians, fans, artistic shit, and then it’s like, “OK, we gotta do business, too,” and they figured out a way to mix this so that it’s really all play. When you think about it, look, we’re all coming together so cats in bands can make music that people are gonna go live and love and dance and chill and get high to…so what’s work going on, really? And I ran across a lot of cats in my day who helped me out, showed me cool shit, brought me along and opened up doors for me, so it just seems natural and fun to be hanging with a bunch of people that are doing that for other people. The line between artists and working up there is pretty blurry. It’s special.


What is your relationship like with your collaborators in Shabazz Palaces? 

Before me and Tendai [Maraire, multi-instrumentalist] ever made one sound together, we knew each other for three years, of living around the corner, hanging out, going to eat with our girls together, going through ups and downs, talking about sports and chilling…so by the time we got to talking about music, our connection was so instinctive that we rarely ever talk about anything. We make musical suggestions and we pretty much immediately know if it’s a go. And that comes from the show; we rehearse so that by the time that we get there, we’re flying off the page pretty easily. We’ll have access to all of the sounds and the shapes and we’ll play it according to however we’re feeling at the time. We’ve come up with a very kinetic bond. And with Blood [producer], I can record something knowing what he is gonna be able to do it, so I can hear the end result before it comes while I’m in the sketching stage. So you can imagine that kind of freedom; it’s really fluid, we’ve been rocking with each other for coming up on eight years now. It’s invaluable. Everybody’s doing their own thing, there’s not this quagmire of their own expressions that they’re not able to get out; everybody’s happy, we got the studio now, too. It’s hitting a nice stride. 


What gets you the most excited about your career at this point?

Man, everything. But travelling is always awesome. Getting to go to Europe, Africa, Moscow, all these places, is pretty radical to your mind.


Does Seattle inspire you in ways that other places don’t?

Yes, it does. But I don’t know how. I just know that it does.


Do you feel like you have any limitations at this point?

Yeah. But they’re my limitations, I just gotta practice my scales, play more guitar, play the bass more, just practice more. But other than that… Nah, not really. F