Space Boogie Boys: Shabazz Palaces

Chatting with the hip-hop mavericks…

By now you’ve been alive long enough to know not to believe everything that you read. Study the texts on Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, and the suggestion is that the duo has beamed down from Earth orbit to smuggle future sounds into contemporary hip-hop. Even the act’s label, Sub Pop, implies that the sounds of Shabazz are not of wholly terrestrial, or physically human origin: “A series of astral suites, recorded happenings, shared,” it says of the duo’s new album, ‘Lese Majesty’ (review).

“We’re not making futuristic music, like anyone could,” comments Shabazz mainman Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro, previously Butterfly of Digable Planets. Like that great rap trio of the mid-1990s – whose ‘Blowout Comb’ LP of ’94 is simply one of the greatest collisions of jazz and hip-hop you could ever want to hear, up there with A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘The Low End Theory’ – Shabazz Palaces have been firmly placed into the avant-rap category.

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‘Forerunner Foray’, from ‘Lese Majesty’

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Theirs is a music sharing elements with what some perceive as a golden age for hip-hop, a time of Nas and Biggie breaking through, and of great progression in the genre. But just as they’re not broadcasting from a date as yet unreached, neither are Butler and cohort Tendai Maraire echoing the past, choosing instead to embrace the present in a way that feels natural to them. “We’re not trying to bring back some golden era,” continues Butler. “I mean, today, and being alive, that’s pretty cool, so let’s make the most of that, sonically.”

Maraire jumps on the topic: “The ‘golden era’ of hip-hop was one that coincided with the blackest era of drugs and death and murder, and the rise of crack. So yeah, it was a rich period for hip-hop, but back then you were expected to have your own style. If you sounded like someone else, you weren’t gonna make it.

“That bred an environment where you learned a lot about these artists’ personalities, what they did and where they were from, their neighbourhoods, through the music. Someone from New York was never going to sound like someone from Florida, or Atlanta. That distinctiveness is kinda gone now. Today, there is more uniformity, and a more pronounced homogenisation. So it was a ‘golden’ era, with quotation marks around it – but there was a lot of bad shit going on, that nobody would want to happen again.”

So, Shabazz Palaces sound like Seattle, right? Because they sure as hell don’t sound like a lot of other acts that trade as hip-hop (and accurately enough, too – there’s plenty of room for manoeuvring). “Amongst our circle of friends and musicians, we don’t feel like we’re doing anything radically different, when we’re all just hanging out,” says Butler. “This is just the way that the music expresses itself, through us, through our instincts.”

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The environment that we live and work in is probably just a bit different from the average rapper…

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“I think there are plenty of artists out there who call themselves ‘alternative’,” he continues. “They’re trying to have that calling card, where their whole thing is, ‘Oh, I’m being different.’ I respect that approach, but at the same time I don’t really dig it, personally.

“Also, I think a lot of [mainstream] artists are just trying to make money – like, that’s their paramount goal. So, in order to do that, to survive, you’ve got to check all the boxes. You’ve got to have all these different songs on your album: a song to go to the clubs, a song for radio, a song for the ladies, or whatever. And you have to have these certain types of producer, who’s down with the label, and they have to get paid – and then the videos, they have to be just this one way.

“So, we have a different approach to that. Our label, Sub Pop, they want their artists to feel comfortable enough to explore their tastes and instincts, and take chances – to not be afraid. We never had any suggestion from anyone at the label to try to repeat ‘Black Up’, or what that album did. The environment that we live and work in, then, is probably just a bit different from the average rapper.”

Simply repeating ‘Black Up’ wouldn’t necessarily have been frowned upon by the critical community and its maker’s fanbase alike, such was the great impression it left, leaving many a listener eager for more. Shabazz Palace’s debut LP of 2011 attracted considerable acclaim, ranking at number one on the album of the year lists of Prefix, Gorilla Vs Bear, Potholes In My Blog and Cokemachineglow. Pitchfork placed it at 14. It did good. But it was never really likely that the air would feel pressured to confirm to that album’s stylistic blueprint.

“We don’t put any boundaries on our own music, or anything we do,” says Maraire. “I think the only boundary we have is to try not to participate in what the mainstream does. That formula of music, its creation and the outcome, we don’t really get with that. We go way past the boundaries that an average hip-hop group would have.”

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‘They Come In Gold’, from ‘Lese Majesty’

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So it’s no surprise that ‘Lese Majesty’ is the sprawling, absorbing, exotic listen that it is, expanding the sometimes claustrophobic soundscapes of ‘Black Up’ into more starry designs, brighter palettes and wonkier rhythms. Album-previewing track ‘They Come In Gold’ plays out across two distinct movements, a microcosm of its parent LP, which comes chaptered into seven suites like a 1970s prog-rock opus. It might look hard to swallow, but with no one track exceeding five minutes and many clocking in at under two, it’s a set that keeps moving, ever shifting, never settling into predictability. It’s incredibly accomplished – that much is clear from even the most cursory listen, and the deeper you get into ‘Lese Majesty’, so its finer details begin to take hold. Masters at work, then? Not at all – Shabazz Palaces are still learning.

“We’re always turning each other onto different, new kinds of music,” says Butler. “You’ve got to be excited about what people are making, I think. And we don’t have any kind of ‘elite’ feeling. We don’t feel that our music is deeper, or more prestigious, than anything else. We’re just doing what feels real to us – and we’re still trying to make you dance, just in a way that isn’t corny, or superficial, or banal.

“Also, the notion that just because something is new, that makes it better? We don’t subscribe to that. And, again, we’re not nostalgic, either. We lived through a great time for hip-hop, and while we understand it and take a lot of essence from it, we’re always trying to expand it for the now.”

Says Maraire: “There’s always a super serious underground music scene that just isn’t going to go mainstream, and that’s inspiring to us. You see that in Detroit, you see it across the Midwest and down South. The majors don’t care about it, and they’re never gonna care about it. But there are artists making some really fresh music.”

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Sub Pop has given us the opportunity to show our stuff to people who otherwise would not have checked us out…

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So it’s lucky that Shabazz Palaces aren’t on a major, as quite clearly they’re not angling their material towards the same tangents as Drake, or Eminem, or whoever. Working with Sub Pop not only allows the pair to indulge their greatest creative urges, but it’s also been vital in opening doors for them to stride through, confident that they’ve delivered the best material they can, without compromise.

“When people see the Sub Pop logo, they know that music’s going to be quality,” says Butler. “If it’s on Sub Pop, it’s probably pretty dynamite. People have seen that we’re on the label, and have definitely checked us out because of that reason. If we weren’t on the label, they would never have come across us. So the label has given us a lot of light, in terms of touring and shows, and exposure. It’s given us the opportunity to show our stuff to people who otherwise would not have checked us out. Everyone has some frame of reference for Sub Pop, no matter what genre you like.”

And may these “recorded happenings” stretch as far as they can, from the basements of their makers’ hometown to the outer reaches of the cosmos. Chances are that even out there, on some distant alien world, their brand of space boogie isn’t in the slightest bit comparable to Shabazz Palaces’ singular sonic sculpting. However it’s billed.

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Words: Mike Diver
Photos: Patrick O’Brien-Smith

‘Lese Majesty’ is released on July 28th. Shabazz Palaces online

Shabazz Palaces play Illuminations, in London, on November 4thdetails

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