Last year's Shabazz Palaces record was remarkable for many reasons. The record turned heads not only for its provocative title and unorthodox sonic template of African percussion, spooky jazz, murky industrial beats and distorted vocals, but also for its appearance on Sub Pop, that Seattle grunge label usually home to bands like Beach House and Washed Out. As the first hip hop release from the imprint, Black Up stood apart from the rest of 2011's so-called 'avant rap' bubble of blog-friendly notoriety-seekers like Lil B and the Odd Future kids. The album was the product of the mysterious Palaceer Lazaro, soon identified as Seattle dweller Ishmael 'Butterfly' Butler of early '90s hip hop trio Digable Planets, along with percussionist Tendai Maraire and guest vocals from newly-signed labelmates THEESatisfaction. The DIY weirdoism on show on Lil B's I'm Gay or Tyler the Creator's Goblin couldn't be further from Black Up's complex rhythms, opaque lyrics, freeform structures and cryptically spiritual aesthetic.
Meeting Butler and Maraire on a miserable day in Shepherds Bush near the blank face of Westfield shopping mall, London seems embarrassingly unglamorous compared to these rarefied mystery guests. Then again, Butler is from a city with 944mm of rain a year, so the gloom seems to suit them. Outdoor photos over, they offer their thoughts on being placed in the underground hip hop bracket alongside someone like Tyler, who was only just out of nappies when Butler won his first Grammy award. “I think at the core, the comparison is exact,” says Butler. “I think that we all have a similar approach to music, culture and life. But that being said, you could probably say that about most of the people making music around the world. I think a direct comparison is somewhat lazy, y'know, just because the acts are a little different [to mainstream hip hop]. Because in that difference is a chasm that's huge from one artist to the next. I like Lil B a lot – Lil B doesn't write any lyrics, he just puts the beat on and starts rapping, leaves all the mistakes in – to me that's a brave and courageous and kinda visionary way of doing it, it's kinda old school to the core, and I respect that, but to compare that with the guys in Odd Future... But cats are coming from the same heart feeling, I think.”
Take the lyrics, for example. Where Lil B is silly and provocative, and Odd Future just plain offensive, Shabazz Palaces are clearly reaching for something more oblique. Where the lyrics are clearly decipherable they often remain just out of reach: “There's about to be big movements from below, the golden age lies ahead”; “The lies are getting truer and the truth is getting brighter, things are looking blacker, but black is looking whiter.”
“Well, the lyrics, they happen to me, I don't necessarily make 'em up,” explains Butler. “I feel 'em, they come through and then I do as little modification to it as possible.” So it's question of waiting for inspiration to hit? “It makes the process slower but it's kinda what I do. Tendai's better at just having a subject and getting a middle and an end to it. We exist in a separate musical thing, but encompassed in the same thing. He's doing something and I'm doing something, and I learn something and then apply it to what I'm doing – it's a pretty different and rich relationship of collaboration.”
The other notable appearance on the record is from THEESatisfaction, a Seattle duo equal measures Salt'n'Pepa and Erykah Badu (for once a lazy comparison that's near the money – these girls are sexy but weird, gutsy but soulful) who contribute singing and rapping and also appear as occasional live guests. The spirit of collaboration runs through the album even though it's not credited as an ensemble piece.
“It's like coming from the same father,” explains Tendai. “Everybody knows what the rules are, you grow up together, and when everybody leaves they go their way but when it's time to do their thing they know the rules.” Tendai himself comes from a family of musicians and is preparing to release his own hip hop record as well as an album of mbira music, or thumb piano, the percussion instrument he wields to mesmerising effect on tracks like 'Free Press and Curl'.
The Shabazz Palaces live performance also diverges from your standard hip hop show, with Butler and Maraire playing instruments and triggering samples while sharing tightly rehearsed vocals and even choreographed dance moves. “We were raised with the understanding that if you were lucky enough to have the gift of music then you saw that as being a gift, you didn't necessarily claim it as your own,” says Butler. “So when you use it in performance you treat it like a gift, give a lot, be dedicated, spend your time on stage involved.” THEESatisfaction also make guest appearances during the show, adding vocals and sassy moves of their own. “Without really talking about it, it kinda evolved to where it is now, and even now we're looking at it like, we don't do enough! We try to add new shit almost every show, but also leave a lot of room for things to happen naturally that are different every night. So it's like a reverence for being able to perform,” says Butler.
That reverential element to the group's aesthetic comes through in both the lyrics and the visual elements, with religious signals and symbols used ambiguously, for example in the Arabic lettering in the album artwork or in song titles like 'An Echo From the Hosts that Profess Infinitum'. They both feel a connection between music and spirituality? “Yeah,” says Butler. “'Cos I'm not really a religious or a church-going person, although I have beliefs and stuff like that, but one thing that I do go to every day is music.” Both were brought up in musical environments, and with a master mbira player for a father there was no doubt that Maraire would start performing just as soon as he could hold an instrument. “My whole family is into music, my father and my mother, brothers, sisters. I wasn't forced but it was like, there's nothing I could do! At 18 months, my parents said I just hopped up and started playing, and the rest is history.”
“For my mom it was Motown,” adds Butler. “My dad was more like avant garde jazz.” That jazzy sense of untethered exploration, a looseness in form, certainly comes through in Black Up’s disregard for convention and easy hooks, but the range of influences on Shabazz Palaces is infinitely broad, according to Butler. “Looking back on it, I just liked any kind of music that was good, whether it was on a commercial or a sitcom, a theme song or anything like that. I was just keen to rhythm, to melodies, from the start. But I really like Prince and Parliament/Funkadelic, that was stuff I used to listen to over and over and over and over.”
After a couple of self-released EPs, Shabazz Palaces started to capitalise on the internet chatter they had generated, but remained reluctant to give interviews or put a face to the music. While the hype mill works faster than ever, publicity-shy musicians can also use the web to stay out of view and keep their distance from the PR machines. But was the aim to remain anonymous and go for slow-burn success, or are they still gunning for sales and acclaim? “There's no aim. We don't approach it and say, 'We want the outcome to be this',” says Maraire. Some of their mid-‘90s peers continue to enjoy success yet remain relatively underground, I suggest – take Ghostface Killah and MF Doom’s recent show at the Roundhouse. “Slow is cool because there's not many dudes from Ghost's and Doom's era that's just gonna come out and have a massive show,” says Butler. “They just let their music represent them. If they went and got an interview or had a TV show, anything happening was because somebody liked their music, not because a solicitor got it for them or their publicist. So I respect that and I see that as adding some longevity to what you're doing, if you allow whatever it is you do to get you wherever it is you're gonna go, instead of manipulating things.”
Still, it must have been gratifying to see Black Up regularly appearing in critics’ end of year polls last month. “If you make something for commerce, any kind of success is pretty amazing,” says Butler. ‘It's unexpected, but there's a duality to it. I mean, we know that we have skills, but sometimes your idea may not resonate, so you just don't know.” Maraire agrees: “No one likes every song on our album.”
“The philosophy is like, because you gotta rely on your instinct, you might do something and not necessarily think that much of it, but you gotta keep things there,” continues Butler. “Sometimes there's stuff going on that you don't necessarily like, but you have to accept it 'cos it happened.”
So how does the rise of Shabazz Palaces relate to the success of Digable Planets way back when? “If you ever start feeling like you're entitled to success then you start being one of those asshole superstar people unable to accept when things don't go their way, y'know,” says Butler. Did that happen to him? “No.” But presumably it happened to people he knew? “Yeah,” he laughs. So given the huge chasm between the sonic palettes of Digable and Shabazz, what kind of future hip hop can we expect the group to be working on next? “I don't even know yet,” says Butler. “You can hear things going on in your mind, when you write a piece or something – there's whisperings of the idea, but you can't necessarily grab onto it or catch a line off of it yet. But I feel it, y'know. And little things, silently, ideas and stuff... but it hasn't quite been pasted together in our mind yet.”
Finally I ask what other artists we should be looking out for in the coming year. “There's certain websites I go to that specialise in hearing new music, but I'll just put it in my iPod and have it on rotation,” Butler says. So, despite forging such a unique identity for Shabazz Palaces, the notion of authorship isn't all that important him? “Not really.” It's a strange admission from someone who's worked hard to create such a cohesive and distinctive album, but also appropriate to the way he seems to place the music ahead of the personalities behind it. They both give props to THEESatisfaction, who plan to release a record later this year, and Maraire recommends Zimbabwean singer and mbira player Hope Masike.
With plans for more live shows and another record to be released through Sub Pop, Shabazz Palaces definitely aren't on the standard hip hop trajectory. “Yeah,” says Butler, offering an off-the-cuff summation of the band's ruling principle: “I mean, how you are is gonna dictate where you go.”