Why Shabazz Palaces Mine Sonic Inspiration From 'An Elsewhere'

Shabazz Palaces explore alienation.
Shabazz Palaces explore alienation. Victoria Kovios
Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces has always had a thing for “concepts.”

His ’90s hip-hop trio Digable Planets operated on its own wavelength, balancing jazzy hooks and laid-back rhymes to explore concepts of time and space on hits like “Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like Dat)” and albums like 1994’s landmark Blowout Comb.

In 2009, Butler rechristened himself Palaceer Lazaro, teamed with instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire to form Shabazz Palaces, and began releasing a string of thoughtfully constructed LPs with an extraterrestrial bent: 2011’s Black Up, 2014’s Lese Majesty, and this year, two full-lengths, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. Examining the travails of Quazars, a “being from an elsewhere,” the records skirt the line between concept album and impressionistic collections of scenes.

"I was trying to go into and capture and explore the feeling of, ‘This ain’t home. Who is this home to?’”

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“When I was young, you know, that’s kind of what an album was one way or another,” Butler says of his attraction to conceptualization. “Whether it was conceived as a compilation of the best songs of the group or conceived as a full realization of an idea of a group. So you’re talking Parliament to Prince to Pink Floyd to the Last Poets.”

It’s different now, he says. The modern focus is on singles, of getting a song “on a playlist, that kind of thing.” As an A&R man for Sub Pop Records, Butler holds a strong grasp on the state of the music business. But he knows what works for him when it comes to making album-length statements.

“That’s just kind of like where I’m comfortable and also find the most latitude and longitude for some creativity as well,” he says.

Though the records serve as discrete statements — coupled with an accompanying graphic novel from Fantagraphics — they’re united by a shared sonic theme. Filled with synth gurgles, jazzy beats, and booming bass, the albums share a flow, a futuristic funk wave that finds Butler exploring the concept of “the other,” of feeling displaced in his own country.

“Trump was really gaining a lot of traction with this notion of returning America back to what it used to be,” Butler says. “It was all this veiled racist, white supremacist, white cultural supremacy in America, and we gotta get back to that. We gotta get back to when all these funny-looking, funny-talking, funny-dressing people weren’t everywhere, just thinking they can say and do whatever they want … I was trying to go into and capture and explore the feeling of, ‘This ain’t home. Who is this home to?’”

Though his work’s often likened to science fiction, Butler says the sense of “alienation” that often informs it isn’t drawn so much from fiction as cosmic “sense memories.”

“People say it’s like Funkadelic or Sun Ra, people like that,” Butler says. “But like, all that Sun Ra stuff, that he was saying about where he was from and his mission here, I didn’t take that as fiction. It wasn’t presented to me, from the older cats that showed it to me, or Parliament, ‘Star Child,’ all that, you know, I feel like a lot of these outer space, extraterrestrial, interstellar leaning these brothers had evoked … some ancient truth that is so familiar to them and so readily available to them when they are creating in higher states of consciousness … they’re more recollections of actual events than something these guys made up.”

The concepts, Butler says, aren’t external — they’re internal.

“It’s like you’re drawn to certain things and you don’t necessarily know how you got there, but when you arrive you’re comfortable and say, ‘I want to explore this place’ ... you feel like you’ve been called there.”

Shabazz Palaces are scheduled to perform on Sunday, August 20, at Crescent Ballroom. Tickets are $17 to $20 via Crescent Ballroom's website.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.