“That’s how we start the show”, Ishmael Butler confidently says as the shakers, bass, and kick drum crackle around him on “Gunbeat Falls”, the opening track of Shabazz Palaces’ 2009 EP Of Light. His beat has a distinct Afro-centric flare, reflecting his past, present and future, his roots, upbringing, and a vision that he portrays using the symbolism of light, stars, and sparkles. His vision is one of black empowerment. He is a political realist but also an idealist in that he realizes where his people are and is sure of where he wants them to go. He strives for something better, clinging to his music as he knows that his music is a means to convey his message of empowerment but also a lifesaver of sorts. “The beat will always save us” is a phrase echoed by Butler and two other voices, repeated as the bass reverberates and swells. The bass drops, and only African drums sound under Butler’s verse.
Hip hop has long been a way for African Americans to escape, be it psychologically or literally. It has been a medium that has provided financial security and a refuge from the ghettos and it has been a means to reflect the torment felt by generations of people. Ironically, it has become a means of exploitation, and some rappers such as the group Dead Prez have compared record labels to modern slave ships. Butler’s expression is one free from pressures and containment of labels, a true example of the potential powers that hip hop holds. He flew under the radar until quite recently; for several months after the release of the Shabazz EPs (which contained no liner notes), many were left to speculate who the MCs of Shabazz Palaces were. Butler claims that his secrecy is not intentional, he states that he just puts his music out there and doesn’t seek the spotlight. The spotlight has found him, however, as it did in the early 90’s when he was the frontman for Grammy nominees Digable Planets. The work done on the Shabazz EPs and the upcoming Sup Pop release Black Up are simply too remarkable to ignore. His lyrics are mysterious, filled with metaphor and raw imagery. The beats behind his words are fragmented, pulsing, a combination of African percussion and post-modern ambience. His samples are nods towards classic tribal song and chant, jazz, and sound that is too natural and too human, too universal to be categorized succinctly.Through these sounds come a distinct encompassing artistic vision for the future of hip hop. The future of hip hop, and the future of an entire race.
Certain phrases stand out. Words of advice. Calls. Words begging for action. He asks, on “100 SPH”, “Don’t you feel that it’s time for the bomb?” “Let them know you holler black and far”. Interspersed jazz horn lines. A beat that sways like waves against the African shores. A meditation on fake rappers “posin’ in white boy suits”. He wants his fellow MCs to be real, to recognize their roots. The next track begins with a siren, a distinctly African beat, agogo bells and percussion carrying the bass. A muffled news report. More lines decrying pop stars. That he’s been there make Butler’s words all the more meaningful. “Money make them fools”. An almost Middle Eastern horn line ends the song, a transition to “Chuch” which begins with a repeated playground call and response, a tribal call. More agogo, triangle. Big resounding bass on beat one. “Heat up the grease”. “We call that survival/with style”, the repeated chorus. “Everytime we move we do it straight up”. “Straight up” is repeated. Messages of self and cultural improvement. “I live out loud I’m proud”. “Nah really what’s up with that bullshit that they be tryin’ to sell us/what the fuck we look like? Corny ass niggas eatin jello in the crowd at an open mic?/Hell to the nah, we intelligent relevant/life survivors that wanna hear somethin elegant/you reheated your beats and rhymes so many times nigga that’s why I dine hella quick”. “Sparkles” is jazz straight out of North Africa. Breezy. A distinct vibe that is not easily categorized. It has to be heard. “We steppin out”, Butler and co. repeat. “I know we always strugglin to make somethin out of nothin”. “We live life in this rythm/they always take and don’t be given”. “We steppin’ out/to put the stars up”. The next two tracks, closing the EP, go together. The beat is understated, head bobs. Mysterious. A woman’s voice emerges, singing softly. It sings about “love”. Butler sprinkles his verse around it. His phrases and the repeated love are intertwined. Part two begins with “a lesson to the weak”. The bass is deep, a light flute goes on top. “I guess you really can lead a nigga to a well and make him drink it”. “I’m a product and a victim to perpetuate the sickness”. “My love is left on empty”. “I ordered too much food and wine, the bill is here, it’s time to pay”. “Find out who you are/and see it/find out what you are/and free it/find out who you love/and need it/find out what you can/and be it/that’s what’s up, that’s what’s up”. The flute solos, joined by saxophone. “Find out”. Of Light is in the books.
Shabazz Palaces, the EP, begins with a tale of a man playing 21, “taking hella chance under the moonlit sun”. Another metaphor. Metaphors are mixed in, straying from the extended metaphor that is the individual song. A phrase separates itself: “just like spinners look like we’re goin but we’re really stopped”. A modern symbol of black affluence is a real symbol of a lack of progress even though progress is implied. The next track, shortened as “4 leaves”, talks about “breakin bread”, redistributing wealth to the community. “To be an MC is a pact, not an act, in fact it’s an honor we act to”. The subsonic bass rattles subs. Butler talks about the assumption that MCs give back to those who made them, to the place where they came from. It’s really a cautionary tale about black reliance on others. “It’d just be easier, my nigga to break bread”. In the next track, Butler repeats the phrase “do it for my people so you know y’all can have it”, a continuation of the ideas expressed in “4 leaves”. This is a slightly different meditation, as Butler is stating that he raps in order to empower his people but not to provide for them explicitly and literally. He provides in terms of thought and provocation, but not in terms of funds. The EP continues with “Blastit”, a track that begins with a kalimba solo. The themes of light and the night sky are continued: “underneath the starlight, underneath the moonlight, streetlight, club lights, specially candle lights”. It is a celebration, a song about taking chance. On “Capital 5”, Butler promises to be “a bright light on the dark side of town”. He strives to be an example. The beat is minimal, uneasy. The bass, the samples, blips and high pitched ambient background. Repeated voices. Electro noise. Butler’s soundscapes are of neon-lit streets. One AM. “And they say that times have changed/times they always change the same”. “Slow down/for what? Slow down”. The beat skitters to a stop, shakers and voices reverberate. “The street poets philosophize”. Butler is a street poet, but that undersells his abilities. He is a poet that reflects the streets, but reaches farther than his target audience. He speaks to everyone who has the pleasure of hearing him. He brings his scope back down for the EP’s closer, starting off by saying “yeah I’m just like you, I know I’m a mess”. He is a universal poet, speaking about and to his people, while reaching a universal audience. An audience that may be ready, or may not be. His music is futuristic, his lyrics visionary.
Tuesday, June 28th, marks the release of Shabazz Palaces’ full length debut. Black Up, the first hip hop release by Seattle’s famed Sup Pop records, has already received rave reviews from such sources as Pitchfork, the Los Angeles Times and, of course, from local outlets such as The Stranger and the Seattle Times. For Butler, one can only imagine that high critical acclaim is not what he is aiming for. He is not that simple, not that predictable. His vision appears to be grander. Time will tell if his high degree of musical accomplishment parlays itself into something deeper. That it seems to have the power to do so is an accomplishment in and of itself.