Shabazz Palaces: the hip-hop space cadets go back to black

They created a splash with their debut album, and now Shabazz Palaces are going where other hip-hop artists dare not – if they can survive Seattle’s crazy house prices . . .

 Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire: ‘Hip-hop is representative of the male in America right now: an eternal adolescent, kind of superficial, playful, irresponsible, talented being who has lost his way a little’

Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire: ‘Hip-hop is representative of the male in America right now: an eternal adolescent, kind of superficial, playful, irresponsible, talented being who has lost his way a little’


Are you ready to get high again? Shabazz Palaces are back in the building and their engines are humming. The Seattle duo scorched a path to hip-hop’s far side with the abstract, artful Black Up in 2011. They’ve now returned with a new record set on on taking you to those places other hip-hop acts rarely visit.

Picking up from where Black Up came down, Lese Majesty is chockablock with dreamy jazz flickers, psychedelic beats, experimental washes of electronica, cosmic lyrical incantations and ambitious rushes of sound. It’s as far removed for what passes for hip-hop’s usual mainstream concerns as you can get.

The day after the band’s appearance at the recent Body & Soul festival, Tendai Maraire and Palaceer Lazaro (aka Ishmael Butler, or Butterfly when he was in Digable Planets mode) sit in a Dublin cafe sipping tea as they prepare to talk about the album. Or, rather, to talk around the album. It’s quickly apparent that, as with Black Up, Shabazz Palaces went with the flow when it came to the composition and recording of Lese Majesty. No plans, no drafts, no blueprints.

“It’s very like our performance, it just flows”, says Lazaro. “The album very much resembles a Shabazz show. We don’t really talk that much during a show or do that traditional throw your hands in the air stuff. We try to create a seamless show from beginning to end and you get that on Lese Majesty. It’s all done on instinct, rather than being carefully planned out.”

“We came into this with no expectations, no destination we wanted to arrive at, no blueprint,” says Maraire. “We just started making music because we felt we had to do that. There was a bigger drive behind it than just getting a record out. There’s another force, a kind of instinct, which makes us make this music.”

Perhaps that force has something to do with Seattle. After all, the city long associated with grunge and alt.rock has also produced a couple of great avant-garde hip-hop groups, including fellow space cadets THEEsatisfaction. Local label Sub Pop has gotten in on the act, releasing records by both groups as well as and California’s Clipping.

“Seattle has been very good for us,” says Lazaro, “but people are just catching up with what’s going on there now because of the people coming out like us and THEEsatisfaction and acts like that. This has been going for a while, us and THEEsatisfaction were a little different to the other groups who were around. And now others have joined in”.

“The city is changing; it’s becoming more expensive,” notes Maraire. “The areas we grew up in, it’s cost-prohibitive for artists like us to live there now. You can’t buy a house, you can’t even find one to rent. We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but the changes make it hard.”

He lauds Sub Pop’s efforts to document the new scene in the city.

“I think it was time for Sub Pop to branch out and try a new thing musically, but not just to do it. They had to find a route which would make the music work within what they do and have always done. I don’t think it was a thing like ‘yo, we go to sign somebody who raps’. It wasn’t as calculated as that.”

Adds Lazaro: “I think hip-hop is representative of the male in America right now: an eternal adolescent, kind of superficial, playful, irresponsible, talented being who has lost his way a little.

“That’s not to say that stuff isn’t interesting or fun or well done, but it doesn’t seem to be essential. The composer, the rapper, the listener – everyone involved seems to be riding on the crest of a superficial wave. Everything is kind of dumbed down, and people accept more mediocre things as being special. In the era we came from, mediocrity was the antithesis. Now, mediocrity is the norm.”

Lazaro is well placed to comment on these changes in the hip-hop game thanks to his time with Digable Planets.

“Hip-hop has always been an escape and there’s as many white kids escaping into hip-hop today as black kids for any amount of reasons. But it’s now a business. There are no cultural aspects to it anymore, there are no rites of passage; it’s a free for all.

“We’ve never subscribed to the notion that something is better because it’s new. At the same time, we’re not fans of nostalgia or trying to relive past times. Those two philosophies can coincide because we exist in a era when we have the approach and integrity of a past time, but we’re still expanding.

“Our music doesn’t sound like throwback music, but we approach how we make it in a throwback way. If you don’t put it all into your music and show that you have the courage to follow your instincts, it’s bullshit.”

The biggest change Maraire has noticed is how hip-hop, like many other forms of pop music, has become obsessed with self-promotion.

“Because of social media, a greater percentage of people feel they can dabble in the arts and those people feel like they have an understanding of art. But it’s not art, it’s marketing. What they’re doing is just self-promotion. All they’re doing is talking about themselves on blogs and taking selfies and commenting on themselves. It’s all self-promotion and that’s not part of anything. You can be part of a bigger thing and not know it until much later, but this is not part of something deeper. It’s superficial and short-term.”

According to Lazaro, the business side dominates at the expense of the art. “It’s becoming like the movie industry. I read a piece about that movie Transformers, about how they were reliant on financing from China and what they had to do to get this. Our whole approach is that instead of doing all those extra things to sell the music, we let the music sell the music as much as possible. There’s nothing wrong with social media like Twitter and Facebook and all of those; they can be healthy. But social media can’t take precedence over the music and art we make.”

When all is said and done, the duo want people to listen to Lese Majesty and let their music do its work. “We don’t feel the need to categorize every thing that we do,” says Lazaro, “to name a movement and call it something and then to try to develop an air of reverence around it by cultivating images and propaganda.

“It’s fine to market your music, but it’s got to a point where people are creating falsehoods under the guise of promotion and there’s a lot of collusion around creating this fake profile. In all those cases, there’s not much below the surface. We’d like to think you can delve deep with us and find a lot there.”