Sci-fi escapism and political criticism are intertwined on Shabazz Palace’s double-whammy of new records. Frontman Ishmael Butler explains how, as an African American, he feels like an alien in the Age of Trump and what Prince’s death tells us about our unhealthy obsessions with celebrity.
There’s a song on one of the two new albums Shabazz Palaces dropped recently called ‘Love In The Time Of Kanye’. The title is obviously a play on the Gabriel García Márquez jam Love In The Time Of Cholera. But it’s also a critique of modern celebrity culture – that horror-scape of pouting Kardashians, Justin Bieber nudie pics and, yes, of Kanye West going bonkers on Twitter.
“I’m not dissing Kanye,” says Ishmael Butler, the rapping mystic behind Shabazz Palaces and a commanding figure in alternative hip-hop since his days fronting Digable Planets through the late ’80s and ’90s. “Kanye sort of represents the modern entertainment industry that we’ve all agreed to accept.”
Butler later delivers the line “we killed Prince”. He’s essentially repeating the point made on the Kanye track: we’re at the mercy of the gossip industrial complex, in which celebrity has become a vastly debased currency.
“When someone like Prince dies, everyone’s going, ‘Oh I love that guy – let me post a picture on my Instagram’. Our appetite for controversy and drama… we need it like we need fast food to be served up. We gulp it down and then it’s on to the next tragedy. The culture is just ravenous for tragedy nowadays.”
Butler has never been an orthodox rhymer and Shabazz Palaces’s simultaneously released new LPs Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star are as richly eccentric as fans would expect. Together they constitute a sprawling conceptual opus about an extra-terrestrial named Quazarz who, tracing the arc of David Bowie’s character in The Man Who Fell To Earth, comes to our homeworld and is dumbfounded by the insanity and inanity.
Conjuring existential dread and bafflement wasn’t a challenge for Butler. He is, after all, an African-American alive in 2017. In a country that has put Donald Trump into the White House, how could a member of a minority feel anything but alien?
“Quazarz is a person who doesn’t belong in the place where they are,” he says. “That feeling was starting to creep in when Trump and all that shit was bubbling up. Trump’s rhetoric has a nationalistic bent to it – he’s really about white America getting back to the time it was in the majority. Not just symbolically but also in numbers. That’s why a lot of white supremacists and neo-Nazis were drawn to him”
Butler, the son of a University of Virginia history professor, formed Shabazz Palaces with multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire in 2009. He had by that point earned a reputation as one of hip-hop’s most progressive exponents, but he was eager that Shabazz Palaces wasn’t merely Digable Planets 2.0, and continues to break boundaries.
Butler recorded Quazarz v the Jealous Machines in Los Angeles with bassist Thundercat. Back in Seattle, he found he still had a torrent of musical ideas to work through and assembled a surprise follow-up, Born On A Gangster Star. The result is a dizzying tour de force in two parts. “In Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time Flying Lotus’ house,” he says, referring to the esteemed electronic producer. “He’s a wizard and wizards attract other wizards. You are around a lot of cats who are really high level artistic thinkers. I was lucky to be in that atmosphere.”
Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star are out now on Sub Pop Records.