Ishmael Butler has been redefining what it means to be cool since his days under the pseudonym Butterfly of the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop trio, Digable Planets. Now, reigning at the forefront of modern hip-hop as Palaceer Lazaro of Shabazz Palaces, his musical experiment acts to liberate a genre confined by the formulaic production of recent years. Dropping the profusely praised album Black Up in 2011, Palaceer along with multi-instrumentalist and finger piano master Tendai Maraire, have created a musical space between psychedelia and hip-hop so sonically dense that the two genres can’t help but gravitate towards a funky sound.
Palaceer touched down at Yoshi’s in San Francisco last Thursday, putting on a mind-bending show with psych-indie rockers Siddhartha and saxophonist David Boyce both opening. Palaces’ performance could be imagined as the musical product of putting an ancient tribal-drummer and a beat-generation poet into a swagged-out space shuttle blasting off for an inter-galactic voyage.
The dynamic duo filled the jazz bar with astronomical chimes, organic conga drumming and enigmatic verses all the while keeping a danceable groove. With live experimentation ranging from a cache of voice modulations to laser-sharp synth tones, I was surprised that Palaceer was able to simply keep a flow — just imagine the feat of a musician taking the experimental beats of someone like Flying Lotus, rapping over them, while keeping his breath (not to mention sanity).
Underneath the thick, atmospheric layers of sound, there is something at the core of the group’s music that fundamentally challenges the state of current hip-hop. Their music confidently echoes from a sonically distant realm, bringing listeners a distinct noise that unveils the potential of a genre. Recently, I had a chance to talk with the Palaceer himself, carrying a free-form conversation on divinity, ghosts and all things funky.
Daniel Means: So you’ve had several characters from Butterfly of Digable Planets to the current Palaceer Lazaro. Is there a different individual behind each of these personas and how do these name transitions change the way that you make art?
Ishmael Butler: There’s not a different individual behind them. It’s like, when you get up and let’s say you have a job interview, maybe you’re going to a party, maybe you’re going to a date. All of these things require a different self of yours, both internally and externally. Now, we go to great extents to dress up that self or at least get into that self, so I just go a step further to name that self. The name is just a part of it all. It doesn’t allow or influence anything, it’s more like it’s the name of what’s happening to me, the name of the things that I’m understanding about myself and that’s why I attach it to whatever’s going on musically or artistically in me at that time. You know what I mean?
DM: I feel that. I’m curious. In your opinion, what’s the funk?
IB: The funk? Well, it’s kind of a cool word in the sense that there is no definition. It’s what you make of it really, and by that what I mean is this: It has to do with rhythm, it has to do with meaning, it has to do with instinct, it has to do with your talent. It’s the way you see things, hear things and want to make music feel. It all has to do with your ability to bring that shit together into something that people will either like or not like or call funky or not funky. A lot of it has to do with you, but a lot of it has to do with what is thought of, after you do what you do, of what you’ve done.
DM: So, lets talk about Black Up, which you released last summer. In the song “Are you…Can you…Were you? (Felt)”, you repeat the line “It’s a feeling.” For you, what does it mean to actually feel, and is there a feeling that you aim for throughout the music that you make?
IB: I’m not sure what it really means. I feel like, the feeling of surprise, of a good a surprise — the feeling that you notice something that you didn’t know before and it becomes apparent to you and how it sinks in and how you deal with that and what it does to you is the feeling to me. It’s being able to kind of grasp onto something that you didn’t know prior to finding out about it. And that excitement is something that I always look forward to in life.
DM: In your music, you talk a lot about freedom. For you, what does it mean to be free?
IB: Well, it’s an abstract word, you know? It varies, I think that a lot of it is attached to your courage, your level of courage. Because there’s a lot of people in this world born into situations that don’t really offer a lot of freedom. Yet, we see often that people from situations like that do amazing things because they kind of carve out a meaning for freedom in their situation for themselves and pursue that and do amazing things. To me, it’s like the courage to understand who you are in whatever situation you’re in, and maximize what can happen in that situation both affecting yourself and affecting other people.
DM: Awesome. Back to Black Up. Many of the tracks like for example, “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum,” they have a spooky echo that’s almost ghostly. In fact you even discuss ghosts in your lyrics. So, do you believe in ghosts?
DM: And how do they affect the way you make music?
IB: Just timelessness. Life is not something that begins and ends with the ability to go and buy something at the mall. There’s just realms. There’s realms that are existing on top of each other and we get caught up in this realm so much because we’re losing our spirituality and our humanity and our connection with nature, so we just ignore a lot of shit that’s going on around us. I try to pay attention to things as much as I can and have a conversation with the universe instead of just going through it numbly. There’s ghosts of all kinds, not just people. It’s infinite too. Things that deal with ghosts, they’re not really to be talked about. You experience them. You know what I mean? It’s kind of like between you and that experience really.
DM: You were just talking about how certain things are read. Do you believe in fate, do you believe in a divine presence?
IB: Yeah I do. I don’t think it’s shaped anything like we’ve been taught. It’s something that people can discover through observations of things other than themselves. We live in such an individualistic society where everybody’s trying to get to the bottom of themselves. But, I think that if you can observe and have respect for the things that you’re observing and have sort of a child-like curiosity in it — I think you’ll find divine. The way things are working, the mechanisms of humans in the world, it’s not difficult to see how amazing and divine it is … I just think we have to pay attention to different things, I don’t think its that deep.
DM: When was the last time that you found the divine?
IB: Well, to be honest with you man, I find it all the time. Like I’m sitting at the park and there are people walking by … it’s just always here.