"I RUN ON FEELINGS/fuck your facts," Ishmael Butler (AKA Palaceer Lazaro) spits on one of the first few bars of Shabazz Palaces' first full-length Black Up. The lyrics could be interpreted as the running ideology for how the Seattle duo works.
"What motivates me to rap is something innate," Butler says, "Something I can't really put a name to." Butler's output, along with percussionist Tendai Maraire, is hard to grasp. There is a dichotomy between harrowing darkness and a sense of spiritual elevation, but both moods are concurrently present on their album. It is distinct to their work, and that is what is important to them—the sounds, not who is making them. "I don't see myself as a personality behind that music [who's] interesting because I used to do this and at one time I did that," Butler says.
One of the things he "used to do" might be highlighted in the '90s hiphop section of your music history textbook. Back then Butler—using the moniker Butterfly—was one third of New York City's jazz-rap collective Digable Planets. Their single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," with its analog crackle, contagious horn loop, and cake-icing-smooth vocals, garnered them a Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1994. The familiar din that purred behind the track's first hook—a repeated "I'm cool like that"—is imbued throughout Black Up like a comfort current amid a varied backdrop of beats. Dissonance is king, but it's a prismatic journey from start to finish. The palette kicks off with warbled robotics reminiscent of a dustup on Black Up's opener, "Free Press and Curl," and mutates throughout to its rhythmic, ethereal conclusion on "Swerve... the Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)."
"The minute it starts to get formulaic, quit," Butler explains, but he's not quick to open up about the more minute details of his process. It's a part of the work he finds to be more intimate than most rappers, who are usually quick to unleash the ins and outs of recording. "When you finish an album, people see that as having a certain finality to it, [but] it continues to be something that changes every time you listen to it or perform it. In that sense, there is no finality to it, so [I won't be] speaking about it in final tense."
Shabazz Palaces' live show is something Butler speaks about with pep. "It's kind of like when you were a kid and you knew you were going to the amusement park to get on a roller coaster. But, there's the drive there, there's waiting in line. There are all these things that precede it that are arduous, but you deal with it excitedly because you know you're about to get on that roller coaster." Their ride is one of organic shifts, with Maraire on bongos and Butler wielding electronics. But even though Butler is most energetic when speaking about playing live, he will not designate it his favorite part of his work. "I'm not making [this] happen, [it's] happening to me," he says, almost referencing his sense of what compels him to rap. "I don't think I could pick a favorite. They need each other and I'm just happy to be a part of it."