ISHMAEL BUTLER, the driving artistic force behind Seattle hiphop group Shabazz Palaces, is no stranger to the ups, downs, and all-around capricious nature of the music industry. Back when he was known as Butterfly in the Grammy Award-winning group Digable Planets, Butler experienced firsthand that with success comes expectations, and that those expectations rarely sync up to your own agenda. Due to the crossover appeal of the Planets' first single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" mainstream critics overplayed their bohemian jazz influence, inextricably linking the group to dorm rooms and open mic coffee shop poetry sessions, a world far removed from the gritty street realities that birthed hiphop in the first place.
Although the distinction of the Planets as "positive" in contrast to the perceived "negative" attributes of their more grimy contemporaries may have worked wonders from a marketing standpoint, it was ultimately a disingenuous dichotomy. So the Digables followed their debut with Blowout Comb as a rejoinder, an Afro-centric exploration of block parties, corner stores, projects, and barbershops. Despite the brilliance that resulted in the broadening of their musical and thematic vocabulary, in retrospect it seems inevitable that the Five Percenter allusions and Black Panther militancy would be a turn-off to the backpacked contingent simply yearning for innocuous wordplay spit over saxophone samples. In the end, the group called it quits and Butler retreated to his hometown of Seattle.
Earlier this year, Butler reemerged with two cryptic self-released EPs under the Shabazz Palaces moniker—for the most part solo efforts, although for onstage performances Butler is joined by Tendai "Baba" Maraire on percussion, and fellow emcee Silk. The punchy MPC beats are surrounded with futuristic stabs of electro-glitch, melodic swirls, and organic percussion. On the lyrical tip, they are equally profound, cosmic, and more street than asphalt. Determined to slowly build his fanbase from the ground up, Butler eschews the standard practices of everything from liner notes to interviews to having a strong online presence. In the age of over-saturated social media, it's quite refreshing.
More importantly, being adamant to staying true to his muse first and foremost has paid off. Recently showered with well-deserved critical accolades, Shabbazz Palaces is proof positive that "it ain't where you're from, it's where you're at."