Ishmael Butler Talks Record Store Day, Trump, and What Music Means to Him

Ishmael Butler has been writing charged-up, innovative rap since 1992's seminal hip-hop single with Digable Planets, "Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like Dat)." When Digable Planets retired, he dabbled in a funkier, sexier sound with Cherrywine before finally joining instrumentalist Tendai Maraire and creating Shabazz Palaces. While Shabazz Palaces contains elements of his previous sounds, it explores a far more sonically diverse palette that is constantly shifting and evolving. The duo's last album was in 2014, but Butler insists they are working hard on an upcoming 2016 release.

Given Butler's journey through musical eras and style, who better to represent Record Store Day and celebrate the resurgence of vinyl? So it's fitting that Shabazz Palaces will be headlining Sweat Records' massive RSD party on Saturday, April 16.

But before that happens, we talked to Butler about the current election cycle, creating different sounds, and walking through different musical eras. 

New Times: You’ve been involved in so many projects. Are you a restless guy with music, always finding yourself going to work?
Ishmael ButlerDoing something with music, making a beat, jamming with people, I’m curious about music at all times. 

Is there something different motivating you to make music now than there was before?
No, I’m not motivated to make music; I’m compelled. Motivation has some implication of having a source outside of the thing that is motivating. For me, the musical desire is something that is inside of me, so I just do it because I find myself always doing it. Because of that, I then had to find a way for my life to work around that fact.

A lot of your musical production has some really interesting and strange things going on in the background. How much of that is sort of planned out in the studio? Are you a perfectionist with that stuff?
I’m definitely not a perfectionist. I think someone can be a perfectionist and not feel like they are, but someone can also be a perfectionist and know that they are as well.

You’ve been making music for so long and have worked during such wildly different eras. How would you compare the '90s era to now?
I don’t really believe in — I know what you’re saying — but music is always something that evolves and grows, so only historians and people who want to categorize it into little pockets of time. And usually it’s like a decade, but trends in music and waves in music, they don’t necessarily go in any quantifiable span, so I never think of it like this age or that age. I remember those days, I remember that time, but one thing leads to another, so that era and its essences made way for what’s going on now and what’s going on since then. So it’s always changing. Now, a lot of rap songs sound very similar to one another. That’s one of the major differences. Before, in that era, your song had to sound different in order for it to get attention. Now the more similar it sounds to the current trend in music... It doesn’t seem like people get tired of the same beat or rhythm or rhyme or rhyme scheme as much. That makes me think it’s more about marketing than it is about artistic expression.

Are you speaking about hip-hop or music in general?
Again, I get why people have to break it down into hip-hop, but to me all music is music. To me, I don’t sit down and think, "This is a rap song." I’m listening to it and trying to use my instinct to figure out if it moves me or not. So I’m talking about all music. But hip-hop especially, if you take it as a microcosm and look at it — does what I say fit it? I think that it does.

A great artist of that era, Phife Dawg, was just lost. Did you ever have the chance to hang with him?
Yeah, I was just telling my dad, I met the Dawg one time in D.C. at a club — I think it was Kilimanjaro — it was one of the clubs... but I forget. He was there, and we had a brief conversation. He was talking about what people call jazz rap and how a  lot of people didn’t understand it. I don’t quite remember the specifics of the conversation, but obviously I was already a member of Tribe and Phife, so I was in the club, and it was loud, and I was in awe. It was pretty wild. I remember Tupac was there that night too. It was lit.

Shabazz has released some fairly politically charged output. What do you make of the current election cycle?
I think it’s good. I like it. You realize in situations like an election and with people who end up representing groups of people that there’s a lot of different kind of ideological and social thoughts in this country we live in. And it’s complex, and when the complexity is represented in the type of people we can choose from, we can learn from that. And whether we take that opportunity or merely get just caught up in the taking-sides aspect of it is really a serious choice that’s up to the people. I don’t think the people are really living up to that. Everybody’s just taking sides and making a dope of the other side. Donald Trump is just a joke, and it’s funny the type of shit that he says and does. However, once you understand that he’s the frontrunner because the people he represents understand him, the shit’s not funny anymore. So at what point do we take this shit seriously? Everyone wants their side to be taken seriously. But the other side is a joke... So the way we do politics is some bullshit. I get it. Trump’s corny and racist and all that stuff, but the reality is that he represents a lot of people. So we gotta engage that shit or we’ll be right back here again.

You're coming to Sweat on Record Store Day; how do you feel about the preserving vinyl as a medium?
It’s my favorite way to listen to music. I don’t listen to it that much because you just don’t have the opportunity to. I think it’s a lot of people’s favorite way to listen to music. But they don’t get a chance to do it that much. There’s a resurgence. A lot of sales on albums — I believe Shabazz sells more vinyl than we do CDs.

How do you feel about Miami?
I love Miami. I love the sunsets. That perfect beach. And there’s so many different kind of birds.

Record Store Day 2016 with Shabazz Palaces. Saturday, April 16, at Sweat Records and Churchill's, 5505 NE Second Ave., Miami; 786-693-9309; Admission is free.
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Jonathan Peltz
Contact: Jonathan Peltz