BY SEAN CALDWELL Ishmael Butler was once better known as Butterfly, who, along with Doodlebug and Ladybug, helmed the beloved jazz-inflected hip-hop trio Digable Planets, who were among the select few hip-hop outfits offering a credible alternative to the bitches-bullets-and-bling ethos of then-ascendant gangsta rap. In 1993, the band released Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), which spawned the group’s best known single, “Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like Dat).” With its titular nod to Miles Davis and infectious blend of Kind Of Blue horns, crisp snare, descending upright bass and beatnik word-jazz, the single earned Digable Planets a Grammy in the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group category in 1994 and gold certification from the RIAA. The follow-up, Blowout Comb, failed to match the debut’s overwhelming acclaim and adulation. Citing the dreaded ‘creative differences,’ Digable Planets called it a career in 1995. In the 2000s, Digable Planets performed a series of reunion shows and the promise of a new album from the group seemed eminent. However, the reunion album never saw the light of day and the group is currently inactive.
A Seattle based hip-hop group known as Shabazz Palaces emerged in 2010 via the release of two mysterious EPs, one self-titled and the other named, Of Light. While Shabazz Palaces was something of an enigma initially, it eventually came to light it was the work of Butler, who was now going by the name Palaceer Lazaro, and instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, who is the offspring of Zimbabwean mbira player, Dumisani Maraire. This being Seattle, the EPs soon reached the ears of Sub Pop, who made Shabazz Palaces their first ever rap signing, releasing Black Up, the group’s debut album, in 2011. Black Up earned widespread praise for its woozy blend of cannabanoidal sonics, pan-African mysticism and Koranic trappings. Shabazz Palaces released its follow-up, Lese Majesty, late last month and is currently in the midst of a supporting tour that will stop at Union Transfer on Friday. Last week we got Palaceer Lazaro/Ishmael Butler on the phone to talk dope, Islam, Sun Ra, sci-fi, Betty Shabazz, LSD, Moby Dick, Octavia Butler and the non-existent future of Digable Planets.
PHAWKER: How do your pronounce your current stage name? Is it Palaceer Lazaro (“Pal-ah-seer Luh-zar-o”)? Is that how you pronounce that?
ISHMAEL BUTLER: That’s it. Yes.
PHAWKER: It’s a cool name. Is that invented, or does that come from something?
ISHMAEL BUTLER:Well, the invention—I kind of want to keep a secret—but I got it out of one of my favorite book and it’s a take on the name of the main character. My real name, Ishmael, is also from a main character of a book called Moby Dick so…
PHAWKER: That is who you’re named after?
ISHMAEL BUTLER: I kind of got that literary pedigree from my Dad and Mom.
PHAWKER: Tell me how you pronounce the title of the new album —is it Leez Majesty?
ISHMAEL BUTLER:Yeah, you can say it with a French accent if you’ve got one, y’know, but that’s how I say it because I don’t have that French accent.
PHAWKER: It’s a beautiful phrase. Essentially it means: “offending royalty” or in the broadest sense treason. Why did you decide to call the new album Lese Majesty?
ISHMAEL BUTLER: ‘Cause, it’s like a lot of people are claiming royalty in the music business. And, we wanted to offend them a little, y’know come at that whole “I’m the greatest,” “I’m the best,” “Look at me,” “Pay attention to me,” “I’m doin’ this,” “I’m wearin’ that,” “I’m drivin’ this,” “I’m doin’ that,” like… Basically, man, get out of here with all that bullshit. I’m mean, like, it’s cool for the young kids because, I get it, you’re still finding your way through the world. But these older, more experienced kind of artists, are still popping this little kid stuff. It just seems ridiculous. I know that they’re just trying to get money and stay famous and ‘relevant,’ if you can call it that, but it just seems to push the influence of the coming generations into a direction that isn’t really going anywhere. It’s not good for anyone other than the person reaping the benefits. It’s just a very corporate outlook on something that I feel is sacred, which is music.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about the band name for a second: Shabazz Palaces. That’s derived from Nation of Islam doctrine, an ancient scientist that led the Tribe of Shabazz from Mecca to Africa. Correct? Do I have that right?
ISHMAEL BUTLER: Yes.
PHAWKER: Do you consider yourself a Muslim or an adherent of Nation of Islam, or are you just drawing inspiration from the doctrines and aesthetics of those belief systems?