Music

20 Questions: Ishmael Butler from Shabazz Palaces and Knife Knights

Photo: Victoria Kovios / Sub Pop

Our 20 Questions feature sums up the quality that Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler only reveals once you get to talking with him: his dry, clipped humor.

An artist who has thrived on the margins of popular music for nearly three decades, Ishmael Butler first gutted the conventions of hip-hop as a part of Digable Planets in the early 1990s, helping to retool the mechanisms of the genre and steer it off course for a mind-bending detour. Pulling from the giants of jazz (Art Blakey, whom the Planets sampled on their smash hit "Rebirth of Slick") and the loose poetic constructs of African-American beat poet Bob Kaufman, Butler achieved, with group members Ladybug Mecca and Doodlebug, a status of untouchable influence. Many have tried to follow in the Planets' footsteps. But none have succeeded in attaining the same kind of artistic autonomy that the rapper/producer has created for himself.

After the dissolution of the group, years would pass before Butler took up the reins with music again as one half of Shabazz Palaces (The Palace's other half is multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire). A mysterious hip-hop anomaly that helped to bring a deeper musical conscientiousness to Afrofuturism, Shabazz Palaces quietly crept onto the scene in 2009, startling all the ear-to-the-ground insiders with their highly surreal hip-hop before gaining traction with the larger public. Two EPs and four albums later, Shabazz Palaces still ranks as one of the most unusual and expressly unique bands making music today.

Butler returned in 2018 with what has to be the first prog-hip-hop outfit, Knife Knights. Full of blustery, brown synths and weird, jalopy-rhythms, Knife Knights comes across like a band that leaped from the pages of an Andre Norton novel. Made up of Butler himself and Shabazz Palaces affiliate Erik Blood, Knife Knights offers a sort of shambolic spiritualism that captures an ether space of intergalactic sound.

You'd think Butler, in all his heavy and majestic productions, would be a man of many vibrant words. But our 20 Questions feature at PopMatters sums up the quality that Butler only reveals once you get to talking with him: his dry, clipped humor.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

The film Border

2. The fictional character most like you?

Dayshawn from Vice Principals

3. The greatest album, ever?

The Headphone Masterpiece by Cody ChesnuTT

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Blazers

5. Your ideal brain food?

Almond Butter

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Every time I get home from a long bike ride. It's dangerous.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

My cooking

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

My grandmothers Emily and Clossie

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Pizza

10. Your hidden talents ...?

I haven't been able to find them.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

If the situation has too much friction and is getting hot, pull out

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Madianna from Ispica

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

Champion reverse weave sweatpants

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Jodie Turner Smith

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

The American South back to slavery times

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Beach, sun, seclusion, almond butter

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?

Almond butter

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Island – off the map

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

What color is that?

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

The next Shabazz album

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Music

Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.