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?
5. Your ideal brain food?
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…?
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?
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 …?
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