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Ismael Butler

“I can’t explain it in words / I have to” may be Ishmael Butler’s personal mantra. It’s kind of ironic, considering he’s made a career out of rapping, painting vivid images with words. The lyrics come from a song he released with edgy Seattle hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces in 2011, nearly 20 years after winning a Grammy with jazz-influenced alternative hip-hop group Digable. Planets. Butler has spent decades making music that pushes the boundaries of what hip-hop says and sounds like — but words can’t do much. Throughout his career he has created lush soundscapes meant to make us feel something too.

Part of a long history of creative visionaries raised in Seattle’s Central District, Butler says his grandparents left the South for the same reasons many black people did: “for exploration and work opportunities at Boeing.” . The family moved from Louisiana to Bremerton before putting down roots in Yesler Terrace, Washington State’s first public housing complex. also the first racially integrated development in the United States. They eventually bought a house in the historic Central District, where Butler was born in 1969.

At Garfield High School, Butler was an outstanding basketball player who, as a senior, took the team to the state championships in 1987. He then played Division I basketball at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has always been a musician, however. “I learned jazz and classical saxophone with Wadie Ervin at Meany Middle School,” he says, noting the teacher who influenced generations of local musicians. “I entered the production [by] go to my friend Marcel Sanders and use his drum machine.

Eventually, the lure of music led him to drop out of college. He took a major break when he auditioned for Pendulum Records as “Butterfly” in the band Digable Planets, alongside Craig “Doodlebug” Irving and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira. Their music was a beacon of hope in the jazz-influenced alternative rap music that was emerging from New York in the early 1990s. Their song “Slick Revival (Cool Like Dat)“, with its falling bass note playing, harmonic horn line, and punchy yet laid-back rapping, would win a Grammy in 1994.

Their next two albums didn’t quite capture that early success, however, and creative differences led to the band disbanding in 1996. Butler seemed to quietly disappear from the music scene, living what he describes as a “hermit lifein New York before returning to Seattle. But he didn’t stop making music altogether – he recorded solo albums that were never out; his 2003 debut as Cherrywine (featuring Seattle guitarist Thaddeus Turner and bassist Gerald Turner, plus producer Bubba Jones) explored neo-psychedelic sounds, but didn’t really make waves.

He continued to work creatively but, as he says in a 2014 interview with Complex“My mother died and I was fundamentally disoriented, disenchanted. I felt depressed. I didn’t really have any musical aspirations. I was grieving. With the encouragement of friend and percussionist Tendai Maraire (whose father, Dumisani Maraire, is credited with bringing Shona music from Zimbabwe to the Pacific Northwest and across the United States), Butler embarked on his third act.

Teaming up with Shabazz Palaces, Butler and Maraire pushed hip-hop to new frontiers. Across two EPs and five albums, the band has honed an offbeat aesthetic: standard 4/4 beats are rare, and there are few to no ABAB song structures – let alone catchy, radio hooks. Instead, the band experiments with creating balance from contrasting textures: the warmth of live instruments – guitars, mbira, drums – play against crisp, thumping digital beats, which are complemented by cosmic loops and keyboards that are driven through viscous filters.

These cacophonous sounds are mitigated by Butler’s uniform musical delivery. Its lyrics are a clever mix of abstract imagery (“Forever is the theme, it’s never what it seems / Below the diamond rains above the purple clouds”) and d outspoken (“Well, I’ve never been one to live a sedentary life/I’ve always had to get up and get out,” both from 2020’s “Ad Ventures.”)

The paradoxical clarity of Shabazz Palaces’ dissonance rocked the Seattle music scene in 2009. The release of the first EPs was shrouded in mystery. The CDs were packaged in cardboard sleeves with intricately embroidered patches. There were no notes or images of the artist(s) anywhere. In a 2022 podcast series Devoted in part to his work, Butler says of this time, “There was never so much secrecy as letting your music do the talking for you.” … I wanted to conduct with the music.

It worked. Shabazz Palaces has struck a deal with Sub Pop Records, and the feature debut, black up, was released in 2011 to critical acclaim. Lasting 36 minutes, the compositions are illuminated with glitter and astral reflections, as if “going deep into space,” says Seattle DJ Larry Mizell. He describes the sound like “get bigger, weirder, deeper, harder”. Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones aptly describes the general mood as “hi-res disorientation.”

The sonic and lyrical density of Shabazz Palaces can be confusing at times, but his music injects moments of rest that allow the body to breathe and the mind to wander. On the free beat of the song “Recollections of the wraith”, Butler strives to “clear space so that we can space ourselves out”. This lyric, black upalso talks about Butler’s musical approach.

“Over the years, I’ve moved from very deliberate, mapped-out compositions to a freer, more instinctive method of capturing spontaneity,” he says, preferring this to “the pursuit of a predetermined outcome.”

Ishmael Butler (Courtesy of Sub Pop Records)

For Butler, spacing is an opportunity to clear his mind and be available for his instincts – which have always driven him to make genre music that never bowed to the demands of the music industry. commercial. It’s perhaps unsurprising that he surrounded himself with other creative visionaries.

He is a founding member of the Black Constellation, a Seattle-based collective of musicians, visual artists, filmmakers and designers, which was recently featured on the KEXP podcast. Fresh off the spaceship. The collective, which formed in the 2000s, has led to multiple musical collaborations – Stas Thee Boss is featured on Shabazz Palaces albums, and Erik Blood mixed and engineered Lese Majesty (2014) — as well as exhibitions and life programming in art museums. As of 2021, Butler was a full artist-in-residence at the Henry Art Gallery.

For someone who’s been talking about the music industry for a long time like a young man’s game, Butler, now in his 50s, shows no signs of quitting. His knack for drawing multidimensional creative visions prepared him for his current role as A&R (artists and recording) rep at Sub Pop, where he was instrumental in signing Seattle rapper Porter Ray. His skills as a tastemaker stem from a rich life in the music industry, where he’s experienced everything from the boredom of a label internship, to the heights of receiving a Grammy, to periods of musical drought.

The North West will continue to play an important role in its musical innovations – whether in Shabazz Palaces, in the artists it brings into Sub Pop or in the creative collaborations he imagines along the way. “Seattle’s gray rainy season,” he says, “is a great time to unpack, study, practice, and learn new things while staying indoors.”