Ishmael Butler is a Seattle original. The hip-hop maverick has been at the genre’s vanguard since his early days with Grammy-winning jazz rap trio Digable Planets and more recently with lauded experimental rap project Shabazz Palaces.
The emcee and producer has spent the past decade carving up the galaxy like rap’s Silver Surfer, guided by his creative impulses and a vivid independent streak. His cosmic playground is boundless and amorphous, coursing with electric currents of Afrofuturism and polyrhythm.
Whether with Shabazz or kaleidoscopic offshoot Knife Knights, Butler’s work has always felt very contemporary, yet never timestamped or tethered to specific movements or trends. This is especially true of Shabazz Palaces’ new album, “The Don of Diamond Dreams,” released in April through Butler’s longtime label home Sub Pop.
“I like a lot of new music and the new styles,” says Butler, 50, who’s also a Sub Pop A&R rep. “I’m of course grounded in the things I learned when I was growing up and the styles that I learned. But I’m not really attached to them as the only templates to use when making music. I like modernity and the new ways of looking at things, so I’m very inspired by the new music.”
Over the past few years, several more mainstream hip-hop artists have explored some of the celestial, psychedelic fabrics Butler has long woven into his surrealist tapestries. Though ostensibly worlds apart, it’s not unfathomable that lead single “Fast Learner” could slide into a psych-rap playlist alongside spacey trap cuts like Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bigger Than Life” or Travis Scott’s “Stargazer.”
(Note: These videos contain explicit language.)
Built over a warped new-jack-swing beat, the night-sky cruiser features a wavy, Auto-Tuned guest spot from Detroit’s Purple Tape Nate, an occasional Shabazz collaborator Butler befriended on tour. The track was influenced by time Butler spent with his son, Jazz, during its recording. Better known as emo-rapper Lil Tracy, the younger Butler (whose mother is Coko of ’90s R&B trio SWV) has a rising music career of his own. He first gained attention as a member of L.A. collective GothBoiClique, a crew led by late star Lil Peep and also features Seattle expat Mackned.
The Butler men have always connected through music and sports, and Jazz, who appears in the dreamy “Fast Learner” video, turned his father on to artists like melodic trap rapper Fredo Bang and chillwave graduate Toro y Moi.
“It’s been cool, man, just seeing him develop from a little kid that had an uncanny interest in music, sitting around playing the guitar for hours,” Butler says. “I would leave him in the studio and go do stuff and come back hours later and he’d still be in there. That’s when I realized he had some sort of predisposition to have an interest in recording and music. … It’s been exciting for me and his sisters and the rest of us in the family. We’re proud of him.”
Beyond absorbing his son’s music, family was clearly on the proud dad’s mind while making “The Don of Diamond Dreams,” Shabazz Palaces’ first album since the departure of multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire. “Thanking the Girls” is an airy love letter to the women in Butler’s life, including his two daughters, setting up expansive closer “Reg Walks by the Looking Glass.” The drifting soul-soother was inspired by things that remind Butler of his music-loving father (the saxophone, musical free forms), who died last summer.
“It brought us all together and around each other in a lot of ways,” Butler says. “Not just me but [for] all of us, that was paramount in our minds and hearts in the things that we did and thought about. So that definitely … seeped into the music.”
The song bears a spiritual connection with some hip-hop-reared modern jazz innovators, such as London composer/saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings or Seattle’s own Kassa Overall (whose sax-playing brother Carlos graces the tune).
As singular as artists come, Butler credits his father for his ability to think independently, while taking into account other perspectives and ideas beyond those “generated by your own wants and needs.”
“Then to be brave and confident moving forward through your own thoughts and … standing by them,” Butler says. “That independence but also consideration, the balance between that is something I got from my dad and that I tried to impart to my youngsters.”
Seems like it’s working.