Seattle MC Ishmael Butler is front and center in two shows this week, a reunion concert by jazzy ’90s hip-hop stars Digable Planets and a New Year’s Eve show by his current group, Shabazz Palaces.
Time travelers live among us.
Take, for example, Ishmael Butler, frontman for the classic ’90s rap group Digable Planets and the current avant-garde duo Shabazz Places. Both are playing Seattle this week — the former at the Moore Theatre on Wednesday (Dec. 30), marking the first reunion for Digable Planets since 2011.
The latter plays on New Year’s Eve at the Neptune Theatre.
The Return of Digable Planets
8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 30, at the Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $24, or $40 for two-show pass including Shabazz Palaces, $40 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
9 p.m. Thursday, Dec., 31, at the Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $23.50 or $40 two-show pass including Digable Planets (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
“It’s a rare opportunity that you get to place yourself 20 years in your past with so much detail and specificity,” says Butler. “You can remember things, but to actually be back in the same places you were before, doing the same thing, it’s wild.”
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Though they share a member, the two groups are quite different. Along with A Tribe Called Quest and Dilated Peoples, Digable Planets is cut from the cloth of a mellow, jazz-inspired strain of hip-hop, whereas Shabazz Palaces is dissonant and distorted, like the sound of a fuzzed-out electric guitar played for the blood moon.
This isn’t the first time Seattle has been promised a Digable Planets reunion. The trio was to perform here in 2012 but canceled days before the show, and it looked like the end of the line for the group.
There were rumors that Digable member LadyBug Mecca was the holdout, but Butler says the fissure and subsequent healing was a matter of timing — combined with a renewed openness between the members.
“There were times when I thought blame could be placed or should be placed, but I don’t think that’s an issue now,” he says. “Time went by, and everybody’s attitudes and feelings toward it shifted. It wasn’t anything specific, it really wasn’t.”
For the man responsible for one of the smoothest songs in hip-hop history — Digable Planet’s Grammy-winning “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” — as well as the at times herky-jerky yet celestial sound of Shabazz Palaces, this week marks the pinnacle of an illustrious career.
Born in 1969, Butler grew up in Seattle, where his first foray into music was playing alto saxophone in his middle-school jazz band. His youth was contemporary with the release of all the major hip-hop records of the genre’s genesis, starting in 1979.
“Sugar Hill Gang,” he says, “I heard all of them as they came out.”
After graduating from Garfield High School in 1987, he moved to the East Coast, where he spent much of his time in New York, Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C. In 1989, Digable Planets formed in Philadelphia.
But Seattle is where the band is reuniting and the process has transported Butler back.
“Rehearsals for the show are really rich,” he says. “I don’t listen to [Digable Planets’] music. I never listened to it. But to hear it and go back to it, it puts you in that era, being in New York pre-Internet, it’s pretty fresh.”