The prospect of interviewing an elusive hip hop artist from Seattle is enough to get any wannabe journalist quivering with delight. The fact that this media shy rapper is none other than Ishmael Butler of 90s Grammy Award Winning rap ensemble Digable Planets, adds another layer of excitement to my being. Unfortunately, Ish’s dislike of press coverage means that he’s nearly impossible to interview, deflecting my first question about the meaning behind his pseudonym ‘Palaceer Lazaro’ with a curt ‘I don’t really get into the story behind stuff’. To say I had my work cut out for me would be an understatement. It’s difficult not to presume that behind this veneer of profound reasons for rejecting press lies an inner insecurity about the experimental music Shabazz Palaces are producing. Their avant garde hip hop sounds a little like Cool Kids’ debut album with less 808 stomping and more unnerving whiny synths which are thankfully balanced by the sound of the Mbira (the Zimbabwean thumb piano). When asked to explain the odd song titles; ‘Endeavours for Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though.) ‘, Ish replies: ‘I didn’t necessarily chose to make them long, but they were fitting’. I’m not entirely sure what that actually means and I don’t think he is either. His reluctance to label his own sound, explaining that he ‘would rather die’ displays a deep passion for his art, but also leads me to beg the question ‘why do an interview?’ Despite my frustration, it has to be said that Ishmael Butler is a polite and charming interviewee making light hearted jokes at every turn.
In my bid to delve deeper into his disregard for press coverage I asked how he felt about being The Guardian’s ‘Artist of the Day’ to which he replied, ‘o yeah I paid them for that, I sent them some new photos which they’ll release later if I get big enough’. Everything he says seems at once steeped in comedy and utterly serious, a trend mirrored in his music which at best provides a synth based antidote to the lyrically challenged Lil’ Wayne. All jokes aside, Shabazz is currently working on the score for Tough Bond a documentary about Kenyan glue sniffers which suggests that there is a layer of sincere depth behind the whole project. As the first hip hop act to be signed to Sub Pop record label and having performed at this year’s SXSW, there is a bubble of hype surrounding Shabazz although I doubt Ishmael would admit to being aware of it.
The release of their debut album Black Up has been pushed back to June 27th due to problems with the supply of the gold specked paper they’re using for the album cover, yet another idiosyncrasy from this partially anonymous ensemble- the other people involved have not been named, whatever you do, don’t ask why.
Although Ishmael sees himself ‘in a palace in the Middle East smoking opium and learning some new skills’ by the end of 2011 I fear that the amount of pomp and mystery surrounding his music may end in an anti-climatic flop. Only time will tell.