♬ Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
“If Bedouins herded beats instead of goats… this would be their album.” -Sub Pop Records
“…quite unlike anything I’ve ever heard before… a very captivating and trippy soundscape… like a couple of mad scientists in the studio.” -KEXP’s Cheryl Waters
“…it’s like dreaming of doing something you can’t do in real life… jumping off a building and flying, or being in some distant kind of extraterrestrial setting. It’s just a real exhilaration.” -Ishmael Butler
Ishmael Butler has been expanding the avant-garde hip hop universe as we know it for almost twenty years. His earliest effort, Digable Planets‘ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) brought jazz-hip hop fusion into the mainstream, going gold in 1993. The album’s lead single, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” became a monstrous crossover hit and was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Their follow up Blowout Comb is often referred to as one of the most under-appreciated rap albums of the mid ’90s.
After the breakup of Digable in 1996, Butler returned to his boyhood home of Seattle, started acting a bit and taught himself to play the guitar. A solo project to have been entitled Ishmael Since 1999 was never released. Eventually, Ish funked up his signature hypnotic bass lines, lightened his lyrical load, formed a new band called Cherrywine and went on a futuristic neo-soul trip. Their 2003 LP Bright Black was released at a time when D’Angelo and Cee-Lo Green had the market moving toward their smooth, polished neo-soul. Cherrywine’s funky blues-rap psychedelia failed to gain much market appeal and Butler disappeared from the spotlight once again.
Find out who you are and see it / Find out what you are and free it
Find out who you love and need it / Find out what you can and be it
- Shabazz Palaces, “Find Out”, 2009
In mid 2009, a pair of mini-albums from an enigmatic avant-rap group calling themselves Shabazz Palaces appeared in cardboard sleeves at boutique record stores in Seattle. Neither CD had an obvious title or artist credits. The music was dark, mysterious and unconventionally stripped down hip hop, with influences gleamed from dozens of exotic styles, most notably Arabian and African. The lyrics were delivered in collage – obscured images, cryptic thoughts and concepts – by a confident and vaguely familiar steely voice.
The EPs began to gain local notoriety and praise from influential music bloggers & press, but almost no information arose about the group other than they were led by the unknown Palaceer Lazarro, avoided press and promotion like the plague, declined interviews and had almost zero online presence.
It didn’t take long to identify the voice behind Palaceer Lazarro’s mic as that of Ishmael Butler, who had been fermenting and distilling Shabazz Palaces for the previous four years or so in Seattle’s central district, primarily with production guru Erik Blood (Moondoggies, the Lights). The buzz over those two EPs caught the attention of A&R execs at Sub Pop Records and the band became the first hip hop signee for the iconic label.
Amidst a flurry of hype, and one month delayed due to printing errors, this week marks the release of Black Up, Shabazz Palaces’ debut (but hardly rookie) full-length effort. No veils this time around. Ish is back, full-on and fearless, with some of the smartest and most exciting genre-bending hip hop in years.
Much like its twin older siblings, Black Up is a dark and mysterious sonic trip through dozens of musical galaxies. Hypnotic vocal samples are played in reverse. Instrumentation is processed and filtered until unidentifiable. Beats are discordant and jarring, weaving in and out purposefully like exclamation points. I’m really not even comfortable referring to it as hip hop. Somehow, taken as a whole it flows organically and feels effortless, like Coltraine in his prime or Bitches Brew era Miles Davis.
More mature and cerebral, Black Up is also softer than the two EP’s, thanks in part to contributing vocals from Cat and Stasia of Hip Hop/Soul duo TheeSatisfaction. It’s confident in its message, honest and more mature. It’s artfully minimalistic, but one of the most complex and obtuse albums in recent memory; many of its themes remain, by design, open to individual interpretation.
“It’s a feeling”, Ish repeats emphatically on the track “Are you….were you… can you…(Felt)”. The line sums up Black Up perfectly. It’s all about a feeling. It’s a twisted and deconstructed groove that gels despite its lack of traditional structure. It’s African hand drums set to dubstep beats. It’s abstract lyrics played against touching, soulful hooks. It’s a brilliant and fascinating feeling that just might change the face of hip hop as we know it today.