10 Fingers: Ishmael Butler

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by Ella Campbell

For my birthday weekend, I traveled to Detroit to see Ishmael Butler perform in his duo known as Shabazz Palaces. In this group he rolls under the alias Palaceer Lazaro, but he is still affectionately known to many as Butterfly from Digable Planets. We know, Ishmael, Dig Planets take the three of you, but you hold a place in our memories that we can’t ignore! Ishmael is joined by a multi talented Zimbabwean percussionist, Tendai “Baba” Maraire.

I was watching the men of Shabazz Palaces create a type of music I’d never seen mixed live before. Their sound was so robust and full that it rumbled, rattled and kicked within my core, and clattered my eardrums. The combination of Ishmael’s skeleton rattling bass and electric sampling, with Tendai’s congas, mbira, hi hat, and other auxiliary percussion was mean. Tendai laid back, hard. Ishmael’s voice floated above it all. The way he pronounced his lyrics was all very soft, soft consonants. The blend of the timbre of his voice and softness of his pronunciation, with the mix’s rumbling underbelly, was truly astounding.

While writing, I’ve been listening to Black Up, Shabazz Palace’s latest album. Then I decided to switch to Reachin’. My heart blossomed with petals of admiration for Ishmael as soon as his voice graced It’s Good To Be Here. I busted out. I know Shabazz Palaces is completely different than Digable Planets, but you can still hear the Butterfly in Palaceer Lazaro – he even references some Dig Planets songs in his rhymes on Black Up. It’s like Daniel Radcliff or the cast of Friends, it’s hard to separate their past endeavors from their new projects. It’s also not a bad thing, just like when you listen to an artist and you hear their influences through them: the Ahmad Jamal in Robert Glasper, the Roger Troutman in Casey Benjamin, the Ray Charles in Ben L’Oncle Soul, the Billie Holiday in Madeleine Peyroux, it aids your admiration. It gives you a piece of history to connect them to.

1. What music did you grow up with that has stuck with you? Motown. We told him that was a good answer for being in Detroit, and he said “Oh yeah! I forgot that’s where we are. I tried to go to the Motown Museum today but it was closed. At least I got to look at the outside of it.”

2. What was the first album you bought that you couldn’t stop listening to? Prince, 1999. [Ishmael answered this question quicker than anyone we have interviewed yet. He said it before we finished the question.]

3. What is your favorite thoughtful music? Grachan Moncour III, Air Raid. [If you are not hip to the album Evolution, I highly suggest you get it. A lot of the cats are on this record.]

4. The first time I asked the previous question, I said artist, not musician, and he mentioned Mickelene Thomas. Ishmael said she has the ability to depict creation in a biblical sense.

5. What is your favorite basement album? Ariel Pink (whose music has been distributed by Animal Collective)

6. If you could see any musicians perform, alive or dead, who would they be?
James Brown
Miles Davis
Billie Holiday
Erykah Badu
Lil B

7. What music were you listening to today? “I had a Wiz Khalifa song stuck in my head. I use Shazaam a lot too.” He pulled out his iPod “The song it’s on right now is T Rex, Ride a White Swan.” Tendai said he’s been listening to Lee Morgan and Nite Jewel.

8. Who is a young musician we should be looking out for? OC Notes. That’s all I’m going to say.

9. A film crew from Wayne State University was also there, and they interviewed him before us. We got to stand in the background and watch. They asked what their music was to them and Ishmael said “it’s hip-hop to us.” However, when the camera left and it was just the four of us, I asked him, What do you call the music you perform? “Black music. Because it’s true.” I rebutted, “So what am I doing here?” And they looked at me like I was crazy – Tendai spoke up “That doesn’t mean you can’t be here. It doesn’t mean you can’t listen to it.”

10. We are female musicians. When we go on stage we get a different vibe from the musicians and the crowd. Females add a different energy and dynamic to the stage. Can you tell us what it was like working with Ladybug? What is it like to have a female dynamic in a group? At this, Ishmael bowed his head and started laughing. My fellow jazz girl and I gave each other “that look.” I turned back to Ishmael and said “No. No giggling. Tell me exactly the first thing that came to mind when I said that.”
He looked up – “the first thing? Fantastic. It’s an adventure. It’s an adventure travelling with a woman. She is a true original. And, I like women, I think they are fantastic. But even if you don’t, women have a cerebral sensual power that everyone relates to differently. Female energy is not something to ignore. There is something very visceral about it.”

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