My friend Thomsen Cummings and I (Dr. Plotkin, if we haven’t met before) had the extreme pleasure of seeing Shabazz Palaces at the Union Transfer last Friday and were lucky enough to spend twenty minutes talking to them after their sound check. We headed out to the parking lot and listened to the Seattle-based duo, led by Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire, speak to us about their influences, their approach to creating music, and the future of Shabazz. They are currently touring their new album Lese Majesty, which you can check out on Sub Pop.
KDU: Just looking around, I’m seeing some interesting stuff here. What is that instrument on the back of your car?
TM: That is called an mbira and it originates from Zimbabwe.
KDU: Cool, can you tell me a little about it?
TM: I can tell you that where it derives from is a very spiritual place in Zimbabwe. It’s used to channel to the ancestors and to communicate with them and to communicate with other human beings. And also to party.
KDU: Of course to party! I read that for your previous material, you guys would rehearse, perform and record, and then change of the recording as it went. On the new album, was there any approach to recording it? Some of the lyrics and rapping kind of seem to go into the background.
IB: We don’t really subscribe to most notions of recording or approaches to music. So foreground, background, I understand what they mean in terms of the mix but not in terms of what one might focus on in any given song. It’s all one entity that’s moving forward sonically into your ears, and then hopefully into some categories and compartments of emotion.
We usually try and mix everything clear, so that there’s a certain undertow of subtle things, or sub-mixes if you will, that add to the groove. But to say the lyrics take the background, never. We’re rappers and we say everything we mean, but I understand what you’re saying. Sonically, you might hear it less loudly than you would in a normal thing but again, if you make music you should develop your own sound. It shouldn’t be a standard sound you try and fit into and that’s how we see it.
KDU: I was reading through the lyrics for They Come In Gold and I noticed a lot of contrasting ideas. The line “sepulchre, a stage alive by ghosts” seems to be hinting at a self-destructive nature, maybe about a lot of hip-hop music that’s out there.
IB: Some of it is self-destruction, some of it is destruction from outside forces that want to come in. Some want to moonlight inside our culture. They feel like because they dress up and wave their hands in a hip-hop style that they’re legitimate. And we just reject that notion. Self-destruction can be one destroying one’s self through some legitimate mechanism, but it can also be allowing destructive things to infiltrate something that should be held sacred. So that’s kind of what that song’s about.
KDU: I noticed you focus a lot on the idea of the self. Not in an attack on individualism, but you seem to be rapping against self-obsession.
IB: Well, it’s like this. Music has always been a universal thing. The individual thing is a directed plan by marketers in order to sell products. It’s not really individualism, it’s really everybody doing the same set of things disguised at individualism or told that. We’re not really trying to pick A or B in terms of what our platform is, we see it for what it is.
To have the calling of being a musician is a gift. We don’t really know where that’s from but we understand it as that. We don’t say it’s us making this music. We physically do it, the ideas come to us from somewhere, and we feel good to have the blessing of those ideas to come to us.
A lot of motherfuckers came before us that were just as good, if not better than us. So we understand where our place in the pantheon is, if you will. And we also know some motherfuckers that are hella filthy, but will never get the light of day – people we’re close to that haven’t experienced the notoriety, but have a lot of weight in our spheres of influence. We’re just seeing it for what it is, and that’s what you’re hearing in the music.
KDU: I’ve always been struck by the sound of the scream that runs through the entirety of An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum. How do you go about creating some of your trippier samples?
IB: You can come to a conclusion or a result of a sound in any way that you can. It’s not really by chance, but what happens is you record something or you sample something and you got all these processes at your fingertips. You can stack them, you can run them concurrently, you can turn them around, you can slow stuff down, speed it up… There’s an endless combination of things you can do to a sound. Also, whatever studio you’re in, whatever speakers you’re listening to, what headphones you’re using, it all affects how it might sound. When you’re doing it you’re not thinking “Okay I ran it through this, let me write that down. Then I ran it through that, let me write that down. And I had these headphones on…” The environment comes second to the instinct.
KDU: What are some musical acts that you’re listening to that are currently blowing your mind?
TM: I’ve been listening to this guy out of Zimbabwe called Jah Prayzah. And this kid out of Seattle called Porter Ray. Jah Prayzah plays contemporary Shona music [music from the Shona people of Zimbabwe] and Porter Ray does hip-hop.
IB: I like Ariel Pink, I think that’s the coolest shit I’ve heard in a while. I like the weirdness of it, the daringness of it, the creativity of it, and how all those things collude to make these songs that are poppy, but at the same time anti-pop.
KDU: What do you think the future holds for you guys?
IB: We’re always in a state of composing and recording. Right now, Tendai is working on videos for Chimurenga and we got videos for Shabazz coming out. It’s always about the proliferation of the instinct and the ideas that come from our instinct and just trying to share them. We been growing and there’s people that say they like what we do. There’s a conversation between them and us, where we put out some music and then we go on tour. We had a ceremonies of shows, we meet people, do shit like this, so we try and do our part by making some music and artwork. We got partners that are just dope. Cats that make clothes, cats that direct videos and films, so we look forward to working with them as well.
KDU: On the new album, you have a track with Catherine Harris-White from THEESATISFACTION, are you touring with them as well?
IB: No, that’s pretty rare. Obviously it’s fun as fuck when they’re around and we get to perform together. Hopefully we’ll get back through Philly, this is a good town to perform with them. We did that once at the Kung Fu Necktie, it was phenomenal.
KDU: This question has nothing to do with your music, or how you create it. If you were trapped in a room filled with food and you had to eat your way out—
IB: No, that’s a question I always ask people!
KDU: Oh, well then I definitely want to hear your answer then, you must have a good one!
IB: Watermelon man! Nice ripe watermelon. I ask girls that, seriously. But I say buried, buried alive under food. What would you want to eat your way out of? Is that your line too?
KDU: I think that opens the mental conversation a bit.
IB: It gives you a chance to see where someone’s coming from.
KDU: Thank you so much for taking the time to have this interview with us. Do you have anything left you want to say?
IB: I just appreciate anybody listening and checking us out. If you get the chance, come see the show one of these days.
Check out Shabazz Palaces’ dope new album and catch them on tour at a venue near you.