Ishmael Butler is soft-spoken and friendly in conversation, but the music he’s making now might keep you up at night.
When the first Shabazz Palaces EP was self-released in 2009, there was little information available about the group, yet word spread quickly in their native Seattle that their minimal, paranoid and futuristic-sounding hip-hop was something special. At first, interviews were declined, and Butler, performing as Palaceer Lazaro, disguised himself during concerts with scarves and sunglasses.
“Early on, it wasn’t about mystery, necessarily, although I do like that,” Butler says. “I like mystery in music because … when you look back, a lot of people would associate Funkadelic with George Clinton. But you’re talking about groups that had 13, 14 cats in there playing. There’s music, and nobody really knows these guys.”
Butler had a past he was trying to keep separate from his current project. It’s a rich past he’s proud of, as a member of the groundbreaking and Grammy-winning trio Digable Planets, but he’d been around long enough to see how eager some people were to focus on surfaces, rather than the music. And having this new music heard on its own merits was important to him.
“It started to be, like, where people started to talk more about the back story, the anecdotes, the personalities of artists more than their music,” he says. “I understood that as a selling point, but I didn’t like it that much for myself.
“It’s not really true, these attaching personalities to these artifices, so my thing was (to) separate from the Digable thing and to concentrate on the music while I just make the music and put it out as-is. Wherever the music goes, it takes the people, rather than people taking the music someplace.”
Shabazz Palaces, whose core members are Butler and percussionist Tendai Maraire, signed with the powerful and locally based label Sub Pop, which released their first full-length, Black Up, in 2011 to ecstatic reviews. Butler says it’s been a healthy relationship between two partners who have both seen the best and worst of the music game and have come out wiser for it. Both sides listen to the other’s ideas.
“They’re experts, and they’re purveyors of fine music for a long time,” he says, “so to not listen to them would make us stupid. So we didn’t do that … It’s good to be with people who love the music and understand business being a necessary part of expanding it.”
Shabazz Palaces found another supportive group in My Morning Jacket, who brought them on tour last summer. It was a success both musically and personally.
“Jim (James), I love this guy, he and the whole band,” Butler says. “Patrick (Hallahan), man, he’s a Steelers fan. I gotta give my guys a shout-out, can’t wait to see them.”
Their current tour finds them going on before another act signed to Sub Pop, the Portland-based atmospheric-rock duo The Helio Sequence, about whom Butler exclaims, “They’re the OGs, man.” He’s been a fan for several years, faithfully seeing every show he could. “So supporting them is somewhat of a dream come true, really, for me.”
For Shabazz Palaces’ performances, Butler says, “The live show is related to the album. The music is the place we take off from, but it goes down up into different realms.” He laughs in the middle of describing it as “a pretty energetic and spontaneous presentation of music.”
“It’s not like we just stand up there, rapping from our tracks and shit like that. Not that anything’s wrong with that, but it’s a little bit different. We appreciate performing, and you can tell.”
Butler’s hope is that people coming to the show — whether they’ve heard their music before or not — will listen and then decide if they like it based on nothing else. He’s been to the mountaintop and back down. Along the way, he’s seen that it’s only the music that matters. He’s fine with you knowing that he was on the classic “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” but that’s just not where he’s at today.
“I get why it happens,” he acknowledges, “but it’s just kind of lazy and a little bit monotonous for me. The people that I roll with, we like to keep it fresh.”
Shabazz Palaces with The Helio Sequence and Bus Hus
Tuesday, Jan. 29
2100 S. Preston St.
$12; 9 p.m.