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Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler breaks down their new sci-fi hip-hop albums

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Victoria Kovios

Experimental Seattle hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces return in July with not one, but two albums — and even considering their boundary-pushing pedigree, the new material is some of their most far-out yet. Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star fuse Shabazz’s signature jazz-inflected instrumentals with an ambitious narrative depicting a weary traveler named Quazarz who comes to Earth and is forced to decipher the chaos, from racial strife to mobile device addiction.

“I started to think, how do I really feel being here in the States and in the world being a black person?” Ishmael Butler, the 47-year-old Digable Planets member who performs as Palaceer Lazaro in Shabazz, tells EW. “Looking out around — also being my age, too — I started to feel a little alienated with the way things were going with social media and politics and things like that.” Butler says he drew on his “unique vantage point of observation” in arriving at the concept of Quazarz: “I thought the way I could put it was being a thoughtful person from another place, another realm that’s here now finding their way through what’s going on.”

Butler developed Jealous Machines over an extended period of time, commuting to Southern California periodically to work with collaborator Sunny Levine. Gangster Star, on the other hand, was born out of a feverish two-week session with producer Erik Blood back home in Seattle in late 2016, where a couple bonus tracks developed into a full-blown second album.

The albums feature an array of guests, including Thaddillac and bass maestro Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, who appears on Gangster‘s opening cut “Since C.A.Y.A.” which dropped today. Butler says the cut developed naturally when he was hanging out with Thundercat and jazz legend Herbie Hancock at producer Flying Lotus’s house. “I call Flying Lotus’ house the Wizard’s Nest, because he’s a wizard, man,” Butler explains. “He’s just sitting up there in his crib making the illest music. We’d all just be sitting in there making songs and jamming out. Once during one of those sessions, I pulled up one of my beats and Thundercat played on it and that was that song, ‘Since C.A.Y.A.'”

Read on for more from Butler on sci-fi hip-hop, the current political climate, and how Julian Casablancas is involved on Jealous Machines. Hear “Since C.A.Y.A.” below.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do the lyrical themes and the stories on the two albums interact with each other? They’re both dealing with this Quazarz figure.
ISHMAEL BUTLER: [Recording] vs. the Jealous Machines … we were unplugged, really just working on the music. I started to think, like, when you don’t really f— with your phone, you always think about your phone. Your phone’s like a phantom limb almost. You’re always feeling for it or you’re wondering what’s going on, who’s trying to contact you, what’s going on with email, what’s going on with Twitter. It’s like the behavior of somebody that’s kind of jealous, that really wants your attention. You’re not giving it to them, but they’re pulling on you. I see the device as being a real seminal turning point in human evolution. We’re now connected to these things and it’s not going back, in any way, to what it was before that. That’s a loose inspiration for the content in that one. Gangster Star was more like a cat really reveling in the dynamic aspects of the new society and the new earth and the new world.

Given the content about social media and phones controlling us, have you cut back on your own usage?
Mine is probably as light as it can be — not because I have some overall indictment of it, although I don’t think it’s healthy. I participate and I have fun with it and I work on it. I’m not out here like, “F— phones,” although I do think, if we want any chance of not speeding toward this brick wall that we’re heading toward, it would involve cutting back severely. I don’t use it that much. I think it’s because of my age. I don’t trust it in every kind of way. I’ve got kids and they’re always on it. It’s a part of their body almost. I’m just looking at that and writing about my feelings about it.

Why did you think that using somebody from a foreign realm was the right way to convey ideas of alienation rather than looking at them autobiographically?
[There’s] this notion that America is a promised land. Our president now really sees this place as a promised land and that anyone that wants to come here … must want to take away and suckle at the teat of all these tremendous advantages of being here. But we all know that, for most people, even actual-born Americans, it’s not always the land of milk and honey. I was just thinking about that: how the United States and the world are being driven by our conceit, our greed, our total expectation of the availability of excesses. How when s— pops off in another part of the world and people aren’t with it and they try to migrate or go to safety, people don’t even want them. It becomes a me-versus-you, us-versus-them thing. The whole Survivor, reality TV show, us-against-them, form your alliance in order to get this person off but at the end of the day only one of us is going to win — that’s really seeped into our mentality as a people and as a country. I see it manifesting itself in every place.

When did you record these albums relative to Trump’s election?
All during the f—ing election and the primaries and the campaigns. He was elected already when we were doing Born on a Gangster Star.

Artists have been addressing these themes in their music, but they’re longstanding themes. Trump’s election just threw them into sharper relief.
I appreciated that Donald Trump was running for president of the United States, because I feel like he is, in many ways, a perfect representative of where we are as a country. I didn’t think he was going to win. But, in a democracy, if a person is able and has the backing to get that far then we gotta listen to what he’s talking about and his ideas. And the fact that he was able to win just goes to show you, he’s just the result. It’s not like he’s the pinnacle of where we are right now. He’s sort of the pinnacle of the representation of it, but in actuality, this is who we are. We did that! All of the things that led up to that have been boiling and brewing for quite some time now.

From Deltron 3030 to your Sub Pop labelmates clipping, hip-hop is such a cool vehicle for science fiction storytelling. Why do you think that is?
If you even look back at real s— like Sun Ra, Parliament, Funkadelic, even up to Soulsonic Force and Afrikka Bambaataa, with the look and the things that they were saying, I think that people from outer space, people from another realm, people from different places are actual and real. They always have represented themselves through music and artistic expression. There’s an atomic, chromosomal thing that’s inside a lot of us that gets brought out. We come from this extraterrestrial history. It’s our sense memory of where we have come from that is different from this place, that is alien. That manifests itself and comes out in these forms of expression. When I was a kid, I found myself drawn to that kind of stuff. I knew that was a home for me. That was familiar to me.

Regarding your collaborators, the press notes say “appearing here in body or in spirit.” Did you work with Julian Casablancas or is he one of the “in spirit” ones?
We like each other and we’ve been circling around each other for a while. He took Shabazz on tour with the Voidz. He’s always been a supporter. I love what he does and his s— too, even back since the Strokes. We wanted to work together. We tried to do it, but it didn’t work out because of timing and this and that. We wanted to be together in the studio. He sent the stuff back, we jammed on it for a little while, but it didn’t make it onto the album. Not because it wasn’t good, we just didn’t get the chance to get it right. We were emailing back and forth and he was like, “Man, my dream would be to have you sing instead of me on this thing.” I ended up doing some singing on it and that’s why I called the song “Julian’s Dream.”