Back in the Game

The hip-hop world doesn’t always give second chances, and Ishmael Butler is taking advantage of his.

by Tony


WHAT: Shabazz Palaces and Malitia MaliMob

WHERE: The Whole, Coffman Union

WHEN: 8 p.m., Saturday

COST: $6 for students, $12 general


        2011 was a big year for alternative hip-hop. Last year saw the rise of Odd Future and Lil B as well as debut albums from Internet darlings Das Racist and Childish Gambino. But none of these blog-buzzing releases could top Shabazz Palaces’ “Black Up,” an album quietly released to enthusiastic but muted reception, compared to these other big releases.

        This was by design. The voice behind Shabazz Palaces is Ishmael Butler, who, in another life, went by Butterfly, performing in the wide-eyed jazz-rap group, Digable Planets. The trio released just two albums, winning a Grammy in 1994 for their crossover single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)“ before abruptly splitting a year later.

        After recording some material with a new group called Cherrywine, Butler went dark for some 16 years, laying low and recording at his home studio with Tendai Maraire, a friend and former neighbor.

        They self-released two EPs under the Shabazz Palaces moniker in the summer of 2009, refusing interviews and insisting that the voice on the record was a rapper named Palaceer Lazaro. Butler cultivated an aura of mystery around the group not only to distance himself from his past in Digable Planets, but also to let the music speak for itself.

        “I feel like a lot of music is personality based, you know? Where the music is kind of secondary. I understand that choice. People trying to sell records nowadays, you need to have a personality to go along with it,” he said. “We just kept the focus on the music rather than the people that were making it.”

        But before long Shabazz Palaces was signed to the indie heavy hitter Sub Pop (the first hip-hop act to do so) and Butler had a harder time keeping his identity a secret. Luckily, he didn’t need to anymore. Although it’s difficult to bring up Shabazz Palaces without referencing Digable Planets, the two projects are no longer inextricably linked because “Black Up” has proven the outfit can stand on its own as an exciting new voice in hip-hop.

        The production on “Black Up” is dense and dynamic in a way that most hip-hop can’t match. The beats are throbbing and hazy but still have a real sense of movement. Each track has a start and a finish, instead of simple looped verses and hooks. Butler’s flow is gritty but clear-eyed, cutting through the murky exoticism with a self-assuredness that shows his years of experience. His lyrics move through typical hip-hop touchstones but imbue them with an unmatched artistry.

        Around the same time he was re-emerging in Shabazz Palaces, Butler also reconnected with former Digable Planets bandmate Doodlebug. The two have been recording new material and performing shows together under the Digable Planets name, often with Shabazz Palaces opening. Butler said that it can be strange to find his old and new personas colliding on stage, but he’s more than happy to be out there again.

        “You can forget it, but [that feeling] can surface when you approach that time and that energy,” he said. “It’s exhilarating.”