Quazarz and Beyond: Shabazz Palaces interview

shabazz

Originally published for The Skinny July 2017 issue.

Ishmael Butler tells us about the Palaceer of Shabazz Palaces’ encounter with the sentient being Quazarz and how it came to influence the duo’s two new albums

Few artists have gone as far to create an entirely separate universe around their music as Shabazz Palaces, and their latest project is no exception.

Told through the perspective of Quazarz, a musical ambassador sent from another planet to ‘The United States of Amurderca’, the duo take us on a journey over the course of their two new albums where we learn about his experiences on Earth and his observations of our planet. “It was like being in a movie, where you’re immersed in the character and you’re doing it so much that you lose yourself until you get back to yourself,” explains Ishmael Butler, one half of the duo.

Butler developed the idea during the recording of what was to become Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and was so inspired that he decided to release another album, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, alongside it. “I was trying to think of a perspective to come from with the music and the lyrics,” he says. “That’s why I came up with Quazarz as this alternate personality so that I could be an observer and present my discomfort with things.”

This is not a two-part album, however. Both explore separate themes and ideas, with the only constant being that they are both told from the perspective of Quazarz. “It’s just like the new approach, the Quazarz approach, so these are two different albums but with that approach in mind,” says Butler.

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines focuses on our obsession with modern technology, specifically personal devices and social media. Butler takes a very negative view on this side of technology and sees it as incredibly damaging to society.

“I feel like it’s a very dangerous path that we’ve taken and a choice that we’ve taken as human beings to rely so heavily on these devices and let them permeate our world and give them to our children,” he says. “These are products that are meant to prey on idle-minded people that just need something simple and titillating to do and spend a whole bunch of unnecessary time on so it’s kind of like a dumbed down newness of technology.”

Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, on the other hand, is more observational and explores a wider critique of modern society. “Being in the States, with the political climate, I started feeling more alienated so it was kind of like being a person who lives in a place but doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s home or that they’re a part of it,” he says. “I’m not out here talking about things specifically but the overall feeling that is evoked when thinking about it and living in it is definitely in the albums and soaked in it pretty deep.”

But Quazarz doesn’t just address politics. Observing the music scene, Quazarz notes being immersed in the “ethers of the Migosphere here on Drake world.” This isn’t Butler’s way of addressing the current state of hip-hop though, rather it’s him observing the current state of commercial music on Earth as a whole.

“Migos is sort of the oxygen in the atmosphere, at least here in the States, so I was basically saying that we were offering our musical contribution to this current place,” says Butler. “And it’s Drake’s world, so it was just a play on words and a sci-fi approach to the current musical landscape.”

The futuristic, sci-fi influences in Shabazz Palaces’ music have always been a notable attribute, but with the Quazarz saga Butler has taken that influence to a whole new level. Alongside the double album, the duo will also be releasing an accompanying illustrated book by Joshua Ray Stephens, which visualises the Quazarz story.

Stephens contacted Butler via email to suggest they work on something together and once Butler saw Stephens’ work, he knew he wanted to collaborate with him in some way. “I looked at his stuff and I was like ‘damn, this shit is dope,’” he tells us. “He was originally going to do a cover for the album but then the ideas started growing and growing and we finally arrived with this illustrated book, which came out pretty smashing.”

And it doesn’t stop there, with potential Gorillaz-esque live visuals also on the cards. “We plan to do a tour where we incorporate the music with the book and the illustrations and go to special places and do special events,” says Butler.

In fact, like Gorillaz, Shabazz Palaces is as much its own world. Butler reinvented himself from Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler to Palaceer Lazaro and joined forces with Zimbabwean multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire to form Shabazz Palaces in 2009. This was almost fifteen years after disbanding from jazz/hip-hop trio Digable Planets, whose 1992 single Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) won them a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.

Initially, Butler refused any interviews and there was a great deal of speculation as to the true identity of Palaceer Lazaro. “I don’t really go for the whole ‘I want my credit and I need people to know that it’s me.’ I like the ambiguity and the mystery to what’s behind artistic stuff,” says Butler. “I was hoping to put the focus back on the music really. Plus, it’s just another way to be creative and add another layer to the product.”

Palaceer Lazaro is to Butler what Sasha Fierce is to Beyoncé: it’s a way of presenting Butler’s weirder, quirkier, more progressive musical side under a new persona. “If you come into each thing with the same perspective and the same outlook, you are probably going to be running on a treadmill, making stale stuff,” he says. “It helps to get into that frame of mind too: change everything around, rename stuff and come from a different perspective.”

Both prominent members in the Seattle music scene, Maraire and Butler each have their own projects outside of Shabazz Palaces. Maraire is one half of Afro-hip hop duo Chimurenga Renaissance and Butler is part of production duo Knife Knights with Erik Blood, who has worked on every Shabazz Palaces album with them. “I listen to him implicitly,” says Butler. “I trust him and I believe him, but I know what I like and what I want to try to do and he helps me to get there really.”

The duo collaborated with Blood once again on the Quazarz project, with Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star recorded over two weeks at the Protect and Exalt Labs: A Black Space he and Butler share in Seattle. Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, however, was developed and recorded over a longer period of time, which allowed Butler to travel to Southern California to work with Quincy Jones’ grandson Sunny Levine.

Butler though is hyper-critical and a perfectionist of the highest order; so much so, that he finds it almost unbearable to listen to his music once it’s completed. “I don’t really listen to my music because it’s just not relaxing and comfortable,” says Butler. “I’m just listening to what I’m perceiving as flaws or mistakes mostly, so it’s not that enjoyable of an experience.”

When it comes to his music and the messages he puts out provoking change, particularly with such a heavily political project, Butler is reluctant to overthink things. He does, however, seem to see the Quazarz project as more of a catalyst for change rather than as his own personal attempt to create change.

“When you do something and it’s your emotion and your instinct and you release it, it’s almost like a chemical reaction and it’s unknown how it’s going to do anything or change anything,” he says. “I don’t kick back and be like ‘I’m about to change the world with this one’ or something, but I know that we dedicated a lot of time, energy and passion to it so somebody will probably hear it and have some feelings about it and maybe it will do something for them.”

Butler may want to play down the impact Quazarz could have out in the real world, but in Shabazz Palaces’ world, Quazarz’ landing has set off more than just a few ripples.

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machine and Quazarz: Born Under a Gangster Star are released on 14 Jul via Sub Pop.

Porter Ray – Watercolor Review

porter ray

Originally published for The Skinny March 2017 issue.

★★★★

Album title: Watercolor
Artist: Porter Ray
Label: Sub Pop
Release date: 10 Mar

It’s easy to dismiss the notion of rapping as a form of poetry when ‘rappers’ like French Montana exist, but Porter Ray is making hip-hop great again with his debut album Watercolor.

Great rapping is quite simply just great storytelling, and what a great storyteller Porter Ray is. Just a quick listen to his tone and it’s clear to see how Ray caught the ear of Shabazz Palaces founder Ishmael Butler. There’s a vulnerability to his voice that’s so alluring, allowing his emotion to filter through every word he says, while at the same time owning every beat he jumps on.

Laying his bars over a mixture of trippy, experimental beats and old school hip-hop beats, Watercolor has as much style as it does substance. Much of the lyrical content surrounds Ray’s experiences growing up in Seattle, dealing with many personal matters such as the death of his father, the birth of his son and the incarceration of his son’s mother. ‘I can’t front, shit fucked me up mentally / Sometimes I wish your bullet had been meant for me,’ he raps on The Mirror Between Us, which details the shooting of his younger brother Aaron in 2009.

There’s a certain depth and outright honesty in Ray’s lyrics that sets him apart from many of his peers and shows that he’s not afraid to bare his soul in his music. That openness makes for incredibly powerful listening.

Listen to: East Seattle, My Mother’s Words

Big Sean interview: I Decided. and Twenty88

big-sean

Originally published for The Skinny.

Big Sean tells us about collaborating with Migos, how Twenty88 feels like a Marvel comic book, and embracing spirituality on his new album I Decided.

The Skinny: The new album I Decided. feels like a real turning point for you and you’ve talked a lot about how you feel like it’s a big moment in your career. Was there a moment where you felt like it was really going the way you wanted?

Big Sean: It was a tough road for this album. There were times where it wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go but then it just all fell into place. That’s the fun part of it all sometimes, just figuring it out and learning from the whole process. That was definitely something that we experienced while making it. It was fun though, altogether. I’m looking forward to just taking everything I learned and applying it to my next one. It was a turning point though, for sure, in my life.

Was there any particular reason for that? 

Well, I feel like the album before this – Dark Sky Paradise – was a monumental point in my life as well. This one was definitely an expansion on that album, it was a progression. I just felt good about the music I was making – what I learned from Dark Sky Paradise was just to do what you feel and follow your heart and not give a fuck about what people say as long as you get your vision out. That’s kind of what we did here so it was great.

I’m glad I took my time with it and I’m not slowing down at all. I’m ready to keep going… I just feel like I’m growing as a person and I guess that also affects my art because it’s what I do.

There are a lot of spiritual elements to the album, especially in the lyrics. Have you always been quite a spiritual person?

I have been a spiritual person for a long time. On my last album, I had songs like Blessings; I guess I’ve just been rapping about it more and embracing it more publically. But I meditate every day, or at least I try to. There’s no way that there’s any other reason that all these blessings keep happening to me, except for God and that’s why I got kind of into it. I try to live as righteous as possible because I believe in all that spiritual stuff. I believe in God and I feel like God gives me the inspiration to make music and gives me ideas.

You recently released the video for Halfway Off the Balcony – is there a link between the video and the album cover?

Yeah, there is. The vibe of the album cover and the concept of the older self guiding me and being a part of me, talking to myself and all of these different ideas and tones; we decided to put in that video. That was definitely something we thought about. Andy Hines, the director, executed it pretty well.

The videos from the new album seem to incorporate a lot of technicolour elements – was that intentional?

It’s something that we sit down and actively think about. Every album we try and put our creative minds to the test. Sometimes all the videos will be a certain way and sometimes they won’t but we always put an effort into it. I have a creative team and we sit down and go over everything – how to make the best possible music and videos and live shows and performances we can with what we have.

What were the kind of themes you were going for with this album?

Well, the storyline of the album is that you’re going through life and you’re failing at everything, then you get a second chance and start going through it again. At the beginning of the album, you’re dealing with realising your inner strength and all you need is what’s inside you and you Bounce Back from all the fucking losses you’re putting in, you’re charged up, you don’t need No Favours.

Then you go into the second part of the album, where you’re going after your one true love and you Jump Out The Window, you’re having fun and then all of a sudden it’s not going the way you planned. Then you go into the part of the album that’s a little darker, kind of like a depressive state of mind, you’re not really answering calls from your family or your mom. But then your family and God is eventually going to lift you up out of that rut and you finish off the album, realising it’s Bigger Than Me.

Those are all the underlying stories of the album but I did that just so people could walk away with some type of inspiration. I really feel like that’s needed today in music. There are a lot of inspiring artists and people; I just wanted to feel like I added to that. For 2017, I wanted to give something to people that they could hold on to, or feel like they could be the best versions of themselves, get them motivated a little. Even with the merchandise, really making the merch fit with the music, so certain lines like, ‘The underdog just turned into the wolf’… I know what it’s like to be the underdog and feel your full potential not being executed so I wanted to make sure we got that across too.

You collaborated with [Georgia hip-hop trio] Migos on the album’s stand-out track Sacrifices – how did that come about?

I met up with them a while ago before that, just to kick it, and they told me how much they respect me. I remember Quavo was like, “Man, you’re one of the people we look up to in this rap game. We fuck with you.” I thought that was really cool and obviously I’ve got crazy respect for them too. It was a natural thing. I was in the studio with Metro [Boomin; producer/DJ from St Louis] working and I was like, “Man, I think the Migos would be hard on this song,” so we sent it to them the next day and they sent it back a day or two later and that was it.

That was the last song we made for the album too. It was the last week of the album and I felt like there was something missing but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then I went to the studio late night – it was funny because I hit up Metro and he was in the same city as me; he was leaving in the morning and it was like 2am but I was like, “Fuck it, I’ve got to just come through.” So we ended up working until he left for his trip the next day. That’s how Sacrifices came about, it’s one of my favourites.

You’ve said that you plan to release another Twenty88 [Sean’s side project with girlfriend Jhené Aiko] album at some point – have you started working on that yet?

Yeah, it’s getting worked on for sure. It should be ready soon, hopefully. Jhene’s working on her album too though.

You’ve collaborated together a lot in the past but why did you decide at that point to do a full project together?

It was just a ‘why not’ type of thing. We were making music and the chemistry was undeniable. We had so many songs we did that I wouldn’t use for my album and she probably wouldn’t necessarily use them all for her album. It was like, we’re not just going to hold on to this, so we figured out a way to give it to the fans and create a whole other world in our universe, aside from me and aside from her, so we decided to make a group.

It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. It’s one of the coolest experiences to be in a group, especially with somebody you care about. It reminds me of Marvel comic books, like Iron Man, Captain America movies and stuff like that. I think it’s cool to create all these different worlds in your own universe. I was really excited that she wanted to do it too.

Do you have any plans to tour the new album in the UK?

We’ve been talking about that. I love the UK. I plan on making it over there, so I’m sure we’ll announce it soon. I had a great time there last year when I was touring with Rihanna and doing all those festivals. It was a great experience. I plan on it, it’s going to be something crazy.


I Decided. is out now via GOOD/Def Jam

Lupe Fiasco – Drogas Light review

lupe-fiasco

Originally published for The Skinny.

Lupe Fiasco – Drogas Light

Album Review

★★

Album title: Drogas Light
Artist: Lupe Fiasco
Label: 1st & 15th / Thirty Tigers
Release date: 10 Feb

Just like the last time he claimed to be retiring from music in 2012, Lupe Fiasco has abandoned that idea again. But this time he’s not just releasing one new album, he’s releasing three, in the same year.

The first in the trilogy is Drogas Light, an album as inconsistent and nonsensical as Fiasco’s Twitter feed. It’s difficult to tell what Fiasco is trying to achieve here: the first half of the album is a mishmash of trap beats and repetitive choruses and the latter half is just all over the place, jumping from genre to genre with absolutely no continuity.

There are some highlights amidst all the madness, however. On NGL, Fiasco sounds as though he’s freestyling, with his stream of consciousness flow hitting as hard as ever and proving he’s still got plenty of energy left in him. The seven-minute long KILL features standout vocals from singer Victoria Monét, whose voice soars gracefully over the track’s subtle, soulful beat, the best on the album. Fiasco flows perfectly over the disco sounds of It’s Not Design but sadly the track is completely misplaced, wedged in between the bizarre country/pop-influenced tracks Pick up the Phone and Wild Child near the end of the album.

In what should have been a return to form for Lupe Fiasco, Drogas Light falls short, instead feeling too rushed and confused to make for any kind of anticipation for the rest of the trilogy that is still to come.


Listen to: KILL, It’s Not Design

Mykki Blanco – Mykki review

mykki

Originally published for The Skinny September 2016 issue.

Mykki Blanco – Mykki

Album Review

★★★

Album title: Mykki
Artist: Mykki Blanco
Label: Dogfood Music Group / !K7
Release date: 16 Sep

Nadia Younes | 06 Sep 2016

Unlike their experimental mixtapes, Mykki Blanco’s first full-length solo release doesn’t leave much to hold on to. The New York performance artist and musical chameleon showcases a unique brand of warped, darkwave noise-rap on their debut album – but ultimately plays it safe.

Loner and Hideaway show the rapper in full flow, and the production is largely trap-influenced, with industrial, minimal 808s and distorted synths throwing back to earlier work with the likes of Kingpinning and Haze.Boogie.Life. However Blanco has always fallen slightly short in lyrical content and, although there are hints of depth and melancholy, on tracks like High School Never Ends and You Don’t Know Me, Mykki never quite goes deep enough.

Listen to: Fendi Band, Loner

131 Northside launch ‘Lost Memories’ series

131

Originally published for The 405.

Edinburgh-based hip hop duo 131 Northside launch their ‘Lost Memories’ series today with a visual for the track ‘Issues’.

The lo-fi, single shot video is in keeping with the group’s distinct aesthetic that they have built over the course of their career so far, with the track being taken from the duo’s debut EP Digital Memories, which was premiered on Complex earlier this year and featured production from Watgood and Midas.

Throughout the series, the genre-bending group, made up of WTKAKACB and King Wavey, will release old and new pieces of material, including visuals and new music, every Monday at 1:31pm for the foreseeable future.

We spoke to 131 Northside about what we can expect from the rest of the ‘Lost Memories’ series, their visual identity and their penchant for San Pellegrino.

How did you come up with the idea for the ‘Lost Memories’ series?

The idea for the ‘Lost Memories’ series came from the sheer volume of work and ideas we had been creating and discussing over the past year. With ‘Lost Memories’, we decided to take a different approach to its release for people to really engage and feel a part of what we are doing. We are on a journey with this shit and want to share it with our audience by bringing them with us piece by piece every week.

The first in the series is a visual for the track ‘Issues’ which was included on your debut EP Digital Memories – why did you decide to start the series with this?

‘Issues’ is a special track for us as it was one of the first videos we shot and self-produced as 131 Northside. The creation of this song was a key part in the birth and development of our musical and visual identity so it was only right that this was the first memory released in the series.

What else can we expect from the rest of the series?

We don’t want to give too much away but the series will be more than just music. We have been working closely with different creatives from around the globe really trying to push boundaries and create a new and exciting movement. What we can say is that the series will see the first appearance of our third member Jiggy, who up until now has been a silent and unseen but integral part of the group since the beginning. We will be releasing the majority of our work online but not everything. There will be physical installations and live aspects as well.

You have a pretty strong visual identity and aesthetic – why are visuals so important to you?

Visuals are just as important as sonics for us to really get the message across of what we stand for. When we started this, it wasn’t so much to be a music group as to create a platform that we felt lacked from our city. We wanted to create and showcase our collective talent in any and every way we could. All aspects of art and design are something we all hold close to our hearts and believe in. Edinburgh is a city that can be very suffocating and conservative at times. We had to do something.

Finally, what is the San Pellegrino thing all about?

Simply put, it is an oxymoron: something that is the best juxtaposition and example of who we are, by taking a different approach to the concept of success. We have adopted the luxury aesthetic of the bottles to be a part of our brand, as well as the purity of it being just water. Growing up and watching films, it is commonly used as a status symbol – for example in The Sopranos,Scarface etc. We aren’t drinking five litre bottles of Cîroc or Moët every single day, but we do drink San Pellegrino every day. You could say it’s an ode to the term “keeping it real.” SP for life.

Interview: Nick Brewer

nick brewer

Originally published for The 405.

Many current hip-hop artists can be accused of focusing solely on fuckin’ bitches and gettin’ money; but for 25-year-old, Essex-born rapper Nick Brewer, that is not the case. His first EP since signing to Island records, Four Miles Further, is a showcase of his skill as a wordsmith and a storyteller, with tales of his youth and commentary on modern society. “I can’t really claim to be a gangster,” said Brewer, who seems reluctant to get caught up with the hip-hop aesthetic.

“I’ve found that talking about what I’ve experienced and what I think and what I’ve gone through, that’s when I make my best music,” he added. Brewer’s style is not entirely dissimilar to his UK contemporaries in terms of subject matter, but his flow is more in the realm of that of a spoken word artist. “I’ve actually got in to writing spoken word more recently in the songs that I do when I’m performing live. I feel like it’s a really good way for people to get to know you and take in what your saying and I feel like they connect with you,” he said.

Beginning his path in to music DJ’ing when he was just 11 years old, Brewer became a fan of the rising UK grime scene at the time but, while he also took an interest in rapping, it wasn’t until he was much older that he became comfortable calling himself a rapper. “I always rapped secretly. I got in to rapping when I was about 16 or 17 but I didn’t really take it seriously until I was about 21,” he said. Brewer’s narrative rapping style has garnered praise from critics and earned him the tag of an “urban poet”, much like many of his influences. “I think all my favourite rappers are just wicked storytellers. Nas and Eminem are probably top of my list, but even guys like Drake, Chance the Rapper and J Cole as well, they can really paint a vivid picture and take you on a journey,” he added.

Brewer has worked with an array of up-and-coming UK talent, from spoken word artist George the Poet to rapper Little Simz, both of whom feature on his Four Miles Further EP. “I really like to work with people obviously that I’m fans of but I also kind of have a personal relationship with, especially because I feel like the audiences are people who understand you and you understand them,” he said. The EP was produced by Brewer’s long-time collaborators The Confect, who have worked with him on the majority of his music. “We just locked ourselves in the studio and got cracking on it. Some of the tunes have been there in a less developed form for a while,” he said.

While many rappers his age may be attracted to the elaborate lifestyle that comes with being a hip-hop artist, Brewer has managed to stay grounded and focus on the music. “I feel like rap music is one of the main genre’s where you can really get to know the artist, whether you agree with what they’re saying or whether they’re painting a positive picture, they’re kind of describing who they are and what they do. On the whole, it is somewhat of a lost art but when it’s done properly, I think it can be really powerful.”