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.