Universalist rapper unafraid to throw a little black glitter in the face of the rest takes ten minutes out to chat to Sunil Chauhan.
Second chances in hip hop aren’t common but just as the late 90s indie-rap scene saw Zev Love X become MF Doom, Ishmael Butler has shed all traces of Butterfly (his moniker in 90s jazz-rap trio Digable Planets ) to reinvent himself as Palaceer Lazaro, the cryptic figure behind Shabazz Palaces, a Seattle-based outfit who – alongside rappers like Lil B, Death Grips and Odd Future – are making underground rap vital again.
Not so much conscious as subconscious (sub could also mean sub-bass – they have industrially heavy low end) rap, the Sub Pop-signed outfit’s debut ‘Black Up’, released at the end of June, might bring to mind 90s isolationism and dubwise labels like Wordsound but it somehow exists in its own vacuum, with hollowed out chasms and elusive imagery that relate back to Lazaro’s insistence that the album stay a personal, private experience. Reluctant to push any of his own ideas onto what anyone should get out of the record, he wriggles his way out of definitive answers, often just repeating “it’s a feeling”, the chorus of a song on ‘Black Up’ that could also double as the Palaces’ motto.
I spoke to Lazaro over the phone from his home in rainy Seattle.
How much did MF Doom’s reinvention make you think you could do something similar?
The idea of masks and not just literal masks but symbolic ones, artistic ones, it’s old African shit. But Doom, I’ve always liked him and I was a KMD fan so his music inspired me. I felt like the mask thing was dope, but it wasn’t directly influential to this thing here.
What difference did moving from New York back to Seattle make?
The environment you’re in is definitely going to influence the expressions you have. You spend 24 hours in a day, the type of influences that you get from your neighbours, or the weather, or something in the local news, it will influence you.
Did it make your music darker?
My music’s not really dark. It’s like comparing stuff you were wearing 20 years ago to the clothes you’re wearing now. Everyone’s changing all the time. I don’t feel it’s darker though. If anything, it’s more light, more luminous. I feel much more liberal now. My opinions are much less concrete. I appreciate more, and I do my best to appreciate things even if they’re not in my taste. I reserve judgement on almost everything. And I rarely talk about the judgments I do come to inside myself. I’m way less cynical. I’m not cynical at all, if I ever was. But definitely less than I was.
Not having photos or detailed credits, song titles that might be hard for most people to remember – is that to force concentration onto the music alone?
You play a guitar part or come up with a melody or a cadence, yeah someone did it, but the ideas came from somewhere else. It could be deep inside them or it could be from outside of them. So to then sit down and start talking about ‘hey tell me about the evolution of this’ and then someone else starts talking ‘I was with this guy and he did this’, that’s not really how the song came about. That’s just what the person is deciding to say. Some are more talented than others at remembering those things and making a historical anecdote out of them. We’re not. We just feel like this is what happened to us. Here it is. There’s the song. Now, if you like music, if you’re a critic, if you’re a talented listener and you got some thoughts and feelings, run with it. That’s what we expect from people that are doing that. It’s just that asking us about it, we’re not that good at saying what it’s all about. Without sounding self-centred or self-oriented, we don’t wanna do that. It’s not about being mysterious or hiding behind anonymity, we just made the song. What else is there? I thought it was a music thing. I didn’t know it was a talking thing.
Do you miss the pre-internet era when artists weren’t expected to be so visible?
I think a lot of artists today want that. Music is some secondary thing to maintain their public personality. I wasn’t made for this digital age. But I’m not into taking it back to no other days. I’m cool with how things are. I like it and I enjoy it. I don’t do things that don’t subscribe to my taste like a lot of shit on the internet, but I still love the internet, I still like to do what I do on there. It’s just not Facebook and Twitter. But artists don’t have to do it. They don’t have to do anything. Everyone’s given a choice.
Is there more pressure on rappers to constantly have something new available?
They’re entitled to that desire. I don’t think it’s not worthwhile, I just think it’s not always necessary. But I don’t feel like I’m engaged in some sort of battle with them. I think we got more similarities than we have differences. It’s still hip-hop, it’s still rap, it’s still black culture. It’s only going to be so many degrees of separation. But I don’t think about myself enough in the genre, in the realm of rap, to be wishing it was something other than what it is. I’m enjoying the stuff that I like. If I don’t like it, I don’t think ‘oh I wish it was more like this so I could like it’. I’m moving on to try and find something that I dig.
Do you listen to new rap?
Who do you like?
In the mainstream, I like Bun B a lot, I like how prolific Lil Wayne is, I like how Rick Ross went into the recent black culture in terms of finding figures to mythologize instead of Caucasian movie stars. I like that concept. I like Odd Future. I like all the classic 90s and 80s hip hop cos that’s the stuff I grew up on. I’m a hip-hop head, like the rest of the cats in the crew.
The album’s production reminds me of old dubstep. Was that an influence for you?
It’s interesting. They’ve used that to describe this, but I’ve never heard it. I mean, I’ve probably heard it but I can’t recognise the genre and then say something about it when I hear it. I’m not that loyal. I’ve probably heard a dubstep song but I don’t know what it is. Again, these ideas, these rhythms, as African descendants, when you go to your instinct, when you’re creating something, it could be coming from a place inside you that you can’t really pinpoint. So the fact that different cats are coming with similar rhythms, it’s not that surprising.
There’s the line on the album: ‘Things are looking blacker but black is looking whiter’. Is that about black music sounding European or about cultural assimilation, buying into the status quo?
It’s like all rap. It’s poetry. It has a literal purpose but it has infinitesimal layers of meaning as well because it’s symbols that we recognise. And when you see them, it could be the same symbol but we might have a different interpretation, especially if it’s in rhythm over a beat with harmony and melody. I don’t know what it meant. But I know what it meant to me. I’m not going to say what it is now though cos I don’t think it’s that important. But what it means to you I think, is.
Why is ambiguity so important?
But it’s only ambiguous until you make your decision, especially if you trust your feeling. When it comes to music, or some interpretation of a scene in a film, there’s not much at stake here, other than entertainment and maybe some learning. It’s not that serious you know? We don’t think about what people are going to do prior to them doing it. We’re not like ‘oh we’re gonna do this’ or ‘oh people have to do this’, we’re not trying to control or manipulate them. We don’t think about what we’re going to make. This is an expression based on instinct and love.