Ishmael Butler, of the transcendent hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces and a Grammy-winning artist (as one-third of Digable Planets), speaks in a quiet and milky tone when asked questions about the process and creation of his unique music. All the observations I made about his conversational nature, in retrospect, can transcend subject matter that most media outlets may be accustomed to because his personal observations of the world and the nature of his own human experience are mature and refreshingly enlightened.
He swears by simplicity and refuses to inflate the profundity of his ideals, so I took it upon myself to encourage openness, and hopefully tapped into a bit of his imagination to get a clearer view about how sees himself and the world around him.
We talked about the art of Zen, the future of the world and how his educational background helped him navigate through the complexities of the music industry.
You often talk about how your musical process is compulsive and that music comes to you and from you the moment you step into the studio, almost like it is being channeled from somewhere else.
Yeah, but is that not how it usually occurs in most situations?
Well, I’ve talked to a number of artists, and there are some songwriters who get their lyrics and ideas from things that happened to them in the past, or they have to have a muse to be able to write a song. Other artists have to have strong emotions about something to be inspired. I think you being a writer who is completely present and in the moment when you record is a bit different.
I think that people that are capable of doing it that way are brilliant. I also think that people who don’t have the talent or the poetry that comes from observation still attempt to do it that way, and because of that, their music can fall short of being essential, but the fact that artists write that way is cool. It is an incredible skill to have.
I agree. So, is your mind clear when you go in the studio?
Well, yeah. But in a sense that my mind is clear when I’m not there, too. I’ve been in a groove for some years now of having this approach. I learned years ago about trying to go from an instinct to the result with as little contamination as possible. I’ve been practicing doing that for a long time.
What you’re describing is a type of yoga. I mean, people contort their bodies to be able to attain quietness of mind and wisdom. The patience you talk about is something that people pay thousands of dollars and go to India to find.
Yeah, I’ve obviously read and have been exposed to these things (spiritual doctrines) over the years. But the thing that strikes me about all the similarities of all that stuff is, aside from the rat race of the society that we live in, the reason why these age-old philosophies still ring true is that they just make sense, and if you just slow down for a minute and pay attention to essential things, human things, these ideals pronounce themselves to be the way to go.
I don’t want to say that it is common sense, because it is not necessarily that common, but I think we all have the instinct to recognize them to be true.
Do you have an idea of what the future may hold for humanity on a spiritual and emotional level?
I don’t really know. It is so multilayered and complex, and I only live in a very small portion of the world. But it seems like we are headed for a very synthetic existence―a synthetic isolation. We in the Western world, we seem to equate luxury with the ability or the necessity to do less physical things, and to remotely control not only machines, but people who don’t have the access to the resources that we have.
It’s like if you can accumulate more, you can do less physical or human things, and can synthetically construct your environment to have whatever sensory things you need and avoid dealing with people. It seems like we’re losing humanity. All the frontiers where revolutions are happening or where people are trying to effect change, I feel like the poisonous thought of Western ideology realizes that there is an open space and plants seeds of a synthetic ideology there as well, so it is shrinking humanity.
It sounds dire and desperate, and it is, but in this being reality, it doesn’t have to be as dire and desolate as it sounds. It is sad that these are the choices we made, but it is not like beauty isn’t going to be present. We’re going to have to go about things differently to express and experience it.
Did formal education have anything to the way you conduct yourself and how you make music?
Yeah, for me with formal education, it was about the environment, the community environment that inspires me. Playing in a band and playing on the basketball team in high school and university, those were the main influences in which formal education sort of provided that structure. For me to be able to participate in those activities, they ended up being the basis of my outlook and the way that I understand interaction. It taught me what completion is, or what it is to not complete something. Those things were very important formatively.
It is very clear that you’re educated.
I wasn’t really a good student, though. (laughs)
You tend to mix small morsels of self-exploration in your albums. You talk a bit about struggling with ego and fame, particularly in your new album, “Les Majesty.” How do you handle the pressure of masses of people being aware of your existence?
It’s hard. Pressure or notoriety is really all generated by your perception of yourself. People asking me thoughtful questions about my influence or where I got this or where I got that from, I started to realize that I could make something up and try to be clever or anecdotal, and take a swipe at the truth or try to create some storyline that would be printable or worthy of content. I realized I wasn’t being honest with myself because where my music was coming from, couldn’t really be contained in a synopsis.
Would you call your music career a calling or a purpose? Do you feel like you’re surrendering to something?
Yeah, but also I am working with it and am open to a channel, and I’m fortunate enough to experience it.