Ishmael Butler is known by many names, most of which we aren’t meant to ever discover. In another lifetime, he was Butterfly of Digable Planets. Now, he stands at the center of the universe of the mysterious Shabazz Palaces, holding court as Palaceer Lazaro in the first hip-hop group ever signed to Sub Pop. He speaks here about divine inspiration, being in love, and keeping perspective. This interview by Lainna Fader.
Why do you make music?
Palaceer Lazaro: I don’t know. I hope to never know. I think that it’s something that—I’m compelled to do it by things that are deep inside of me. They’re just my instincts. They’re the unrecognizable—or undefinable parts of myself that compel me to make it. I don’t have any reason—the reason is that it happens.
You said you felt compelled to write, that it was instinctual—when did you first recognize those instincts?
I was always predisposed to follow them without recognizing them but there was something that I read about originality, being linked to instinct, and that’s when I started to try to draw the line.
What do you mean by ‘originality’?
Going from your instinct to the final piece without any alteration.
You said that the title ‘Of Light’ was a divine inspiration, and that it came from light. You said you see it in your mind and it looks like everything and nothing. What happened the last time you were divinely inspired?
My kids were around, and I was downstairs doing something, and they were upstairs. They live in different places, and they hadn’t seen each other in a long time. We were all together and they were upstairs and I could hear them—their voices—and I could hear in their voices a love, a familiarity that went way beyond the time they had spent together. It came from a place years-years-years and spaces ago, and when I heard it, I felt it. But I saw my grandmother yesterday too, and it was in her face, in her eyes, too. And in her sounds. But these things are—they are for me to see them. They’re always around. Sometimes you get caught up in the responsibilities of life. Or wanting to watch the game. Just wanting to talk to somebody or missing somebody. Not paying attention to the profound things that are right in front of us. Sometimes you do though—sometimes you are keen and sensitive to it.
How do you remind yourself to not get caught up in the responsibilities of life?
Practice. Drills. You know, repetition. Landmarks—mental ones.
What kind of landmarks?
That’s a personal thing. I don’t wanna talk about that. But that’s how I do it.
How does art connect us to something bigger than ourselves?
When you’re attracted to something it’s seductive, and when you’re being seduced, you’re most aware of yourself. You’re also out of control. It’s like—a lot of discovery and realization and excitement and I think it’s one of the funner things that happen to us.
What’s the relationship between creative input and reaching the divine?
I think that creativity is divine. I mean, cuz good ideas—you can’t really trace them back to any place or thing. For me, it comes from some place, some divinity of some sort.
How is creativity a way for us to help each other?
Yeah—that’s how it even starts. People are looking inside of themselves for something to affect what’s going on inside of themselves or inside of the people around them. It could be a small thing. You could be walking by a newsstand and see a photo and there’s a color in the photo that can make you change how you view life and then yourself and then you can make different moves.
In Shabazz Palaces, you’re Palaceer Lazaro. What purpose do these new personas serve? What is the power in adopting a character?
I have more secret names than known names. The known names—they always come about serendipitously and it’s cool. I know the story behind it, but I don’t think it’s important. Plus I think it’s more fun to not know the story behind things.
What happens when you disconnect someone from their story? What potential is revealed in that space?
I don’t believe that when you tell the backstory that you find out much because it’s a poor representation of what actually goes into something. I don’t know. I think the story is in the product. And it’s infinitely explorable by the people that are looking and listening to it and it’s better to go in that direction. Some people are good at being able to chronicle that, but I’m not one of them. Not many people are good at that—that’s a whole ‘nother talent.
On the new album, at the end of ‘An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum,’ there’s the cautionary lyric “Certain things need not be asked.” Why do you think people are so interested in knowing your backstory? Why don’t we need to know it?
I don’t think they do—there’s just a lot of places that rely on content and in those places, the content they rely on is not very broad or imaginative and just want the content to fill up whatever they need to fill up. At the end—and at the beginning—of the day, they’re not really interested in it. Maybe for an anecdote over drinks or to wax over knowing some things. It’s just superficial—surface things. Some do, some are interested, but I think once you analyze their interest, you’re like “Nah, that don’t even matter.” [laughs] You know what I’m saying? Your imagination is a much more fertile and vast and dazzling space than having shit narrowed down for you by a megalomaniac. I just think it’s a characteristic of our times that people engage in things as a ritual—a formality—but I don’t know if it’s really substantial or if it lasts. It’s just stuff we do in the moment. And then, it just doesn’t seem to have much depth.
As an artist, how does this affect the way you think about communicating with people through your own music?
Creating shit is still an adventure, kind of a gamble, and you still believe in a lot of good things and potential in order to even be able to feel like doing something today, putting it out, so it’s hope. And fun. And adventure. And wonder. You know? It’s like going out on an adventure—you never know what you’re going to find. It doesn’t predetermine anything in terms of creating music. I definitely don’t study it while I’m doing it. I don’t think about it that much but I’m sure it’s in me—in different kind of ways. It’s hard to say.
You’ve said you’re not interested in looking into the past but what about the future? Octavia Butler said ‘the very act of looking ahead to discern possibilities and offer warnings is an act of hope.’
It’s interesting because she was up here. She lived up here, and died up here. I’ve read every word she’s ever written—but I’ve never read any quotes of hers or anything. But that’s what I’m saying—about trying to pinpoint backstories. Her influence on me is profound—I could never put it into words—but that correlation that you just drew just does it.
In “Swerve… The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)” the lyrics are “Black is me, black is us, black is free.” How is black free? How can anyone be free?
Some of it is a call to act, as much as it is a declaration. Some of it is something to try to do—to try to figure out, to try to pursue. I do think that people can be free.
What does being free mean to you? What kind of freedom do you hope for the most?
I don’t know if I understand freedom. I just kind of know what the word is supposed to mean, and that’s kind of my point. I don’t know if I believe in the word as an absolute. I haven’t figured out what it’s supposed to mean, but I do know what it means to the world and I used that to shape the way I use it in the music. But freedom? It’s all relative. I think it means having the confidence to pursue your instincts at any quote unquote cost. There’s so much power in belief. And when you do believe, then you can be what you believe and there isn’t any doubt about it. Other people can look at it and think you’re a fuckin’ nut! But you feel it and it is so. There are so many roots to freedom. Even if you just look at physical slaves—emancipation comes in all kinda ways. It’s like—it’s a mixture of things both in the realm that we live in and in realms that we don’t dwell in that get together to emancipate and free somebody. I don’t really know, and you never know how it’s gonna happen, or if it even will. The important thing is that you can kinda help yourself to it. But some people try to help themselves to it but they still get blocked—they still remain confined by things. You never know how things are gonna happen but you can have a courage and a strength and a bravery about life that puts you in the position when these things do fall into line—you can capitalize on the exits and escape routes and fight your way to a little bit more light.
What is the light, and how is it different from the dark?
In the light, things are obvious. Things are very clear. In the dark, it’s just a little less manageable. The same things are there—but you can’t see them so clearly or feel them or express them so clearly.
What do you see for your own future and the world at large?
That’s a big question! I don’t—I don’t see into the future. I do, you know, but I can’t talk about that cuz I won’t be doing any justice to the things that I see. Plus, it’s hard to put into words, the feelings. I don’t know, man! [laughs] What do you see for the world? I’d like to hear you answer that! Do you know any people who are dead, and they’re kinda too young to be dead? Well, if you think about what they would feel about living right now, then you’ll have another perspective on things. If you can’t understand what the gift of it is, then maybe you don’t deserve it. And I want it. And I want to be able to recognize the gift of life. So I just do! So when it feels like shit’s fucked up and not going the way I want it to go, then I recognize that as a ludicrous approach and just get out as quick as possible and move on to some work—making something, helping somebody, looking at somebody elses’ work—things that affirm life. The easiest shit to find—and they’re everywhere. And plus, you never know what tomorrow’s gonna bring. You just gotta work on things you can do, today. Cuz when you do … it’s result oriented—always. Something’s gonna happen when you make a move. That’s the way things work. I think everythings alright. The world is definitely nuts, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of bad in it cuz we set the tables for ourselves so that shit that’s gonna happen as a result of what we been doing is not gonna be cool but at the same time I think a lot of cool things are gonna happen too. And when things are just happening and they’re inevitable and they’re real you kinda have to look at them and accept them for what they are instead of just dwelling on how bad they are or why. Because tomorrow is the only thing that you can really impact.
If you didn’t have love, would you be so willing to trust the universe?
Yeah. If you’ve ever had it, then you know. You know the possibility that you could again. Love is—it makes things feel a lot brighter, no matter what. It’s hard still, but advice from someone that’s other than you: the thing is, you just have to believe. And beliving in things takes practice and a lot of explaining to yourself. Spending time with yourself and figuring out that it’s not about dwelling on what you don’t have, or what isn’t there. Cuz a lot of times when you do that, you set up barriers to ever having it again anyway. You know what I’m saying? You just gotta have courage. Bravery about believing in life. It sounds cliché, but when you really get to the bare bones of the real meanings of those things, it’s pretty bright.
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