The last time Ishmael Butler came to Arkansas, it was for a basketball tournament in Pine Bluff. That was 1986. Since then he has started two acclaimed rap groups: the iconic, Borges-referencing jazz-rap trio Digable Planets (best remembered for early '90s singles "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" and "Where I'm From") and, more recently, the Seattle-based Shabazz Palaces, which makes jolting, dystopian hip-hop of a very different sort, and for which Butler rechristened himself Palaceer Lazaro. Shabazz Palaces' second album, "Lese Majesty," was released by Sub Pop earlier this summer to much praise, and the group will be at Revolution 9:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 15 ($10 adv., $13 day of).
I read somewhere that you once interned at [early '80s hip-hop and dance label] Sleeping Bag Records. Some of the Shabazz Palaces stuff reminds me of that era of abrasive, electro-rap, like those Arthur Russell or Mantronix records. Were they a big influence on you?
Quite, very big influence. Once I started really getting into music from a production standpoint, those were the things that I was listening to.
What was it like working there?
It was exciting. I was mostly an errand boy, a gopher, working in the mailroom. I would be out in the street delivering packages to different record labels, attorneys. Then at night there'd be record release parties and things like that. It was a cool time.
It seems like most people describe the new record as "futuristic" or "forward-thinking." Do you consciously think of your music in those terms?
I feel like we're looking at our instinct, and that could translate to any amount of things. When we're making a song, we're trying to find a sound that seems good to us, and that goes back to our instinct, our taste. It's not just for the sake of being different or anything like that. The music doesn't really sound weird to me, but if it does to others I can accept that. It's cool to see how people react to it. Some of the adjectives people use are pretty fascinating.
Does rap have a shorter memory than other genres?
There's just too much shit coming out. People know their regional stuff or whatever they were into, and those timelines saturate pretty deeply into people's consciousness and subconscious, but to have some kind of comprehensive, historical approach or context is pretty daunting. You gotta just kind of go with what you know and can remember. Plus, the turnover is so quick.
Your stuff has always been considered "alternative rap." How has that category evolved over the years?
It's evolved to include a wider variety of things. But, at the same time, in this age, it's funny how things can be one thing and then also seem like the exact opposite thing. Just sonically, there's never been more artists sounding the same as there are now — that ghetto-ization of the sound. The alternative-mainstream thing has evolved into something totally different than it was 20 years ago. And that makes sense. But there are so many cadences and vocal textures and tones and sonic palettes that are pretty much identical, which takes me back to the blues, where cats would basically come over the same chord structures with little bits of personality and nuance. And there's something to be said for being able to take a formula and write a song within that formula and have it rise above. I respect that, it's just not something that I can really do myself.
Why do you think that is?
Your mind and your body are born with certain predilections and talents, and I don't have those. I have them, arguably, for whatever's in my wheelhouse. I'm not sure why, I've never really thought about it too much.
I read in another interview that your daughter was a Lil B fan. What do you think of his music and of that generation?
I like Lil B and Soulja Boy; they're some of my favorite artists. I think they embody a spirit that is very early-days-of-hip-hop to me. With Lil B always freestyling, and Soulja Boy with his very dance-oriented, Doug E. Fresh feel. And even their approach to the internet has been very philanthropic, excited. They gave away a lot more than they ever received monetarily. I like their approach a lot.
Some of your Digable Planets material was included recently in Yale University's "Anthology of Rap." Shabazz Palaces doesn't seem to place as much of a premium on the purely lyrical, though. Is that deliberate?
To me a song is a song. Every part of it is the same as every other part, because you hear it in its entirety. I've heard people say, "I'm a lyrics person. I don't listen to the beats," and I don't really know how motherfuckers can do that. I believe them, that they can, but I can't. Clarity isn't something that's readily available on first listen. Clarity develops over time, and a lot of time things that develop slower can have better clarity.
What's your recording process like? Listening to the record, it's hard to picture.
It's intimate, like being with your girl or something: You guys might have a kid as a result of it, but you never really divulge how all that happens. People just assume, but nobody really knows. A lot of times the naturalness and spontaneity of things can't really be described. It's like, there's all kinds of different strains of marijuana. Maybe the one that you had that day mixed with the food that you ate, mixed with the weather outside, mixed with what you did that night and what you have on. All of these chemical reactions conspire with every little nuance of sound. If we only look at the surface and say, "We recorded this on Tuesday night," we're not really giving a full account of what happened. It can be a sound, it can be a word, and often those things lead to something where, in the end, the beginning is forgotten.