Hearing Shabazz Palaces for the first time brings on a most pleasant instance of déjà vu. That smooth voice mixing metaphor with pop culture references at first sounds familiar, but could it be?
It is. Shabazz Palaces MC Ishmael Butler once went by Butterfly as one third of Digable Planets, the New York hip-hop trio that mixed the political with the poetic.
"Digable Planets was the best time in my life." Butler doesn't shy away from that previous musical persona. "We were in New York City in the golden era of hip-hop, right in the epicenter of an exciting energetic time."
To these ears, nothing was more golden from that era than Digable Planets' two albums, 1993's Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and 1994's Blowout Comb. The group reunited over the years on triumphant reunion tours, but as far as recorded material, there was only silence. Why?
"We're not opportunists," says Butler. "We recorded all that when we lived in a five-block radius. We want to record new music, but not as an exercise. It's difficult living far away with responsibilities of an adult life. But we've been discussing it a lot more than we ever have now."
The possibility of new Digable Planets material 20 years later is earth-shattering, but let's not give Shabazz Palaces short shift. Butler's partnership with instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire substitutes the jazz samples of Planets with sonic experimentation. They're currently completing their third full-length, which Butler describes as about "our relationship with devices. Not just our reliance on technological devices, but the ways they make us live and present and manipulate yourself."
Shabazz Palaces is definitely a farther-left project, from its themes to its promotional art, which recently had Butler posing with a pair of 13-foot leashed pythons. "We shot that over eight hours in a strip mall in South Central LA. They were fed and had trainers nearby, but when they put the snake around my neck, I could feel if it tightened around you, it could turn every bone into dust."
Their approach to their live performances doesn't sound so treacherous, but expect the unexpected. "We don't come into any show with a plan. There's no set list. Checking us out is a singular experience. We rehearse, but only for the fundamentals so we can take off and experiment when we play," Butler says.
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That approach has gotten Shabazz Palaces critical notice, but not the media attention Digable Planets received back in the day — which brings up the question of what Butler was up to in the 15 years between Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces. "You want to know everything?" he laughs. "Specific to music, I learned to play guitar. I recorded some music I never released. I put out an album, Cherrywine, in '03. I studied film for a year at NYU. I read a lot. I lived in nature in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. I lived with my daughter in Oakland. I was a leaf blowing in the wind of life."
That philosophy is why he makes music, explains Butler. "Innately, music is my calling. To release it commercially allows you to earn a living. I prefer the troubadour aspect of being a musician travelling around playing, that's what leaves me fulfilled."
Before we signed off, the troubadour casually dropped a final bomb sure to excite many a reminiscent hip-hop head: "By the way, we're going to do some Digable shows in July."
Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival
With Shabazz Palaces and more. March 3 to 6 at Sunshine Grove, 12517 NE 91st Ave., Okeechobee. Three-day advance passes start at $269.50. Visit okeechobeefest.com.