Ishmael Butler: All questions, no answers
|Some influences: Alain LeRoy Locke, Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, Last Poets|
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” wrote Anton Chekhov.
Although removed by more than 100 years, Ishmael Butler (aka Palaceer Lazaro) epitomizes the Russian existential writer’s show-don’t-tell style—the essence of this quote—and his disregard for traditional story structure. Chekhov also believed that what is obligatory of an artist is not to provide answers, but to properly pose questions.
In this vein, Butler, the rhyming half of Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, pushes the boundaries of storytelling in hip-hop. First, there was the band members’ anonymity—virtually unheard of within a genre of celebrity names—during the first two EP releases, allowing merit alone to gain notoriety without relying on the successes of Butler’s previous group, Digable Planets.
Butler also offers mysterious, semi-cryptic titles, like “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum” and “Endeavors for Never (The Last Time We Spoke You Said You Were not Here. I Saw You Though.)” from the critically acclaimed 2011 release Black Up.
Each song shows its own “glint of light on broken glass” in a smattering of vignettes written seemingly as stream of consciousness. Butler would argue that these several-lines-long scenes sewn together are the most realistic approach to penning a narrative.
“A film or book is a nonrealistic view of life,” says Butler, who then describes a fictional scenario of a couple cyclically falling in and out of love. “It seems abstract [as it’s happening]. You can pick out those parts and then, later, put it in line [for a story]. But that’s not the way life goes; it’s not the way you hear, think, feel.
“I’m trying to reflect what’s happening to me and the world more realistically than sitting down and filtering out a linear story,” says Butler, whose songs, rich in imagery, allow open interpretation, much like a work of non-narrative contemporary film art. It poses questions and gives nary an answer. For example, “Are you ... Can you ... Were you? (Felt)” muses on the illusion of time, the problem with materialism, the adoption of television over literature, the struggles of African-Americans and so on.
Also within that song are clues to Butler’s writing processes: “Aw, dude/ The spicier the food/ When you chew, fuck their rules/ It’s a feeling.” Furthermore, as he speaks via phone from his home, the way he describes his creative process isn’t dissimilar to how a medium would describe how they channel a deity from another realm.
“When I’m making music, I don’t feel like I’m doing something, as much as I feel like something is happening to me,” Butler says.
The environment has to be perfect—the lights dimmed, the proper tools put in place and Butler relaxed and calm. And then “it” just comes. He has difficulty (or maybe it’s reluctance) describing the process further, but gives the allusion of it being meditative—hypnotic even.
Butler doesn’t think too much—about the lyrics or the industrial, minimalistic beats that he produces with Tendai “Baba” Maraire. “I don’t necessarily like all the sounds or the rhymes [that come out], but I believe in them,” he says. “[It’s like] you’re spiraling up or down or to the side. But when your instincts come, that’s where it’s at.”
Yet it’s not all from a higher power; there is responsibility on his end, be it culling sources of inspiration or habitually jotting down lyrical sketches. He cites Harlem Renaissance poets—like Nikki Giovanni, Alain LeRoy Locke, James Baldwin and, especially, The Last Poets—as shaping his worldview and opening his eyes to wordplay and the power of language. These were tradition-challenging writers whose fresh and clever approach was derived from their urban environment. Butler is doing just that now. His work is not derivative of these cats, just informed.
“Everything is born of something else,” Butler says. On his phone, there are roughly 2,500 recorded notes—phrases, sketches, rhymes—but he rarely goes back to them as a direct source material. “Everything that I record or think about or write down or whatever, even if you never see it again, it all leads to a song in one way or another.”
The whole process is magical, he says. “What’s happening is some divine stuff. You’re channeling and you feel like you’re plugged up into something. It’s hard to describe or chronicle. I’m not able to do it. I’m always amazed when cats can do that ... maybe when I’m older [I will be able to].”
It’s admirable to deal in the currency of mystery, though. After all, “It’s a feeling.”
Even if Butler could describe his creative process, he probably wouldn’t—that’s not his ethos. He shows glints of light on the broken glass of his fractured storytelling, and the listerner can extrapolate meaning. Butler’s job isn’t to provide answers, it’s to ask questions.
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