The earthlings of Detroit are in for a treat Thursday, in the form of experimental hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces. Fresh off the release of two sci-fi concept albums, the Seattle duo is bringing their off-kilter beats and hazy, starlit verses about a traveler from outer space to El Club.
Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star are a pair of albums about an alien traveler who comes to Earth — specifically the "turnt-up states of Amurderca" — as an emissary, chronicling the chaos of racial strife and mobile device addiction while also enjoying the spoils of human life.
There is a lot to unpack in the albums. "We post-language, baby. We talk with guns, man," Ishmael Butler says on The Jealous Machines' ominous first track. On the next — the chilling, robotic "Gorgeous Sleeper Cell" — our hero is "feeling for my phone I was, my glowing phantom limb." But even the truest anxieties of our time kind of shimmer after they pass through Butler's mind. That's because Shabazz's signature sound is lush, spacey and expansive, and full of information for the senses. Whether Butler is going through an extensive list of fruit and his approval for all of them, like he does in "Julian's Dream (ode to a bad)," or painting imagery of crowns, diamonds, and jewels, it's pure sonic luxury.
There's also the irresistible gem "Shine a Light" from Born on a Gangster Star, which samples Dee Dee Sharp's "I Really Love You," and comes as close as Shabazz ever has to sounding like conventional hip-hop.
Shabazz Palaces formed in 2009 in Seattle between Butler, formerly Butterfly of Digable Planets, and Zimbabwean percussionist Tendai Maraire. Butler writes the lyrics while Mariare provides percussion, the instruments from his homeland splicing the futuristic hip-hop with something completely ancient. This past-versus-future dichotomy is reflected in Butler's lyrics too, with science fiction imagery mingling with that of kings and pharoahs.
Metro Times spoke to Butler in advance of their show about his ambitious albums, his writing process, and touring with both Shabazz Palaces and Digable Planets in the same year.
Metro Times: So, why did you choose to have this Quazarz character be the center of the story rather than say, just speaking as yourself?
Ishmael Butler: It injects new blood, it's another perspective. I was hoping to find some new angles, some new points of entry. Trying to have someone else see what I saw.
MT: On the song "SS Quintessence," it sounds like he went back home and is reporting what he saw. Is that what it's about?
Butler: Nah, but I like that, that's pretty good. I'll accept that.
MT: What was your thinking behind it?
Butler: I don't remember. It's interesting, I'm not some kind of cerebral poet who maps everything out, 'this word, that word, these feelings." It's like I get inspired and I try to capture that inspiration. I leave it to the critics and reviewers to pull out the latent hidden meanings that might really be there, but I don't think about it that way. I'm not that smart.
MT: These albums seemed to have more sexy R&B jams than your previous ones. They are some of my favorite songs on the album, too. I really like "Effeminence," for instance. Was there anything influencing that?
Butler: Thank you. I can't point to anything directly, but you know, I'm 48. I came up listening to my mom's music, which was all soul, rhythm and blues. And then lived through the R&B era of my youth, the new jack swing era, I love all of that stuff.
MT: I was also curious, aside from just clever wordplay, what does the song name "Love in the Time of Kanye" mean?
Butler: It's talking about a relationship I was having, and it was at a time when Kanye was in the news all the time. Now he's disappeared. But that relationship, he was sort of the backdrop for everything that was going on at that time. He was ubiquitous. So that's what it was, a little play on words.
MT: I saw that right before you started this Shabazz Palaces tour, you were doing some shows with Digable Planets. What has it been like performing with these two different bands that are from such different periods of your life?
Butler: It's interesting, and fun, and exciting, and strange. We're doing a lot of traveling, going to different countries — all places we had been before with the music. It's been really enchanting, truth be told, just to know that people even want to see us and hear us still is amazing, so every time we do a show, it's like a fantasy.
MT: I read that you're a big science fiction fan, which is also obvious given the concept of these albums. Who are your favorite stories or authors?
Butler: There's one called Forerunner Foray by Andre Norton. Richard K. Morgan is another author I like a lot.
MT: Do you see the current climate in America inspiring new science fiction?
Butler: (laughs) Yes. For writers, it's always motivational, inspirational when you look around because as an observer, and an emotional being, and as someone who thinks poetically, you always sort of feed off the environment you're creating in. Of course, now, as electric as it is, I'm sure a lot of good writing is coming up.
Shabazz Palaces performs on Thursday, Aug. 31 at El Club; 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-436-1793; elclubdetroit.com; Doors at 8 p.m.; Tickets start at $15.