Ishmael Butler has seen it all. The 45-year-old Seattle native—a one-time member of Digable Planets, currently one-half of Shabazz Palaces and A&R at Sub Pop—has achieved success through three decades, a rare feat in the constantly evolving world of music.
His career started off as most artists’ do—as a child who was introduced to music and developed an undying passion for it—but with a bit of a twist. From the jump, Ishmael seemed to have a deft understanding that the business side of music has to go hand-in-hand with the artistic side for anything to come of creation. While in college at UMass, he began interning for Sleeping Bag Records, and as he learned the ins and outs of the business, he took the first major step in his career as an artist and formed the alternative hip-hop trio known as Digable Planets.
Over the course of the past 20 years, Butler has built a compelling legacy off the strength of his involvement with various ventures, all successful in unique ways. He’s a true student of the game, and as a result, his insight is invaluable. In the ’90s, he was Butterfly of Digable Planets. For most of the 2000s, he was off the grid, living a self-defined “hermit life” on the heels of his mother’s passing. But in the late 2000s, he returned in appropriately innovative fashion with Shabazz Palaces, then went on to become an A&R at Seattle-based Sub Pop (Shabbazz Palaces, Clipping., Porter Ray).
We spoke to Ishmael about his background and Seattle roots, his fascinating perspective on the music world, and what he looks forward to personally and professionally.
You have a pretty diverse background, so I wanted to take it back to the beginning. You were interning for a label in college, then Digable Planets formed, so just talk a little bit about how you got into music on the two different levels, the business and the actual artistic side.
The artistic side I would have to credit my mother and father. My dad wanted me to play sax but he also wanted me to have an exposure to music in general, which he thought would be something that would enrich my life. So I started playing alto sax at a young age, and then the cat that really turned me on was my music teacher when I was in middle school. As I started going through high school, I really got into rap, and when I left high school and went to college at UMass, I interned at Sleeping Bag Records down in New York and eventually left school and started working at Sleeping Bag full time. That’s when I did the first Digable demos. So basically from a very early age music was a big part of my parents’ life and thus mine. They set me off into a foray of it on my own in my middle school, then in high school I started to pursue it as a life endeavor. I felt my compulsion to do that around then.
So you were just trying to make it happen no matter what, because it sounds like you had one foot in both worlds, the business and the Digable Planets side, so were you just like, I’m gonna be in the music world however?
Nah, I took the internship at Sleeping Bag with the hopes of getting signed to the label, which never really happened, but I was always wanting to rap at that point. I also knew from my parents that it wasn’t gonna be some easy thing and that there was gonna be some work involved and there would be benefits to understanding the whole circumference of the endeavor rather than just trying to be an artist or something like that, so I learned a lot working as basically a gopher at a label. I got exposed to a lot of things, contractual things, artist development, you know? It was a good learning experience for sure.
Definitely. Before we get a little deeper into your career, I wanted to ask about the Seattle scene. In the past few years there’s been a lot of attention with Macklemore and a whole wave of artists. It seems like the whole community is behind the local artists. What’s your perspective on the Seattle scene?
Well, I think it’s probably like everywhere else where you have a wide array of artists where some of them are about the music and the art and the integrity, and some of them are moonlighting on this cultural Disneyland sort of thing where you can put on a baseball hat and move your arms a certain way and talk rhythmically and you’re rapping, but you’re really in pursuit of a validation that is external rather than something that’s artistic and internal. So what happens in a situation like that is, you’ve got your underground, your left of center, and your sort of mainstream cats. And it’s not to say we all don’t mingle and get along; it’s familial in the sense that we all got cousins we don’t see that much or rock with that much but still understand them as being family. It’s not as daytime TV show family-oriented as it might seem, but it’s not bad either. It’s rich and cool and people support each other for the most part, but not everybody agrees with the way everybody else went about what they did. But it’s all good.
So let’s talk about the time you transitioned into starting Shabazz Palaces, when was that?
Around 2008. Me and my bro Tendai that’s in the group with me, he was working on a project of his, he was a rapper and musician and producer too. I got back to Seattle from New York around 2005 and I was… my mom passed away and I was basically disoriented, disenchanted. I felt depressed. I didn’t really have any musical aspirations. I was mourning. I met Tendai during that time and became friends and didn’t do any music even though he knew I did music and I knew he did music. I wasn’t really into it like that but he was always encouraging me to get into it, had me on a couple of his tracks on his album. I don’t really remember the day or if there was some moment where it all changed but he just kept saying, “Hey you should get back into it,” so I always had my equipment and stuff and would be working, but one day I just decided to start putting stuff together. I ended up putting the first two albums together that we just pressed up ourselves and sold in record stores around Seattle. That got the attention of Sub Pop. A couple years after that, we ended up going into a partnership and deal with them.
What were you doing in New York prior to 2005?
Just kinda living a hermit life really. [Laughs]
Around what time did you guys get signed to Sub Pop?
I think 2010, because the album [Black Up] came out in 2011.
What was your familiarity with them before signing, did you know a lot about them?
I thought highly of them because I liked a lot of the stuff that I had heard of them. I ended up finding out later that a lot of the rock and roll and indie stuff I like and didn’t know what label it was on ended up being on Sub Pop too. And I knew they were a Seattle label and stayed as independent as they had, so I had a lot of regard for them. Once I met them and went around the offices and got a feeling of the atmosphere, it was clear that it was a place I wanted to rock with.
And then you ended up becoming an A&R there. Was that shortly after you got signed? When did that come about?
That was about a year ago.
How did that happen?
Well, I was thinking about doing an imprint, that type of label deal with them, but when I talked to them, they really felt it’d be better for me to learn some of the processes from an A&R standpoint before I tried to just launch out on something that was a little bit bigger than my acumen was ready for. I agreed with them because I really like them and respect them and trust them, so I was like yeah I’ll do that first. It’s worked out pretty well.
You brought in Clipping. and recently announced the signing of Porter Ray, so in terms of the business side what’s your experience been like as an A&R for them?
It’s been really good. I actually didn’t sign Clipping. Tony brought Clipping. in, and you don’t sign a person just because you bring them in, you gotta get voted in by the whole A&R staff, but I did bring Porter Ray to the table and he ended up getting signed so he’s my first signing and he’s starting to work on his Sub Pop album now. It’s been cool man, learning what it takes to get an album from signing point to, you know, artwork and production and studio and mixing and mastering and addressing questions like how many pieces are we gonna make and where we gonna do it at, trying to get touring together, and all that kind of stuff. Learning all of that has been what I’ve been doing and it’s been good. It’s interesting and it’s work, but it’s great work because I love it.
I think maybe late in my 20s I started to realize that categorization of music—though I understood it as something thats necessary in a marketplace—isn’t necessary creatively. Music doesn’t need definition.
Does that help you as an artist with the new perspective on all these different facets of the business, so you can go back and approach the next Shabazz Palaces project knowing all these things you know?
Yeah, I think it does. I’m more of an instinctive person rather than a cerebral one, so the instinct always leads for me. That being said, being in that working environment alters your instinct because you have this new information, so it really does help out. And all of my homies rap, so even if it’s not a situation that’s good for the label or the label’s not good for their particular product, I’m still a resource for trying to figure out how to maneuver, knowing what might be best for guys’ projects, stuff like that. Sub Pop, even though they may not be working with an artist, if they have a loose affiliation with you through family or friends or somebody’s signed on the label, they’re always down to help with information and even resources sometimes, so it’s been a good thing for a brother to be there and be able to pull from their wealth of knowledge. It helps not only myself but all the cats that I rock with as well.
What did you see in Porter Ray? What made you want to bring him on, and where do you see him going?
I think the sky’s the limit really. I saw in him passion and drive, and he’s got a lot of ideas. His wordplay is solid, he’s a real solid rapper, plus he’s a standup dude, so I see brilliance and creativity in him. I’m anxious to see what happens when we put a lot of help and resources behind him and let him have the freedom to pull off whatever he wants to pull off. And we’ll be behind it trying to spread it as widely as possible.
So in general with him or anyone else you work with, is it kinda more about letting him figure out where he’s headed? Do you want him to just find his own way?
Yeah, I think that’s best. If you try to shove a cat into some place he didn’t necessarily carve out for himself, it may be problematic down the line in terms of longevity or the perception of the person. I wouldn’t want to do that. So our thing is to put him in a position to make the best music he feels like he can make, and then when that’s done, capitalize on the opportunities that come his way and use our contacts and resources to try to figure out already established places that will be receptive to what he’s up to as well. Combining that with the niche he carves out allows us to give him the tools to carve it out wider and wider, so that’s the approach that we’re gonna use not only with him, but with everyone else on the label too.
More than ever before, there’s a lot of genre-blending and it’s hard to pinpoint what a person’s sound or style is, and a lot of different type of stuff is working. What’s your take on the current state of hip-hop and where things are headed?
I think maybe late in my 20s I started to realize that categorization of music—though I understood it as something thats necessary in a marketplace—isn’t necessary creatively. Music doesn’t need definition. Hip-hop didn’t call itself hip-hop, someone else coined it that. Categories are there so you can walk into stores or click online and go into certain genres and people will rely on that. Like Macklemore relies on the genre of hip-hop for people to identify what it is that he’s actually doing. So he’s using that as a way to proliferate his product. Back in the day that was crippling because you couldn’t find a market for it and people were very afraid of it—and they still are because a lot of people still run things the old way—but you don’t have to define something in order to get it out there. That democracy is healthy.
Who are some of your favorite acts beyond what you’re working on? First of all, did I hear Makonnen on your ringback? [Note: The first time I tried to call Ishmael, he didn’t pick up, and I heard most of the first verse of “Club Going Up On A Tuesday” before his voicemail cut in.]
Oh yeah. [Laughs] He’s the man. I like him, I like Lil Herb, I like Ariel Pink… man, I could go on. Hundreds of artists. I just listen to music all day and night.