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Ishmael Butler talks new Digable Planets music and the Tide pod challenge

Dan Webb
Digable Planets is a Grammy Award-winning alternative hip hop trio which split following the release of their second album Blowout Comb in 1994. Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler has since formed Shabazz Palaces with multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire and joined the staff roster at Sub Pop Records. But his original crew are back together at last – poised to tour the southern continent for the first time ever and, as revealed to us, record new music for the first time in decades.

Digable Planets disbanded in 1995 but you’ve performed various reunion shows and tours since 2005, and you have your first ever Australian and New Zealand tour coming up this month. I note that you haven’t taken to the studio to record any new material – might that be on the cards at some stage?
Yeah, it is. We’re still in the preliminary stages, kind of getting musical ideas together for some new recordings so yeah, we are.

What can we expect from the new recordings?
What can you expect? Um, well, it’s not gonna be like throwback music, you know? It’s gonna be something forward-thinking and we’re not gonna… We’re gonna try to, you know, do what we did then, which was try to be on the cutting edge of whatever is current… And also bring some of our own instinct and our own uniqueness to it, you know? So it’s hard to say and it’s difficult to know what to expect but that’s the place where it will be coming from.

You cited “creative differences” at the time of the band’s split. Was that really the reason, or was it more so a case of industry pressure?
No, I mean… when people say creative differences, it just means like (laughs) they don’t really get along no more, you know what I’m saying? And so the notion that there’s a oneness is gone and the oneness is the cohesion that makes you be able to keep going and producing music together, you know? So we lost that. So we had, you know, creative differences. But inside of a group, it’s always things that it’s just nobody else’s business what really happened, you know what I mean? So that’s why you just get a sort of general, you know, quote unquote creative differences kinda thing because there’s no sentence that can sum it all up… it’s not really important, you know, in my opinion. It’s like some sort of gossip or something like that. But in the end, we couldn’t really tell you all of the things that led to it because a lot of it, we don’t really know ourselves. One person might have felt some way and then they didn’t vocalise it. Another person had a plan that they wanted to go and do something, you know what I mean? It’s just like, it’s just life, man, you know.

You were rapping about abortion rights in 1993 on “Le Femme Fetal”. It now appears as though the US Supreme Court may soon dismantle the constitutional right to an abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade. How do you feel about the situation, 26 years on?
Ah, I mean the situation’s specifically talking about something broader that still goes on in the United States and around the world where, you know, a small group of people always wanna try to dictate and tell and control a mass of other people. That situation just highlighted that, but not much has changed, you know what I mean? Specifically to that issue but also more broadly to a lot of different political issues, you know, especially here in The States. And, um, I feel that place where I was coming from and talking about, the environment still exists today.

We’re gonna have to face really dire consequences, especially for the kids who sort of grow up never having any reference other than their phone, their Instagram and Twitter account and their selfie.

Given the politically and socially conscious nature of your lyrics and now perhaps especially given that you’re a father, I’m wondering what are some of your biggest concerns facing humanity today and what in your opinion can we do to tackle it?
Biggest concerns facing humanity… I’d say with the rise and the permeation of the personal device and how it’s dehumanising life and also really individualising – everybody seems obsessed with their own promotion and the proliferation of their own image that we’re expediting our disconnect to nature and the natural empathy that we feel for one another, and just concentrating on our own wants and needs, no matter how crazy or selfish they are. I think that’s something that – we’re gonna have to face really dire consequences, especially for the kids who sort of grow up never having any reference other than their phone, their Instagram and Twitter account and their selfie. You know, their own image, you know, their own filtered images. I think that’s gonna have some consequences that are not easy to predict. But to think that there aren’t gonna be any (consequences), or to not think about what they may be at all is a grave mistake I think for us.

You once said that “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” was created to show the similarities between jazz culture and hip hop culture. How do you view the evolution of these cultures in the years since? Would you say it’s been a positive evolution?
I don’t know. I mean yes and no, you know what I mean? I don’t think one has to totally like or dislike or agree or disagree with things. I mean, evolution kinda presupposes that it’s out of the control of any one person or even in masses of people. You kinda have to just accept what it is, observe it. Some people look at it, study it. Some people just kinda ride the wave that it causes. There’s some good and bad stuff but it’s real, it’s actual. Evolution is what it is, so I kinda take it as that, you know. I look at things critically sometimes but not that much.

Evolution kinda presupposes that it’s out of the control of any one person or even in masses of people.

Well sort of on that topic, Branford Marsalis said in a recent interview that Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington have limited jazz vocabularies. Given you were one of the first to fuse hip hop and jazz, I’m wondering what you make of these artists and this type of sentiment?
I think they’re amazing, you know, and virtuosos. They carry on tradition, which is important, because it’s foundational and also it’s a tradition of discipline, practice, skill, camaraderie, collaboration, sacrifice, you know. Through their practice and through what they do, they are influencing other generations of people. Even if you don’t play jazz, you still may have those basic tenets of practicing and skill and precision, you know, and can apply that to other areas in your life. But them specifically within music, I think their music is really good and dope and they’re moving things forward as well. I’m all for it.

I understand you joined Sub Pop’s A&R team in 2013. Do you still work there?

What does a typical day in that role entail for you and what advice would you have for musicians who would like to be signed?
Um, it’s just about trying to find groups and individuals that are good and exciting and passionate and hungry and that feel that Sub Pop may be a place where a partnership between them and us can be beneficial to both sides, you know. Um, imaginative, hardworking musicians that think getting signed is something that would be good for them to help their music, get out there and get more exposure. So, um, it’s just an ongoing thing where you’re always paying attention to what’s new and listening to SoundCloud and Bandcamp and YouTube. And, you know, having discussions with other people at the office and on staff and just trying to find good artists and try to forge good partnerships.

You can get on YouTube and you can get on streaming services and get as much exposure that you can get, if not more, from a record label.

Do you think that record labels have lost any relevance in the age of digital streaming?
Yeah. Hell yeah (laughs). They’ll tell you that themselves. You know, that’s why Sub Pop is cool because a lot of labels didn’t accept that things were changing and weren’t gonna sort of be like ironclad against it. Where I feel like Sub Pop is realising the actualities of the new business environment and just trying to figure out ways to still maintain themselves as a label but – I don’t wanna say bend but, adapt, you know, to the new way things are done. And this whole notion that, you know, you make a demo and then you give it to an A&R person. And that A&R person has the keys basically to your future, you know what I mean, whether you get signed and ever heard before. That’s not real any more. You can get on YouTube and you can get on streaming services and get as much exposure that you can get, if not more, from a record label. So I think it empowered artists to have that leverage. But also it empowered labels to still be able to do what they do. The splits are a little bit different but it’s more like a partnership now, whereas before it was like, “hey, look, we’re giving you this opportunity, therefore, we can basically take the lion’s share of the proceeds because we’re taking the lion’s share of the risk.” But artists are coming now with, “hey look, we’ve been on tour, we’ve been selling merch and records, we’ve got these streaming numbers, we’ve got these YouTube numbers. Like we’re not just coming in here without any track record, so let’s come up with a partnership.” And, you know, the residual and the subsequent splits are a little bit different. But I think it’s good because both sides realise that they have a lot at stake and a lot to give and it’s a good working relationship.

Battles drummer John Stanier talks collaboration, chaos and dissonance

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You’ve been performing as one half of Shabazz Palaces since 2009. You’ve collaborated with some really noteworthy artists including Flying Lotus, Thundercat and George Clinton – but I’d like to ask you specifically about your role on Battles’ latest album. I spoke to John Stanier recently and he said that the guest vocalists all contributed their own lyrics. What was that experience like, and do you feel a greater sense of pressure writing lyrics for someone else’s project?
Nah, not really. I mean, with the bros like, we had a mutual kinda perspective and we like each other and we like each other’s music. And I know that they make their music, you know, I know they critique their music, they got their own unique sound. So I think when they asked me to come in, I knew it was gonna be a vocal thing, you know what I mean? So I actually did a demo earlier. They didn’t really like it that much… and then I was like, “do you know what, let’s get together and make the music”, you know. So they had me come out to New York and we went to Red Bull and I spent the day. And then we knocked up a song that you actually hear on the album. I mean, it’s always fun to get the opportunity to bust some shit with some dudes I like. So nah, no pressure or difficulties.

Please don’t do the Tide pod challenge because I don’t want the lawsuits. You know? (laughs)

In researching for this interview I discovered that one of your songs was used in a Tide commercial in 2009. Given your hand in helping make laundry detergent appear cool, I’m wondering if you feel any sense of responsibility for the Tide pod challenge?
What is that? I heard about that. What is it? Are people eating it? What – what are they doing?

Yeah, people were putting the Tide pods in their mouths for some reason, I don’t know (laughs).
Yeah, no, I feel no responsibility whatsoever for than, man (laughs). That’s rid… So does the pod end up, you know, like does the outside dissolve and the detergent gets in their mouth?

I have no idea!
Oh, oh, that’s crazy man (laughs). I’m gonna have to look that up, man. But, yeah, nah, that wasn’t what they were saying cool like that, man. Please don’t do the Tide pod challenge because I don’t want the lawsuits. You know? (laughs)

If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Um… I would collaborate with, ah, let’s see. I would collaborate with the actor, Jodie Turner-Smith. And we would collaborate on a documentary about us, the two of us, making a baby together (laughs).