Offending Royalty with Shabazz Palaces

Blake Gillespie

Shabazz Palaces’ 2011 Sub Pop debut, Black Up, explored spiritual planes, celestial levels of the soul buried deep within ancient rhythms, and to a degree offered the invitation of u-n-i-t-y. The record might have gotten misconstrued as overwrought with neo-soul niceties were it not for the venom spit in the direction of “corny niggas” over industrious pulsation on “Yeah You” on the latter half. On “Yeah You”, Ishmael Butler’s decree against the corny accuses the perpetrators of buying into the Euro-centric, simply following suit, and destined towards uninventive lives. Somewhere within the animus of “Yeah You” begins the inspiration for Shabazz Palaces’ follow-up, Lese Majesty.

“In hip hop music and popular culture there’s a lot of crownings going on and coronations for kings.” I’m on the phone with Butler on a Tuesday afternoon, discussing the album’s title, which can be traced to the Roman empire and continuing to hold relevancy in monarchic societies throughout time. Lèse-majesté is a capital crime, slander against the ruling class. The direct translation: the offending of royalty. In the expansive definition applied by Shabazz Palaces and their Black Constellation collective, Lese Majesty can be traced to the hip hop sector’s subversive underground movements. It didn’t originate with The Roots’ “What They Do” video, but it exists there. It’s not entirely about unproven kings of rap regions, but there is a strategy in Lese Majesty that resembles a Risk board.

On “Frontrunner Foray” when Ishmael raps “these niggas shot Cyrus”, referencing the visionary from The Warriors film who dared dream of uniting the gangs of New York as a unified front, the impression is felt that Cyrus’ assassins are the same corny types he bemoaned in Black Up.

While Ish sees the Lese Majesty title having cross meanings and interpretations, ultimately it’s commentary on the at large impulse to anoint and self-anoint, be it Kendrick claiming King of New York, political parties accusing Obama of desiring dictatorship, or as he told NPR, the culture of ‘me-mania.’

“I felt like it was just a cool way to sonically come at all that stuff,” he said. “It’s not really meant for me to be super specific because I don’t really want to pin it down to anything, but to me it’s sonically self-explanatory and lyrically self-explanatory as well. I’d rather leave it up to you to find in it the correlations and relations between the title and what’s going on in the album.”

The album is separated into seven suites, how did that develop?

You write, so it’s the equivalent of asking you how the decision of a sentence came to be. It’s a mix of divine inspiration that you can never really finger, it’s looking back on what’s happened in the music. You look back on the music and certain themes get pronounced or subjects from different periods of time or different recordings, they reel up and you see that ‘ok, these things relate’ or these things have sonic palates that sound similar.

Every phase of making an album is an opportunity to do something creative. We approach it like that. It’s not super cerebral, but more off-the-cuff. It’s a little more improvisational, really. It’s not a lot of thought going in of ‘ok, we gonna make it into 17 suites and it’s going to be called this…’ It’s way more jazzy than that.

It happens at different times of the recording process, but mostly towards the end.

With the previous album and how Shabazz Palaces exists, there’s been this idea of not doing much accreditation and leaving the liner notes mysterious. But there was talk of Flying Lotus working with the group. Has the family of Shabazz Palaces grown since Black Up?

Yes and no. I mean, Black Constellation members have remained at the same amount, but traveling and going around has given us the opportunity to meet fly cats that we really like and respect. The family does get bigger, but the inside family remains the same. It’s not an exclusive or exclude, but we came up in certain realm of this music together so we remain tight like that.

The contributing parties to this album are the same as the previous?

The stuff we did with Flying Lotus, he released that when he put out that mixtape that has all the features on it [Ideas+drafts+loops]. We never got a chance to really finish, but I guess he felt like it was time to put it out. Which I didn’t mind.

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In terms of mythology, how does that play a role in the writing process?

Ceremony and myth play a big part of our music. I don’t feel like the beginning of the music that comes from me… I don’t feel like I’m the beginning of it. I feel like it comes from somewhere way before I was here. It comes through me more than it was originated by me. I feel like a living embodiment of many myths, many ceremonies, many histories, many styles, many lives that have come before me. I think myth plays an integral part of Shabazz Palaces. Every time we play or make music there’s a ceremony that we come in the name of and the form of.

A lot of times I get lost in the music and don’t even really remember what happened. That’s why people say interviewing us kind of hard because we don’t really take the approach of having a story behind this and it’s very specific. It’s just not true. The things that have happened, I barely recall days of recording or when did this or that. Once it really happens, we’re already moving on to the next thing.

I think it plays an integral part, a needed part, a sought after part, and a mysterious part too because myth always has some things left up to question.

There’s also the idea in myth that there’s one story that’s essentially being told. I feel like this music is striving for a universal connection, larger than a black experience, or an ancient connection. You strike me as seeking understanding without barriers.

That’s the sounds like a compliment to me because that’s the experience I like to have when I hear some music, or see a painting, or see a play or a film. I like to have that experience that you just described, a timelessness or an epochlessness, you know?

You used the word ceremony. Is there a ceremonious way that you record and set the mood in order to get into a mind space that keeps the outside influence away?

We have the fortune of being able to build our own studio. So Protect and Exalt Studios is our place 24 hours a day. We go down there and we be there in various transcendental states, you know what I mean? That’s part of the ceremony. Get together and have some libations and go in. When your mind and your body is altered, you relax with your people, you open up some places that you just don’t open up when you’re driving down the street or standing in line at the grocery store.

So there is ceremony involved in that. A lot of it is natural. Also, what you wear. What you drink. How you feel. What the temperature is like. What kind of incense are burning. That kind of thing. I don’t want to say we put an over-emphasis on it, but it’s not under emphasized.

Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty is out now on Sub Pop.

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