Every time I rap, it’s a tongue kiss.
When the summer sun finally sinks below the horizon tonight, cast youreyes deep into the night sky to locate the Black Constellation. Situated at 47° 36′ 23″ N / 122° 19′ 50″ W – somewhere above Seattle, Washington – lies a swirling cosmic haze of space dust, beatific languid raps and sub-harmonic rumblings.
The celestial sphere was formed in 2009 by the collision of the amorphous organic solids of rapper Palaceer Lazaro (Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler) with the mixed aromatic–aliphatic structures of percussionist Fly Guy ‘Dai (Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire). The result is the otherworldly hip hop collective of Shabazz Palaces.
Returning to earth with their second album, Lese Majesty, it was conceived at the duo’s new studio Protect and Exalt Labs with contributions from THEESatisfaction’s Catherine Harris-White, Erik Blood and Thadillac, and delivered by Sub Pop. “It is a series of seven astral suites,” Ishmael exalts.“It’s also a war cry, born of a spell, acknowledging that sophistication and the instinctual are not at odds.”
The group’s deep-space dialectical exploration challenges listeners with its maze of interwoven tropes and sonic anarchy. The album’s title, Lese Majesty, relates directly to the duo’s anti-authoritarian leanings, invoking the French legal term for the crime of high treason or violating the sovereignty of the monarch – a statute brutally enforced today in Thailand to protect the crumbling reign of 86-year-old king Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“Lese Majesty has a nice sound on the tongue, doesn’t it?” asks Ishmael. “But that’s not the only reason I chose it. It’s evocative – and provocative – and its meanings can be applied to more than just a government or a ruler. In these times, there are plenty of establishments that could do with a bit of treason.”
It is three years since the duo dropped debut album Black Up and this time around it’s clear the sessions have finally captured the group’s dark matter. “That just might be true,” Ishmael says with a laugh. “After a lot of touring, we built a studio and got some nice equipment – which means the album has proper sonic continuity. Black Up was made in a very different way.”
That newly-discovered sense of space and grandeur has evolved from Ishmael’s kaleidoscopic references to memory, supernatural philosophy and religious history to fuse like a binary star with Tendai’s mind-bending beats. The son of master Zimbabwean percussionist Dumisani Maraire, Tendai offers a complex network of conga, snare and cymbal hits to allow Ishmael to unleash his staccato rap attack with luscious results on Forerunner Foray: “Everytime I rap, it’s a tongue kiss.”
While the ethereal is clearly a core theme for the duo, slack rappers also get their time in the firing line. On They Come in Gold, Ishmael trains his sights on some of his peers: “Sepulcher/ A stage enlived by ghosts/ Floating off with bags of the blood-encrusted dough.”
Make as much – or as little – of their wild mythmaking as you like because all of the album’s eighteen tracks sparkle with intergalactic splendour. From the slow unfolding drones of Dawn of Luxor which open the album to the degraded sonic glitches of Sonic MythMap for the Trip Back which close it, the tunes fully exploit the power of their abstract and experimental sound.
“Each step of the process is an opportunity to do something artistic,” says Ishmael. This creative bent has always rewarded him, from his days in the slick-like-that rap trio Digable Planets to the basement funk of Cherrywine. “But we instinctively rally in opposition to the idea that listeners need a map to decode what we are doing,” Ishmael adds sharply, “That’s just myopic marketing bullshit. It doesn’t give the listener much credit – or opportunity.”
It was an auspicious beginning.
Stunning artwork is also a crucial part of this creative mission for the group. For the cover of first single They Come in Gold, Ishmael’s lyrics are translated into Arabic and twisted into a tricky maze on the LP sleeve by artist Nep Sidhu, who also handled the bold, tricked-out Arabic stylings on Lese Majesty’s cover.
Asked how the Seattle duo came to join forces, Ishmael recalls: “Tendai and I lived near each other. We were in the same orbit as musicians for three or four years before we tried anything in the studio. One day he was over at my house and I asked him: ‘You got your bata [drum]?’ And he said ‘Yeah, it’s in my car’. It’s a really sacred instrument and he doesn’t just play it for anyone. But he brought it in and we made a song, which became Blasted from one of our early EPs. It was an auspicious beginning.”
From then, the stars have been aligning nicely for Shabazz Palaces. “As they always do…,” chuckles Ishmael.