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For Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler, Musical Innovation Is A Family Legacy

Once part of Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler continues to be a hip-hop innovator with Shabazz Palaces. He stays connected to new music through his son Jazz, who records as Lil Tracy.
Patrick O'Brien Smith
Courtesy of the artist
Once part of Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler continues to be a hip-hop innovator with Shabazz Palaces. He stays connected to new music through his son Jazz, who records as Lil Tracy.

Ishmael Butler — co-founder of '90s hip-hop group Digable Planets — released The Don of Diamond Dreams, his fourth album as Shabazz Palaces, in April. He may be 50 now, but he's still hip, and his music spans generations.

"I gotta create to survive — I reconciled that a long time ago," he says. "And try to loop that in with actually physically surviving and taking care of my responsibilities. Having a place to live and helping out my family." To do that, he has to navigate a marketplace that doesn't value the hard won as much as it does the brand new.

"But to me, it's an opportunity to figure all of that stuff out and then show what you can do, and what your creativity is like, by jumping in the ring with everybody else. I think that's fun," he says.

On The Don of Diamond Dreams, you can tell that Butler has involved himself with what's happening.

"Music-making, [for] some people, the point of it is to stay in tradition. And what tradition often means is the period of time in their life when they felt young, effective, energetic," he says. "Whatever was happening at that point in time is the golden era, and anything that is subsequent to that lacks substance, and thus merit. I don't want to miss out on the richnesses of the experiences that come from tapping into the currents."

Butler has easy access to those currents through his son Jazz, who performs and records as Lil Tracy. Jazz Butler has been making music for almost as long as his father has been working as Shabazz Palaces, and he's emerged as one of the more influential contemporary artists. When Ishmael Butler describes listening to his son's songs, he sounds delighted.

"I think about him when he was younger, in middle school, and he was living with me and he wasn't doing 'good in school.' I used to be on him, and we would get into it, but he always had this other vision of himself," Butler says. "As he got older and getting more into his career, I was like, 'Damn, this cat — he knew this all along.' So when I hear his music, that's what I'm saying! As a parent or an adult or somebody from a certain generation, you think you know, but you don't. And that's exciting."

When I play back that section of my interview with Ishmael Butler, his son laughs, but he doesn't disagree.

"I've never heard that side of the story. I used to get in a lot of trouble. I know what he means. I was definitely super rebellious, and my music is that," he says. "I feel like we would be the same if I was this age back then. I don't know how to explain it: I'm the him of this — of my generation."

Digable Planets disbanded once the members felt the industry was treating their art like a product. And on The Don of Diamond Dreams, Ishmael Butler includes a song that confounds the expectations of popular music. It's called "Thanking the Girls," and it's a quiet ode to the women of his life.

"[I was] thinking about all the women that raised me and made me be able to think and feel and have confidence to walk through this world — all the ideas and sacrifices that they made," he says of writing the song. "And then my daughters, who remind me of all of those things and make me think about all of those things in multifaceted ways."

The deepest throughline between Ishmael and Jazz Butler might be their sincerity. As Lil Tracy, Jazz makes songs that dare you to doubt his feelings.

When I draw a parallel between the natural groove that animates his dad's work and his own, Jazz affirms their connection, but he wears it lightly.

"I'm just happy to be his son," he says. "I don't know, I just feel lucky, really. I feel like I was given a power."

For his part, Ishmael Butler feels lucky he came up when he did.

"Hip-hop really allowed and gave me a structure and a life, this really rich experience, without any even desire for it to be something that went past that night, at the party or at the block," he says. "It was just pure. It was so pure, and look what it gave me. So I appreciate that."

It gave him a way to support his family and never stop making what he wants.

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Frannie Kelley
Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
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