Ishmael Butler
Ishmael Butler Credit: Image by Leif Podhajsky/Original band photo by David Belisle

Scroll down to the bottom to hear a Spotify playlist of highlights from Ishmael Butler’s career.

In the early 90s, when Ishmael Butler made a name for himself with Digable Planets—one of several NYC hip-hop acts dabbling in funk and jazz at the time—that name was “Butterfly.” (The other members called themselves “Doodlebug” and “Ladybug.”) The trio won a Grammy with their breakout 1993 hit, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” only to break up in ’95. After assembling and then dissolving the band Cherrywine in the early aughts, Butler teamed up with multi-­instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire in 2009 to form Seattle-based hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces. In 2010 they signed with indie powerhouse Sub Pop, and the ambient, funky, spaced-out jams on their 2011 debut album, Black Up, earned them plenty of acclaim. For this week’s Artist on Artist, Butler was interviewed by young local rapper James King, aka the GTW, just before the start of the current Shabazz Palaces tour; King is probably best known for his collaborative EP with Chicago producer Bengfang, 4814. Shabazz Palaces play at the Shrine on Fri 2/1, and the GTW performs at the Chicago Art Department (1837 S. Halsted) on Fri 2/22. Leor Galil

The GTW, aka James KingCredit: André Wagner

How did the music scene in Seattle shape your artistry?

It’s hard to say, because it’s not really a vacuum like that. I mean, even if I’m from Seattle and shit, I’m still aware of everything that’s going on, not only in the States but also around the world. And that which is surrounding me here in Seattle is also shaped by other stuff too. I don’t really know, man, because I don’t really pay attention to those kind of things—”OK, how’s my environment affecting me,” you know. I just kind of live and do it.

I say that because Seattle’s one of my favorite cities, and you are pretty much on one of the best labels—which is Sub Pop—from that city. So Seattle for me is like …

What characteristics does it have? What does Seattle mean to you?

Away from music, personally, it’s like all my friends are moving to Seattle. And at first, I didn’t understand why. But the artists I listen to are really all connected to Seattle. One of my friends that I just did a show with, Spoek Mathambo, is connected to Sub Pop. And with Sub Pop being known for signing awesome artists—it was originally focused on rock and other genres—how did it feel to be the first hip-hop act? And how did it come about?

We were in the city, and it’s a city label, so they knew what we were doing. To be honest it was never like, “Oh, we’ve got to sign a hip-hop act.” They just signed me. They don’t really look at shit like what kind of music it is. You know what I mean? So that part never really came up. But in historical context, they did sign a rap group before; it just wasn’t that widely known. So we weren’t even really the first, which isn’t surprising to me. Some guys are just into good music—or music that they think is good, I’ll say—and they just roll with that. They don’t really talk about other shit, you know, genres and how to market it and stuff like that. It’s all depending on the music, not the style of it, you know?

Do people still call you Butterfly at shows?

Not that much. There hasn’t been much cross-referencing. Sometimes, but not as much as you would probably think.

Who are a couple acts you’re checking out right now? Who’s on your radar?

Well, in Seattle they got a lot of groups that’s good. I like this rapper named Nacho Picasso. Thee Satisfaction. Kingdom Crumbs is from out here. OCnotes, Chocolate Chuck, Metal Chocolates. The Helio Sequence is pretty good. I try to go see shows as much as I can—just hang out and shit, go to a club and hear what cats is up to. But I like Chicago—you in Chicago?

Yeah, I’m in Chicago.

I love Chicago, man. There’s a nice little thing going on out there.

What artists are you checking out out here? I don’t know any artists out there. I just like the life. Pop shit that’s charting out of there, like Chief Keef and all that, that stuff is cool. I don’t know too much other stuff. I don’t know the underground shit, or the sort of black alternative shit that’s goin’ on out there too, but I know y’all must got some first-rate shit with all the niggas out there.

Yeah, it’s a really cool scene out here—all the different scenes are, like, merging together. Before it was kind of divided, but now you can have, you know, electronic acts playing with—not with Chief Keef per se, but with some affiliates. I played a show with one of the affiliates, and everyone’s accepting one another. Before it was like, “Ugh, you here? You on the north side, we’re on the south side. We’re on the east side, you’re on the west side.” Now it’s getting better. Having different genre acts in the same venue. You excited to play Chicago again?

Yeah, I’m excited. I really like Chicago, man. I like playing there, just being in the city. I get a good feeling out there.