Since 2009, the partnership between Ishmael Butler and his post-Digable Planets outfit, Shabazz Palaces, and producer/engineer/artist Erik Blood, has yielded some of the most interesting and futuristic hip-hop music in recent memory. I sat down with Erik and Ishmael at their brick walled, dimly lit Black Space Labs in Seattle, WA. to talk about their working process and the color blue.
How did your partnership start?
Erik Blood: We met through our mutual friend, Bubba Jones. Bubba ran studios I used to work at. I wanted him [Ishmael] to sign my copy of [Digable Planets'] Blowout Comb. I think Bub played on the record I was working at the time with The Turn-Ons. Every time we metup, we talked about working together. After two years, we finally started getting down to it.
Ishmael Butler: Yeah. I think the key to Erik and me meeting is really Bub. He's a Svengali-type everyman; a jack-of-all-trades — putting studios together and building houses. His mind is always in construction mode. I think that he even thinks of the humans that he knows in that way. He'd always tell me, "Oh, you gotta get with Blood." So he knew what would happen, to a certain extent. I think he thought we'd have a fruitful compatibility, sonically. I always think about him when I think about Blood, because he was so right. It was a really good accompaniment, almost telepathic. Our taste is similar, which is rare. We don't even make the same kind of music, really. We do — we know we do — but when the product comes out, it doesn't sound that similar.
So what was it about Erik's production style and engineering that drew you in?
IB: I think [it is the] passion for the intricacy of mixing and recording. That's rare. Also to have a lot of style and taste. To be able to look at other people's shit with a critical eye. He's critical, but he can also understand where people are coming from. You can be comfortable, and when you're composing you can think farther out. It's warm, soft, thick sounds. You can start putting those combinations together, and you can have infinite outcomes. It was promising and exciting in that way.
How do you work together as a team?
EB: The process always varies. There's never a set way that anything is done. That's not necessarily intentional, but that's how it happens. What I do is try to translate anything that he's hearing in his head into reality. My whole goal is just to help him make music.
Can you give an example of a tune and how you started it?
IB: I could, but it wouldn't really be that accurate, in terms of how it goes down. After the composition, the recomposing, and then the mixing, it's like the characteristics of all of the songs bleed into each other. I think an example would be maybe on "Dawn in Luxor."
EB: I don't know how to even put it. We speak in codes, and we understand each other in a way that wouldn't translate. If we were to verbatim just tell you what was going down, it would either not make sense or would be extremely mundane.
IB: I could say to him on the kick drum, "No, man. You've got to 'blue' that. Make it more blue. Put some water to it." Like that, you know? Blue water.
But do you have a lyrical musical idea? Do you work independently and then collaborate?
IB: Everybody's always doing something at home — coming up with a beat. If it's a Shabazz Palaces project, then I probably came up with the beat and the initial kernel of the idea. If it's Erik Blood, he came up with it. If it's Chimurenga Renaissance, Tendai [Maraire] came up with it. If it's THEESatisfaction, Stas and Cat [Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White] came up with it. Blood's the conduit, the river that we all cross to get to the finished product. We usually start out with a groove or something, and then we get to talking about it. It may end up somewhere way different from where it was; but yeah, that's pretty much how it goes.
Are you creating the lyrical landscape after the fact, or are you coming in with lyrical ideas?
IB: Both. Nothing's ever lyrically finished until pretty much the end. I never come in with a finished song. I wouldn't even want to.
How has your role evolved, from your time in Digable Planets to now?
IB: Not much. Just the people I'm around are different.
What about what you're writing about?
IB: I haven't lost any hope, but I'm not idealistic.
Tell us about Black Space Labs studio here.
EB: When we moved in, it was just a raw space. We brought in a contractor to build out the spaces. We have a control room, a "dead" room (iso), another 9-foot by 9- foot iso that is "live," with 25-foot ceilings, and we have our entry way. The reverb in that room is unbelievable. Most of that room also has 25-foot ceilings; and then part of it has a false floor where the second floor would be, that gives us an extra 10-feet or so.
How long have you been here?
EB: Construction took nine months to a year, and we have been up and running since about last October. As soon as we had all this shit [sound treatment] up, turned on the computer, and listened, it just felt good in here. We immediately felt this was home.
IB: In the summer it doesn't get hot; in the winter it doesn't get too cold. We got lucky.
Are you working in the box?
EB: For the most part. I've got the lovely Rupert Neve Designs 5059 Satellite summing mixer, which has changed the game for me. I come from analog land, so I bring that aesthetic and sensibility. I still don't think digitally. I'm just old enough to be one of the last of the tape trackers. I held onto it for as long as I could. We're still hoping to find a tape machine to put in here, at some point. Since having to figure out Pro Tools and how to make that work, I've gotten pretty good at mixing in the box. Now the hybrid of analog and digital is where I'm at.
The vocals in these mixes are very much a part of the landscape. Can either of you talk about the conscious choice of where the lead vocals sit?
EB: That's one place that me and Ish really connected early on.
IB: That's true.
EB: For me, the voice is an instrument and it belongs with the instruments. Ish treats his voice as an instrument. The effects are chosen by him during recording. It's instrumental. Like if it were a guitar, you wouldn't think twice about the effects.
Do you have a pedal board or rig that you use when you're tracking live, or is it post?
IB: Naw, it ain't post. I used a TC [Electronics processor], and I just use whatever presets or whatever I can come up with on the spot. What I think sounds good. I just record it like that.
The music's very ambient at times. Was that ever part of your thought process?
IB: More like part of my life process. If I can achieve some ambience that is felt, and can be meshed in with by whoever's experiencing it, that's cool to me. I like it when I feel like that, or something makes me feel that way.
Was there specific processing on this record that you guys feel comfortable talking about?
EB: No. I don't want people to think that that's it; that one piece of the puzzle is the entire thing.
IB: Not in a way to keep information from them, but just to keep the notion that it's somehow only gear or instrument related when it comes to achieving even one blip of a sound. I thought like that, at a certain point. I was glad to realize that wasn't true at an early time in my life.
I think people are interested in the process and using specific tools to achieve a creative end result. Erik, I've heard you say that it's the ears not the gear, and I believe that 100%. We all have to use gear. So that's really what the question is.
EB: I can't think of anything particularly outlandish gear-wise that was used. I mean, we have nice shit, and we use it well, but there are no secrets.
IB: We recorded some out in that room out there [the room that has 25 to 35-ft ceilings] with different various mic placements.
EB: Every room in this place has been tracked in. We've used every bit of this space, sonically.
IB: A long time ago, Bubba gave me a Neumann mic that we've been using quite a bit on a lot of shit. We've got a bunch of stomp pedals, guitars, and amps, and we just run shit. Maybe we hear something in our heads. Once we hook it up and record it real quick, I don't remember, but a lot of the things that are on the records that we made are definitely from running things here and there.
EB: I'm a big fan of the Slate Virtual Console.
Where is Seattle in the music?
IB: It's going to be a product of the environment. You're going to have everything spanning from underground, rarely heard subculture energetic music, to all kinds of hip-hop — from "progressive" hip-hop to just straight up candy-ass, bubblegum bullshit. It's a place, like everywhere else. Physical borders, especially in America, are getting pretty wavy because of travel and the Internet. Everything's right there for you, at all times, instead of in Arizona or in Texas.
You talk about colors and how you're visualizing things. If you listen back or reflect on the music, does it present itself in a way that's visually or emotively this city?
IB: Yeah. I think 100%. Even this place. This is a real Seattle place that we're in. Like who knows really what went on in this space over the years.
What was your first foray into making music and recording?
EB: When I was really little, I had a cassette recorder that had a microphone attached to it, and I figured out that you could track things over and over again. It was like a multitrack, basically like a karaoke machine. I would fuck with that all the time and make weird songs with Casio keyboards. Once I got a 4-track cassette it was all over. That was all I wanted to do.
How old were you?
IB: I used to have these things called tape to tape. It was like two [cassette] tape decks, and you could record on one and play on the next. I would make loops by trying to time things. I don't know how old I was. I might have been 12 or 13.
EB: I still love the phenomena of pause tapes. I had these cassettes, like "Erik's Bonus Beats" and shit like that. No one ever told me to do that. Did anyone tell you to do that? Did any kid say like, "Oh, check this out. You can do this"?
EB: You know the dual cassette desks? You put a song with a beat, or whatever, anything you want to loop in play, and then you record and pause. When the spot comes around, you un-pause, and then you pause it just in time to get the loop, and you rewind. It takes like six hours to make a song's worth of a beat.
EB: It's pretty fresh. There are imperfections in it, like skips and weird stuff. Sometimes when you pause a tape while the sound is going, you'll get that draggy sound. I love that.
Things you can't do in a DAW...
EB: Oh, yeah.
Do you ever consider going back to it?
IB: I just did, yeah.
Do the tools influence the music to you, or does it matter?
EB: They do for me.
IB: Me too. You know how it is, you can just be trying to tune up, but then you're going through something and, "Oh, shit! It sounds crazy." Then you're there for an hour or two. So yeah, of course.
So that's one of the jumping off places, turning on a synth and going?
EB: Yeah. For my music, I always try to throw away old tools for the beginning, when I'm really trying to figure stuff out, like find some new sounds and move from there. I always go back to the old things, the things I'm comfortable with, towards the end. Yeah, I get inspired by new sounds, new toys.
What's a recent acquisition on that front for sounds?
IB: When we were down in Tennessee, they were making Third Man [Jack White, Tape Op #82] a Critter & Guitari custom keyboard [Septavox keyboard synthesizer and Terz amplifier] for them, and they had the prototype in there. Critter makes the pink bass [Bolsa Bass], the little boxes with the buttons on it.
EB: It looks like nothing, but it's everything.
IB: They make a bunch of different shit. They were making some prototype instrument with his [Jack White's] ideas and input in mind.
Those boxes are fun. Where do you guys find the next level of inspiration so that you don't feel like you're repeating yourselves?
EB: Yeah, I mean that's a philosophical question more than anything.
IB: Yeah, like you said, you've got to start from a different place. It works out anyway.
EB: It always comes from you. Everything you make, if it's able to come through you, no matter what tools you use, it's going to come through.
IB: I like the traditional cats that can just do the same thing, but put a twist on it and make different songs. I respect that way of doing things, but I can't do it. I don't have those kinds of skills, and I don't know a genre because I came up playing in it. But I like that kind of music and I like that skill. I respect it, but for me I'm always trying to do something new, probably because I don't have that skill. To compensate for it, I try to dazzle in a way. Not other people, but myself.
EB: Yeah, it is a philosophical question. Unless you're a factory, which you are not, and you're trying to keep making records, and have it be fun; not only good for you and your clients, but for yourself as a creative person, to try to move forward... obviously not throw away the things about you that make you you. For me, I'll not write with a guitar, or not write with the piano. I'll cut out an element and see where I can get. It's like a starting point. You can run the marathon from any direction, but you just pick a place to start, and go. I think it's just sound though, sounds. You hear sounds, and you let those guide you.
IB: Yeah. But you're saying... how do we keep it fresh or new?
Each of your successive records as Shabazz Palaces have been a progression and a growth. They're not the same record. Did it just happen unconsciously, or did you think, "This is the new idea, we have some new tools," or, "I'm thinking about this lyrically," or, "In my mind I see this painting, and this is the painting I want to jump into..."
IB: Oh, yeah, yeah. It's like any creative thing. Between Black Up and the recording of this record [Lese Majesty], we flew 50,000 miles and went to a lot of places. Who knows what I saw and felt that influenced it? Erik too. I think we're just excited by music, you feel me? I'm excited by art too, but you hear music, you hear a sound, and it's like, "That sounds fresh." I like that. In your mind, you don't even know that you're subconsciously melding all those things together, and now you've got some new idea of your own that you're trying to achieve. That's how it seems to me, a combination of all those influences. Then you come to a point where you're at bat, and it's time to get it going, so let's throw them into action. Let's take some swings. That's how I look at it.
Is there anybody specifically knocking you guys out right now, in terms of production or records that have come out?
EB: Man, I haven't been listening to a lot of music. All I've been listening to is my album, working on my album, and then listening to podcasts so I can clear my head. I think it's just part of the prevalence of DIY. It's not just, "Oh, one nerd knows how to record and he's got GarageBand." Every band is self- produced between the ages of 16 to 22. Everything I'm listening to is just these kids doing their thing, whatever they can do in their bedrooms. Even if the sounds are shitty, they have great ideas.
IB: I was going to say that the new landscape is crazy. You can hear shit that's not recorded that good, but it's beautiful.
EB: Like White Poppy, for example. She makes that noise that's just so pretty. It would make a seasoned engineer cringe, but whatever.
IB: I like that Chicago hip-hop shit too; those grooves, beats, and flows are crazy.
It really drives home the point that it's about the song and what's behind it. How much material do you guys gather before you find a direction?
EB: That's a really good question.
IB: Remember on Black Up we had a whole other album? Yeah, man; that was ridiculous.
EB: I was listening to those beats. Those are good. Ish has got nothing but ideas. There's a wealth of ideas. You work until you feel like it's done, and then it's done.
IB: Yeah. I would say if we end up with ten things, we probably start out with 40. That 40 is pulled from a pile of probably hundreds, maybe a thousand. And that's just me. He's got his own shit.
EB: I have no idea how you keep your shit organized.
IB: I don't.
EB: Well, you don't. That's true. I'll make my request that [ideas] live. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.
Do you feel like any of that material is worth revisiting and working on or, by that point, have you already moved on to the next phase?
IB: A lot of times those songs needed to happen just to get to another place. They don't ever get in the game, but we needed everything they did. But sometimes they do come back around and make it in.
EB: I can think of some old shit that we were fucking with way, way back and then ended up becoming interesting things.
IB: For sure, for sure.
What are you guys taking from traditional hip-hop production approaches, and what has new technology afforded you in getting from A to B?
EB: Well, we don't have to seek out a [Roland TR-]808. We've got that covered.
IB: Yeah. Plus, all the current software programs, a good portion of their capabilities are based on what DJ Premier and those guys used to do. It's a hip-hop based platform to make music on, like looping and repeating and time stretching. They basically looked at hip-hop and its influence, and they were like, "Let's try to push our software to do that, because that's what everybody wants to do." Hip-hop is a technological leap, a quantum leap forward. Everything has a hip-hop feel to it, at its core. A lot of things that didn't before definitely got on to the hip-hop essence, the essential way of creating. Sampling, borrowing, taking a little bit of this, dressing it up a little bit, and re-presenting it. It's crazy what hip-hop really did.
Before the advent of Pro Tools and pre-loaded samplers, people had to work a little harder to get there. Now we have all these tools at our disposal. What do you do to keep it so that you actually are having to work hard and push yourselves?
EB: I think if we were doing it the old way, we would work just as hard, only longer.
IB: Yeah, it would take longer. I mean we did it then too. I like the technology. Like you said, you can get it out, you can put it out, it can sound pretty cool, but you've still got to have a good song to deal with. Ableton is like being inside of a spacecraft or something. There's shit that's on there I could have a career with that I'll never learn how to do. These are vast, space waves of technology, and I'm just tinkering around in one aspect of it. I think it's cool because you have to learn, study, and practice in order to even get good on that shit. It's an instrument. It's just different.
You guys have done an amazing job of taking technology out of its basic form and pushing the envelope with it.
IB: I can say for him, you just can't rely on it. You can't rely on the technology to do anything musical for you. You can't rely on the guitar, just because it's a [Les Paul] Goldtop, to sound like something. You've got to do that shit. If you think you can just dump something in there, time stretch it, and be done, then you've collaborated with the program to make a song, and I don't think you should do that. That's what you've got to avoid. You've got to have an idea, but you've got to have some passion. If you don't have passion, it's going to become readily apparent in the first couple of seconds of whatever you do. I think that musicians travel on vibration. From a young age, you hear vibrations in things and it makes you feel different. That's why you can have a similar sonic palette to some cats even when you've never heard their music. Everybody's vibing and somebody will say, "Hey, look at this Big Muff pedal." The cats that are vibing are like, "Man, let me hear that again!" Everybody wants to use it and get their hands on it, because they've got an idea with it. That's how I feel.
On the latest Shabazz record, I hear wisps of so many different genres.
EB: I don't know. It's funny when I think about genres, because we never talk about genres. We've never said "rock 'n' roll," "jazz," or "psychedelic" in here. You hear and feel things that need to be there, or need to be removed, and you just go off those feelings.
IB: Yeah. I never reference anything.
EB: It's all colors, shapes, and objects.
IB: And how you feel when you do it. We'll never be like, "Hey, put this record on and listen to the way the snare is done. Do you hear that?" That's never happened.
It's obvious, in a really good way. Are there any pieces of gear that you can't live without?
EB: I can't live without my guitar.
How about recording gear?
EB: Pretty much what we built in here.
IB: It was all budgetary concerns, and our budget was going thousands over what we could afford. We had to get shit that we could live with. We made investments in what we wanted to have sonically. That stuff in the rack... that's triple what we could afford right there!
EB: Yeah. To be honest, this was my first pick. When Ish said to make a list of what we needed, I was totally doing that, "Well, I've got this crappy thing here, We've got these microphones, and we can probably live with one of these." But then it became evident. "No, let's get these two pieces [that are] really worth getting."
IB: We've got hopes and dreams, you know?
Before the great studio shrinking thing started, I'm sure both of you worked on large format consoles. Is there anything you miss about that?
EB: I do miss the physical dance that goes on when you mix on the console, as annoying as that can be; and especially annoying if you need to do any fixes and revisit a mix. I miss the choreography that goes on. Like, "Okay, we've got to mute this at two minutes."
IB: Yeah. Everybody's on the Neve. "Let's do it. You ready?"
EB: Putting tape down between the faders so that when you put it up, it goes to the right level. Yeah, I miss that. I miss the ritual a lot, but I also don't miss the ritual. I can get a lot more done.
It's a clear collaboration between the two of you. I think that it's a special thing, where you bring two people together with their own unique voices and it becomes its own beast.
EB: Our aesthetics are just perfectly complementary. There's no dissonance in what either of us are making. It just works. It feels good.
Do you feel like you're getting the benefits of console bus summing with the 5059?
EB: Absofuckinglutely. Oh, my god. Every record that's come out that I've produced in the past 13 years has been mixed in the box, for the most part. There are a couple that had some tertiary exposure to a mixing console, usually a crappy one. First of all, just running shit straight through the Neve, you gets separation that is different from in-the-box mixing. You get a greater spatial field. Every channel has an insert, so I still get to do analog-style mixing. I'm not using plug-ins for compression or boosts. If you want to dirty something up, we have tubes. Yeah, it's been really great.
What's next? Are you guys going further into space?
Are you guys working on a new Shabazz Palaces record?
EB: Always. Always working.