Even gifts are vulnerable to deletion. Take it from Ishmael Butler, Seattle’s polemicist, art-rap master, and reformist hoopster better known as Butterfly.
Years before his rebirth as the face of Digable Planets and more recently hip hop group Shabazz Palaces – Butler I played 1st League basketball at UMass. This was the 1980s, when many underestimated the dirty post play and suffocating physicality of the sport. That’s a physicality that almost doesn’t exist today, either at the college level or in the NBA. Imagine Charles Oakley, the long-retired “role player” who was the centerpiece of the Bulls’ defense in the late ’80s, now active, frantically scrambling for rebounds and loose balls. He was to be brought before the basketball crimes court.
The sanitization of hip hop has been less absolute. There are those like Butler who cannot be silenced, who do not bow to the faceless technocracy, but some say that a certain passivity has infected hip hop. You can count on a pointed and often astute critique of systemic injustice in recent years. It’s hard to find this nowadays.
When it comes to social critique, “hip hop has taken over,” says Butler. “This wasn’t just Public Enemy or De La (Soul). Your average rapper There was a section on his album that talked about the power of Black people. Morality, that is, true mortality, was contagious among artists at that time.
A Marxist and Afrofuturist, Butler wears these titles with pride. The son of an academic, he grew up with jazz and anti-colonial theories. At home, he said, he absorbed works such as Frantz Fanon’s intense and famous book of salvation, “The Wretched of the Earth.” With such after-hours reading material available, school must have been a bit of a stress reliever for Butler, who played alto saxophone in the middle school jazz band. Even then he was an incorrigible music nerd.
Given his background, years of scholarship, and commitment to Black causes, Butler is admittedly disgruntled. He is appalled, even hurt, by what he sees as the trinity that surrounds hip hop: apathy, inertia, and self-aggrandizement.
“I think it’s possible for hip hop to be pristine, pristine,” Butler says. “But if hip hop doesn’t even respect its own history, what can we expect?”
In other words, this isn’t the same genre that stole his heart years ago, when he was an enthusiastic and suggestible teenager happily tinkering with his friend’s Alesis drum machine.
After high school, he attended UMass-Amherst until the invisible rap gods called him to New York City, where he dropped out, closing the door on his basketball career. Does not matter! Butler found work at Sleeping Bag Records, a scrappy independent label that “ran errands” and “enjoyed the game” for legends like EPMD, Stezo and the forgotten Just-Ice. Butler couldn’t have asked for a better education. He also met his artistic soulmates: Mariana “Ladybug Mecca” Viera, a hot, self-sufficient everyday girl, and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving, a neutral B-boy with plenty of “downtown vibes.”
Digable Planet’s first two albums bring mayhem. It’s the kind of musical mayhem you’d expect from jazz man Butler: flawless drum rolls, gorgeous orchestral flourishes and exotic twists galore. But these albums don’t mince words, especially when it comes to the moral vandalism of trickle-down economics.
Some consider Digable Planets to be “one-hit wonders,” but that’s not Butler’s way of keeping score; is meticulously album-focused. However, there’s no doubt that “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” will forever reign as the definitive Digable record with its sliding horn riff and indomitable bassline. This suits Butler very well.
“I never get tired of doing this,” Butler says with a broad smile. “I wish this would never happen. There are other perhaps more skillful joints I’ve done, but as a complete idea ‘Rebirth’ is the pinnacle of Digable. “This is reflected in its popularity.”
This Afrofuturist is in many ways the picture of modernity; in fact, his son is Lil Tracy, the always colorful and edgy young SoundCloud sensation. (Father and son have a song together on Butler’s new album, “Exotic Birds of Prey,” due out in March.) But Butler doesn’t have a cell phone. Although superficially inappropriate, he argues that the off-grid lifestyle contributes to increased creativity.
“It’s almost like a brick is tied to you,” says Butler. “There’s a device with you at all times; there are access levels and access expectations that I’m not at all comfortable with.”
Despite her concerns, she looks absolutely happy. Speaking from his home in Seattle, the 54-year-old is charming, pleasant and easy-going, with a quick and easy smile. He’s such a nice guy.
Digable Planets Reaches 30th Anniversary Tour, With Kassa Overall, Jan. 26, 8 p.m., Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport St.; thaliahallchicago.com
MT Richards is a freelance writer.