Ishmael Butler, the Grammy-winning rapper and producer of Digable Planets, Cherrywine and Shabazz Palaces fame, is now a member of Sub Pop’s A&R team. The venerable Seattle indie began a relationship with Butler in 2011 with the release of Black Up, Shabazz Palaces’ critically acclaimed debut album and the first hip-hop release in the label’s history.
From Digable Planets’ work at the intersection of hip-hop and jazz in the early ‘90s, to the experimental electro-funk of Cherrywine and the prog-rap of Shabazz Palaces, Butler has earned a reputation as a progressive and uncompromising artist over a 20+ year career. As an A&R rep at Sub Pop, he’ll approach the industry from a different perspective, helping to sign and nurture new artists while continuing work on Shabazz Palaces’ next album.
We called Butler at his new cubicle at Sub Pop HQ in Seattle to talk about why he took the gig, the kinds of artists he would never sign and what working at a label will mean for his own artist career.
Billboard.biz: Why be an A&R man? Did you finally decide to get a real job?
Ishmael Butler: I don’t know that I would consider this a “real job” like working at UPS or something. For me it’s not about the employment aspect so much as further delving into the passion I have for music and proliferating it.
How did this come about?
Well, I had been speaking with Megan Jasper and Jonathan [Poneman] and Tony [Kiewel] about doing a label or an imprint here for some time, but I felt like I wanted to learn a little bit more about the mechanism[s] of releasing records before I just jumped in at that level. They thought that I could be useful in this aspect of helping music here at the company and I could at the same time learn a lot of stuff from people who had been doing this a long time. So it seemed like something that was mutually advantageous for everybody. It’s been working out well so far.
Did you ever think that you would be in the industry on the other side?
Well that’s the thing. I kind of understand what you mean by “the other side,” but [at Sub Pop] for the first time in my recording career I was dealing with people that didn’t seem like they were from another side. It felt like we were all on the same side and moving in the same direction. They understand artists’ wants and needs and that’s something that’s rare in the industry.
Before your inbox starts blowing up, what sort of artists are you looking to bring to Sub Pop?
Imaginative artists, daring artists, courageous artists, independent-thinking artists, artists that aren’t relying on trends or superficial things to get noticed, artists that are more musically inclined rather than image inclined, artists that are hard workers and . . . cool.
What kind of artists are you not interested in at all?
Artists that are corny. Self-aggrandizing, self-mythologizing, self-reverential, cornballs. There’s plenty of room for them in the pop world.
How will the new gig affect your music projects?
I’m not really sure yet. Sitting in on marketing meetings, A&R meetings, listening to people talk, you get a much more in-depth sense of what goes into setting up a record and preparing it for success. So I think it will broaden my outlook when that aspect of releasing a record comes around. It won’t really affect my music production, my music making, my approach to things. But subsequent to that, when all that stuff is done, I think it’ll give me a lot more insight into preparing a record for being heard.
Will it be tough to balance working a staff job and your work as a recording artist, time-wise?
I think everybody here knows that the main focus right now for me and for Sub Pop is the release of Shabazz Palaces’ second record. Working on that is still the main thing I have to do and I have all the time I need and will require to do it. But when I’m not doing that or on tour or something like that, I’ll be here doing the best I can for the groups that are on this label and trying to find new ones that are hip and cool. So there’s no pressure in this situation at all. There aren’t any hindrances that I can foresee.
I heard you have your own cubicle there. What are you going to put up?
I’m going to bring my Jambox, my computer, pictures of my mom and dad and all my CDs. Just get comfy, you know?