It was 1993. I slid the cassette into my Walkman and clicked it shut. My mom was running an errand, and I was waiting for her in the car, which was parked near a lumber mill in Kelowna, BC. We’d just stopped by my local record store, where I bought Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) by Digable Planets.
As soon as I pressed play, I couldn’t help feeling I had heard it before. And I don’t mean from the radio or even from its samples: it was as if I had already listened to the whole album in a dream. As each song played, this uncanny feeling not only persisted but intensified: this album was realizing sounds that were somehow already in my head.
The same thing happened in 2009 with Ishmael Butler’s more recent project, Shabazz Palaces: the soundscape again seemed telegraphed into my brain. I tried to explain this to him when I saw Shabazz Palaces at a bar in Bellingham in 2010—I wanted also to say that he, Q-Tip, and Chuck D, along with a few family friends, had formed how I saw the world, but I didn’t want to seem like That White Dude, so I simply told him how much his music meant to me. “I appreciate it, man,” he said, smiling coyly. He gently bumped his chest and then shook my hand.
Now it’s 2020. I’m confined in my Paris apartment, listening to the most recent Shabazz Palaces album, The Don of Diamond Dreams. With every new release Shabazz seems to fold together various eras of hip-hop and beyond—Bambaataa futurism, Digable jazz-rap, Soundcloud swagger, South African kwaito. It reaches to harmonize various styles, transnational and transtemporal, while staying grounded in the specific Seattle aesthetic the group has forged over the past decade: the sound of someone singing in their sleep.
Early in the album, Butler says, “Algiers is thick out in Paris.” It’s a line I can’t help but feel. When I leave my apartment in the 5th arrondissement for weekly groceries, I face the Grand Mosque of Paris; before the confinement, one of my favorite parts of the week was watching the crowds gather for Friday prayers, the whole Sunni Muslim world in its diversity congregating on a small corner of the French capital. At around one in the afternoon, the sidewalk of my street would spill over with North Africans, West Africans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Turks, and Arabs in colorful djellabas and kufis, all heading to the mosque to pray.
Inside my apartment, even if the windows were closed, I knew when the service was starting. The faint sound of the unamplified call to prayer echoed off the buildings, and the chanting sounded like a sample buried deep within a Shabazz track. Like something I’ve heard before. It all seems unimaginably far from Kelowna, yet incredibly familiar.
“Echo through the time like scripture,” sings Purple Tape Nate on “Fast Learner.” It’s another line that hits me—echo through time. It brings me to places I’ve already been, where I find myself, where I might yet go again.
The days blend. I listen to Butler’s entire discography. Time and space seem all messed up—refuted. I wake up from dreams with these songs in my head. For the foreseeable future, no live shows will happen, and even if they did I doubt I’d have the chance to shake his hand again.
— Aaron Peck
Paris, day 35