Ishmael Butler aka Cherrywine has travelled a long road and has come full circle in both his life and his music career. In the early/mid 90s, when he went under the name Butterfly, his jazz-influenced group Digable Planets released two very different LPs, won a Grammy (for Best Rap Performance By a Group), and travelled all over the world.
Their breakthrough hit single Cool Like That was one of the first jazz/rap fusion songs: the hypnotic bass lines, peaceful expressions, and spaced-out lyrics made Digable Planets very accessible to both jazz fans and hip-hop fans. At a time when the violent music of Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg was the face of American rap music, the debut Digable Planets LP Reachin: A New Refutation Of Time And Space had everybody cooling out, listening to poetry, and thinking about philosophy.
After winning their Grammy, Digable Planets released the very militant LP Blowout Comb which had an intense pro-Black message. Despite deep beats and thick basslines, guest appearances from Guru of Gangstarr and Jeru The Damaja, Blowout Comb did not sell as well as their debut release. The group broke up in 1995, and later fellow ‘insect’ Doodlebug (aka Cee Knowledge) released an album, but nobody heard from Ish or Mecca (Ladybug). Ish did show up at the end of Camp Lo’s video for Luchini/Swing, but that was it. Even though his performance on the track was impeccable, fans yearned for more.
Fast forward to 2003. While many people may have forgotten about Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler moved to Seattle and formed his own band. Now known as Cherrywine, Ish and his band create cool, funky music with wild electronic synths, wah-wah guitars, and electro-funk beats. Even though it has a hip-hop feel, Cherrywine sings much more instead of rapping. Their debut LP, Bright Black (released on Babygrande Records / D-Cide Records), is eleven songs of emotional, funky, pimped-out grooves.
Once again, Ish has released something different. The lyrics are a little more abstract in places with subjects ranging from lying, love, sex, drugs, cars, and money. On a hot weeknight in July, I spoke to Ishmael Butler in a hotel room in New York City. Without a doubt, he’s one cool cat. After almost 10 years since Ishmael Butler is still one of the coolest motherfuckers in music today…
PIXELSURGEON: What goes on?
CHERRYWINE: I’m good, man! Everything is cool, man! New York City! I’m hanging out in the room, getting ready to do S.O.B.’s. I’m just chilling.
The debut Cherrywine album is called Bright Black. Tell us about it? Who is on it? Who produced it?
Bright Black is eleven songs. Me, I’m Cherrywine. Thaddeus Turner on guitar. Tugboat on bass. My man, Bubba Jones, is playing a little guitar too. We recorded it in Seattle and mixed it in New York. As we say in Seattle about anything that’s cool, it’s real music.
What is the meaning behind the title Bright Black?
It’s like some Mark Rothko stuff… illumination coming from within, breaking up the stereotypes of Black being dark but not in some kind of corny, clich’ way. It’s more like some real physical illumination, black illumination. Cool things, beautiful things, and substantial stuff. The rhythmic thing. Everything about being Black.
How did you get the name Cherrywine? What’s the meaning behind the name?
I don’t really discuss the meaning of that, bro.
Do you have a favorite song on Bright Black?
It changes probably every 2-3 days, depending how much I listen to it. The last time I listened to it, I loved the last song, All I Can Do. It’s a short song with guitar.
Why did you choose Babygrande and D-Cide Records?
They were interested and sincere about it. They wanted to put the record out. They let me do what I felt like doing. I liked them a lot. They seemed like they like me, too, so, I went ahead with it.
Do you go into the studio with pre-written rhymes, lyrics and themes or do you hear the beat first and write then and there? Do songs come from improvisation more often than not?
If I see something in the world that makes me write down a sentence or if I have an idea or image that I want to remember, I have a book that is filled with that stuff. So, I go into the studio, or wherever. I got equipment in my house like that. It’s almost like it’s a collage of my memories, my thoughts, my ideas, and my plans. It’s just a musical collage of… I don’t even know how much time. There is always some spontaneity. There’s a lot of free styling going on. I always want to feel the music and see what it makes me want to say.
What emcee/group or musician would you like to collaborate with in the future?
I would like collaborate with Beyonc’. I don’t know, man.
After Digable Planets, you moved from New York to Seattle. Why? How did this move affect you and your music?
Well, I just moved to Seattle about a year and a half ago. I stayed in New York long after the group [Digable Planets] broke up. Seattle’s cool. It’s relaxed with nice people. There’s a lot more nature with the atmosphere and the landscapes. So, you get to think about less. You get to slow your pace down and get a little more time because transit time and waiting time is cut down. You slow down, man. You get more time to do stuff. It’s pretty.
What is a Spiddyock?
My father is from West Philly and went to West Philly High School. He was born in 1944 and went to high school in the 50s. That was what they called cats who listened to jazz and had a certain casual mod type of dress code. That was the type of dude he was and that was the slang name they had for them. It was like the equivalent of jocks and nerds.
It has almost been ten years since Digable Planets released their last album Blowout Comb. Why did it take so long for you to do another LP after Digable Planets? What took you so long?
Well, if you can imagine your life, personally, things that occur in it, they take place over, what seems like to you, both really long and extremely short periods of time. In the moment, you have all of these plans, wishes, and dreams but you also have things to do in the moment. When you think about your plans, it seems like a long time. But, when you are doing them, the time is going by at breakneck lightning speed. I was just living life, man. I did a couple of different albums for different labels and they didn’t work out. The albums never came out. Music and everything continued but the business part of it slowed and fucked up.
So, you have all of these recordings, finished albums, and they are just sitting on a shelf somewhere?
Yeah. It’s not really that simple to release them. This one record I did on a label, the label owns it. You know? They paid for the production of it. They have to decide to put out or some shit. It just drags like that in the business.
Cocaine is mentioned quite often in the song See For Miles. Is there a lot of cocaine in Seattle?
I don’t know. I don’t really do a lot of that. The song [See For Miles] was inspired by those years that Miles Davis stopped playing, and was up in his house just getting high. It comes from what I read in the book and also, some of the rumors I heard in the world of music from some of the cats that I have met. It’s about that and instant gratification, and reclusiveness. It’s about people having emotional leverage on people who they claim that they love. Entrapment, claustrophobia, and even September 11th.
What was it about the word cocaine that you loved so much?
It’s so white! You know what I’m saying? When you think of it in that context, the song becomes real, real, real, real, real, real heavy because of everything that has to do with whiteness.
What was the last incident of racism you experienced?
A couple of minutes ago. I was standing in the hotel lobby about a minute ago and I was talking on the phone. The people at the front desk didn’t really understand that I was just talking on the phone and wasn’t ready to approach the desk or need help yet. So, they all stood around, really frozen, wondering why this Black man was standing in their lobby just talking on the cell phone. Loads of people asked “Can I help you?” and they kept on asking each other if they knew who I was talking to and what I was talking about. I asked them “What made you think that you could help me out because I was talking on the phone?” That happened just five minutes ago. I felt like I was just on CSI Hotel Lobby.
How did the Digable Planets come together?
I used to ride up to New York, Philly, DC, and Jersey to all these different parties, step shows, and concerts. Whatever it was, I was there. Every time I would be somewhere, I would see this cat, Knowledge [C-Know The Doodlebug]. When I saw his face, I would think to myself “Damn! This cat is everywhere!” Finally, I saw him in Philly, and then, we talked and stuff. He hustled. He knew how to throw a party and had a couple of groups. We hooked up like that. At the time, he knew Mecca [Ladybug] and we all just hooked it up. We started writing rhymes and it turned into a style. That’s just how it came about, man.
When was the last time you spoke to Doodlebug or Ladybug? Do you still speak to them?
I speak to Doodlebug.
On Blowout Comb, you had an incredible track called Borough Check with Guru of Gangstarr. How did you hook up with him and what was that collaboration like?
Once again, that was Knowledge, man. He used to be out at a lot of parties and shit, with him and Guru. He was cool with Jeru and Guru. We all kind of lived in the same neighborhood in BK and we always ran together. We went on tour through Europe with Guru for our Reachin album because he had the Jazzmatazz album out at the time. We did a lot of European dates. Actually, my mom and him got cool down in Brazil. They were hanging together at a lot of the after parties. It was Guru, Big Shug, and my mom. Guru is a real cat, a cool nigga. He’s a nigga I definitely looked up to. Everything was blessed. For him to come and do music with us was a blessing. He was very professional. It was obvious that he had many strong years in the studio. His etiquette was real street, but at the same time, he was all about business and completion to the optimum effect. That was just cool to see. As a group, Gangstarr has never floundered.
The album Blowout Comb was very revolutionary in spirit and political in many ways. Even though Cherrywine is not very political, militant, or revolutionary in the lyrical sense, do you still consider yourself an functioning activist?
Yeah, I think that I’m much less rhetorical and much more economical with my words. Even though the subject matter in my stories seems more literal, it’s more abstract because it represents a wider interpretation of sugar and poison of life.
Cherrywine is not considered straight hip-hop because it has more singing and a there is a full band involved. How have hip-hop heads reacted?
The thing about it, as far as that goes, I’m in my 30’s. When I became of age, like in my teens, which are real formative years, it was straight R&B; and Jazz. I got that from my pops. I loved everything from that genre because my people were eclectic. But the years when I was most respondent were the early days of hip-hop. That’s what I am! Whatever happens, subsequently, musically, I don’t give a fuck, the song All I Can Do is a hip-hop track. It only has an acoustic guitar and me singing. That’s what it’s really like.
On Bright Black, you have a song called Anchorman’s Blues about how sometimes people feel that they have to lie to the person they love in order not to hurt them. Where did the title come from?
I was thinking about my nigga Roger Mudd and the days when cats like that get calls from high places, and get told what to say. That’s heartbreaking for them to do. Me lying to histories of people. It was just to parallel two things: When you have to lie to somebody you love or when you have to lie to everybody for crazy reasons. The reasons are always bullshit. Niggas are always saying “This is why…”, but in the end, it’s just so you don’t look like a bad person.
Digable Planets got the Grammy for Best Rap Performance By a Group. How did winning the Grammy affect the group?
Well, when you win the Grammy, you get to do a couple of things. You don’t have to lobby for yourself as much and you get to charge more money for the shit that you do. At that time, you had the negative connotation of the Grammy in the hip-hop world so, it kind of changed things. At that time, niggas didn’t take no bullshit in hip-hop. Success ain’t like it is now. Just because you have money, your record is suppose to be hot. So, the atmosphere back then was different. It kind of bent us in a foul direction too.
What led to the break-up of Digable Planets?
I don’t know, man. Say you’re 32 and a little after high school, you had a girlfriend. Back then, you probably thought you were going to get married to her or some shit like that. Something went wrong a long the way. It doesn’t mean you hate her or nothing but you aren’t about to get back together. You know what I mean? We loved each other. We liked each other. We were happy to be doing what we were doing but something wasn’t right. A lot of things have to be right for three motherfuckers to stay together. We weren’t the type of people that were like “We’re making money, we need to do this just because…” It was real like that. Money didn’t matter. If you weren’t happy, you shouldn’t stay that way. We liked each other enough to know that was real.
What do you think hip-hop or music in general needs these days?
It’s lacking that care-free, that kind of Bob Dylan, that kind of Myles Davis, that kind of Mark The 45 King, early hip-hop feel. I don’t give a fuck about nothing but trying to have the baddest music out that doesn’t sound like your shit. Remember the word “bitin”? Remember that used to be a real word? It meant that if somebody else had anything that remotely sounded like something you just did, they got their shit thrown in the trash. It kept the barometric pressure down. We policed shit. You couldn’t be a cornball, man! That made hip-hop rich! It made it real abundant and unaccessible to anybody else. That’s why they thought it wouldn’t last until they got a hold of it. Now, it has got to be bullshit. Now that they have it, it really is. It’s crazy now. Of course I like a lot of new shit because it’s good shit. Niggas are always going to make hot beats and say dope shit. That’s what it is lacking, I think.
What is the biggest mistake that you made in your career?
I don’t look at it like that because I don’t guide it like that. My career is a real amazing by product of what I’m meant to do. It’s almost like coincidences. I don’t really pursue that music business shit. You got to understand. Boom! I know I need to get money. I want to buy that, I want to buy this… once I take care of these people. That’s easy. It’s a hustling thing, man, and that’s all it is. If I need to do stuff to make more money, then I’ll do it but it will never be at the expense of me doing always what I want to do. I just want to make music.
What are some major misconceptions that people have of you?
I think that they think that I’m so neo-soul type of nigga. That’s the biggest misconception and that one is a pretty wide one too.
What is next in the future for Ish and Cherrywine? Is Cherrywine just a side project?
I think that I feel like an author now. I have concepts that represent my life, and I project them onto non-fictional stories. I’m talking about non-fiction in the Richard Right sort of way. Even when it’s fantastic, it’s fantastic on some Octavio Butler kind of shit. It’s fantasy but it’s still about some real shit. I think I do pieces. Different shit has different names. It’s like episodes.
Any final words for the people who are reading this?
I’ll say a nice rap for you about Seattle:
We say “safe to say”
We say “say that then”
The homies just get on the streets and then, they go back in
He had a lick against the law but he didn’t win
Come home, get his gat, and try again
88 Monte Carlos with the shiny rims
Look like Aristotle down in Kingston with the bank’s lotto
Lick a shot, let your bling hang
Pop a bottle
Fuck a cop
Do your thing, thing
That’s the motto
23rd, Union, Jackson, Cherry Street, MLK, Rainy, and Henderson
Young dudes and the old thugs gangster-ing
Balling like Carmello
Calling all the fresh shit!
Thank you, Cherrywine!