Where did the confusion begin? Was it that Digable Planets met all the aesthetic criteria for mass media consumption: they were videogenic, co-ed, politically correct. They even reeked of indo smoke, but didn’t seem to inhale.
Was it The New York Times calling them “bohemians,” the L.A. Times comparing them to the preeminent art rock band, Talking Heads, or being token window dressing for the ultra-Whiteman’s magazine, Details?
Was it the austere black and white video (“Rebirth”) shot in a smoky beatnik lounge before a United Nations of faces—in a colorless world are we all supposed to be the same?
Could it have been The Source feature on Digable Planets written in Ishmael’s words by “that Herb-ass-nigger,” a dreamy fictionalized episode, where the writer rambles on about slackers, “Izzy and Ahmad,” and a search for Black identity?
The many allusions to insect cosmogony—Butterfly (Ish), Doodlebug (C-know) and Ladybug (Mecca)—didn’t help matters. Instead of hip-hop lauding them for their inventive and smart rap, they were admonished for not being “hard enough” or “keepin’ it real.” But what are the children of a college professor and free-thinking radicals to do?
By the time the second single “Nickel Bags” was dropped the reign of the “insects” was over—a streetlevel backlash hit them like Raiddd!!!. All the attention and heavy-heavy commercial rotation had created an “I’m-tired-a-dose-niggas” sentiment among hip-hop acolytes. Needless to say “Nickel Bags” did miserably.
Finally, the opportunity arose for Digables to assert their true sociopolitical ideology, Ishamel did so—BKYN style. At the 94’ Grammy Awards ceremony, millions of home viewers were caught off guard by Ishmael’s Black Nationalist stance on live television:
We’d like for everybody to think about the people right outside this door that’s homeless as you’re sittin’ in these $900 and $300 seats. They not out there eatin’ at all. Also, we’d like to say to the universal Black family, one day we’re gonna recognize our true enemy and we’re gonna stop attackin’ each other, maybe then we’ll get some changes goin’ on…So, peace to the Gods and earth and the Nation of Islam Digable Planets say peace.
The impact of his radical oratory: mainstream sponsors were pissed off, the resolve of their hip-hop detractors was strengthened. Instead of being ass-out in Amerikkka, like so many other genre bending hip-hoppers (Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hop, Gumbo, Del The Funkee Homosapien), Digable hopped on the next flight to Europe and got paid, very paid.
With a cloud of skepticism from urban hardheads hovering above them, it’s amazing Digables haven’t taken more extreme measures to ensure their new album “Blowout Comb,” receives an unbiased listen. They could just go the way of another musician – we all love but don’t always understand – who feels the same way.
Maybe for their new releases, we should refer to them as the group “formerly known as” Digable Planets.
It’s an early summer morning, from the subway car window it looks like rain. I’m on my way to Ishmael Butler’s apartment. It’s entirely fitting that Ish should call Brooklyn home. In recent years Brooklyn has become a fertile seedbed for black aesthetes: writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers and rappers have all flocked to the new “Black Mecca.” (Peep “Borough Check,” a paean to Brooklyn living.)
In front of his brownstone apartment, I’m greeted by his cheery publicist and his precocious 4-year-old daughter, Dania. We enter. Piquant incense burns, mellow jazz warms his living room and kitchen. Vinyl records, numbering in the hundreds, are as much a part of the décor as tools of the trade for a rapper-producer. A small book case stands across from where I eventually sit. The names Marx, Mao, and the Panthers are intermingled.
“Who shaped your reading tastes?”
“My parents were revolutionaries,” Ishmael flatly states.
“In what sense; arm chair or hands on?”
A sly grin forms, “They were definitely hand on.”
His voice hints on other regional influences. When rapping, or speaking, his voice often takes on a South Central drawl, while his cadence leans more towards uptown bravado. “I grew up all over the place…Oakland, Seattle, New York, D.C., Maryland…we moved around a lot.”
After instructing his daughter to play quietly in the back, he reclines in an armchair to my left, he rocks back and forth. His hair stands on-end in a lumpy Don King-esque ‘fro. He’s pragmatic; has no visible attachment to material goods: there’s no fly ride, or boomin’ home system. His only luxury items are on his feet—newly acquired black high-top Adidas. He speaks in a soft “man of the people” tone. What he believes, he pushes on us; not through verbal manipulation, but through singling out a common experience. In his rap, Ish steers toward the philosophical ideologies of marxism, socialism, which strongly support equal distribution of wealth and power. He approaches music the same way.
On Blowout Comb each cut has been thoughtfully measured out: beats never muscle out melody (“Dog It”), nor does the rhyming bog down the rhythmic ease (“Jettin’”). Live instruments are allowed to flow in an open-ended fashion. A guitar weaves in and out of “Black Ego.” A frantic trombone calls-and-responds to the friendly word play of “K.B.’s Alley.”
“We recorded all the songs at seven minutes, and cut them down from there. I wanted to get back to the jazz feel when they had like twelve minute songs,” he explains. “You got a better feel for the music, the musicians had more time to think out what they were doing.”
Whoaaa, there goes that word again, jazz. The thing that caused such a big stink in the first place. Ish sits up when I bring it to his attention, “We were just pulling musical ideas from jazz records. We had no other use for jazz other than to sample it. I pull from jazz because it’s what I grew up on…. Along with a bunch other stuff.”
C-Knowledge eventually ambles in from an all night party (I should know, I was there). He slides in beside me on the sofa, and we laugh for a minute about the Sugar Hill Gang’s performance at the party. “Twenty years down the line they might be us, they’ll be calling us ‘Old School’ artists or people might change their mind and we’ll be new again like them,” chuckles Knowledge.
He doesn’t say too much after that, or too much any other time. While articulate, he’s not very talkative.
But the mention of old school hip-hop has them as excitable as Ish’s daughter, who runs in from the other room and jumps in his lap. They recite lines from an old Busy-Bee album, revealing an affinity for old school, then collapse in laughter.
A few rhymes later.
Why don’t people listen to Old school hip-hop like, say, vintage jazz? “It’s not old enough yet. A lot of hip-hop vocals are turned up really loud, rappers ride off the appeal and novelty of the lyrics. But it should be a combination of both, music and lyrics,” Ishmael opines.
Is this why a majority of vocals on the album seem low? Vocals pan from left earphone to right, and from right to left. The choruses are radio-friendly, but verses lapse into stylish mumbling, understanding the lyrics almost become a chore. They didn’t print lyrics in Refutations; and they’re not doing it for Blowout either.
As to whether Digables have accepted the pitfalls of esoteric rap in a rigid hip-hop environment is questionable. If you’re preaching or being artsy, a bit of advice: do it sparingly. Here are two good reasons why; (a) Arrested Development’s Zingalamaduni (b) Public Enemy’s Muse Sick ‘N Our Mess Age.
“I think it has more to do with longevity. I don’t think the vocals are low but I could see where someone would say that. If you listen to it you get what’s being said. And over time it becomes revealing. If you like it, you’ll listen to it more. If you don’t; you won’t. But if you it you’ll put it on next year and be like ‘Oh that’s what that nigger said.’”
After much ado, Mecca and I decide where to eat. The first place wasn’t quite right. The second was inside; she wanted to be out. All I was thinking was R. Kelly—my stomach’s calling. We sit outside. I’m starting to think this must be the way it is within the group. The woman always gets her way, or at least her say. For each suggestion I make, she responds with a smile that makes me self-conscious. She wields her sexuality as a weapon. I am unarmed.
As the youngest member of the group, and of course, it’s only female. One would think she viewed Ish and C-Know as patriarchs. Not so!
“I’ve learned a lot from them, but they’re not like my father or anything, my father is my father, they’re just my friends,” she asserts. “But it would be hard to imagine these past couple of years without them. They’ve helped me out and taught me a lot.”
We leave the restaurant, meander around lower Manhatten in Greenwich Village discussing life, music, the state of Black people. There are the usual street vendors, recently converted muslims, hawking pungent incense, fragrant oils, and Islamic literature. Each one voluntarily offers his own conspiratorial take on the O.J. trial. Crossing over to the East Village. We witness our second street fight. Oddly enough, there’s a full moon out. We’re constantly accusted by homeless men and women, with any number of requests: “Do you have a penny?”, “Please help me get some food!”, “I’m trying to get enough money for a beer!” When I bump into an old acquaintance. I make the introduction. We rap for a minute; Mecca and I move on.
We’re almost a block away when he yells back, apparently from the shock of seeing me with a rap star, a cute one at that. “Oh Shit!!! Todd that’s you.” Mecca smiles, “He must have recognized me or something.”
We resume our talk about the new Outkast album, and her role as one of the few female emcees on the scene. Much of what she says is punctuated by “Fuck that” or “Fuck ‘dem.” You gotta give her points for keepin it real.
Since her debut on “Rebirth,” she’s streamlined her leftist posturing with ‘70s styled Black nationalism: I raise every day for the mass/ pump my fist right up against the fascist. She continues with an aside to her intellectual influences bell hooks, Derrick Bell, and Reggie Butler.
The Black power stuff sounds good, but for Mecca it’s something new. She’s changed a lot since her formative years in Maryland. The daughter of Colombian parents, ethnic pride wasn’t stressed at home. She freely admits to being somewhat White-washed during childhood. Her straight hair and light complexion made it easier for her to be accepted by white classmates. When her “best-friend,” a white girl, called her a “nigger” that’s when she realized she wasn’t just one of the girls. “After that I kicked her ass…bad…and started hanging with Black people,” she bitterly recalls.
Her honesty at this moment of vulnerability, humanizes her. If possible, she becomes even more attractive. I consider the evening, watching her walk towards the train station. She’s pretty cool for a pop-rap star.
“Cool Like Dat,” expanded hip-hop’s hegemony, dragging it into previously unexpected terrain; an “alternative” rap group had come along with “whip appeal” for progressives, forty-acres-and-a-mulers and Afrocentric utopians. Embracing the ‘50s era Miles Davis cool aesthetic, Digables strategy of eschewing post-Reagan-induced Black nihilism and Black-on-Black rage, set them philosophically apart from the hip-hop mainstream. Maybe their only crime was in believing that the African-American community had progressed beyond the point of pitting brothers-and-sisters against one another. Believe it or not; Snoop Dogg and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis have more in common than what separates them.
Raising the stakes again, Digable serves up a heaping helping of ‘90s realpolitik (“9th Wonder (Blakitolism)”), rather than the over-the-counter, freeze-dried consciousness peddled on MTV. Fuck the environment; save the people.
Blowout Comb teems with references to fascism, socialism and redistributing wealth. Are these big ideas for three undersized rappers to be pushing? Yes. But taking on issues larger than you—civil rights, destruction of the Black family—is as African-American as sweet potato pie.