3042862, 30 year celebration of "Reachin'" - yahoo|
Posted by c71, Sat May-20-23 05:46 PM
Digable Planets talk 30 year Anniversary of Reachin'
Together again 30 years after their debut, Digable Planets reveal why they only released 2 albums — and tease there could be more music in store
Jazz-rap trio Butterfly, Doodlebug and Ladybug reflect on debut album "Reachin’," their Grammy win and their prescient abortion-rights track.
Kevin Polowy·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
May 12, 2023
The Digable Planets didn’t have any grand scheme to introduce a radically new style of hip-hop when they dropped their seminal jazz-laced, funk-resurrecting debut album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), on Feb. 9, 1993.
That was merely the nature of the game back then: Do what you feel, if it’s real… and fresh.
“It was very much a style sport back then,” reflects Ishmael Butler, aka Butterfly, in a new interview with Yahoo Entertainment commemorating the classic rap record’s 30th anniversary (watch the full interview below). “Your own style had to prevail in order for you to get noticed. ’Cause if you was like a biter, you really couldn't survive back then, ’cause people didn’t really covet (acts that) sounded like somebody else.
“If somebody called you a biter, you could fight.”
Any beef was expressed in silence. Though they dug the essence of influences like Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr and Brand Nubian, the DPs — also including Craig “Doodlebug” Irving and Mariana “Ladybug” Vieira — weren’t being labeled biters by anyone as they jazzed up the streets. Everything about their crazy boogie sounds and funky, funk beats felt newfangled, from their crate-dug jazz-stack samples and seamlessly pivoted sing-songy poetics to their Star Trek and Sartre references to their idiosyncratic conceptual metamorphosis as a tribe of interstellar insects from way up in Sector Six.
As hip-hop was transitioning from its renaissance to its Golden Age and splintering in multiple directions (the Afrocentricism of the Native Tongues, the gritty street sounds of Wu-Tang, the West Coast’s G-funk reinvention), Digable Planets crafted their own mythology for long-haired hippies and Afro Blacks, rapping about flowers and beads and peaces and naps while kneeling at the secular altar of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
“We love it where we from, but we kick it where we at”
While galaxy questing six blocks from Mars on their records, earthbound the Planets ultimately became synonymous with Brooklyn. Its children of the concrete hailed from all over the map, though. Butler was born and raised in Seattle, but often visited relatives in Philadelphia, where he began rolling together with Philly native Irving, who attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., with Maryland-born Vieira. They forged into a swoon unit in Philly in the late ’80s, and hit New York in the early ’90s to record Reachin’.
“I remember just being so young and it was a rough time, financially, being a young artist in a big city by myself with no family … you know, these two are my chosen family,” says Vieira. “Making the decision to either get on the dollar van to record this album or eat that day (was) a real struggle.”
The trio collected samples in their minds — a Herbie Hancock loop here, a Parliament drum break there — as they plotted infinite beats and scripted raps until a deal with Pendulum Records into 1992 afforded them ample studio time and space.
The discovery of one particular sample sent Digable into unthought-of dimensions: the bass flush and horn rush of Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers’ feverish 1978 opus “Stretching.” Though the loops to their maddest hit landed in the Planets’ orbit in a roundabout fashion.
“Originally I was in a group at the time called the Dread Poets Society, and we used the sample for a song called ‘Skin Treatment,’” Irving explains. “When I hooked up with Ish, he wanted to hear what I was doing with my old group, and I let him hear it. … He was feeling it, and then I saw his brain started percolating. Eventually he asked (if we could) use it for our demo. I asked the group, everybody was cool with it. He went in, flipped it, put his magic to it, and it became the song that we know today.”
The song was “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” as Ladybug prophesied in her verse, Hip Hop gained an instant classic. Even if it surprised the hell out of them.
“You didn’t feel like that back then,” Butler insists. “Nobody knew nothing… You couldn’t predict anything.”
Released three months ahead of the album’s street date, “Cool Like Dat” built ticky-ticky buzz and helped propel Reachin’ into the Top 15 of the Billboard Hot 100, with two more singles — “Where I’m From” and “Nickle Bags” soon to pop and transcend. The trio earned a massive fanbase, from the ghetto-dwelling youth, to the bourgies in the burbs.
Ask any Digable fan, though, and there’s not a single skip across the LP’s mega-cool 14-track tapestry of smacked-out soul. Ask the DPs themselves, and their favorites reside primarily in the B-sides and deepest cuts: “What Cool Breeezes Do.” “Time & Space.” “Jimmi Diggin’ Cats.” “Swoon Units.” “Examination of What.”
“Because the Supreme Court is like, all in my uterus”
One track that has proven especially prescient three decades later: “La Femme Fatale,” an intimately personal spoken word piece from Butterfly that details a platonic female friend’s plight with abortion. “If Roe v. Wade was overturned, would not the desire remain intact?” Butterfly asks on the track.
“I had friends that was going through it, I had a girlfriend that was going through it with me as well,” Butler says now after multiple states have rolled back reproductive rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s controversial 2022 ruling doing exactly what he pondered in 1993. “I never really thought of it as a political song. I thought of it as a more like a blues (song).
“The one thing I take from seeing that it's still relevant is that, with a lot of things, issues of gender, issues of race and class (and) economic equality, issues of all type of equity, it's not like it circled back around. Nah, this is this what they do. You know what I'm saying? It's always gonna be like this.”
Or as Butter laments on the record, the fascists are some heavy dudes.
“Bugs take a stand, goddamn”
When the Digable Planets reached what some artists might consider the pinnacle of their careers, winning the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance (for “Cool Like Dat”) in 1994, the crew from the sky seized the moment to speak out again on issues of race and class and economic equality.
“We’d like for everybody to think about the people right outside this door that’s homeless,” Butler told the audience in Los Angeles’s Shine Auditorium. “As you sitting in these $900 seats and $300 seats, they not out there eating at all.”
Butler’s next sentence — either cryptic or obvious, depending on whom you ask — caused a bigger buzz: “Also, we’d like to say to the universal Black family that one day we gonna recognize our true enemy, and we gonna stop attacking each other. And maybe then we'll get some changes going on.”
Says Butler now: “It (was) really a message for those that would understand what it meant. … And it was more a testament of when we were coming up, money and fame was always something that we cast a weary eye on because we knew the corruption that came with it. We have been told and taught that.
“To be young and fiery like that, I’m glad that happened at that time because once you get older and have a little bit more responsibility, people lose that kind of fire and that kind of outlook. So I’m just proud that I was from people that instilled that in me and I was with people that bolstered that in me. … We received the honor and we didn’t just think about ourselves, but we thought about other people. Because that’s what we was on at that time, straight up.”
“The label may OK it but radio won’t play it”
Reachin’ earned a Grammy and cemented Digable as one of hip-hop’s most exciting, most esoteric new acts. So they followed those funkifying sounds with… a virtual 180. While Reachin’ was breezy and groovy and psychedelic and fresh, 1994’s Blowout Comb was hard-hitting and urgent and cerebral and revolutionary. The sleekness of the horns remained intact, but the ethos evolved starkly and dramatically.
There was no breakout single (though “9th Wonder” and “Creamy Spies” remain undisputed hip-hop gems). No Top 20 Billboard ranking. No Grammy.
But any true Digable disciple would have a Sophie’s Choice trying to anoint one album over the other.
“Honestly, it’s got more legs,” Butler says of their sophomore release. “It’s seen as almost a more classic album than Reachin’ is. … To me, (Blowout Comb) is what’s allowing us to keep relevancy today. Not that it was a commercial success, but it just had good flavor to it. It had good vibes, it had substance to it, and we solidified ourself as something substantial.”
“It’s good to be here”
Two years. Two classic, near-perfect records. So how in the world did this beloved weirdo group of bugs never release another album?
“That’s the million-dollar question right there,” laughs Doodlebug.
The group wallowed through a gang of murk and broke up not long after the release of Blowout Comb, but reassembled in 2005 and have been touring together on and off ever since.
“It's really vibes, man,” says Butler. “It’s like when you was 20, 23, 24, you know, the clothes you wore, the girlfriend you had, the friends you hung out with, you don't necessarily do that for years afterwards. But I look at it more like what we was able to accomplish rather than what we didn't do after we accomplished it, you know? And I think cats just had different ideas and different desires. It was never funky really (among us). But at a certain point in time, even though in our hearts we wanted to keep going as individuals… There's some aspects of it that are only for us to really grapple with and try to understand, which we still are to this day.
“It's hard to pinpoint vibes,” agrees Irving. “It's the vibes that we were all individuals. We all had our own agendas. And then once the group broke up, you're human beings and you catch feelings. We needed time to get away, figure out who we wanted to be and what we wanted to do afterwards.”
“There were personal and professional issues that we had to shoulder,” says Vieira. “We were also really young, and things happen and the course changed.”
Adds Butler: “We just broke up because we were young. We were just kind of dumb, in some regards, but just naive really, and thinking that we wanted to do other stuff, which we did.” (All three have released solo projects over the years: Butterfly with Shabazz Palaces, Ladybug as Ladybug Mecca, and Doodlebug as part of Cee Knowledge & the Cosmic Funk Orchestra.)
Ultimately, the vibes weren’t taken for granted. “After a while we came back together,” Irving smiles. “We missed this s**t. I missed being around (these) cats. I missed making music with them, I miss toured with them. And we all felt the same way. But it’s still a work in progress. We still trying to figure it out. Luckily, we still here.”
And yes, there’s still a possibility a third Digable Planets album could someday land from the celestials. It’s all relative, after all. Time is unreal.
“We are together now, so I’m hopeful for the future,” Vieira says.
“We think about making new music, we think about it all the time,” promises Butler. “We talk about it often as well.”
The good vibes, as they would say, are snowing.
Digable Planets are currently touring. See their upcoming shows here: