How Digable Planets’ Crate-Digging Debut Revolutionized Rap
30 years after its February 1993 release, a new generation of forward-thinking artists cite Reachin’ as a touchstone
BY ARIELLE LANA LEJARDE
FEBRUARY 1, 2023
JOHN MORRISON WAS 10 years old when he started making beats on his Casio RZ-1, the same drum machine sampler that Prince Paul used to produce for De La Soul’s landmark 3 Feet High and Rising. Three years later, in 1993, Morrison heard Digable Planets’ debut album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) — and it changed the way he viewed music forever.
“When Digable Planets came out with Reachin’, it was magic,” says the beatmaker-turned-writer-slash-DJ, who went on to interview the Brooklyn trio for the now-defunct local newspaper The Philly Word, and to write the artist bio that still sits on their website. “We had so much hip-hop, jazz, and this long history of Black music playing together through sampling and rappers referencing jazz… They took all of these references from our parents’ and grandparents’ music and brought it right to us.”
Digable Planets didn’t just touch the beatmakers who were starting out in the early Nineties — they reached those who came before them, too. DJ Premier, one of the group’s key predecessors, remembers hearing “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” the lead single from Reachin‘, for the first time. “They immediately caught my attention,” he says. “Because the jazz-sampling era was a totally new thing. That song sent me directly toward connecting with their whole movement. They’re an important part of hip-hop’s archives.”
Journalist, historian, and author Dart Adams was 17 when he heard “Rebirth Of Slick.” Thirty years later, he still holds the album, and its cassette tape liner notes, close to his heart. “You don’t know what that tape and the tiny print meant to me,” he says. “I spent years looking for the film that ‘Pacifics’ was supposedly on the soundtrack of…”
Craig “Doodlebug” Irving and Mariana “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira laugh when they hear Adams’ story. All these years later, they’re still learning how much of an impact their debut had on people.
“Can’t believe people are still talking about it,” Doodlebug says. “Just living in the moment at that time, we just had fun doing what we love to do. Never thought it would have such a legacy where younger people know about us and actually come to the shows, listening to the music. Never imagined that, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
(He confirms that the track Adams referenced, titled “Pacifics — From the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack ‘N.Y. Is Red Hot’,” isn’t actually on any soundtrack. They were just having fun with it.)
“I was reflecting back on that recently and thinking how I was 19 years old when *(Reachin’) came out,” Mecca adds. “It really is a blessing, and it’s kind of ill to think how long it’s been. Time has just flown by, and people are still discovering it every day.”
This year, Digable Planets will launch a thirtieth-anniversary tour around Reachin’. Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler — Digable Planets’ third lyricist and main producer — hopes everyone can get one thing from watching them perform the record live: “Energy,” he says. “That energy of somebody being fortunate and luck. And then coming to physically be present and vibrate, make sounds and music and connect and get something back.”
Digable Planets’ debut continues to influence new generations of musicians and music lovers today. Twenty-eight-year-old rapper AKAI SOLO, the newest signee on billy woods’ Backwoodz Studioz, wasn’t even born when Reachin’ came out, yet he says “Rebirth of Slick” had a major impact on his songwriting style. “In my opinion, (it) could be an example of a perfect rap song,” he says. “It was smooth without compromising bars. ‘We be to rap what key be to lock’ is such a good bar. Lines like that reminded me that you can be succinct and heavy simultaneously. No need to choose a side. Do both.”
Mecca, in particular, has hugely influenced today’s generation of rappers in jazz-influenced hip-hop. Pink Siifu, a young rapper who’s been cooking it up in the studio with her, has nothing but good things to say. “Hearing Ladybug Mecca’s voice taught me that I ain’t gotta be aggressive,” Siifu says. “Ladybug Mecca is the first cool voice of rap shit.”
Mavi praises Mecca’s ability to keep her ear to the ground. “She reached out to me so long ago,” says the North Carolina rapper behind last year’s acclaimed Laughing So Hard, It Hurts. “She’s really tapped in with a lot of homies like Pink Siifu and Zero. She showed me a lot of love very, very early on. So when she did that, I instantly ran and told my dad.” Mavi is known to be outspoken about his socio-political beliefs, constantly using his platform to uplift young Black folks, in a way that can be reminiscent of Digable Planets’ candor inside and outside of music.
Dart Adams remembers the day Digable Planets won a Grammy for “Cool Like Dat” in 1994. (They took home Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, but lost out to Toni Braxton for Best New Artist.) “People were enamored with Digable Planets in the mainstream, but they didn’t completely get them,” Adams says. “Then, there were heads that got them, but they were like, ‘I just wish they didn’t have so much crossover appeal.’”
Butler used their Grammy acceptance speech to make a statement. “On behalf of my crew, we accept this award on behalf of hip-hop music and Black culture in general,” he said. “We want everyone to think about the people outside this door that’s homeless as we’re sitting in these $900 seats. They’re out there not eating at all.”
“We respected them for it,” Dart recalls. “We were like ‘Yo, that’s dope. They who we think they are!’ Or they ain’t who they think they are, either.”
When critics in 1993 praised Digable Planets for revolutionizing rap, they were usually referring to their unwavering moral compasses or their idiosyncratic jazz sampling. (The liner notes to Reachin‘ credit Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dave Hubbard, Eddie Harris, and more, sampled by Butler and his co-producers, Mike “Launching An Attack” Magini and Shane “The Doctor” Faber.) But the group insists they weren’t the first to do any of that. “We made music in a time when it was an ongoing musical revolution that was coming from rap,” Butler continues. “It was about being inspired, influenced, and participating in.”
Baton Rouge rapper Wakai, a 22-year-old lyricist known for his creamy cadence and multigenre blend of beats, says he wouldn’t be here without Digable Planets. “Them as a group changed my whole perception,” he raves. “Everyone had their own role, but they were so cohesive. And their fusion of jazz and hip-hop was just beautiful. I vividly remember my dad playing (their music) and being like, ‘This beat is crazy!’”
One year after the release of Reachin’, Digable Planets released their more politically-charged sophomore album, Blowout Comb. Despite less label support, the record would go on to become a fan favorite. All three members continue to make music independently, with Butler creating another successful hip-hop group, Shabazz Palaces. However, they’ve also continued to reunite as Digable Planets, because the music they make continues to resonate.
“It’s like the music and the group exists outside of us, almost,” Butler says. “It’s also like I feel responsible. Who could ever imagine that 30 years from now, I will be able to go and do a Digable Planets show without constantly cultivating new music? So, the luck of that, the fortune of it — it’s not even about whether I want to or not. It’s that I get to, you know what I’m saying? I’m lucky enough to be able to do something.”