Digable Planets (Contemporary Musicians)
While rap music sometimes strikes the uninitiated listener as monotonous rhythms and rhymes, Digable Planets' two albums have demonstrated the range of sounds rap can encompass. The group has also discovered, however, that such musical experiments can incite political debates among rap's commentators. The band's liberal use of jazz prompted mainstream music critics and many white listeners to embrace the trio's sound, declaring it a part of the "acid jazz" phenomenon. At the same time, their sound also turned away much of a black audience who equated only the stark tones of "gangsta" rap with black urban experience.
Digable Planets' first album demonstrated not only the politics that surround rap, but also how much those politics can be about race. In their follow-up album the Planets confronted their critics: They brought black power politics to the forefront in their lyrics, while still cultivating the unorthodox sound they had introduced on the first album. That is, Digable Planets insisted that their jazz/rap fusion was not on the margins of black culture, but the future of it.
When Digable Planets first appeared on MTV airwaves in 1992, they attracted attention for many reasons, not the least of which was their unorthodox appearance. While most hip-hop outfits tend to be strictly defined by genderll men highlighting their masculinity or all women carving out their own spacehe Planets presented viewers with two men and a woman who was not just a figurehead.
Furthermore, Digable Planets adopted neither the angry stance of gangsta rap nor the high energy rush of dance-oriented hip-hop. They were, instead, unusually muted in their stage and video persona, presenting the simpler styles of the jazz world. The group's character emerged from the chemistry of the three individuals who are Digable Planets: Ishmael Butler, also known as Butterfly; Craig Irving, also known as Doodlebug and Knowledge; and Mary Ann Vieira, also known as Ladybug and Mecca.
Band Members Exposed to Jazz in Childhood
Critics see Butterfly, more than the others, as Digable Planets' "leader," and his history appears to have had the most influence on the group's sound. "My parents were revolutionaries," he told The Source's Todd Williams. In the 1960s, Butterfly's parents worked with both the Black Panthers and the Student National Coordinating Committee, the most active student organization in the civil rights movement. Butterfly apparently inherited those politics from his parents, as Williams and other journalists have noticed from the contents of Butterfly's bookshelves, which include volumes by various members of the Black Panthers, leftist philosopher Karl Marx, Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung, and French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre.
Butterfly spent his childhood in Seattle, Washington, where he was born in the early 1970s. After his parents divorced, he moved around the country with his history professor father, living in Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Harlem and Brooklyn, New York. Butterfly's father provided him with a rich musical environment, exposing his son to an extensive jazz collection. As Butterfly grew up, he augmented that foundation with rap; he also played saxophone in his teen years. Upon completing high school, he attended the University of Massachusetts on a basketball scholarship but quit before long. He decided instead to earn an education in the music business, taking an internship with Sleeping Bag Records, a New York City-based hiphop label, in the mid-1980s.
Relating a similar early exposure to jazz, Butterfly's band mate Doodlebug recalled the music of his childhood for Ann Powers of Spin. "My mother would always sit around, reading a book or the Sunday paper, and listen to jazz. My aunt taught me about [jazz legends] Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, she was always playing the records and talking about them, " he explained. Born in the late 1960s, Doodlebug grew up in Philadelphia before moving to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University, where he made a reputation for himself as a deejay on the college's radio station. He also mixed with local members of the religious sect Five Percent Nation of Islam, adopting some of their political ideals of black power.
Digable Planets' female member, Ladybug, though she was born in Brazil in the mid-1970s, spent her childhood mostly in Maryland. By the time she was in high school, she was a restless young woman; in four years, she attended three different schools. She told Pat Blashill of Details that she "didn't talk to anyone. I had, like, longass dreads and a nose ring and the other students weren't used to that.... I just couldn't wait to get out of high school." Powers described Ladybug as "a tomboy whose version of climbing trees was learning to rap."
Ladybug's musical influences combined rap with the Brazilian dance music her parents had always listened to. On weekends, she would make exploratory trips to Philadelphia and New York City; there she discovered the clubs and parties where artists experimented with rap and hip-hop. She and Butterfly met in D.C., soon became friends, and eventually moved to Philadelphia together.
Hip-Hop for a Liberal Freshman
By the late 1980s Butterfly had moved to Philadelphia to live with his grandmother while making a living and learning the ropes of the local music scene. He met Doodlebug on the local circuit while the latter was rapping with an outfit called Dread Poets Society, which later became the 7 OD's. Butterfly, Doodlebug, and Ladybug soon became fast friends and rapping partners. In the early days of Digable Planets, they lived together, first in Jersey City, New Jersey, and later, New York. The last move brought them into the heart of Brooklyn's black neighborhoods, where they scraped by for a while rapping and working. Ladybug, for example, was selling sneakers just before the group won its record contract in 1992. By that summer, however, they were recording the material for their first album with Pendulum Records.
Spin's Chris Norris described Digable Planets after the release of their debut album in late 1992 as "poster children for a jazzy new world." Reachin'(A New Refutation of Time and Space) opened on the Billboard charts at Number 15, thanks to the popularity of the single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)." The song appeared on both the Top 40 and R&B charts, went gold in a month, and received heavy rotation on MTV in video form. Powers described "Rebirth of Slick" as "a study in magic wordplay shaped with elegant reserve." The song, according to The Source's Williams, "expanded hip-hop's hegemony, dragging it into previously unexpected terrain; an 'alternative' rap group had come along with 'whip appeal' for progressives ... and Afrocentric Utopians."
In the Details interview with Blashill, Butterfly described the vision that had shaped Reachin'. "Hip-hop has to change all the time," he explained, "because the African-American community changes at such a rapid pace. Especially in the use of language.... That's the Digable Planets' main thing, man. To manipulate language, to use it, juxtapose it, break it down, set it back." Kevin Powell offered his blessing in a Rolling Stone review, in which he wrote that "Reachin'... is everything hip-hop should be: artisitically sound, unabashedly conscious and downright cool." He also predicted that the album's mix of jazz and hip-hop would take some of the bitterness out of the latter for outside listeners. "Digable Planets' modus operandi," Powell claimed, "is to elevate a rebellious and oft-misunderstood music to universal recognition."
Some of the critical response to Digable Planets, however, has argued that "universal recognition" has entailed a sacrifice of the hard edge, the political confrontation rap was known for, making the genre inappropriately accessible to those who normally found it threatening. Dream Hampton pointed out in the Village Voice the political divide that occurred: "Along with Arrested Development, Digable became a safe, politically correct, sexually integrated space for part-time hip hop fans who wanted nothing more to do with ugliness and raised voices." A Time reviewer exemplified that relief when he declared, "At last, rap even a liberal freshman philosophy major could love."
Jazz and Politics
Consequently, some writers dismissed Digable Planets' jazz-inflected rap for not accurately reflecting the urban black experience. Williams commented in The Source, "Instead of hip-hop lauding [the Planets] for their inventive and smart rap, they were admonished for not being 'hard enough' or 'keepin' it real.'" In retrospect, Butterfly expressed discontent with the album's reputation, saying that its achievements did not reflect the group's goals. "We were sampling a lot of jazz and speaking about a lot of political issues," he told Billboard's Chris Morris in September of 1994. "I felt like people sort of missed it because of that pop appeal. And it was sort of like a misconception, like this was what we were aimin' for. It didn't bother us, but the fact that we didn't achieve all that we wanted it to, did."
The Village Voice's Hampton, coming to the Planets' defense, argued that it was "ridiculous and condescending that Digable's intellectualism is attributed to the fact that [Butterfly's] dad has a job.... [It's] offensive because it presumes that [Butterfly] can't be 'ghetto to his marrow' if his dad can read. As if the grassroots, leftist black power movement that was [Butterfly's] ever left its base in the hood." Almost seemingly apart from such debates, the second single from the album, "Nickel Bags," fell flat in what appeared to be a bad omen for the group's future, despite the album's gold record status.
When the group was presented with a Grammy Award for best rap performance by a group for "Rebirth of Slick," Butterfly stunned viewers with an explicitly political speech. He told his listeners, as Williams recorded in The Source, that the Planets would "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."
With that statement, Butterfly began to declaim more directly the political philosophy he believed in and that had shaped Reachin'. The monikers that each rapper acquired for the debut album, for example, referred to "the insect theory," which Butterfly expanded on in a Source article: "The insect theory is the son of socialist readings. Knowing where you stand in this society and knowing where you should stand. Like if you look at ants and their hill, they're always around it, protecting it. Cats is going out getting food, bringing it back. Think of [Karl Marx's] The Communist Manifesto's last sentence, 'workers of the world unite.' In front of, 'of the world unite,' you could put anything: it's about unity." The mainstream businesses that had embraced Digable Planets, however, did not find this kind of unity appealing and took a step back.
"9th Wonder (Blackitolism)," the first single off of Digable Planets' second album, Blowout Comb, signaled the new angle the trio would emphasize. The message became openly political, reflecting in particular the diet of revolutionary socialism on which Butterfly had been raised. Commenting on the shift from the first to the second album, the rapper explained it as necessary to survival in the music business. "If you're an artist with any type of consciousness," he told Spin's Norris, "and you have some rudimentary understanding of the business, you know that your political ideas are not going to be easily swallowed by a record company. So it's sort of like an infiltration. You have to get your foot in the door. Once you get in there, make some noise, sell some records, you got some power. Then you can begin to be more stern and direct with the shit you saying."
When Blowout Comb hit the market in October of 1994, critics did hear what Digable Planets was saying. Nathan Brackett commented appreciatively on the change in Musician, describing the trio as having "taken a step back from ... jazz-bo posturing, opting instead for a messier, more funk-oriented approach." Rolling Stone's Eric Berman noted that the trio had "taken admirable chances" with the new release; specifically, he cited the group's use of live musicians along with samples, as well as the intertwining of "Five Percent Nation dialect and Planetspeak on black pride and cultural imperialism with dabblings in political philosophy... and scenes straight outta New York City's projects." Craig Marks reviewed the album for Spin in December of 1994 and declared it a "beguiling, demanding, damn near revolutionary follow-up."
In Time Christopher John Farley offered a specific definition of the kind of politics embodied in the jazz/hiphop hybrid of Digable Planets and their peers. "Rap is a form of rebellion," Farley wrote, "but it can be a trap when it plays into violent stereotypes. By adapting the humanism of jazz and channeling the power of rap away from anti-social braggadocia, Digable Planets ... are helping make hip-hop truly revolutionary."
Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space; includes "Rebirth of Slick [Cool Like Dat]"), Pendulum/EMI, 1992.
Blowout Comb (includes "9th Wonder"), Pendulum/EMI, 1994.
Audio, October 1993.
Billboard, September 10, 1994.
Details, July 1993.
Down Beat, June 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, March 26, 1993.
Essence, August 1993.
Metro Times (Detroit), April 21, 1993.
Musician, July 1993; November 1994.
Noir, November 1994.
People, April 5, 1993.
Rolling Stone, February 18, 1993; March 18, 1993; December 1, 1994; May 4, 1995.
Seventeen, March 1993.
The Source, March 1993; April 1993; December 1994.
Spin, May 1993; July 1994; November 1994; December 1994.
Time, February 15, 1993; November 21, 1994.
Us, May 1993.
Village Voice, November 28, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Pendulum Records publicity materials, 1994.
Ondine E. Le Blanc