People Who Are Addicted To Music
Around the turn of the 1990s, hip-hop had a brief and fruitful collision with jazz. “You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop/ My pops used to say, it reminded him of bebop,” said Q-Tip on 1991‘s The Low End Theory, an album that included contributions from legendary second-Miles Davis Quintet bassist Ron Carter and featured a song called “Jazz (We’ve Got)”. A year earlier, Spike Lee had followed his landmark Do the Right Thing, a film closely connected in spirit to the hip-hop street, with Mo Better Blues, a film whose main characters were sharply dressed jazz musicians trying to figure out how their work fit into the modern world. Guru of Gang Starr started a side project called Jazzmatazz, which found jazz legends playing alongside MCs; Us3 looped Herbie Hancock to create a global smash. Hip-hop jazz was now a thing, and one of the small, brilliantly burning sparks to emerge from this tiny explosion was the Brooklyn-based trio Digable Planets.
To understand the music of Digable Planets, it helps to remember the cultural landscape of the early 1990s. The crack epidemic was in full swing and violence was at an all-time high. (We’re rightly horrified at the 506 murders in Chicago last year, but in 1992, there were 943.) Coming off of 12 years of Republicans in the White House, Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, had turned the country rightward, and each had scored political points by exploiting racial prejudice. The youthful energy of the civil rights generation was fading; young people who might have seen Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X speak in person were well into middle age. Hip-hop was well established and rapidly growing in popularity, but it wasn’t yet a global cultural force.
So what did “jazz” mean in this hip-hop moment? It went beyond just sampling grooves and instrumental accents from the Roy Ayers catalog or the groove-based hard bop of the 50s/60s Blue Note catalog (though there was a lot of that too). Part of it can be found in that Q-Tip lyric: This is my music, and my father hears his music in it. It was a way to connect a thread of African-American culture to the earlier generations, to affirm a sense of shared experience and tradition. “My father always told me jazz is the black person’s classical music,” Digable Planets MC Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler told writer Ann Powers in the May 1993 issue of SPIN. So jazz as an idea in hip-hop was a story of tradition and shared knowledge, of connecting a younger cohort to the radical art of their parents’ generation. And in the tense era of the 80s and 90s, there was comfort to be found in that continuum, of positioning this new music in the context of an earlier sound that had changed the world.
If Digable Planets were the product of a specific time, they also came together in a specific place. Blowout Comb, their second and final album, which was first released in 1994 and now returns in the form of this gorgeous and beautiful-sounding vinyl reissue from Light in the Attic, is practically a love letter to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene. It’s a part of the borough with a long history (Walt Whitman lived here), and not all of it was rosy (in the 1970s and 80s, crime in the area was endemic). It’s also a neighborhood of African-American families, and it has been known as an incubator of creativity. Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule office is based here; jazz musicians young (Branford Marsalis) and old (Cecil Taylor) called the area home. As described in Brooklyn Boheme, a film by Fort Greene resident and writer Nelson George, during the late 1980s and 90s Fort Greene was a nexus of African-American cultural activity, to the extent that George calls it the late-century Brooklyn version of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a good place for Digable Planets, none of whom were native Brooklynites, to set up shop.
The group’s debut album, 1993’s Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), is very good, but all the promise of the project was realized with its follow-up. Blowout Comb is an album of forces pulling in different directions, exerting tension and stretching into new forms. On a purely sonic level, the music, produced by the group, is beautiful and goes down so easily it’s almost disconcerting. The mixture of soul and jazz samples and live instrumentation paints an eminently listenable late-night atmosphere: there are clouds of vibraphone, drum loops firmly in the pocket, creaky Fender Rhodes lines, tasteful horn accents, all of it anchored by warm, snug, and instantly memorable basslines. The general sonic approach became more prominent as the 90s wore on, as these kinds of crate-digging, rare-groove types continued to mine old soul and jazz records for samples, eventually transforming into a kind of supper-club trip-hop (Kruder & Dorfmeister, Thievery Corporation). But Digable made the approach feel completely organic and integrated with their broader musical goal of expanding rap’s reach and deepening its connection to music history.
Digable also found an approach to rapping that fit perfectly with their musical ideas. The three MCs– Butterfly, Craig “Doodlebug” Irving, and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira– rap with confidence, skill, and force but they also sound relaxed, unhurried, close to the microphone, and intimate. “No stars, just bars,” Doodlebug raps on “The May 4th Movement”, and his words serve as a good explanation for what’s going on here. Because the vocalists take a similar angle on rapping, they feel like a true unit, individuals who are comfortable giving over a certain amount of their personality to the project as a whole. Ladybug often takes the first verse on a given track, and since the three MCs truly feel like equals and there’s not much in the way of macho posturing, lines between masculine and feminine also seem porous.
But if the sound and vocals are decidedly chill, the lyrics are alternately celebratory, searching, and anxious. There is a strong thread of black nationalist consciousness (Butler’s father is a professor of African-American history) but it’s often presented impressionistically. “Black Ego” opens with a spoken exchange that finds Butterfly being arrested and shaking off a racial slur with a “here we go again,” and later finds him transcending the situation with a mix of affirmations and escapist Afro-futurist imagery (“My shit’s, a natural high, the man can’t put no thing on me/ Now catch me when my mind stretch out, it’s astro black/ Time reaching into end, nappy Afro-blue”). “Dog It” has references to out-jazz genius Eric Dolphy, Marvin Gaye, bell hooks, and raised fists; elsewhere we find Five-Percent National imagery and mythology (see Ladybug’s “68 inches above sea level/ 93 million miles above these devils” on “9th Wonder (Blackitolism)”. Mixed in with the political observations and mysticism are joyful observations of everyday life, of soaking in the texture of the streets and feeling happy to be young and motivated and creative. Anyone who has felt even the slightest romantic pull of bohemian living can recognize the youthful assuredness mixed with wide-eyed wonder that pervades the record.
So Blowout Comb is a modest hip-hop classic that thrives on contrast. It’s both dated and timeless, angry and laid-back, smooth and prickly. It’s one of the easier albums in pop history to put on and enjoy and vibe out to, but it has a rich undercurrent of history and thought. It’s also something of a cul de sac. Though Butler did pick up some of these threads and combine them with more abrasive and abstract music as Shabazz Palaces, Digable Planets as a project did not endure. Culture moved on and rap moved on with it. But Blowout Comb, a richly rendered world with so much to explore, is still there and is accepting visitors, and it has a lot to teach us on whatever level we choose to listen.