[16 November 2005]
Digable Planets did not pioneer the gentle, jazzy approach to hip-hop, but they brought it to the radio, and that was no small task. Between 1988 and 1990, the members of the Native Tongues posse—Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest—each released brilliant, genre-altering albums. Working in contrast to the more thudding, angry or materialistic forms of hip-hop, these groups assembled tracks from jazz samples, Fender Rhodes washes and odd non-musical recordings, they rapped with a gentle attack and playful bounce, and they espoused Afro-centric and nonviolent living. By the time Digable Planets debuted in 1993 with Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), the style was already well established.
Digable Planets (Ladybug, Doodlebug, and Butterfly—what more needs be said?) pulled up the rear, but they had the hit: “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”. Starting with a sample of a walking acoustic bass line, then adding a six-note horn lick from an Art Blakey recording of James Williams’ “Stretchin’”, this tune borrowed the cool of jazz and added a syncopated hip-hop beat, an odd jaw-harp sound, and a string of clever, staccato raps. Like the Us3 tune that beat it to the radio by six months or so, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”, “Rebirth” managed to appeal to every audience. Suddenly, the claims of jazz musicians that hip-hop was a near cousin of bebop seemed directly on point.
But, inevitably, the moment passed. Gangsta rap was ascendant, and Digable Planets released only one other album. Mainstream “hip-hop culture” would steer well clear of jazz and humor, not to mention peace and love. The early ‘90s surge of “daisy age rap” would become a small part of “old school” hip-hop, and the Digables would stop touring in 1996.
A decade later, everything old may be new again. Beyond the Spectrum: The Creamy Spy Chronicles reintroduces Digable Planets to a new generation of fans, setting out a compelling case for the group’s importance, brilliance, and availability on the concert circuit once again. It’s not at all odd that this new disc—a greatest hits package that pulls vintage tracks from the two Digable albums and adds remixes and B-sides—is on the venerable jazz label, Blue Note. The original Digable discs were released by Capitol, Blue Note’s parent, which likely explains their easy access to a rich catalog of jazz samples. Creamy Spy Chronicles features more than a few distinctive bass lines, saxophone solos and hip keyboard licks played by the likes of Bob James and Lonnie Liston Smith. Being on Blue Note, there are also some sweet live musicians at work. It’s not the much-vaunted jazz/hip-hop hybrid that some would claim, but the loungin’ mood and gently swung raps have always appealed to folks who like their music organic and head-bobbing.
Take “Jettin’” from 1994’s Blowout Comb—a sweet tour of New York’s streets, with each of the Digables strolling the five boroughs (but mainly Brooklyn) with friends, commenting on black hair styles, clothes, personal histories, and politics. Each monologue starts by bouncing between the left and right channels of the stereo sound, creating an aural sense of walking, all over a Bob James Rhodes vamp. The sound is infectious, and the attitude is expansive—the narrators don’t boast or dis or get pissed but just tell their stories with a level of cool that is not so much affable as straight up.
Which is not to say that Digable Planets don’t play a gentle form of the dozens throughout their catalog. On “Where I’m From” (in a remix version here), Ladybug lays out the group’s contrast with gangsta styles: “So we treat our clips, just like bustin’ caps / Rip it till dawn, kick it till dawn / Hip-Hop is the fix, or else we be gone / People thought they canned it, rap is not by bandits / Digable Planets got it goin on.” But it’s mostly a late night party on this collection—the rappers moving down sidewalks and in and out of clubs surrounded by good vibes and quiet (though funky) bass lines. Red, black, and green are everywhere you look, and Afro-centric positivity is the order of the day. Among other things, it makes you realize that—despite the OJ trial and Rodney King—the mid-‘90s were a more peaceful (more naïve?) time. Makes you long for Bill Clinton in the White House, a mounting budget surplus and… yeah, Digable Planets on the radio.
Serious Digable Planets fans can quibble (and have quibbled) about the tune selections for this compilation and the relative scarcity of truly “new” material. What you get here is an even split between great stuff from the original albums, then one B-side, one track from a Japanese issue of Blowout Comb, and two remixes. Twelve slices of jazzy old school hip-hop—not exactly a feast. But for fans who see the Digables out on tour again, it’s a sign that one of tastiest MC meals ever is on the table again. When you hear the “Rebirth” bass line and the Blakey refrain, when you hear sweet references to Cleopatra Jones, Crooklyn, when you find your hips sliding off to one side as the rhythm takes you—it’s cool.
With Jungle Brothers no more, Tribe reduced to individual solo stuff and De La Soul not at their prime, a Digable Planets reunion tour and greatest hits disc is a fragrant breeze. If you know them well, this collection could be redundant, but if you don’t then this is the place to start—with a hip-hop afternoon stroll, “super funkay” and, you bet, cool like that.