The day before Digable Planets got invited to play on the primetime hit comedy show In Living Color back in 1992, emcee Ladybug Mecca applied for a job at McDonald's. She was living in a communal house with "something like fifty thousand other musicians" who would put their change together to buy one potato every day, and cover it with butter and cheese. "We were broke and had to hop the train everywhere we wanted to go," she recalls. "It seemed like there were no jobs available in New York. I saw a long line of people applying for McDonald's, and I was like, 'Man, I'm gonna get this shit!' I remember I got hired, and was supposed to start the following week -- except we suddenly got that call from someone asking us to perform on In Living Color. It was surreal."
Two years later, the Planets won a Grammy.
Two years after that, they were a flamed-out footnote.
Now, a full decade removed from their ascendancy, the Planets are realigning, reenergizing, and reconnecting with their two biggest muses: insect life and jazz.
The greatest jazz musicians can solo on a single note and take the rhythm and emotional tone in enough funky directions to make you cry anyway; it's all about whittling the art down to its barest, most elemental form and still producing something intricate and exquisite. In the early '90s, Digable Planets -- a trio comprising emcees Ladybug, Butterfly, and Cee-Knowledge (aka Doodlebug) -- turned that simplicity into an artistic credo. As Doodlebug explains, they decided to name themselves after insects as a way of connecting with the smallest earth-furrowing creatures on the planet, thereby protesting stereotypical rap dreams of being "Out of this world, or bigger than life." On the song "Black Ego," Doodle raps I got insect thoughts/Cats with cool ways/Clouds of purple haze keep me in a daze/Many different things trying to get to me, but in a world of hard rock I keep my humility.
He always kept it, actually. Even after winning the 1994 Best Rap Group Grammy on the wings of their single "Rebirth of Slick" (you know, the Cool like dat song), the Planets seemed so inured to the trappings of success that they became bigger than life themselves almost by accident. Though the three rappers first convened in Philadelphia, they were unquestionably an NYC entity -- the Planets' debut, Reachin': A New Refutation of Time and Space, introduced crucial stylistic innovations to their cafe-crowd niche within New York hip-hop. Describing themselves in opening track "It's Good to Be Here" as hybrid, urbane, intergalactic insects, they pursued the same mystique as Sun Ra's Space Is the Place and Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation. The emcees' personal vision of NYC was a splashy, Afro-chic, graffiti-style matrix of subway trains and Central Park beatniks soundtracked by slinky bass lines, snapping snare beats, and muted horns. Blending unbounded free-jazz melodies with Parliament/Funkadelic's acid-trip rhythms, they sampled famous jazz cats like Art Blakey ("Rebirth of Slick") and Sonny Rollins ("Time and Space") and vocalized overtop in a lilting, spoken-word-y rap style.
Their follow-up effort, the more melodic and groove-driven Blowout Comb, was, as Butterfly suggests in the track "9th Wonder (Blackitolism)," even slicker. Not only did it tap into the Planets' stockpile of soul and funk influences -- incorporating live sax, trombone, and R&B vocals from artists like Mood Dude and Jazzy Joyce, along with samples from Roy Ayers, Shuggie Otis, and Grandmaster Flash -- the Planets' lyrics were politicized in a totally different way. The album artwork is dominated by cut-out Black Power fists and newspaper clippings about the Watts poets converging in support of the imprisoned Black Panther Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt. Moreover, Comb's raps namecheck such famous black scholars as bell hooks and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and frequently invoke the "Seven and a Crescent" that symbolizes the Afrocentric Five Percenter religion.
Despite Comb's more combative tone, the Digable Planets of this era were sizzling hot, common coin not only in "conscious" hip-hop circles but on junior high playgrounds, where Butterfly, Doodle, and Mecca were introducing future Eazy-E fans to the jazz canon. But suddenly, everything came crashing to a halt. Mecca's parents died within months of one another, forcing her to withdraw from the scene. Her fellow emcees parted ways -- Doodlebug snuck off to DC to form the Cosmic Funk Orchestra in 1998, while Butterfly launched the new-school jazz group Cherry Wine. In fact, few Digable Planets fans know that Butterfly lived in West Berkeley (near the corner of San Pablo and Cedar) between 1999 and 2001. The emcee admits he kept a low profile, a spectral vision of the legendary Digable Planets frontman.
But evidently there's life on these Planets yet. Mecca's first solo joint, Trip the Light Fantastic, emerges next week -- blending bossa nova, samba, Afrobeat, and new wave, it hardly resembles Digable material, and in fact she barely raps on the album at all. But she says she's excited to be experimenting with new forms and stretching the limits of the genre. After all, though jazz loops will always have a certain cachet in hip-hop, they're starting to seem a little, well, September 10.
The Planets' reunion is an even more surprising and exciting development. A couple years ago Mecca and Butterfly randomly bumped into each other at a grocery store, made small talk, and expressed vague desires to get back together. "That's some shit, huh?" she says. "I don't think he recognized me at first, and I didn't really want to bother him because he was there with his lady and all. But then he turned around and was like, 'Mec -- hey!'"
Thus, Digable Planets are currently touring the States and brainstorming ideas for a third album, which they've been consciously and subconsciously musing about for years, even as the group lay dormant. Woodshedding -- lying low for a while to gather ideas and build up your chops -- was a common practice for all the great jazz standard-bearers, and evidently rappers woodshed too, in the hope that a period of decompression will be beneficial for their music. Speaking from the Planets' tour bus in Montreal, Butterfly explains that his creative process involves a lot of hibernation and introspection, in addition to going whichever way the wind takes him.
"You just enter this place," he says, "and you lose that place if you reflect on it too much." After all, the emcee explains, "When you're making music, you don't think, 'My snares are gonna be like this, and my tone is gonna change like this.' You just go off instinct."
By tapping into that store of instinctive rhythms, the Planets expect to produce something elegant, precise, and clean with their next album -- as quaint yet poignant in form as Sonny Rollins soloing on a single B-flat, but as freighted with meaning as a rambling sequence of Five Percenter metaphors. The complex simplicity of insects. In any event, it beats working at McDonald's.
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