Monday, May 27, 2013

Digable Planets Still Rocking the Blowout Combs

About six or seven years ago, I started getting seriously into jazz. The few Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock records I had on my shelf were no longer enough for me, and I felt compelled to dive deep into every facet of jazz I could find. I came out the other end of my journey a free jazz head, my mind forever expanded by the possibilities of one of America’s greatest art forms. This compulsion to explore the world of jazz is due almost entirely to one document of hip-hop—another of America’s greatest art forms—Digable Planets’ 1993 debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space).

Reachin’ is one of jazz rap’s defining albums,[1] setting a template that was followed by countless other likeminded acts. It was a commercial and critical success as well, going Gold and winning Grammys on the strength of hooky songs like “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” “Where I’m From,” “Nickel Bags,” and “It’s Good to Be Here.” The album pulls you in completely on the first listen, and it’s not surprising to me at all that it has also sent a lot of other listeners down the jazz rabbit hole in search of the album’s samples and beyond.[2]

The immediate appeal of Reachin’ isn’t there as much on the group’s second and final album, 1994’s obtuse Blowout Comb. The abundant hooks on the first album are mostly absent on Blowout Comb, and Reachin’s accessible horn-driven beats are replaced by more muted and subdued instrumentals. Peel past the album’s sonic qualities, and you’re left with calmly delivered but militantly black nationalist and Five Percenter lyrics. Instead of talking about their nickel bags of funk, they’re “collecting pitchforks ‘till they free Geronimo,” and spitting all manner of Supreme Mathematics that are pretty inscrutable if you don’t know anything about the Nation of Gods and Earths or who Geronimo Pratt is. Many of the songs push past the six minute mark, allowing room for extended instrumental periods. Unsurprisingly, Blowout Comb didn’t sell nearly as well as Reachin’, and Digable Planets broke up soon after its release.

Spend a little more time with Blowout Comb—and maybe do a little reading to help you catch all of the references in their lyrics—and it quickly becomes clear that it is the better of their two albums. Butterfly (aka Ish), Doodlebug (aka Cee Knowledge), and Ladybug Mecca are much more assured in their rapping, and they effortlessly create an indelible document of black militancy and 1990s Brooklyn over a bed of quietly funky beats that make it clear that the group deserves more esteem in the list of great NY producers of the nineties.

Still, in spite of the album’s classic status, it’s gotten much less attention than its predecessor, which needs to change. Thankfully, Light in the Attic, a serious contender for the title of Best Reissue Label right now, just released a deluxe vinyl reissue of the album on their aptly titled Modern Classics imprint. As can be expected from Light in the Attic, the packaging is top notch, and the liner notes by Larry Mizell Jr. do a much better job than I ever could of delving into the album’s importance. If you aren’t already in the know on Digable Planets and Blowout Comb, then now’s your chance. You can get some more info on the reissue here and check out some samples from the album below.

[1] Alongside Guru’s first Jazzmatazz album, Freestyle Fellowship’s early work, a bunch of albums from the Native Tongues camp, and the first couple of Roots albums (to name a few).
[2] The great artist Jim Mahfood details his own Reachin’-induced conversion to jazz fandom in his Stupid Comics trade paperback collection.

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