Digable Planets Reflect On Their Travels Through Time & Space And They’re Still Light Years Ahead
In 1994, a trio of young, unparalleled Hip-Hop creators won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” Up against megawatt contemporaries like Dr. Dre & Snoop Doggy Dogg, Naughty By Nature, and Cypress Hill, Digable Planets repped for the alternative Hip-Hop element much like Arrested Development had a year before. Imbued from the beginning with an aesthetic complexity that borrowed from well-established schools of thought like Afrofuturism while maintaining an unwavering devotion to the unexplored, members Ishmael “Ish” Butler (f/k/a Butterfly), Craig “C Know the Doodlebug” Irving, and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira were undeniably Hip-Hop from a sonic standpoint, but with a debut LP title like Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), their presence expanded the notion of what MCs could explore within the relative confines of structured music.
With the group’s recent announcement of a handful of national tour dates, they received an outpouring of adulation and support, proof that despite not having released new material since 1994’s Blowout Comb they retain the same gravitational pull in today’s musical landscape as they did two decades ago. Ahead of their anticipated performance at the 2016 Essence Fest in New Orleans, Digable Planets spoke with Ambrosia for Heads about their past, current, and future orbits.
Ambrosia for Heads: Between artists like Kamasi Washington working with Kendrick Lamar and others exploring inter-genre sounds like Terrace Martin, there are elements of today’s Hip-Hop that seem to echo the Jazz-Rap sound of the era from which you emerged. Is there some kind of special symbiosis between the two genres that doesn’t exist with others?
Ish: I don’t know if it’s about what people are calling the genre as it is more so that all music goes together. I don’t really see it breaking down into genres like that. So it’s probably more like those guys’ relationship and influences and then merging those things in a way that fits them together. I just…I don’t know, I just don’t really hear much Jazz in what’s out.
Ambrosia for Heads: Most would agree that you were pioneers of the Jazz-Rap movement. Is that a description of your sound you agree with, or do you find it stifling?
Ish: I don’t find it stifling, I just don’t think it’s an accurate description of the account of the etymology of us or anybody else. So many people came before us not only in Hip-Hop but just in music who made the structural pathways that we ended up walking down, branching off of and rejoining at some point. It’s just the titles of stuff that I don’t really rock with.
Ambrosia for Heads: You certainly seemed to take advantage of the platform you had to bring attention to social issues during your Grammy Awards acceptance speech in 1993. In it, you mentioned the financial disparity, namely the homeless people in the streets outside the ceremony and those who spent hundreds of dollars on seats in the theater. Is that something you collectively wanted to use that time for, or was it more of a spur-of-the-moment message that came to you organically?
Ish: It was something that was already on our minds. I mean, we saw things that way. We saw disparities, and we still do. We didn’t think to talk about it [that night], you know what I’m sayin’? We didn’t think we were gonna win [all three laugh]. So we definitely weren’t planning on what to say.
Ambrosia for Heads: With that shock of winning, what was the energy like at that moment when you walked on stage? Did you feel present in the moment?
Ladybug: I don’t remember much about that night at all. The only thing I remember most is performing but walking up there and afterwards…it’s not even a blur. I don’t remember anything. It just didn’t matter. My mind and my heart were elsewhere at that time.
Ambrosia for Heads: Blowout Comb is arguably your most controversial work to date. In the political context of today’s climate, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and what is becoming a resurgent civil rights movement, if that LP were to come out today, do you think the message within it would need any tweaking?
Ish: Well, it really did come out today. Music isn’t just about the time it was released and was on the Billboard charts or eligible for awards, you know what I’m sayin’? That’s all marketing at work rather than art or emotion. So, that being said, if it came out today…I don’t know. I was lookin’ at the Janis Joplin documentary [Janis: Little Girl Blue] and it was the same stuff as now. It’s America, you know what I’m sayin’? The things that have been here have been happening since Day 1, and it looks like they’re gonna keep them going pretty much the same way.
Ambrosia for Heads: Are there any artists who you feel are adequately using music and social activism? Do artists even have a duty to carry such a torch?
Ish: Well…not anymore. There was a time when people felt like art was an undertaking that involved passion and that passion forced you to have discipline in order to learn some kind of skill, and that skill you used to achieve some recognition, and with that recognition you earned some monetary success. Now it’s just like…it’s different. Art isn’t really about the things it used to be about. There was a time when I did feel like [artists] had that requirement, but I feel like that time has passed. But there’s still cobbles of people that still feel that same way and act that way and make stuff that way.
Ambrosia for Heads: In many ways, Digable Planets set the template for dual-gender groups and some would argue you laid the foundation for a group like the Fugees to come into the picture so strongly. For you, Ladybug, was that something you recognized at the time as being historic, or was it just a natural progression built out of the creative relationships you just happened to have with these two men?
Ladybug: It was more of a natural process. I didn’t think about any of that when we were making music. They may have, but I don’t know. It was just about the music and the ability for me to release my observations and experiences was the focus.
Ambrosia for Heads: Were there ever times when you felt people were forcing you to look through a gender-based lens?
Ladybug: There were a couple times where certain things were presented to me and at the time I was maybe not very nice about it, but I was young. I think I walked out on a couple of people a few times because, you know, not wanting to be forced into a box or the vision of what that person thought a woman should be.
Ambrosia for Heads: You, as a group, were also pioneers of incorporating Afrofuturism into your sound and image. Where did that science-fiction, outer-space creative framework come from?
Doodlebug: This brother right here [points to Ish]. He was the founder of that whole thing but it kinda worked because all of us had a foundation in that type of thought pattern. I was always into science fiction, comic books, Hip-Hop, all types of music. Even up to today – I’m working on a comic book myself. My lawyer and I are working on The Epic of Heaven and Earth comic series. But anyway, this brother right here, when I first met him he came to me with the idea of Digable Planets and the insect theory and I was like “Damn.” I felt it. I may not have expressed it in the same manner he did, but it was the same, nonetheless. So that foundation was always me.
Ish: It’s hard to say where it started for me. I mean, I read Octavia Butler. I listened to Parliament. People in Africa for along time, have been into spirit space. I believe they traveled to and from [outer space]. So, it’s in our chromosomes. We relate to it and are familiar with it because it’s in us. We gravitate to each other in some force unbeknownst even to ourselves. The fact that we came together, it’s not just happenstance. But yeah, specifically it was that sort of influence. But mostly George Clinton.
Ambrosia for Heads: I once had a dream that you and the Sun Ra Arkestra made an entire album together.
Ish: It probably really happened, in that realm. I need to hear that.
Ambrosia for Heads: All of these years later, where are you collectively as a unit and where are you as individuals, and what does performing together at this stage of your career mean for you?
Doodlebug: I’m fully a family man right now, hardcore. Performing for me now is true escapism. When I come together with the group, I get my freedom, you know what I’m sayin’? Back then it was more about saying what you wanna say and be rebellious, but these days it’s all about having fun and doing what I love to do. My oldest child is 21 and my youngest is almost two years old. My oldest son is going to school up in Brooklyn to learn how to be a studio engineer. I got him some equipment and he was recording all his lil’ homies who rap, you know what I mean? So they were always at the house recording. But yeah, performing again is my escapism.
Ladybug: Let’s see if I can put it into words. It’s definitely special. It’s magical. We’re learning still as we grow, and it’s been great reconnecting and just kickin’ it, you know? Being on stage is a freeing, liberating experience and us being together again, it’s like a family. We’re just taking it day by day.
Heads can keep in touch with Digable Planets’ movement on Twitter.