Digable Planets Made Jazz-Rap Cool Like Dat For Just About Everybody (Video)
Late, great Gang Starr lyricist Guru ambitiously declared “The ’90s will be the decade of a Jazz thing” on the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack single named just that. Jazz-Rap was still an anomaly when groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Boogie Down Productions were pulling extensively from ’60s and ’70s R&B, Funk, and Rock & Roll. Those sources were then often combined with Roland TR-808 bass thumps and drum programming.
After that a bevy of Rap acts from both East and West Coasts such as A Tribe Called Quest, Us3, The Pharcyde, Brand New Heavies, and Buhloone Mindstate-era De La Soul became the torchbearers for what could be deemed “Jazz-Rap.” When multi-city trio Digable Planets released their Pendulum/Elektra Records single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in the second week of November of 1992, the song’s success eventually made them breakout front-runners of the movement.
Digable’s group members Doodlebug, Butterfly (aka Ish), and Ladybug Mecca had individual histories in Seattle, Maryland, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. Together, they sounded worldly and nostalgic. Mecca, the smoky-voiced female MC in the group, was a mirror of Rap pioneer Sha Rock in her group Funky 4 + 1. Digable, ahead of The Fugees and Arrested Development, represented a spectrum of gender, style, and sound.
The lead-in to 1993’s Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” had a steady, organic build from college radio. It would become the Planets’ only Top 40 hit (peaking at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on March 6, 1993, reaching #1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart). The single’s video, which showed the group walking through the streets of Brooklyn and onstage at a Jazz café, captured their inspiration.
In the smooth lyrics, mentions such as ’70s film character “Cleopatra Jones,” added to the group’s rep as arbiters of classic-cool. Acts like Camp Lo would follow later in the decade with similar idea of retro-hip. At a time when Rap videos and subject matters seemed stuck on the streets, “Rebirth” felt accessible, and inclusive to all. Eventually, the song produced by Butterfly, Mike Mangini, and Shane Faber went gold and garnered Digable Planets a Grammy Award for “Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group” in 1994.
Twenty-five years later, the song’s legacy reaches across all sub-genres of Rap. Jazz-Rap has influenced Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Oddisee, Terrace Martin, and a host of others. E-40’s 2006 hit single “Yay Area” on his 2006 gold-selling album My Ghetto Report Card used it for a chorus.
The Planets still orbit, thanks to lots of concerts and touring. They dropped a live LP earlier this year. The trio conducted an interview with Ambrosia For Heads in 2016. Meanwhile, Ladybug Mecca (who now DJs) has joined Prince Paul, Don Newkirk, and MC Rodrigo in Brookzill!. After some years recording as “Cherrywine,” Ish has garnered strong acclaim for his group, Shabazz Palaces on Sub Pop Records. This year, they dropped Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. Doodlebug, now known as Cee Knowledge, formed Cee Knowledge & The Cosmic Funk Orchestra. They last released 2014’s To Life, Love, & Loot.
Like the message they were trying to convey back in late 1992, Digable Planets’ biggest hit is timeless.