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Digable Planets On Industry, Artistry and Their Cool-Ass Legacy

By Stereo Williams

Digable Planets is so fucking cool. And Digable Planets are so fucking cool. 

That is to say that the legendary New York-based (by way of Seattle, Baltimore and Philly) group has created music that is so vibey, so jazz-drenched, so eclectically atmospheric that the best word to describe it is still "so fucking cool."

But it's also a way of acknowledging that these three people might give off the coolest energy in music. Beyond chill. 

That's not just a longtime fanboy fawning. It's a rainy day and I'm on a Zoom call with the three members of one of the 90s most low-key brilliant musical trios. And even via the most irritatingly overused online meeting platform, Ish aka Butterfly, Cee aka Doodlebug, and Ladybug Mecca exude the same laid-back vibe that they've somehow managed to embody now for close to 30 years. 

"For me, [performing] has become more natural," Cee says. "I don't even have to think about it nowadays. Back in the day, all the public exposure, all the hype was new to me. Being on a major label, touring around the world with major acts—it was mad new to me. I had to adjust. Now it's mad comfortable. It's nothing. We go on stage, do a show, maybe haven't seen each other for months, and we always come right back like we never left."

Ladybug Mecca compares it to getting in a car and sort of zoning out as you drive, but still making it to your destination. 

"I don't know if that happens to anyone else!" she says with a laugh. "That happens to me sometimes! It's like that—automatic."

Each member pursued their own interests in the 2000s, but the appeal of Digable Planets never waned, especially as a new generation of esoteric "alt-rap" emerged. As Afro-futurism, jazz affectations, forward-pushing fashion and abstract lyricism came back into vogue with urban music's more boho crowd, the Planets' imprint can be felt widely. But they are characteristically easygoing about their influence. 

"If something I've been a part of does influence somebody after me, it's just a continuation of a tradition," Ish explains. "I can never sit back and say 'Oh they got that from us.' Everything I got, I got from somebody else, too. But I've heard people say that they're influenced or inspired by us. And I always feel proud and surprised."

"You don't expect certain people to even listen to our music," says Cee. "But they come up to you and tell you they did and now their kids are into it. I love that."

But how did those years when the group was apart affect Digable Planets? These celestial creatives have realigned with a renewed appreciation for each other and the art they are capable of creating. 

"It helped [us] as individuals, [as] people, and as artists—just to be better," Cee explains. "I think once we do get back in the studio, I think all of us have a lot more expertise as far as what we can bring to the table."

Back when Bill Clinton was still in the White House and Seinfeld was still on NBC, Digable Planets dropped two critically-acclaimed albums that helped shape the sound of Hip-Hop's most left-field spirit: 1993's Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time & Space); and 1994s Blowout Comb. The former spawned their Grammy-winning, ubiquitous jazz-rap hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" and the latter was a widely-hailed-but-little-heard fan favorite that became the cornerstone of their legacy for a legion of fans, musicians in the know, and followers. 

"When we came around, Hip-Hop was still a new product in the marketplace," Ish states. "And the powers-that-be wanted to participate, but they understood that they didn't really know enough about it to control the outcome and product. But as time went on, and the viability of Hip-Hop got bigger and bigger, those powers-that-be wanted to streamline the output."

While acknowledging that "the passion that creates it" has never changed, sometimes it can be harder to spot the individualism in so much popular Hip-Hop due to industry changes and the interests of commercialism. 

"You really get a homogenized sound because it's less about diversity, and difference or specialness," says Ish. "And more about: what's your take on the rhythm that's the unanimous sound of today. They don't really expect you to be groundbreaking: 'We need you to do a lot of songs, we put them in our machine, and we move them.' I don't really know where's the beginning, middle or end, when it comes to the difference between then and now."

The group called it quits soon after ...Comb underperformed and their original label, Pendulum, folded. They reunited for shows throughout the 2010s and now muse on what it means to have matured as a group and as people, while also watching the love for their short-but-storied catalog reach higher heights amongst a new generation. 

"It's like a supernatural phenomenon," Ish muses. "You participate in the world, as much as you control it. We've been fortunate to have the music really still resonate in the current landscape. [And] we get opportunities...to do shit we like to do: travel, perform, and go different places and present the music."

The secret sauce is that ever-present chemistry that Mecca says is as potent as it's ever been. These three creatives just connect on a deeper level. 

"One thing that I always noticed: when we collaborate, even in the work we've done in the past, there's always this very special energy that the three of us have when we come together," she shares. "If one of us comes up with an idea, there's never a situation where we're like 'I dunno.' It just clicks, it just works. It's always been really special about us."

Whispers of new music hit the Web last fall, but the group smirks a little when pressed to confirm any forthcoming projects. For right now, the Planets are happy to deliver their musical riches to a live audience on stages across the world. A world that seems to appreciate those riches more with every passing year. 

"When those opportunities arise, no matter what kind of things are going on that might've kept us from doing it; we all probably feel like 'yo, this opportunity has come. People want to see us. We owe it to the universe that's given us those opportunities to step up to them,'" says Ish. 

"Then once you're in them, you realize how fortunate and how magical it all is."

Magical, indeed. On this particular day, Digable Planets is prepping for soundcheck as they hit the stage at the tabled Blue Note in Lower Manhattan. Their enthusiasm for performing is palpable, even for this infamously chill trio. That stage is a singular, sacred space for them. 

And the fact that they've been fortunate enough to resume live performing with fervor as the world continues to navigate the scourge of COVID-19 isn't lost on anyone. 

"I'm just happy that, through a pandemic, everyone is OK," Mecca shares. "That we're able to work. And that the band can work and provide for their families. We can work and provide for our families. And just getting to spend that time together and vibe and love on each other and play music with people who have been cooped up forever."