The Enduring Dopeness Of Digable Planets
By Stereo Williams
"The way hip-hop seduced my generation...everybody wanted to join in on this new wave of making music. I was no exception."
That's what Ishmael "Ish" Butler told OkayPlayer in 2018. At the time, it had been 25 years since the release of Reachin': A New Refutation Of Time and Space, the 1993 debut album from Butler's most famous musical venture, the cerebrally jazzy rap trio Digable Planets. It was a few years before that landmark that a younger Ish was bitten by the Hip-Hop bug. "My friend had leased this drum machine, so I just got enthralled with making Hip-Hop and it took over my life. I had a passion for it."
Passion. That word sits at the spirit of Digable Planets' artistic ethos. For all of the laid-back, effortlessly atmospheric music "the D.P.'s" have created, their creativity is stoked by the spiritual intensity of the group's three distinct personalities and their undeniable passions.
The three members of Digable Planets came from different parts of the country, finding each other amongst New York City's early 90s Hip-Hop scene. Ishmael Butler was born and raised in Seattle, and that city's indie ethos was echoed in Butler's approach to Hip-Hop, even as he moved East to attend college in Massachusetts. He would eventually ditch school and land in Brooklyn, working at Sleeping Bag Records and rubbing elbows with established rap stars like Nice & Smooth.
Born to Afro-Brazilian parents, Mary Ann Veira was a native of Washington, D.C. And she met Philadelphia-born Craig "Doodlebug" Irving when he was DJing Five Percenter events in D.C. at Howard University. Irving was frequently in Brooklyn, where he would eventually connect with Butler, and the two bonded after discovering they'd both had musical interests. Irving introduced Butler to Viera; and after she wrote a rap, Butler and Irving were impressed with her unique flow. They formed a trio, took the name Digable Planets, and found themselves hanging in D.C. and eventually moving to Philly.
Their sound was like an even more idiosyncratic take on the jazzy sensibilities that had been popularized by acts like A Tribe Called Quest, carried by samples of jazz and soul luminaries like Herbie Hancock and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, along with a quirky, sometimes impenetrable, lyrical focus. The group adopted insect-derived stage names: Viera became "Ladybug" (eventually "Ladybug Mecca"), Irving was "Doodlebug," and Butler called himself "Butterfly."
"The insect theory is embedded in communalism and the goal was to show that we as a people can work together to better ourselves and push ourselves forward," Ladybug Mecca shared in regards to their unique stage names and motif in a 2018 interview with The Source. "It was rooted in that."
The D.P.s made a point to reference science fiction elements and astrological elements in their lyrics. "Butterfly" Butler cited Afro-Futurism as a major jumping off point for their image.
"It’s hard to say where it started for me," said Ish in 2016. "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."
After scoring a deal with Pendulum Records, Digable Planets was connected to producer/engineers Shane Faber and Mike Mangini. The pair was brought in to polish the album Butler had crafted. Digable Planets was going to Bergen, N.j. daily to finish the release. And they had potent chemistry — as well as high ambitions.
"The three of us didn’t grow up together but we had an instant family bond from the very beginning," shared Mecca in 2018. "Outside of my immediate family, I had never experienced anything like that at the time. It was really special for me and I really believed in that. I really wanted to work with them to try and influence the world and make things better."
Butler had gotten the idea to sample Art Blakey's "Stretchin'" from a friend, and the track became the foundation for Digable Planet's single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool LIke Dat)." The group came back from a promo tour in late 1992 to realize the song's video was scoring heavy rotation on MTV. A year after Seattle alternative rock bands like NIrvana and Pearl Jam had wrestled control of the popular music channel, a wave of left-of-center rap acts were staging a similar coup. With the pensive spiritual boho vibes of Arrested Development's "Tennessee," and P.M. Dawn's esoteric R&B-flavored pop rap hits like "Through Patient Eyes," as well as genre forerunners like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, there was heightened visibility for jazz-inflected, quirky Hip-Hop. And "Cool Like Dat" became the most inescapable such hit of the period.
When Digable Planets released their debut album Reachin': A New Refutation Of Time and Space in the spring of 1993, "...Slick" pushed the album to gold status.
In 1994, the trio scored a Grammy for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for the song; beating out such hits as "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thing" by Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg and Cypress Hill's "Insane In the Brain."
But the big night would be most memorable for Digable Planets using their acceptance speech to draw attention to the opulence of the music industry, and the disparities in wealth that sat glaringly obvious for Mec, Doodlebug and Ish that night. They called out the wealth on display inside Radio City Music Hall; which stood in stark contrast to the homeless they'd seen gathered in doorways outside that very venue.
"It was something that was already on our minds," Ish recalled to AmbrosiaForHeads. "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."
Stating that his "mind and heart were someplace else," Butler would admit eventually that he wasn't really preoccupied with what was supposed to be a big win for the group. The Grammy win would become a flashpoint for a group in flux.
As Hip-Hop's pop audience had exploded in the 1990s, Digable Planets wasn't exactly comfortable with the heightened commercialism and industry machinations. Their second album, Blowout Comb, was released in 1994, just as the West Coast G-Funk of Death Row Records was at it's commercial peak, with the glitzy New York street-rap of Bad Boy Records beginning it's ascension. ...Comb was a darker, but more instrumentally-driven album than its predecessor. Despite glowing reviews, the cerebral, esoteric jazzy rap of Digable Planets was suddenly ignored by mainstream audiences. And they'd injected the album with more pronounced Five Percent leanings that some critics cited as alienating to the pop (i.e. white) crowd. But the swift decline of Digable Planets had many catalysts.
"I don’t want to get too deep with it, but there were some personal things that went down when you have a beautiful woman and two guys," Doodlebug said in a 2014 interview with City Paper. "It went awry, and we didn’t handle the situation well.”
In addition to Blowout Comb being a very different record from Reachin,' there were fractures showing within the group. Mecca, Doodlebug and Butterfly were in different places creatively. Also for Mecca, her mother was terminally ill during the recording of Blowout Comb, which cast a cloud over that album's release. As did its commercial reception. Their sophomore effort, nonetheless, garnered tremendous critical acclaim from Hip-Hop writers. Mecca would lose her father a few months later.
There were also frustrations with their label. In late 1993, Pendulum Records' parent company Elektra was melded into EMI, a switch that suddenly reshuffled priorities. The new parent label didn't seem all that invested in the success of Pendulum artists like Boogiemonsters and Lords Of the Underground — not even the Grammy winners, Digable Planets. It all reflected in how weak the label support for Blowout Comb had been. Industry politics, personal strife — it all began to tear the house down.
By late 1995, Digable Planets decided to split.
Pictured: (l-r) Butterfly; Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca of musical guest Digable Planets perform on THE TONIGHT SHOW, April 29, 1993 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Digable Planets performs at the House Of Vans Opening In Chicago, Illinois on Feb 3, 2017. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Butler has carved out a remarkable career as an independent artist.
He's released projects with Cherrywine and Shabazz Palaces, serving as A&R for the legendary SubPop label, and mentoring younger acts around the Seattle music scene. Ish is a mainstay of indie Hip-Hop artistry and integrity and also a pillar of a Seattle creative community that also yielded acts like THEESatisfaction and Knife Knights.
Despite how things deteriorated in the mid-1990s, Mecca has explained that there is no ill will for any of it. Not towards the group's old label, and not towards a legacy that Digable Planets will always carry.
"No, that would be like holding regret or something for what I’ve accomplished in the past, and I don’t," Mecca explained to Peter Richards back in 2009. "I never get tired of talking about Digable Planets. I think you may have misunderstood me. I am a third of that group so I have my own voice, I have my own perspectives and points of view as a solo artist and if people are expecting a Digable Planets album from any one of us, they’re setting themselves up for a letdown. But no, I would never get sick of talking about my accomplishments."
Mecca raised a family and dropped Tripping The Light Fantastic in 2005. Doodlebug also became a dad, and recorded as Cee Knowledge with his Cosmic Funk Orchestra for a while, also working with DJ Alex J for 2010s Futuristic Sci-Fi under his old "Doodlebug" stage name.
Over the years, Digable Planets has reunited often with, lately, renewed verve for what they accomplished as a unit. Despite an ill-fated tour in the early 2000s that saw Ladybug Mecca again depart the group for a time, the classic lineup has now found solace and inspiration in their legacy. Their body of work finding sustained audience amongst multiple generations of fans. Doodlebug cherishes the chance to go on the road with Digable Planets to channel his creative side and highlight what the group has done.
"I’m fully a family man right now, hardcore," Doodlebug shared in 2016. "Performing for me now is true escapism. When I come together with the group, I get my freedom, you know what I’m saying? 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."
The Digable Planets' run sits alongside the major shifts in mainstream Hip-Hop in the mid-1990s, and in the Black popular music climate of the decade. A few years earlier, and the Planets may have been completely overshadowed by the early Native Tongues successes of the Jungle Brothers, or De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising and The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. Drop a few years later, and who knows what kind of attention Blowout Comb would've received alongside masterworks like The Score and Black On Both Sides. As such, this eclectic trio's greatest successes sit somewhere in-between, after the D.A.I.S.Y. age but before acts like Soulquarians remade the genre in their image. The members of Digable Planets have expanded the genre in ways that go beyond even the mainstream success they achieved in their youth. Whether you call it "jazz rap" or "alternative rap" or don't feel the need to define it at all, what Digable Planets injected into the rap lexicon was uniquely theirs. A dopeness that is always digable, and definitely enduring.