Reachin’, Digable Planets

Reachin’, Digable Planets

Pendulum / Elektra, 1993

At the end of the 80’s, a young group was under construction. Ishmael Butler dreamed of making rap music, but being from Seattle, the task could be complicated, as the rap industry was not very developed there. After high school, he first went to Massachusetts to attend college. Motivated by his dream, he left college at the age of 20 and moved to Brooklyn, a much more fertile ground for Hip Hop. Butler became an intern at Sleeping Bag Records and met Craig Irving while visiting his grandmother in Philadelphia, who was already rapping in a group called Dread Poets Society. He then met Mariana Vieira. The formation of Digable Planets began to take shape.

Ishmael Butler, then still an intern, began recording a first demo in 1989 that he entrusted to Ruben Rodriguez of Pendulum Records. At this time, things remain there. A little later, he auditioned for Pendulum Records with the Digable Planets. Although the demo was made under the name of Digable Planets, it contained only Butler’s contributions. The three young rappers got their chance. In 1992, they signed to the label and recorded their first single Rebirth Of A Slick.

Although the group is considered to be from Brooklyn since they all regrouped in that neighborhood after signing to Pendulum, the three members are not originally from New York. As mentioned above, Butler moved to Brooklyn from Seattle to pursue his dream, Irving was originally from Philadelphia while Viera was attending the University of Washington.

The diverse backgrounds of the three members of the group are the source of their ingenuity. Their music reflects the fusion of their respective worlds: Butler’s jazz roots from playing saxophone in high school in a jazz band, Irving’s streetwise, and Viera’s cross-cultural and academic identity.

Following the success of their first single, they began working on their first album. In their conceptual idea, they metamorphose into insects, Butter Fly for Ishmael, Doodlebug for Craig and Ladybug Mecca for Mariana. Under their new identities, the fusion seems perfect and complementary.

Digable Planets

Add a ladybug transformation is complete
For the metamorphosis from the box to the jeep

Our three cute little insects, take to the streets of New York to defend freedom in a conceptual and philosophical way. Influenced by the Native Tongues movement, they arrive slightly late without being old-fashioned, in the middle of the transition from the New York rap movement to something more Gangsta. They advocate a progressive ideology on jazzy sounds, it is besides one of the first groups to integrate a woman in its ranks.

Reachin is both vintage and futuristic, both in the lyrics and in the sounds. Self-produced with a much more pronounced Butter Fly touch, it features mostly jazz samples. As he declared himself, he took vinyl  he had at hand, coming mainly from his father. Despite Butler’s early years as a saxophone player in a band, Digable Planets were not necessarily destined to become a Jazz-rap group, they became one by necessity.

Ishmael “Butter Fly” Butler

It was all about resources, really…I just went and got the records that I had around me. And a lot of those were my dad’s shit, which was lots of jazz. The whole concept of ‘We’re a jazz group’ didn’t go down like that. Except that DJ Premier was a big influence, and he sampled a lot of jazz 

However, all the elements of the album seem to be inspired by Jazz, starting with the title which is taken from the achievements of the greatest Jazzmen. Reachin’ seems to be inspired by Art Blakey’s Moanin’ or Miles Davies’ Cookin’ to name a few. The samples include groovy and smooth rhythms, always taken from the greatest Jazzmen. This hypnotic jazzy universe confines us in a soft and melodious atmosphere with carefully selected samples. 

Inspired by an essay of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges A New Refutation Of Time and Space, the album is political but also very philosophical. They idealize an emancipation from the natural order of the physical universe, notably with numerous references to space, the universe and science fiction.

Digable Planets

a dozen snapple pops and a little box of beats
travellin through space with the funky funky beats
stopped at pluto to cop some petrol
met some klingons and got our things on

They refute the limits imposed by nature, the universe and society. They theorize time and space. They tackle political issues, with one of rap’s first pleas for women’s rights, including abortion on La Femme Fetal, in keeping with the group’s progressive sensibilities. But our three bugs are above all promoters of peace and unity, with references to great thinkers like Marx, Camus and Nietzsche scattered throughout the album.

An album that questions the very reason of our existence while applauding its nuances. Constantly in harmony with the beats, our rappers synchronize perfectly by sharing their ideas. Their flows are clear and pure, gliding over the beats with calm and precision, with a hypnotic smooth voice.

Without a doubt one of the greatest jazz-rap albums ever released, a philosophical album that takes on a concept mastered from start to finish. Digable Planets personifies the universal equilibrium that it endorses, musically and ideologically. A sincere ode in jazzy sauce that seeks to open the door to a more enlightened future.

By Grégoire Zasa

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