Two years ago, you nearly had to be sequestered not to know the Digable Planets were cool like dat, fly like dat, and slick like dat. With those few lines from "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)"--murmured over a catchy acoustic bass line (straight outta Art Blakey)--they rode deep into the heart of pop radio. It was a hip-hop coup of the first order; the single went gold and later won two Grammy Awards. They turned heads with their unique style: instead of raucous bluster, they used cool savvy to bum rush the show.
Unfortunately, with their insect names (Butterfly, Doodlebug, and Ladybug) and low-key approach the Planets got caught in some nasty webs along the way. They were quickly lumped in with "alternative" rap (i.e., music that can be swallowed whole by otherwise rap-phobic whites without fear of any ghetto bile). Attempting to escape the stigma, they opened some shows on their first tour by announcing who they weren't: a litany including P.M. Dawn, De La Soul, Arrested Development, and Me Phi Me. The second single, "Where I'm From," aimed at clarifying their roots; it earned none of the precious metals awarded its predecessor. This retort was more than mere churlish impudence; it was an attempt to reposition themselves, a very dangerous thing in the hip-hop world, where public images are often etched in stone.
We want our rappers to be larger than life, yet for the most part they don't want to be. They wanna be down; no pretensions here, what you see--warts and all--is what you get. It's part of the hip-hop credo to be real, to come correct. That level of honesty is why hip hop gives the PC folks fits. Ghetto youth know the score: they are under siege, attacked by the forces of marginalization and demonization. Given those circumstances, they really don't have too much time to worry about who is getting caught in the cross fire. A few rappers like Heavy D and L.L. Cool J have meticulously sculpted their casual images into celebrity; others like Tupac and Snoop Doggy Dog have used gangsta sensibilities (and police records) to create theirs, but mostly rappers let the pieces of their fame fall where they may. To mess with their public image would suggest that they weren't straight with us at first, an offense worthy of excommunication from the rap church. Or worse it's an implicit admission that they're not equal to the task we've assigned them. And we really don't want to hear about the failings of our larger-than-life types when our lives are cluttered with far too many life-size folks who regard everyday survival as a heroic endeavor.
But with Blowout Comb (Pendulum) the Digable Planets have successfully redefined themselves; as the mantra goes in their first single, "9th Wonder," they're slicker this year. Instead of name-checking dozens of great jazzmen and their finer recordings, they're all about black liberation. Shout-outs to jailed freedom fighters abound in the recording's 13 tracks. References are made to such important black nationalist texts as Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth and George Jackson's Soledad Brother. This reeks of early-70s romanticism, and it's reinforced by Butterfly's new afro. The sound--contrary to other reports--is still jazzy; it has an easygoing flow and samples from Roy Ayers, Bobbi Humphrey, and Bob James (each a curious presence since Butterfly is a jazz purist). Their most impressive achievement is to assert all of this in a streetwise context, exploding those stereotypes that make street wisdom and academic intellect mutually exclusive.
But that's marketing; on the musical tip, Blowout Comb comes up a little short. Yes, they do "do bounce" as they claim on the first track, but nowhere near enough. Whereas Reachin': A New Refutation of Time and Space often settled into a groove so cool it just faded away, the new recording is full of tracks that light matches but fail to scorch. All the nationalistic rhetoric is done with enough 70s vibe to make Lenny Kravitz proud, and the trio are so chock-full of earnest good intentions you'd think they were young jazz musicians. This is very Manichaean; they get too caught in the furthering of their cause to pay much mind to the music. When they're not going on about politics they're reminding you that they live in Brooklyn. When they're not telling you that they live in Brooklyn, they're telling you that Brooklyn is a really cool place. And when they're not telling you that Brooklyn is a really cool place, they're reminding you that Brooklyn can't be beat. It's hard to believe the borough chamber of commerce wasn't in on the deal.
The Planets have advanced beyond their first recording, but not as far as they'd have you believe. Reachin' came off as background music for an espresso bar in Wicker Park. All too often Blowout Comb sounds like the sound track for a cultural nationalist cafe in Hyde Park. It is progress, but I doubt it's what they had in mind.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniela Federici.