After writing up my last post on Guru’s Jazzmatazz: Vol. 1 and beginning my assumed next post on The Roots debut album, Organix, all this jazz influenced hip-hop made me think about the subject of today’s post (Well, listening to Organix actually made me think about them, since The Roots make reference to them at least twice on that album). I’ve had the album in my collection for years, so I did some date checking and found that I wrote the wrong release date on my spreadsheet, which isn’t the first time and I’m sure won’t be the last. You can file this one right after Apache’s Apache Ain’t Shit.
When it comes to jazz infused hip-hop it’s fair to say the A Tribe Called Quest fathered the style (I know they weren’t the first group in hip-hop to sample jazz records, but no one did it as consistently, skillfully or was more impactful with the style than ATCQ, and I’m sticking to my story). As the nineties continued many more groups surfaced using jazz flavored production reminiscent of ATCQ. Seemingly out of know where, the Digable Planets were one of those groups to arrive on the scene.
While none of the true three members in Digable Planets are from New York (the group’s founder and chief emcee, Butterfly is from Seattle, Doodlebug is from Philly, and Ladybug Mecca is from Maryland by way of Brazil) the group’s birth is rooted in Brooklyn (Check out Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique for in-depth detail on the groups beginnings and formation). I say true members in the last sentence, because the group had a few different line ups prior to finalizing the roster and signing their deal with Pendulum in 1992 and releasing their debut album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space) in early 1993.
The liner notes make it clear that Butterfly is the brains of the operation on Reachin’, as it reads the album was “conceived, freaked, arranged and produced” by him. It was also Butterfly’s idea to have each member take on a moniker of an insect, which tied in to some of his socialist/communist ideology that the group should “work together for the good of the colony”(shout out to Bernie Sanders). Thanks in large part to their smash hit lead single (that we’ll get to shortly) Reachin’ earned the trio a gold plaque (for both the album and the single) and a Grammy. Despite the groups commercial success, Digable Planets did catch some criticism from some of their peers who thought their jazzy-hipster brand of hip-hop was too soft (most notably, the highly respected god emcee KRS-One).
It’s not often that a commercially successful album matches is critical acclaim, but it does happen from time to time.
It’s Good To Be Here – Reachin’ opens with a smooth instrumental that falls somewhere in between laid back and mid-tempo. The trio use it to celebrate their arrival to planet earth (the album’s running theme is that the DP’s are from outer space, which is supposed to explain (or justify) their abstract rhyming styling), and the opportunity to bless the mic and share their music with the world. Nice start to the evening.
Pacifics (From The Soundtrack To The Motion Picture N.Y. Is Red Hot”) – Butterfly goes dolo on this one (well, for the most part…Ladybug and Doodlebug make a very brief appearance during the second verse), as he describes the happenings of the wild Brooklyn neighborhood he lives in. Butterfly’s rhymes are cool, but his backdrop is brilliant. Random factoid: This was not including on the soundtrack for “N.Y. Is Red Hot”. Matter of fact, the movie doesn’t even exist. Butterfly just thought it would make the song title sound iller. I can’t say that it made much of a difference, but whatever.
Where I’m From – This was the third single released from Reachin’ . Butterfly hooks up a smooth loop from K.C. And The Sunshine Band’s “Ain’t Nothing Wrong” (the same one DJ Quik used for 2nd II None’s, um, “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong”) for the backdrop, and the DP’s each give you a verbal glimpse of where they come from. This was dope, but the instrumental on the “Aural G Ride” remix is bananas!
What Cool Breezes Do – The theme for this one is: to do you, as long as you’re being true to who you really are, and I can dig that. Butterfly hooks up a low-key rumbling bass line and adds a dope horn loop which makes for an enjoyable backdrop.
Time & Space (A New Refutation Of) – Butterfly’s instrumental feels like a mix of swing music and jazz, as he, Ladybug and Doodlebug smoothly talk their shit in their own abstract hipster way.
Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat) – This was the lead single from Reachin’ and is easily the biggest hit the Digable Planets limited catalog. I still remember hearing this song for the first time on BET’s Rap City back in the day. The black and white video had the Digable Planets taking the stage at a jazz club (which was probably supposed to be the facetious Cocoon Club that they jam at on the interludes throughout Reachin’) with a full band backing them as they spit their raps to a full crowd. At that point no one would have imagined (at least I wouldn’t) that this song would blow up the way it did, and eventually lead to the trio winning a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Some so-called hip-hop purists might have thought this was too soft back in the day, but you’re full of shit if you say you weren’t vibin’ to the rumbling bass line and addictive Art Blakey horn loop. And who was immune to repeating the catchy hook or the last bar from Butterfly’s opening verse (“we be to rap, what key be to lock”)? This was not only a smash pop hit, but is also a certified hip-hop classic.
Last Of The Spiddyocks – A spiddyock is apparently an old slang term used for a jazzhead, which if you haven’t noticed by now describes the DP’s pretty well. Props to whoever was in charge of the sequencing because this was the perfect way to follow-up “Rebirth Of Slick”. Butterfly sprinkles a slick trumpet loop over a dope bass line and drums, as the trio represent their love for both jazz and hip-hop.
Jimmi Diggin’ Cats – The DP’s go retro on this one, and pay tribute to the music and pop culture from the seventies. Butterfly loops up Kool & The Gang’s “Summer Madness”, and gives the smooth loop a different flavor than DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s flippage of the same loop on their mega hit “Summertime”. This was dope. Legend has it that the DP’s originally wanted to used a vocal sample from a live Jimi Hendrix performance, hence the song title. They couldn’t get sample clearance, so the male voice you hear speaking in between verses tries to capture the magic of that Jimi sample. You can be the judge of whether he succeeded or not.
La Femme Fetal – “Rebirth Of Slick” is the strongest song on the album, but in my opinion this one is a close second. Butterfly hooks up an emotional backdrop and resorts to a spoken word delivery (that he admits he borrowed from Jalil from the Last Poets) to tell the story of a pregnant female friend who is contemplating abortion. Butterfly sets his abstract rhymes aside and takes on a more straight forward approach and winds up delivering the strongest and most powerful verses on Reachin’ . This is a much slept on classic.
Escapism (Gettin’ Free) – Over funky guitar licks, Butterfly, Doodlebug and Ladybug each take a turn to get open and get free. Random factoid: Butterfly reveals in Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique that they originally were going to use Parliament’s “P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)” on the hook, but couldn’t get sample clearance.
Appointment At The Fat Clinic – This may be my least favorite song on Reachin’ . And it’s still not a bad song, which says a lot about the quality of the album.
Nickel Bags – This was the second single from Reachin’ . No, they’re not talking about weed, but they do compare their music to the herbal medicine, hence the song title. Butterfly’s instrumental has a nice breezy summertime feel mixed with a touch of funk swag. This was a nice way to follow-up “Rebirth Of Slick” and show a slightly different musical side to the group.
Swoon Units – Butterfly hooks up a smooth-melodic backdrop that he and Doodlebug use to celebrate beautiful women, aka swoon units. You can put this one next to De La Soul’s “Buddy” or ATCQ’s “Bonita Applebum” and “Electric Relaxation”. I’m probably trippin’ with that last statement, but it is a dope record.
Examination Of What – Every time I hear this it sounds like they ripped the whole idea from ATCQ’s “What” (and I feel like I’ve mentioned ATCQ’s way too many times in this post). That said, I still like their verbal abstractions and Butterfly’s understated and slightly mournful backdrop. “We’re just babies, man”.
Long title aside, albums like Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space) are truly the reason I enjoy doing this blog. I’ll be the first to admit that about ninety percent of the stuff I loved and appreciated back in the day sounds dated or juvenile when I listen to it today. It’s rare that an album that I listened to as a snot-nosed kid sounds equal or better today than it did way back then. Reachin’ is one of those rare occasions. Musically, from beginning to end, Butterfly’s slick jazz concocted (with a slight touch of funk sprinkled here and there) soundscapes are just as enjoyable today as they were over twenty years ago. But the trio’s abstract rhyming sounds more intriguing now than it did back in the day (which can probably be contributed to my more developed attention span and personal intellectual growth). Reachin’ isn’t gangsta, but I wouldn’t call it soft either . It’s simply grown folks hip-hop. And a classic hip-hop album that stands the test of time.