1993 was an interesting year for our insect friends, Digable Planets. They were winning Grammy’s, receiving tons of critical acclaim and commercial success, but along with the wins came the criticism from the streets and their peers (*cough* KRS-One) that they were too soft. I personally loved Reachin’ back in ’93 and feel its aged well through the years (read my thoughts on the album here). Regardless, the trio of bugs would return in 1994 with their sophomore project, Blowout Comb.
Like Reachin’, Butterfly (and according to the album’s liner notes, the other two Planets as well) would be the backbone of the production scheme, but while their debut album was mostly sample based, Blowout Comb incorporates heavy dosages of live instrumentation by a host of musicians to go along with the samples and a few cameo verses and vocals from some special guests. The CD version of Blowout Comb would include an elaborate 13 page booklet, which along with the cover artwork and album liner notes, would include what reads like a Digable Planets community newsletter, with different stories and messages to uplift and empower the black community. The album didn’t sell that well, but it did receive respectable reception from critics and fans. Then, just like that, the group vanished into thin air, not to be heard from again for another ten years, and that was just a compilation of old songs and unreleased remixes.
I have fond memories of Blowout Comb, and it turns 25 in a week! Let’s see how it’s held up over the years.
The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug – The song title references May, 4 1919, which was the date some students in Beijing, seeking societal change, decided to start protesting the Chinese Government, thus sparking the movement dubbed “May 4th” and later called the “New Culture Movement”. If you want more info on the subject, simply Google “The May 4th Movement”. There’s a ton of in-depth info out there in cyberspace that I don’t have the time or space to elaborate on right now…so, back to my post: After a short triumphant trumpet solo (that is subtitled “Slowes’ Comb”), the DP’s drop a creamy smooth instrumental to match the “creamy bullets” Ladybug mentions in her opening verse (and I have to say, Ladybug Mecca may have the sexiest voice in hip-hop history). I’m not sure why the title says “Starring Doodlebug”, as all three parties spit verses on the song (and Doodlebug only gets one verse, while Ladybug and Butterfly get two each). Regardless, this is one of the greatest album opening songs in hip-hop history. Revolutionary music never sounded so heavenly.
Black Ego – The DP’s follow up the brilliantly creamy smooth instrumentation from the previous track with this moody melancholy music (tongue twist that!), as each of the trio spits one verse over it. Doodlebug steals the show, delivery a strong verse in his monotone vocal: “I got Harlem on my mind, devil on my back, Brooklyn in my blood and Butter’s on the track, I got insect thoughts, catch the cool waves, clouds of purple haze keep me in a daze, the jazz, the jive, the poetry, the style, the lingo, the bags of equality, many different things try to get to me, but in a land of hard rock I keep my humility”. After the verses end, Huey Cox (on guitar), Alan Goldsher (on bass) and Beth Russo (on cello) bless our souls with a live soothing jam session to close things out. This may be the greatest 7 minute hip-hop song ever created.
Dog It – This one opens with some wild sax chords, before the tough drums drop, accompanied by hard vibraphone notes and an undisguisable marching chant, as the album’s mood instantly goes from laidback jazzy grooves to aggressive militant music. Doodlebug sits this one out as Butterfly and Ladybug take turns spitting socially conscious rhymes, riddled references to the Nation of Gods and Earths and at one point Butterfly, uncharacteristically, threatens to bust shots at his oppressors (“before we fall victim, we lick ’em… I ain’t playin'”). Ladybug cleverly calls it all “groove food”. This one is nasty.
Jettin’ – Butterfly and crew change up the energy from the previous song as they build this breezy backdrop around a smooth Bob James loop. All three bugs are in good spirits, celebrating their blackness. This one feels just as good as it did 25 years ago.
Borough Check – The DP’s flip an ill Roy Ayers loop and invite Guru (rip) to join them as they rep for Brooklyn, and all four emcees turn in solid performances. My only issue with this song is the unwarranted extended intro and outro.
Highing Fly – This short interlude comes with a weird instrumental that has Butterfly rhyming awkward and off beat (which, based on the song title, I’m sure was his intention). I could do without this one, but at least it’s only a minute and a half.
Dial 7 – This is the first real mishap of the evening. The instrumentation is bland, Sara Webbs’ vocal spots in between the verses quickly becomes annoying, and the music doesn’t suit, and almost drowns out, the DP’s rhymes. Next…
The Art Of Easing – Our insect hosts quickly get things back on track as they build this smooth groove around a soothing Bobbi Humphrey’s loop and invite a few friends to add strings to it (Dave Darlington on guitar and Davey Chalice on bass), making the already pleasurable soundscape even more enjoyable. These are the kind of instrumentals that the Digable Planets sounds best rhyming over.
K.B.’s Alley – Over basically the same instrumental for the album’s lead single “9th Wonder” the DP’s invite David Lee Jones to blow his alto sax next to Tim “T-Bone” Williams on trombone. Just a short interlude that quickly goes into the next song…
Graffiti – The Gang Starr Foundation makes a second appearance on Blowout Comb, as Jeru Da Damaja swoops in to rep for Brooklyn next to the three BK transplants. Butter, Lady and Doodle sound decent on this one (although, Ladybug sounds better than decent when she rhymes that she has “the shotty right next to my body”…guns have never sounded so sexy!), but Jeru tip-toes through the smooth-high energy instrumentation (courtesy of Dave Darlington on bass and Shi Reltub on vibes), mixing street smart slang and his large vocabulary in his signature deadpan delivery, easily stealing the show.
Blowing Down – This is definitely one of my least favorite joints on Blowout Comb. It’s not that it’s terrible, it just doesn’t hit as hard as some of the album’s better tracks.
9th Wonder (Blackitolism) – This was the lead single from Blowout Comb. Butterfly and company lay down a funky mid-tempo groove as they boast about being slicker than they were during their Reachin’ days. This song definitely didn’t have the same impact as “Rebirth Of Slick” did, but it’s still a dope record.
For Corners – The title of this song is a clever little play on words. The DP’s invite the Bronx native, Sulaiman to join them on this one (four emcees…fo(u)r corners), as they each get multiple turns spewing thought provoking black conscious rhymes for the streets, or…for the corners. The instrumental has a cosmic jazzy vibe that just feels good and never grows old. This was a great way to wrap up Blowout Comb.
I guess we’ll never truly know if the criticism the DP’s received for being too soft on Reachin’ made them switch their content up for Breakin’ Combs. Regardless, I found the insect trio’s new edgier/militant approach enjoyable. I also found the layered production enjoyable, as the samples mixed with live instrumentation add depth to most of the grooves and shows Butterfly’s (and company) growth as a producer. There are a few skippable moments on Blowout Comb, but the good far out ways the bad, and your soul will be touched (and possibly transformed) by more than three-fourths of the “groove food” the threesome serve up. Blowout Comb may not be a classic, but it definitely deserves more respect than what history has given it through the years.