Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Heat Up the Chrome Jammy

Digable Planets has had one of the strangest careers in popular music. Their first record included a massive hit, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)", that seemed to encapsulate in a single song the fusion of jazz and rap (as well as connecting the dots between beat poetry and hip hop slang). The success of that song in the crossover (read: white) market led to accusations that the group was soft. (Does anyone remember the animated TV special "A Cool Like Dat Christmas"? I have that shit on VHS. I don't think the Planets had anything to do with it.)

Digable Planets came back in '94 with Blowout Comb, an amazing album that silenced any criticism of their beats and rhymes, their integrity, or the place of the trio among the vanguard of innovative rappers in the mid-90's. No one seemed to know what to make of it. And then they broke up.

...and came back a decade later with a reunion tour, a compilation album, and new records from Ladybug Mecca, Cee Knowledge (Doodlebug) and Cherrywine (Butterfly). The compilation is nice, but there's nothing like listening to Blowout Comb from start to finish to appreciate the achievements of Digable Planets. Many live musicians were utilized on the songs, and on the horn and percussion fanfares that precede and end several tracks. There are relatively few, but impeccably chosen, samples (Roy Ayers, Bob James, Shuggie Otis, and Bobbi Humphreys). The guest MC's include Guru, Jeru the Damaja, and a Digable Planets protege called Sulaiman, the Bronx Ripper.

The lyrical tone is uncompromisingly militant and Brooklyn-centric: references to 718, 11217, and specific streets abound. The CD booklet is fashioned to resemble a Communist Party community newspaper, with articles and photos that call for revolution and the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Geronimo Pratt, and Sekou Odinga. It's a record that seems designed to alienate the audience that bought the first album after hearing "Cool Like Dat" on MTV and radio.

I listen to it knowing that I am not part of the Planets' intended audience, but am instead one of the "devils" they occasionally reference. I find the meaning of the raps almost impenetrable, but the words and music are still so exciting and innovative, a dozen years after the record's release. The beats on the last two tracks alone ("9th Wonder" and "For Corners") are amazingly complex, yet compellingly catchy. I can't quite pin down the rhythm, but I bob my head to it anyway, feeling helplessly lost, giant steps or whole city blocks behind the ineffably cool Doodlebug, Ladybug, and Butterfly.

"Little Renee" is a non-LP song that ended up incongruously placed on the soundtrack to the movie Coneheads.

Digable Planets: Little Renee

Buy music and merch from the Digable Planets reunion here.


At 5/25/2006 9:38 PM , Anonymous Chris said...

Thanks for the reminder. I bought Blowout Combs and have been really enjoying it.
On a seperate matter, sorry to hear about your grandfather. What a wonderful tribute your post was. When I pass away I look forward to reading about it on Underneathica. Pogo has been passed on to my children recently, and its a joy to watch them discover it.

At 5/26/2006 6:43 PM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

Thanks, Chris. Hopefully you will outlive this blog by many years.

At 12/02/2007 9:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Cool Like Dat Christmas was my movie. Man, my tape ripped.


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