Hip-Hop Legends Digable Planets Reunite

Christopher Johnson reports on Digable Planets, the Grammy-winning hip-hop trio that has reunited after a decade.

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ED GORDON, host:

While hip hop trio Digable Planets wasn't the first group to blend jazz and rap music, they were widely regarded as one of the best. In the early '90s, their music topped R&B and pop charts. They played worldwide, recorded two albums and then broke up. Now the group has reunited for their first international tour in more than a decade. NPR's Christopher Johnson reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON reporting:

When Digable Planets were nominated for the best rap performance Grammy in 1993, they were up against some tough acts--some very tough acts. The Los Angeles gangster-influenced duo Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg was in the running. So was Cypress Hill for their Grammy-nominated hit "Insane in the Membrane."

(Soundbite of "Insane in the Brain")

CYPRESS HILL: (Rapping) ...fatter. Fat boy on a diet. Don't try it. I'll check your (censored) like a looter in a riot. Much too fat like a sumo slamming that (censored) leaving your face in the grass. But you know I don't...

JOHNSON: But Digable Planets won that award for a tune that shied away from the violent threats and weapons cache braggadocio of gangsta rap.

(Soundbite of "Rebirth of Slick")

JOHNSON: The song "Rebirth of Slick" invoked the dim nightclubs and hip bohemia of the cool jazz era. The trio adopted stage names that showed their respect for the communal habits of insects, and together Butterfly, Doodlebug and Ladybug helped prove how diverse hip hop could be.

(Soundbite of "Rebirth of Slick")

DIGABLE PLANETS: (Rapping) What I just flip let borders get loose. How to consume or they'll be just like juice. If it's the (censored) we'll lift it off the plastic. The babes'll go spastic. Hip hop gains a classic. Pimp playing shock, it don't matter, I'm fatter. Ax Butta how I zone. Man, Cleopatra Jones. And I'm chill like that. I'm chill like that. I'm chill like that. I'm chill like that. I'm chill like that.

Mr. ISHMAEL BUTLER (Digable Planets): We never thought we was doing anything new.

JOHNSON: Ishmael Butler is Butterfly. He created the group. Sitting on Butler's hotel room balcony in LA, the Seattle native remembers how his band's mellow, jazz poetry rap style set them apart from many of their hip hop peers. But that distinctiveness wasn't entirely by design.

Mr. BUTLER: Back then it was all about resources. Like cats didn't have no money, you know what I'm saying? Where you gonna get your record that you're gonna sample from? You gonna steal from the people that you know that's closest to you, your dad and your mom? My pop had jazz records, my mom had jazz records and soul records. Well, let's go in there and get them. It wasn't like we got to do this jazz thing. It was like all instruments.

JOHNSON: Maybe he didn't completely preconceive the Digable Planets' sound, but Butler has been planning his artistic success pretty carefully since high school. His inspiration? Early Michael Jackson videos.

Mr. BUTLER: I didn't want to be like Mike, but at the same time, that level of musicianship, of creativity, of entertainment. I'm seeing all of that and I'm like, `I'm gonna do that, you know. I'm gonna do it.' But when you say that, you have to see the end result. I always saw the video frame by frame. I heard all the music.

(Soundbite of music)

DIGABLE PLANETS: (Rapping) You gotta do what you can, do what you can, do what you can, yeah, do what you can. Do what you can, do what you can.

JOHNSON: To put that vision on tape, Butler enlisted Mary Ann Viera and Craig Irving, two East Coast hip hop fans Butler met while attending college in Massachusetts. They all moved to New York City and formed Digable Planets.

(Soundbite of "It's Good To Be Here")

DIGABLE PLANETS: (Rapping) We jazz up the streets to prove we have beats. Fat jazz fat style and the sound so sweet. And there ain't no doubt that you got to check. Doodle. Butter. Mec.

JOHNSON: Even after the band signed with a major record label, they still lived like struggling artists. Viera, also known as Mecca the Ladybug, recalls the sacrifices she made while the group was recording their first album, "Reachin'."

Ms. MARY ANN VIERA (Digable Planets): I remember having to decide either I'm gonna pay this dollar, you know, to get to the studio or I'm gonna, like, have lunch today. But, you know, we were all just excited to be where we were in that place and time and having a record deal and that opportunity to put music out, regardless of all the struggles.

(Soundbite of "It's Good To Be Here")

DIGABLE PLANETS: (Rapping) And it's good to be here gettin' fly with the rap. We love where we from but we kick it where we at. Bumpin' out with somethin' that pops and transcends DPS baby it's slim but not thin. In amongst the pebbles we rocks on your blocks. Soakin' in the ghetto for kids that have not. Slappin' on some skin when we slam check the cheers, so we greet their virgin ears with a kiss. It's so good to be here.

JOHNSON: Digable Planets enjoyed major international success in 1993. They returned to the studio a year later to make their next record, "Blowout Comb." Digable Planets' Craig Irving, once known as Doodlebug, now calls himself Cee Knowledge.

Mr. CRAIG IRVING (Digable Planets): The spirit behind ...(unintelligible) was rebellion. We had some ideas that we wanted to express that weren't that much different from the first album, but I think they were more aggressive.

Mr. NOAH CALLAHAN-BEVER (Vibe): With the second album, they were able to find some edge.

JOHNSON: Noah Callahan-Bever is senior editor for the black music and culture magazine Vibe. He remembers first hearing "Blowout Comb," an album Digable Planets used to express their growing interest in political prisoners, racial nationalism and the Black Panther Party.

Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: The inside cover had all this sort of black power stuff. It was laid out like a people's army newspaper, newsletter, and they stepped away from the jazz and sort of dug more into jazz-funk-soul fusion, and then they complimented that with, you know, some more edgy lyrics.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: It turned off many of the sort of mainstream fans that they had, but that second record was really an amazing piece of art.

(Soundbite of "Agent 7 Creamy Spy Theme: Dial 7")

DIGABLE PLANETS: (Rapping) Got 16 for the imperial fascists. Long beach brothers and honeys we's bouts to set it. Domino theory 'cause they stalled our flow, collectin' pitchforks till they free Geronimo. While you blaze up I stay my fist raised up. While you bet, I represent. What. Uptown, downtown, across, wherever. Uptown, downtown, across, like wherever. Meet me in the Crook and we can piece it all together. Hey super funky.

JOHNSON: As the "Blowout Comb" album charted only mediocre sales, Digable Planets wrestled with a three-way conflict over the group's future. Then Mary Ann Viera's parents contracted rare diseases in the mid-90s. They both died. Viera then stepped away from the music business and Digable Planets dissolved. Since then, each insect has kept busy with traveling, solo music projects and children. Butler has three kids, Viera four. Irving's three children are all studying music. They're also budding young critics.

Mr. IRVING: They always sit down tell me like, `Yo, Dad, that's corny.' Or, `Dad, that's hot.' That's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IRVING: They tell me straight up about music in general, but mainly my music and, you know, the group music move.

JOHNSON: Critics large and small notwithstanding, Digable Planets had decided to reunite after about a decade. Getting back together is a big challenge that might not seem worth it to any ordinary rap group. But no one in Digable Planets sees their band as just a band, especially not Butler.

Mr. BUTLER: If people can think about a relationship that they've been in with a lover or something, you know, and it's like--and then you guys decide to break up, but in your heart you really don't want to be away from that person. But it's harder to get back to that time when you were together, but you can't deny your true feelings. That's why I think we're back together now, because at this time we couldn't deny it any longer.

(Soundbite of "Slowes' Comb: The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug")

JOHNSON: This summer and fall, Digable Planets are touring the US with plans to visit Japan, Australia and South Africa.

(Soundbite of "Slowes' Comb: The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug")

DIGABLE PLANETS: (Rapping) Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of "Slowes' Comb: The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug")

DIGABLE PLANETS: (Rapping) Ha, ha, ha, ha. One time for your mind. Two times for Mumia's saint crew. Three times for my Brooklyn dimes. Seven times for pleasure. I don't trip. She don't trip. We don't trip. Nah, we don't trip. He don't trip. Please don't trip. We don't trip. Pleasure. Yeah.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. You can hear any story from today's program or previous programs at npr.org. Just click onto Archives at the top of the page. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American public radio consortium.

(Soundbite of "Slowes' Comb: The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug")

DIGABLE PLANETS: (Rapping) We bust at Co. until pro we cream-like (censored) that we Creamy spies tell you scheme-y lies. We let our creamy bullets fly. Should it reflect the sun. We say yes when we think of getting dipped. We says guess say yo comrades rest. Because we all bounce. We all bounce. I do bounce. Yes, he do bounce.

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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