Putting be-bop in the hip-hop

April 23, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Music video is usually a fairly lopsided medium. There's rarely a sense of balance between the audio and the video; either the song bullies the script into some variation on stand-around-and-sing-it, or visuals completely overwhelm the music they'allegedly illustrating. As a result, video clips almost never enhance the viewer's understanding of the track in question.

Maybe that's why the video for Digable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" seemed so exciting when it first flickered across the tube. "Slick" didn't just present the Digables' jazzy rhymes and bop-inflected rhythm track -- it built a whole world around them, dropping the rap group into the smoky black-and-white of a '50s jazz club.

Of course, no vid-kid really believes what he or she sees on MTV, so it's easy to assume that the be-bop atmosphere -- the stand-up bass, the trumpet and tenor saxophone, the improvisatory interplay -- was all just for show.

But it isn't. Not only does Digable Planets tour with a full-fledged jazz combo (trumpet, tenor, bass and drums) behind it, but the rappers try to do as much onstage improvising as their backing )) band.

Granted, improvising rap isn't quite the same as instrumental jazz. "When we improvise, man, it's just like you have to be quick enough to make those last words rhyme with each other, you know what I mean?" explains Butterfly, one of the three Planets, over the phone from a tour stop in DeKalb, Ill.

"It's not too difficult, though. The room for improvisation and change in the show is pretty vast. A lot of different things happen every night, so we can always look forward to not performing exactly like we did the day before. That helps to break that monotony."

How do they keep things from falling apart in mid-flight? Easy, says Butterfly. "There's always the basic outline of the song. You know when the chorus is coming. In this case, if you want to go shorter or longer, then you just have to be able to make that eye contact, or give that signal to bring it in when you want it to come in."

Digable Planets isn't the first rap group to drop jazz samples into its mix, nor is it the first to try to fuse hip-hop and be-bop. "We didn't begin that line of discussion," says Butterfly. "But it would have happened with us anyway, because of how we came to find out about the music. We grew up listening to the music.

"And the way we use language, and the vocal styles and formats, is jazz as well. We may study a jazz record to see how the saxophone finishes and then the trumpet picks up, and we'll copy that vocally."

There's more to this relationship than musical taste. Just as be-bop replaced the straight four of swing with a driving, eighth-note-based pulse, so too has hip-hop lent a double-time feel to the standard funk backbeat. "And that actually wasn't how early, early hip-hop was," agrees Butterfly. "Early hip-hop was quarter notes. There wasn't much double rhyming in a single bar. Most rhymes came at the end of the bar: 'Da da da da da da time, da da da da da da rhyme.'

"Now it's: 'Gotta rhyme time to slime divine, then I hit the slick convict with a slick rhyme,' " he says, tossing off an impromptu cadence. "It's very similar to that double-time thing."

Music isn't the group's only interest, by the way. Butterfly and his bandmates, Doodlebug and Ladybug, are also deeply concerned with strengthening the sense of community within the hip-hop nation. That, in fact, is part of the reason the Digables assumed their insect alter-egos.

"I grew up with a real political sense of community," says %J Butterfly. "My father was a socialist, sort of a Marxist. Growing up, he was really into a lot of that type of philosophy. Community and unity was sort of very important to us. And we see insects as being a very unity-oriented species. That's where we got the idea for the insect names.

"We always stay as down to earth as possible," he adds. "We keep everything in perspective, as far as popularity and stuff like that goes. [Our philosophy] is not just in the music. It's more a reflection of our way of life."

Digable Planets

When: Saturday at 9:30 p.m.

Where: Quad on U.M.B.C. campus, 5401 Wilkens Ave.

Admission: Free.

Call: (410) 455-3618 for information.

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