'Ladybug' climbs charts with Digable Planets Howard High grad hits rap big time

December 29, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

When she was a little girl, Mary Ann Vieira of Columbia was so quiet her parents worried that something was wrong with her.

So Walter Vieira Sr. and his wife Amarina took their toddler to see a doctor, who assured them that she was fine.

"He said, 'She will talk a lot.' And indeed she did," Mr. Vieira recalled.

Today, his 20-year-old daughter is making a big name for herself as "Ladybug," the female member of the rap, hip-hop group, Digable Planets.

The trio, which fuses rap and jazz, has sold 800,000 records worldwide. Their finger-snapping hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" topped the Billboard rap charts this year.

The Pendulum Records recording artists toured the U.S. with vocalist Sade this year, stopping at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia last summer.

"It was cool to have my family [at the show] . . . that made me feel good," said Ms. Vieira in a recent telephone interview from her Queens, N.Y., apartment.

Last week, the 1991 Howard High School graduate visited her parents and 18-year-old brother in Oakland Mills for the Christmas holiday.

"When she was in high school, she said, 'I'm going to be a rap star' and I said, 'Go for it . . . if that's what you want to do,' " said Mr. Vieira, an air-conditioning mechanic. "She did, and has been very successful in a short time.

"I'm very surprised and proud of her."

This year, Digable Planets had a hit debut album, "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)"; made videos; traveled the world, including a tour of Japan; and were nominated for two NAACP Image Awards.

The civil rights group award, given each year to highlight those who portray positive images of blacks, was a high point for Ms. Vieira.

"I'm very honored to be up for the award," she said. "It means a lot to me . . . It's still like a shock to me."

She added, "I feel so fortunate and truly blessed."

Ms. Vieira, who grew up in Silver Spring, was a smart, outgoing child who absorbed a wide variety of music from an early age, said her father.

Because her parents are Brazilian, she was exposed to the samba and to Brazilian jazz. She later became a fan of R&B, soul and rap music.

When the family moved to Columbia in 1989 because of Mr. Vieira's job, his daughter transferred to Oakland Mills High. Upset by the family's move, she stopped participating in soccer, something she had enjoyed, and dropped out of other school activities.

"I was stupid," she said of her behavior.

Later, she attended Howard High and became a member of the Black Student Union.

"She was a very conscientious and interested student," said Gertrude Kerr, Ms. Vieira's Howard High chemistry teacher.

The girl's style of dress, she noted, resembled a "hippie look" or a "Hollywood look."

"I guess if I lived in New York, maybe I wouldn't have thought it was extreme," said Ms. Kerr, who thought Ms. Vieira would pursue a career in fashion. "I'm proud of her. . . . I don't get too many students who go on to become a celebrity."

A self-described "good student," Ms. Vieira said she didn't hang out much in Columbia.

"I didn't go to The Mall to shop," she said. "I didn't like the clothes . . . all the kids had them."

Instead, she visited the county library. Like other members of her musical group, she read works by socialist philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

And every chance she got, she'd catch a train to New York, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., to pursue her musical career.

While dancing for a rap group in Washington, she met Philadelphia native Craig "Doodlebug" Irving, who attended Howard University. They joined Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler of Seattle, and became Digable Planets.

"The name 'planets' symbolizes each individual person being a planet, self-sufficient and reaching within themselves for motivation," she said.

The trio named themselves after insects because they admire the communal sense of insects, Ms. Vieira said.

Why did she pick "Ladybug" as her stage name?

"If you look at a ladybug, she travels different surfaces and sees what's going on," she said.

Fame didn't come instantly for Ms. Vieira or her colleagues.

At first, she roughed it in New York, sharing a place with two aspiring female musicians, the vocal duo Terri and Monica, who have a single on the soundtrack to the movie "Poetic Justice".

"We were all broke," Ms. Vieira recalled. "We lived on cheese and potatoes -- literally!"

A break came when Mr. Butler applied for a nonrecording job at Pendulum Records in the summer of 1991.

There, he met Dennis Wheeler, who signed Pendulum's new acts, and told Mr. Wheeler the group was looking for a record deal.

Mr. Wheeler listened to their demo tape and liked what he heard. And in March 1992, the group was signed.

Digable Planets' debut album includes tributes to jazz legend Sonny Rollins and rock legend Jimi Hendrix.

"I can't say that I like one [song] more than the other -- but I can say why I like them," Ms. Vieira said.

As an example, she cites "Rebirth," a slick and infectious bit of poetry with the feel of cool jazz and the repeated verses "cool like dat . . . cool like dat."

"I love that song . . . because we parallel jazz and hip-hop music," Ms. Vieira said.

Still, she has no plans to be a singer, saying she will stick strictly to the rap format.

"I don't want to sing," she said. "I think I'll stick to the spoken word."

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