The Music Of The Spheres

Digable Planets emerged in '93, went into a 10-year eclipse and now are coming back

November 10, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Rewind to 1993 in hip-hop. G-funk is booming. And the hedonistic, misogynistic, over-the-top violent albums of Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and 2Pac are selling by the truckloads, upsetting conservative media pundits and PTA members. Although gangsta rap receives a lot of ink in magazines and newspapers across the country, and MTV keeps the grimy videos in frequent rotation, there is another hip-hop sound in full bloom. This movement, if you will, is the antithesis of the roughneck posturing associated with the G-funk era.

Acts like Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest provide a literate, soulful brand of rap. The overall blend is smooth, organic, infused with a hip jazziness and generally appeals to the progressive "backpack crowd." The group that best defines the bohemian, jazz-rap sound of the early '90s is Digable Planets.

In 1993, the trio with the trippy names - Butterfly (Ishmael Butler), Doodlebug (Craig Irving) and Ladybug Mecca (Mary Ann Vieira) - dropped the classic Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space). Spurred by the surprise Top 20 hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," the album sold a million copies. The group won a Grammy for the single and launched an ambitious national tour backed by a DJ and jazz musicians.

The next year, the critically acclaimed trio released Blowout Comb. A superior follow-up, the album glimmered with live instrumentation, thick grooves and fluid rhymes. While their gangsta peers extolled money and guns, Digable Planets gave shout-outs to Charlie Parker and Karl Marx. But for all its sparkling spare funk and substantive lyrics, Blowout Comb featured no catchy hit singles. So the CD didn't sell well. Then DP up and vanished.

After more than a decade away from the scene, the poetic threesome is back. Sort of.

"We don't have any new material yet," says Ladybug, DP's figurehead. She's calling from a tour stop in San Antonio. "Performing now is different in a good way. We've grown deeper into who we are as artists."

Last month, Blue Note Records released Beyond the Spectrum: The Creamy Spy Chronicles, an overview of the band's brief but brilliant '90s peak. In addition to the hits, the 13-cut compilation features B-sides and rare 12-inch mixes.

Digable Planets will perform such classics as "Rebirth," "Jettin'" and others tomorrow night at Sonar Lounge.

"We move a lot more on stage now," says the Bethesda-born rapper-poet. "We're more confident. The connection between us and the band is all good, a complete unit."

After the disappointing reception of Blowout Comb, Digable Planets split to concentrate on solo careers. Butterfly formed the band Cherrywine, whose lone album, the aimless Bright Black, appeared in 2003. Working as Cee Knowledge, Doodlebug has been leading the Philadelphia-based Cosmic Funk Orchestra since 2000. And Ladybug's debut solo disc, the colorful Trip the Light Fantastic, came out in June on her Nu Paradigm label.

"I was 100 percent involved in the making of the album, from business to creative," she says. "With Digable Planets, it was all creative. I had to learn from those mistakes, though."

This year, the band decided to reunite simply because "it felt right," Ladybug says. But hip-hop has changed so much since DP's heyday. "It's turned into this huge machine that makes a lot of money for this country," the rapper says. "There are more avenues to release music now. Music, period, is still in a good place despite the fact that mainstream radio plays the same 10 songs over and over."

While most jazz-rap productions of the '90s now sound thin and dated, Digable Planets' music has retained its freshness. The innovative beats, the fluid interplay of rhymes, the sinewy bass and swinging horn lines surpass much of what is heard in mainstream rap today.

"We love everything we did," Ladybug says. "I think every artist looks at his music as timeless."

Digable Planets plans to release new material sometime next year. But right now, the three are not sure about the direction.

"We can't say we're gonna repeat what we did with Blowout Comb or Reachin'," Ladybug says. "Don't expect that. We also want to capture some real good hip-hop on the next album. There's room for good music, period. It's all about how you bring it."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Digable Planets at Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., tomorrow night at 8. Tickets are $25 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.

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