Slept on Soul/Digable Planets
Blowout Comb by Michael A. Gonzales
In 1994, the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn was a completely different world than the one that currently exists in these post-gentrification times. Although those streets could be a bit sketchy after dark, there was still an artistic vibe in the community that overflowed with writers, painters, magazine editors, producers, publicists and musicians. Whether buying clothes at Moshood, drinking coffee at Koko Bar or scoring cigarettes at Lafayette Grocery & Deli, the neighborhood creatives were always within view; while most of my leisure time was spent with the “old heads” at Frank’s Lounge hanging with the unholy jazzbo trio (writer Tom Terrell, jazz critic Don Palmer and Blue Note Records producer Brian Bacchus), the younger folks could be found sipping tea at Brooklyn Moon, gigging at the Crash House (a quaint spot where just starting out Erykah Badu, N’Dambi and Saul Williams performed) or just lounging on some brownstone staircase puffing a blunt.
BROOKLYN – Documentary/Travelouge of 1949
Having moved there two years before, rapper/producer Ishmael Butler found Fort Greene to be the perfect incubator for the innovative ideas bopping through his jazzed out brain. While Mecca didn’t officially live in Brooklyn, she spent enough time there to be down with the program. Digable was also followers of the Nation of Gods and Earth (the Five-Percent Nation) and some of their lessons trickled down into their lyrics.
A native of Seattle, Washington, Butler was the son of revolutionary Black Panthers educators who filled his young world words and music that would become his lives work. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Massachusetts on a basketball scholarship, but wound-up leaving. Moving to the Washington, D.C. area, Ish became friends with Craig Irving and Mary Ann Vierra (Mecca). The three co-founded the rap group Digable Planets in D.C. and Philly (where the boys were roommates for a minute) and set-off to New York City in hopes of bringing their vision to fruition.
With the introduction of the Native Tongues crew, A Tribe Called Quest, as well as projects produced by DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee, jazz was becoming a more acceptable sonic source for samples as well as live instrumentation to be used on records, and Digable was determined to flip the style their way. “Jazz as an idea in hip-hop was a story of tradition and shared knowledge, of connecting a younger cohort to the radical art of their parents’ generation,” Pitchfork editor Mark Richardson wrote in 2013. “And in the tense era of the 80s and 90s, there was comfort to be found in that continuum, of positioning this new music in the context of an earlier sound that changed the world.”
Roy Ayers on jazz and hip-hop
Although Butler was Digable’s primary producer, the crew was a true collective with each member offering ideas in the lab. Moving to Fort Greene with his comrades while the group was fixin’ to record their introduction Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), they decided to use insect names with Ish metamorphosing into Butterfly, Craig Irving as Doodlebug and Mecca becoming Ladybug. “The insect theory is the son of socialist readings,” Butler explained to The Source in 1993. “Knowing where you stand in this society and knowing where you should stand. Like if you look at ants and their hill, they’re always around it, protecting it. Think of [Karl Marx’s] The Communist Manifesto‘s last sentence, ‘workers of the world unite.’ In front of, ‘of the world unite,’ you could put anything: it’s about unity.”
Signed to Pendulum/Elektra Records by label head Rubin Rodriguez, Butler had already written a detailed outline of what he wanted Digable Planets to sound like, but the label seemingly didn’t trust the group to produce themselves and paired them with producers/engineers Shane Faber and Mike Mangini. Having previously worked with the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest, they were obviously bohemian b-boy friendly and helped guide Digable through the process.
“They had a studio in Bergen, New Jersey, and we’d take the dollar bus over to Bergen Avenue at ten in the morning and work all day,” Craig Irving says. Homegirl Mecca chimes in. “Shane’s studio was actually his apartment, and the vocal booth was in the closet; when you closed the door, a light came on. It was a tiny apartment, but I thought it was just like kickin’ it at friend’s place. I was happy to just be making music, so I didn’t care about the size of the studio.”
Though some folks accused Digable’s musical style to be too much on Tribe’s tip, the radio listening/record buying public embraced them out the box. Released in the fall of ‘93, Digable’s debut single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” propelled the group into a pop stratosphere that they group neither expected nor fully accepted. Although watching them on television deliver their acceptance speech after winning the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 1993, Digable was appreciative, with Ish giving a barbed-wire (but gentle) speech about homelessness and “the universal Black family” recognizing the real enemy, but still looked uncomfortable under the bright stage lights, as though they couldn’t wait to bolt from Radio City Music Hall and return to the smoky darkness.
Unbeknownst to most, Digable was already started working on new material that was much more politically aware, poetically dense and production sharp. Having severed ties with the Jersey boys Faber and Mangini, the group’s first priority was finding a sonic headquarters to call their own; a chance session with Dave Darlington, who was sent as a replacement engineer when Digable was working on the track “Little Renee” (co-produced by Mecca) for the Coneheads soundtrack album. “The first time we met, he was sleeping on the couch at Soundcheck Studios, and his engineer had left in the middle of the session,” Darlington says. “We started cutting-up samples and doing some programming, and that was it.
Digable Planets – “Little Renee”
In addition to Darlington’s skills behind the board, he also owned and operated his own studio, Bass Hit Recordings, located on 23rd off 6th Avenue inside the Masonic Hall building. Ish says, “The first guys we work with were dope sonically, I have no complaints, but Dave was phenomenal,” Ish says twenty-two years later while chilling on a bench at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. “He’s as much responsible for the sound of Blowout Comb as I am.”
Although Digable hasn’t recorded together since 1994, they toured in the summer of 2016 and have discussed the possibility of a new album. “When we split up, it was more about changing directions in life and creativity rather than we had problems with each other,” Ish says. “The friendship is still there, so whatever obstacles in terms of problems we had, we easily jump over.” Meanwhile, Butler co-founded the art-house hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces with multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire in 2009 and released two critically acclaimed albums (Black Up, 2011 and Lese Majesty 2014) on Sub Pop Records.
Currently working on concepts for the next Palaces project, Butler’s process is a lot looser than it was in the Digable days. “Back when I was planning Blowout Comb, I was way more methodical,” he says. “Everything was planned out to the bar and how long it was going to last and what would come next. I was much more liner and mathematical; I hadn’t shed that yet.” Ish had notebooks as well as unwritten ideas that he wanted to apply. “We could make adjustments on the fly, but it was based on a rigorous skeleton. As a producer, I liked Prince Paul because his style had a looseness, but there was also structure; the design, the architecture of that shit was what I was trying to shoot for.”
In addition, Pendulum (who had left Elektra for EMI) had granted Digable more creative control and resources (dollar bill, ya’ll, cash money) to follow their aural dreams. With Ish wanting to use less samples, he put together a rotating house band that incorporated bassist Alan Goldsher, saxophonist Donald Harrison (who’d had a group with Terence Blanchard until 1988) and guitarist Huey Cox into their ever changing musical sound.
Although the title didn’t come until later, the new material was also intentionally murkier that their debut with their vocals buried deep in the sonic soup of the instrumentation. “The label, management and me, we’re trying to tell Ish to mix the vocals higher on the record,” Darlington says, “but he said no. He had a vision of what he wanted Blowout Comb to sound like, and he stuck to it.” Los Angeles Times critic Mike Boehm wrote in 1995, “The group’s hard-to-decipher rhymes are like a thick, languid ooze that seeps into the groove and flows there, with the words serving more as a liquid lubricant than as the prime element of interest.”
Taking it to the studio, the music was black as the smoke billowing from Digable’s fire music; this was blackness in the noir panther Mau-Mau free jazz lofts hoo-doo Dashiki black-light-poster tray bag blaxploitation Afro pick Ernie Barnes sense of the word. “My parents were involved with the Black Panthers in Seattle, which was connected to the Panthers in Oakland and Los Angeles,” Butler says. “Living in the Black community in the days before individualism became the thing; people still had a communal sense.”
The Panther influence comes across even in the packaging for Blowout Comb, which was inspired by the graphic design and art style of the official Panther art director Emory Douglas. “Today, an artist like Douglas would be snatched-up by a big design firm, and maybe he was offered projects that would have given him more exposure, but he was a revolutionary. It wasn’t about getting paid; he put aside all of these things, because he believed in changing things for the better.”
Emory Douglas The Art of The Black Panthers
In addition, to paraphrase Roy Ayers, who they sampled on “Borough Check,” Digable represented Brooklyn, baby, and the rhythm of those gritty streets became a part of their funky jazz induced boogie. Having lived in New York City for two years, the trio of new jack natives developed another layer to their creative aesthetic that was all about Brooklyn and the moveable feast of the artists (visual, textual, musical) that populated Fort Greene was represented on the album. Residing on Adelphi Street during that period, Butler’s friends included writer/filmmaker Dream Hampton and then-aspiring/now celebrated artist Derek Adams.
“There were all these people who lived with our radius, and they’d invite us to their events, and just by virtue of location, we were enriched by the environment,” Butler says, “that environment was so rich, that many people were able to find their path while just hanging-out on those streets.” He and Craig had also befriended fellow jazz heads from the Gang Starr Foundation, inviting Guru and Jeru the Damaja to contribute to the project. Although Guru was originally from Boston, but he adopted a suave Brooklyn persona and vocal swagger that fit in perfectly on the BK anthem “Borough Check,” a song that with lyrics that painted a vivid picture comparable to a Romare Bearden collage.
“Borough Check” also served as a dope companion piece to Guru’s solo Crooklyn joint “The Planet,” a track on Gang Starr’s masterful Hard to Earn, which came out the same year. “People never really talk about Guru when the discussion is about the top rappers of a certain time, but for Guru was the one,” Butler says. “His was one of our first collaborations, and it was the first time I saw how a real pro does things. He came to the studio, listened to the beat, and ten, fifteen minutes later, he was done writing his lyrics. He was a real cat and on a grassroots level, on a people’s level, the real cats have an appreciation for all the jewels he gave us.”
Digable Planets – “Borough Check”
Jeru, on the other hand, was a Brooklyn native whose DJ Premier-produced debut album The Sun Rises in the East was released that year (1994), containing brutal tracks that could be heard blaring from house jams, stairway cyphers and car stereos; the previous year his underground hit “Come Clean” was an boom-bap headbanging street song that was also one of the best rap singles of the year. “Jeru lived off of Greene Street, and I got tight with him just hanging at his crib smokin’ Chocolate (weed) and drinking ginseng wine,” Butler recalls. “Ru was a deep, very smart brother who was comfortable in the lab. When he came to record his verses on ‘Graffiti,’ he was broke down the mathematics so well; I love that track.”
Digable Planets – “Graffiti”
If Pendulum Records thought that Digable Planets might deliver a smooth singles that was comparable to “Rebirth of Slick,” they were sadly mistaken.
However, while the minimalist beat of the first single “9th Wonder (Blackitolism),” with its heavy drums and Ohio Players bass was gritty as sandpaper, their follow-up joint “Dial 7 (Axioms Of Creamy Spies)” remains one of my personal favorites, with lyrics that are Black power political (“Focus my thoughts and be that true black man that I am I stand in the face of oppression With my sisters and my brothers no slippin’ no half steppin’”) over a soundscape that was as soulfully cool as seventies Black cinema. “Knowledge (Craig) brought that in beat in,” Butler recalls. “It was a Tavares song (“Bad Times”) and he was, ‘Yo, man, we got to do something with this.’ I wasn’t sure what, but then we got a chance to work with D’Influence vocalist Sarah Anne Webb, it was decided that we’d use that break.”
Digable Planets – “9th Wonder”
Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies)
It wasn’t until the album was almost complete that the title was chosen. “I saw an ad in Ebony magazine for a blowout comb, which was something you put on the end of your blow-dryer and you could get your hair fluffy and right,” Butler says. “To me, that was a metaphor for, let’s blowout the bullshit as well.”
Seven months after accepting their Grammy Award, Digable Planets released Blowout Comb, but, while it was met with critical acclaim, the sales were not what were expected. Whereas other artists might’ve blamed their record company, Butler says, “They tried, but our music was esoteric and hard to sell. We went on a radio tour, but people didn’t feel it; it wasn’t radio spin kind of stuff.” In the two-plus decades since its initial release, many hip-hop fans have revisited the riveting album and consider Blowout Comb; in 2013, reissue specialist Light in the Attic put out a deluxe two-disc vinyl edition of the slept on classic.
“Slept-on always has the notion that it’s good, otherwise nobody would care,” Butler says. “It’s almost as the music has a nice second existence. Sonically and lyrically, it was a step away from the first album; creatively, that was intentional. So, yeah, it was slept on. But I’m cool with that.”
Listen to Blowout Comb below:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.