It begins with the sound of the space-time continuum being twisted and bent. The echoing beeps and blips of Herbie Hancock’s kaleidoscopic jazz number “Rain Dance” is the soundtrack of you falling through a forbidden vortex and spiraling into another dimension. Final destination: a bizarro version of New York City. Your guides: hip-hop hippies Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira, and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving. The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway once described Roaring Twenties NYC as “always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” Almost seven decades later, Digable Planets daring debut album repainted Gotham in a way that would have caused F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mind to swell.
Released a quarter-century ago this month, Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space) arrived at a rap intersection. Dr Dre’s The Chronic was a powerful force as the tectonic plates of hip-hop continued to move closer to the West Coast. Back east, the Wu-Tang Clan’s brass-knuckle debut album was just nine months away. Among the righteous dissonance and stark realities of gangster rap, Digable Planets seemed like three bohemian beatniks whose heads were in the outer cosmos. They took the names of insects and rapped in surrealist language, tickling the mind in wonderfully bold ways.
Despite the New York-centered nature of Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space)—which will be reissued on vinyl this week via Modern Classics Recordings and Light In The Attic—the group’s origin points are scattered across the map. The concept of Digable Planets had been in the mind of “Butterfly” Butler, a native of Seattle’s Central District, for a while before it reached its final form. A short-lived version of the group even included Butler’s collaborations with two other artists who didn’t stick around for long. The universe, though, has a funny way of delivering compatible polymaths to each other.
While interning at Sleeping Bag Records in New York, Butler would visit his grandmother in Philadelphia where “Doodlebug” Irving was living and rapping with an outfit called the Dread Poets Society. Casual friends, the pair started working on music together in Butler’s grandmother’s house in 1989. It was in that unlikely hip-hop landmark that the Brazilian-born Maryland denizen Ladybug Mecca, who had dated Doodlebug at Howard University, unveiled her crisp mic skills. Overhead, the stars did their cosmic dance, aligning in perfect formation. The true form of Digable Planets had finally materialized.
Having pitched up in Brooklyn, the group commuted daily to Sound Doctor Studio in Montclair, New Jersey to cut their debut album. The result is a cool classic that fires the sounds and flavors of New York’s jazz clubs into another galaxy. Or maybe Digable Planets are an intergalactic “insect tribe” who’ve splashed down on Earth “to resurrect the funk.” It’s as if a Jedi who’s at one with the Force materialized in the studio to give lessons on socialist doctrine, afrocentrism literature, the writings of Nietzsche, and science fiction movies. All the while, the three rappers were making the kind of record you can sip beer and smoke weed to on a Saturday night and still vibe to on a Sunday afternoon.
Butler took the lead on production, drawing mostly from whatever he could find in his jazzhead father’s record collection. The result is samples-stacked-on-samples style of beatmaking that’s lush, freewheeling, and gives the album a levity similar to Digable Planets’ funky forefathers A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. The triumvirate pass the mic around like it’s a hot potato, their languid rhyme style mixing impeccably. Everything about the record feels instinctual and off-the-cuff. As Butterfly told Brian Coleman in his book Check The Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, “If we had tried to make that album like it ended up, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Opener “It’s Good to Be Here” begins with that trip through the twilight zone vortex. From there, Butterfly awakens from slumber, pushes his hair into place and calls up Doodlebug. Simple movements, but described by Butler in typically natty fashion: “The ticky ticky buzz the sun wakes the sky/ I fumble through my fuzz and buzz Mr. I.” It’s a primer to Digable Planets’s madcap prose. The chorus repeats of, “It’s good to be here” go out over a beat that’s as fresh as a day-old dye job. The group are ready to start “bumpin’ out with somethin’ that pops and transcends,” as Ladybug Mecca confidentially declares. They sound like three happy-go-lucky friends chilling on the corner. This universe is bliss. “Good evening, insects. Humans too,” goes the master of ceremonies as he ushers the group on stage for what sounds like a late night uptown open mic night. From there, Digable Planets present “Pacifics (Sdtrk ‘N.Y. is Red Hot’),” a song that follows Butterfly as he enjoys the tranquility of his block on a Sunday. Joined by Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca, they began their eternal search for the city’s “funky beats” while fearing the Glocks that proliferate the streets. The album builds a portrait of New York through minutiae. That Knicks game on the TV in the corner. “The sounds, the pounds, the stacks, the flair,” as described by Doodlebug on “Nickel Bags.” “The baggy baggy jeans, the knotty, knotty hair.” The whole thing is a visceral display of world building. Despite being set in the most pop-cultured city on the planet, Digable Planets present a fresh vision.
Butterfly’s deft handling of the samples is one of the features that distinguishes the album among golden age hip-hop’s also-rans. A disciple of DJ Premier, the beatmaker’s ear for loops makes chopping up old jazz and funk records seem like the simplest action in the world when it’s anything but. From the low-key funk and peppy horns of “What Cool Breezes Do,” to the film noir tones of “Last of the Spiddyocks,” every number sleeks with a dapper sophistication. “Time & Space (A New Refutations Of)” is mostly built around some wonky piano chords until Sonny Rollins’ sax pipes in. The double bass plucks and boom-bap drums of “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That),” the number that snagged the group a Grammy, offers a soundtrack to anyone who wants to swagger like Cleopatra Jones.
Though Digable Planets can assuredly kick rhymes about how good they can rhyme, the album can be quietly conscious too. There’s no sermonizing here. Instead, the group sound like three socially-engaged, college-age kids trading wisdom over blunts. “La Femme Fetal” sees Butterfly tune his voice to a more slam poetry-style flow to kick knowledge on the importance on abortion access. On several occasions the trio point to their crowns to display their black pride. A line like, “If they call it a fad, we just ignore it, like it’s pork,” spit by Butterfly on “What Cool Breezes Do,” connects hip-hop loyalty to Muslim teachings—a display of the accomplished writing that snaps and pops over the beats.
That’s the breadth of Digable Planets, a group gifted to our dimension to display the boundless creativity possible when you hand ‘90s hip-hop kids a box of records and a pen. Their collective hive mind willed a universe into existence. Illmatic and Ready To Die arrived the following year, grimmer New York-focused works that overshadowed Butterfly, Ladybug Mecca, and Doodlebug’s second and final album Blowout Comb. Things move quickly in the city and will until its final remnants crumble into the sea. But you can always drop the needle on Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space) and transmogrify into their magical realm, taken by the hand by three insects who once soared as high as the city’s skyscrapers.
Dean Van Nguyen is a writer for The Irish Times, Pitchfork and Passion of the Weiss, among others.