From The Archives: Colson Whitehead On The Digable Planets, 1993
Before he was writing novels about zombies, elevator inspectors and summers on Long Island, the man behind 2010's best literary twitter account worked on staff at the Voice, writing mostly about television but often about books and music as well. To coincided with the release of his new Zone One, we spent a couple of hours in the archive room, using the old-fashioned card catalog, to unearth what turned out to be some of the best pop criticism we had read all month. Yesterday we reproduced his review of Basehead's We're Not in Kansas Anymore, and today we've got his take on Digable Planets' Reachin' (A New Refutation of Space and Time).
Digible Planets (March 9, 1993)
To alter a little Ralph Ellison, jazz will make you, and jazz will un-make you. From Gang Starr's early forays to the well-intentioned, ill-executed Heavy Rhyme Experience to Pete Rock's tasty preludes, hip hop has been absorbing elements of "jazz" for a while now, and not always successfully. It's usually jazz understood as a clever samplea carefully chosen bass line or trumpet lickthat gives the flava, but more importantly, the legitimacy of jazz. And as everybody knows, you can't mess with jazz.
Jazz, or at least their interpretation of jazz culture, makes Digable Planets. Not content to stop with borrowing a few bars, the three PlanetsButterfly, Ladybug, and Doodle Bugtake their cues from what's on the Verve album cover as much as what's inside, swiping the hipster posture of beboppers along with their notes. When they conclude "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" with a litany of hepspeakthey groove, jive, roll, funk, swing, freak, zoomthey're trying to hit the right incantation that will zap them back to Birdland in the '50s.
In their choice of models, the Planets opt for boho cool rather than the ho-hum, predictable B-boy cool. In sampling's heyday, let's say around Fear of a Black Planet's wall of noise, rap became a densely packed riot, the songs' saturated grooves overflowing with allusion. As with the current use of the jazz stuff, the Sly Stone beat or the Stokely speech was a way of improving one's standing by basking in the light of an ancestral great. The songs on Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Pendulum) are just as crammed with references, but they radiate out to all manner of black cultural producers and products, not only the musical and political. Dropping the names of Dizzy, Mingus, and Trane, abbreviated in that in-the-know manner, is necessary for the vibe they're working, but the Planets also give shout-outs to Nikki Giovanni, Julie Dash, and Maya Angelou, figures that wouldn't fit on the typical B-boy's pedestal
As the success of "Rebirth of Slick," with its unstoppable Art Blakey riff, has made clear, Digable Planet's Nuevo-retro outfits and laid-back attitude comprise the most easily digestible hip hop image since Arrested Development's Sharecropper Redux (I'm always one to jump aboard a critical backlash). But their crossover is a consequence rather than the intent of their one-for-all ethic. On Reachin', the Planets eschew gangsta essentialism to embrace every kind of negro "from the ghetto-dwelling youth/to the bougies in the 'burbs." Promising to "greet virgin ears with a kiss," the DPs don't ask you to listen to their music as much as invite you to inhabit it.
The "insects" even offer their own mythology, a mixture of oddball cosmic mysticism and '70s Afro-Kitsch. The result can leave you scratching your bald head. Apparently, they chose their name after realizing "every person individually is a planet. Being Planets we have the ability to set up our planet any way we want to, always keeping in mind we have to coexist in the solar system that is society.
Like metal's medieval plain and new jack swing's candle-lit bedroom, their space-talk creates a convenient fictional stage. If the Planets have their heads in orbit, tho, they're not alone up there. Maybe hybrids find space is the place when the gravity of orthodoxy, of what is expected of black artists, gets too constrainingas if removing yourself completely from the scene puts you in a category where the only physics that apply are the ones you invent. Think Sun Ra, illegal alien from Saturn, recasting the jazz band as Afroheliocentric cosmicomic, and think Samuel Delany, whose invented worlds are a lot more hospitable to sussing out race and gender than the third stone from the sun. Or just look up towards the Mothership.
So when Butterfly, the head honcho, says he "split to Earth to resurrect the funk," he's not the first visitor from above, but he's the first one to phrase his mission in the vocabulary of hip hop. A lyricist confident in his own weirdness, on "Pacifics," Butterfly gets to prowling, proclaiming that "New York is a museum/with its posters and graffiti" and "in Sunday's early hours/They city sprouts its flowers." He's not soft, not trying to be hard, he's just trying to get the line right. Butterfly doesn't compose for the earhe seems like the kind of guy who writes his lyrics on paper first.
Ladybug and Doodle Bug, the other bodies in the "solar system," provide texture to Butterfly's daisy-sniffing. Ladybug has her Cleopatra Jones-by-way-of-Brooklyn persona ("I can't even get comfortable/Because the Supreme Court is, like/All in my uterus") and Doodle Bug comes off as the hip hop classicist of the group, with a traditional, pun-laden style: "Food for thought/So get a buffet plate/Lyrics so fat/You might gain weight."
The Digable motto is "Do what you feel/If it's real," but more important is their methodmake your mad, hybrid ancestry work for you. They call Miles the "Poobah" of their style, but they don't sample himhe's just their hipster dean. For musical models, they hit up the likes of Curtis Mayfield and the Crusaders for smoove, expansive grooves. They DPs even grab a Kool and the Gang loop that was played out by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince on "Summertime," resuscitating it with their restless, and occasionally tedious, enthusiasm. But what else can you expect from a band whose first song is titled "It's Good To Be Here"?
On "La Femme Fetal" Butterfly borrows the Last Poets' intonations to do the Digable Planets' Message Song, a prochoice tale. My crotchety self usually despises pop stars who get too big for their lyric sheets, but Butterfly swings it, avoiding diacticism and recognizing, like the Last Poets, that the delivery of the message is as important as the content. "Supporters of the H-bomb/and firebombing clinics/What kind of shit is that?" he demands, answering himself: "Orwellian, in fact."
"Jimmi Diggin Cats" lays out the Digable utopia, a place "six blocks east of Mars, where Hendrix is alive and yes, we have confirmation, he is into hip hop. This world is a "synthesis of then and now" that conflates three decades of black cultural artifacts into a single, bustling funkopolis: Sweetback walks down the street with Shaft, MC Hammer is a pimp, the Black Panthers have their own cartoon show, and the Jackson 5 sport dreads. In an album crowded with icons, Hendrix stands out as the central figure, and the Digables hail him as one of their own, welcoming him into hip hop's hut. Maybe it's just my own bag, but I like to read the track as one generation of black artists reaching down to another, maybe apologizing for Hendrix's shabby treatment at the hands of people like the Panthers, who, in their earnestness, dissed him for playing music they didn't consider black enough.
Filling in the spaces between bebop and hip hop, "Jimmi Diggin Cats," like most of Reachin', is a roll call of idols which the Digables know only second handbut that doesn't stop them from claiming kinship. People might front about seeing Sweetback in the theaters when they were three years old, but the hip hop generation first encountered blaxploitation flicks on TV or video, and the Jackson 5 cartoon only in reruns (if you were lucky). Like the music of Mingus, however, Melvin Van Peebles's Sweetback is a part of a lineage of black craftsmanship that the Planets celebrate while setting themselves up as heirs. The DPs may say that they're from beyond, but they've got our history down.