Nearly one year ago, Seattle hip-hop fans were buzzing about the upcoming reunion performance by '90s hip-hop group Digable Planets. After several starts and stops, including a never-released newly recorded single called "Fresh Out," members Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, Craig "Doodlebug" Irving and Mary Ann "Ladybug" Veira seemed ready to share the spotlight once more. However, it would be the reunion show that never was once the trio abruptly cancelled the performance a few days before the late December spot date. The disappointing event led group founder and producer Butterfly to declare that "the end" for one of hip-hop's most innovative groups.
Digable Planets' final chapter marked a disheartening and haphazard end for the carefully constructed group who had taken the music world by storm in 1993 with the release of their gold-selling debut album, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space). Conceptualized and produced by Butler, he had the group's sound, theme and name figured out long before the trio that we would come to know had even formed. Originally, he had tapped another female and male MC as the other members of his insect-themed group. However, it wasn't until after those two left the group that Philadelphia (Irving), Silver Spring, Maryland (Veira) and Seattle (Butler) would converge to form Digable Planets.
The result was Reachin', its title was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' short, "A New Refutation of Time and Space," and it was steeped in Butler's father's jazz-heavy record collection. Released at a time when Dr. Dre's The Chronic reigned supreme on airwaves and music charts, Reachin' stood apart from the pack thanks to their jazz-influenced sound. Music critics and fans alike eagerly welcomed the positive alternative to the more controversial imagery that was starting to take root in hip hop at that time. Although the album's debut single, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," had been released in November 1992, it wasn't until a fateful appearance as the musical performer on In Living Color that Digable Planets' star would shoot straight to the top. The song became a crossover hit, reaching the top spot on the Hot Rap Tracks and Hot Dance Music charts, in addition to earning Butler, Veira and Irving their first and only GRAMMY for the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 1994. Their video perfectly captured the group's vibe, plopping them into a smoky, jazz club as opposed to the dark, gritty corners that seemed to prevail then. It seemed that Butler's now-realized vision and careful planning had paid off.
They followed up with two more singles from the album, "Where I'm From" and "Nickel Bags," with both further cementing Digable Planets' successful run. While most artists would be nervous about trying to match the success of their first single, Doodlebug admitted in Brian Coleman's book Check the Technique, that they weren't surprised that their song followed in the chart climbing success of "Rebirth of Slick." Instead, "It was more like: 'If they liked that, they'll like this too," he explained.
It wasn't just the nostalgia of hearing everyone ranging from Herbie Hancock to Art Blakey to the Ohio Players in their music that made them so popular. They were my generation's beatniks, laid-back and smooth, their social commentary interspersed with their planetary talk and the bouncy beats they rode in on. It wasn't just the classic samples deeply embedded in their music that drew listeners from far and wide; it was also the underlying messages about women's rights ("La Femme Fetal"), existentialism ("Pacifics") and Communism ("Appointment at the Fat Clinic").
Digable Planets' would delve deeper into creating music with a message on their second album, 1994's Blowout Comb. Here the group took a more militant turn, with a more detailed Black nationalist theme being woven into their music. It also marked a loosening of the creative reigns so to speak, with Butler sharing production duties with Dave Darlington and also enlisting guest appearances by Gangstarr's Guru, Jeru the Damaja and singer Sarah Anne Webb. The album would also be their last. One year later, the group would disband, citing creative differences. After going their separate ways, they each would embark on fairly successful solo careers. However they would never reach the same dizzying heights as they had as a unit.
Now 20 years after its release, Reachin' remains just as important to the annals of hip-hop history as it did then. Thanks in part to the timelessness of the jazz music they sampled, Digable Planets' debut sounds just as innovative as it did then. And despite the acrimonious end that would befall them, the musical landscape was made that much better (and cooler) by the forward-thinking trio.