Digable Planets Track by Track
By Rob Parkour
Whether we admit it or not, we all judge things before we actually give them a shot. They
call it “judging a book by its cover.” Our instincts usually don’t fail us because we know what
we like. For example, I’m a reality-based person that doesn’t like fantasy. I see the hype around
Game of Thrones and know it’s not for me (it sucks). Adults flock to the latest Marvel comic
book movie and I know I will hate it. I don’t need to put myself through two hours of Marvel
hell to know this. I see Ali Wong’s face on Netflix and know she isn’t funny. I don’t have to
watch her make Asian jokes to confirm this.
Sometimes our instincts betray us and we write off something due to some association we
have in our minds that may or may not be founded on reality. This was me with the hip-hop trio
Digable Planets. I wrote them off as some type of Pharcyde/Souls of Mischief combination or B-
grade Native Tongues group. I’m not even sure what I based this off of. I knew they weren’t
hardcore NYC rap which is probably where the Native Tongue connection came from and their
trippy look and album cover made me associate them with other artists who seemed to prefer
psychedelics and jazz to Hennessy and mob flicks.
I was very wrong. Digable Planets are not only amazing but are right up my alley. Let’s
unpack the album track by track to figure out why.
“It’s Good to Be Here” – The sample starts off with a spacey 35 second clip of “Rain Dance” by
Herbie Hancock which wouldn’t pass today because people have musical ADD and can’t listen
to a song over 2 minutes, let alone 35 seconds of “nothing.” When the beat drops it’s a laid back,
smooth sample of Grant Green’s “Samba De Orpheus.” The drums used are from our guy Mike
Clark, aka the funkiest WASP of all-time that played drums on Herbie Hancock’s underrated
Digable Planets is the brainchild of Butterfly (Ishmael Butler). Butterfly grew up in
Seattle during the Sir-Mix-A-Lot days and was weaned on Ice-T and Too $hort during his early
education of hip-hop. Butterfly’s parents were divorced and he spent a lot of time in New York
City with his father during the summer which provided the young aspiring MC/Producer with a
Butterfly received a scholarship to play basketball at UMASS in 1988, the same year
John Calipari started coaching the struggling program. The dates aren’t clear but there is a decent
chance that Butterfly was part of John Calipari’s first recruiting class at UMASS which if you
know me, almost made my head explode. Butterfly eventually dropped out of college and moved
to Brooklyn but had he stayed on for all five years of his eligibility at UMASS. There is a chance
that Butterfly, as a fifth-year Senior, would’ve played with Freshman Marcus Camby. There’s
also a chance that John Calipari is the reason that Butterfly dropped out of college and eventually
made this classic. I need to know these things.
Butterfly eventually met Doodlebug (Craig Irving) on a double date and the two
connected so much that they ended up talking the whole time and ignoring their dates. Butterfly
and Doodlebug complement each other very well, their voices sound similar but not in a generic
way. Ladybug Mecca (Mariana Vieira) is the third member and has one of the most unique
voices in hip-hop history. She raps smoother than a baby’s bottom and does not sound out of
place or over her head rapping alongside two stellar MC’s. It‘s easy to forget that hip-hop, like
sports, is a team effort. The sweet spot of rap occurs at the intersection of collaboration and
competition: that’s when the magic happens.
With emailing verses and how easy it is to record, hip-hop has lost that joint effort feeling
in the last two decades. This wasn’t the case in the early 90’s. The group took a dollar bus from
Brooklyn to Montclair, New Jersey at sunrise and wouldn’t come back until after sunset. The
three members spent over 12 hours in the studio every day bouncing ideas off each other and
trying to outdo one another. The result is the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. Being
in sync and on the same wavelength with one another pushes the album to a different level.
You’ve probably noticed that all the members are named after insects. It’s part of the
communal living/daisy age thing they were going for. Or it could be that they were doing lots of
psychedelics at the time. There is a “Cocoon Club” skit at the end that more or less lets you
know that the group is indeed dropping doses of LSD.
“Pacifics (Soundtrack to NY is Red Hot)” – Before Digable Planets, there were groups that
used and made references to jazz like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Guru and DJ
Premier’s early Gang Starr albums also leaned on the jazz sound, but nobody and I mean nobody
in hip-hop loves jazz more than Butterfly. Like the “jazz-hop” artists before him he relies on
samples. The Lonnie Smith sample on this track is a stroke of genius. What separates Butterfly
is all the references he makes to jazz giants of yesteryear, he shouts them out
like Cam’ron shouts out Rich Porter.
In this song Butterfly starts off the song by “pulling from the jazz stacks cuz it’s Sunday”
and wondering what John Coltrane would say of the times. He continues to take us on a vivid
walk down the street in the West Indian section of Brooklyn on a hot, summer day. “But early
birds like me up checking out the scene/The early worms jog, forget about your job/Just come
dig the essence while the decadence is hidden” Butterly uses Greek Mythology to describe how
New York changes on the day of sabbath. “If you know the norm, (Sunday) is like Hades
After Doodlebug’s strong verse sets the scene, the three members go bar for bar with one
another, each only taking one line at a time. It’s here that you notice how remarkable their
chemistry truly is: it shouldn’t be possible to have 16 MC changes in one 16 bar verse but
Digable Planets pull it off in style. It’s like listening to a three-man weave.
Butterfly’s second solo verse on this song is an all-timer that starts with the opening two
lines: “Wake up, praying that the game’s on/maybe it’s the Runnin’ Rebs, maybe it’s The
Knicks.” There aren’t many sports references on this album but referring to Larry Johnson’s
UNLV and Pat Riley’s Knicks in one line makes up for it.
Butterfly continues his name checking fest by bringing up Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert
Camus: the latter made my eyes pop out when I first heard it. I’m sure he was the only rapper at
that point to name check Albert Camus. The very next line “Mingus’ Ah Um, damn Roach can
drum” references one of the best jazz albums and drummers of all time.
“Where I’m From” – The group takes a break from the jazz samples and uses KC & The
Sunshine Band’s song “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong” to structure the beat around the song’s undeniable
horns. They used a jazz sample for the remix but the original is the superior version.
Each member of Digable Planets hails from a different area, giving the group a sound that
can’t be pinned down to a specific region. We discussed Butterfly’s Seattle/New York City roots.
Ladybug is from the DMV area, Maryland specifically. Doodlebug is from Philadelphia and the
son of a Black Panther History Professor who was obsessed with Jazz. His father was “around
people (Black Panthers and gangsters) that were in the street but who were down with
communist principles.” And I was just about to say Doodlebug’s father sounded like a great guy
to hang out with!
Jazz records weren’t the only thing Doodlebug and Butterfly had in common: they were
(are?) both socialists. In the previous song, Doodlebug talks about reading Erich Fromm right
before bringing up Camus. In this song Doodlebug has a line saying “We be reading Marx where
I’m from/The kids wear Clarks where I’m from.” Really, Doodlebug? What kid in the hood
is rockin’ Wallabee’s while reading fuckin’ Karl Marx? Go to China or North Korea with that
shit. I’m sure the Digable Planets don’t mind our capitalistic society when they cash their royalty
checks they rightfully deserve.
“What Cool Breezes Do” – Ladybug has the last verse on the previous song and the first song
on this one. She is a refreshing change-up to the similar sounding voices of Doodlebug and
Butterfly. Ladybug is far from a pushover but doesn’t sound unnecessarily aggressive. She has
remarkable control with her flow and always sounds confident in her abilities. It doesn’t matter
the tempo of the beat, her style is agile and nimble and can contort to whatever the beat is doing:
her timing is perfect and that of a ten-year veteran. An under-discussed part of rapping is the
little half second pauses rappers give before or during a bar: there’s no manual for how to do it,
you either have the rhythm for it or you don’t. Ladybug has this skill in spades: “Mecca, the
ladybug, changin’ like seasons/Moves I be seein, changin’ life’s reasons.”
Why doesn’t Ladybug get mentioned when people bring up the greatest female MC
debate? MC Lyte is my favorite female MC of all time but I can see why some would give
Queen Latifah that crown. Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim and Eve are each talented but were propped up
by being in advantageous situations, their degree of difficulty was relatively low. Bahamadia and
Lauryn Hill are the backpack rapper’s answer to best female MC but listening Bahamadia isn’t
exactly fun. Lauryn Hill is smart, a legend, a Queen blah blah blah but I just don’t have the
desire to revisit her one solo album or the Fugees: I played them out. Monie Love is from
London so she’s disqualified. Roxanne Shante and Yo-Yo were important but not even the best
females out at the time. Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes is the coolest and prettiest of the bunch but I
consider TLC more R&B than rap. Salt n Pepa and Da Brat crossed over to big success but
objectively can’t rap as well as Remy Ma or Rah Digga. I grew up listening to Missy Elliot on
95.5 the Beat in Atlanta and I respect her skills as an MC but there’s always been something
holding me back from considering her in that true MC light: it’s the price she pays for making
catchy radio singles. I was about to bring up Mia X and Gangsta Boo but you get the point. After
you take MC Lyte and Queen Latifah out of the equation for respect, you can make a very strong
argument that Ladybug is the best female rapper ever. Doesn’t seem right to give that label
to someone who was one third of a group that released two albums and never released a solo
album until a decade after her prime.
That only leaves one female rapper eligible for the throne. Wait…is that “Afro Puffs” I
hear coming from a distance? Lady of Rage, come on down! Laugh all you want but Lady of
Rage is the hardest female rapper of all time, that is not up for debate. Her guest verses
on Doggystyle and The Chronic account for probably half of the greatest female verses of all
time. I’m very confident that had her album been released after Doggystyle and produced by Dr.
Dre like “Afro Puffs” was, then Lady of Rage would’ve have made the best female rap album of
all-time. Her album coming five years after her initial buzz is a textbook example of what
happens when you wait and don’t strike while the iron is hot. Waiting until Death Row was
burning to the ground in 1997 to release Lady of Rage’s debut is like if 50 Cent would’ve waited
until post-Curtis in 2007 to release Lloyd Banks’ solo debut. My Mount Rushmore of Female
MC’s: MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Ladybug and Lady of Rage. Amil is definitely in Jay-Z’s female
The sample on this beat comes from a killer saxophone riff off “Superfluous” by
Eddie Harris. The beat also has a psychedelic haze to it. I say Doodlebug and Butterfly sound
similar and are close in skills but there’s songs like this where the difference is more
pronounced. Doodlebug mails in a verse and Butterfly come in with a laser focus. “Expressions,
sightings, scripting, taught/Finest status quo is being an artist in New York/Tongues be often
fought, clothes be often caught/If they call it a fad, we just ignore it, like its pork.” Butterfly has
a knack for taking common sayings and expressions and using them as a jump off point for an
interesting few bars: “They said the grass was greener so we snuck and hopped the fence/Landed
in a meadow, glimpsed and saw a shadow/Of brothers with guitars, common sense and puffy
afros.” How he goes from the starting point of those three bars to the end is magnificent.
“Time & Space (A New Refutation) – The album’s title is a reference to an essay by
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. The “Reachin’” part pays homeage to the old Jazz albums
such as Art Blakey‘s Cookin and Miles Davis’ Smokin’, Walkin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ albums I
praised in my Jazz piece. They should’ve just titled the album Reachin’ but the trio has a
tendency for doing a little too much. They really wanted us to know they were into the whole
“space and time are conceptual and don’t actually exist” thing. Cool.
All the beats on the album are done by Butterfly who had the music pretty much set for
the debut, while their follow-up was more of a collaborative effort. This beat samples “Mamba
Bounce” by Sonny Rollins. The beat follows the album’s blueprint of chill, laidback beats you
can nod your head to. When someone says about a project “all the beats sound the same” we
think of that as a bad thing but here it is actually a good thing. The formula works for them so
there’s no reason to deviate from it. Sure, the beats are jazzy, but there’s enough funk in there to
make them pop. The three MC’s aren’t in a rush to get their rhymes off, they let the smooth beat
come to them which relaxes the listeners and puts them at ease.
There is a line referring to the late, great comedian Sam Kinison. Netflix recently added
his specials to streaming and I watched them for the first time and was amazed by how funny he
was and that I’d never seen a special of his before. Why had I seen all of Bill Hick’s stuff but
none of Sam Kinison’s? Call me stupid but when I hear Digable Planets namedrop
Sam Kinison it made me feel like there is larger things at play, too much of a coincidence, right?
“Psych-e-delic and fat/Flowers and beads and peaces and naps.” The peace-loving, hippy
Digable Planets are getting trippier by the track. The ending line is the best. “Ah yes, planets got
the blessed/Beats are played on Friday to get Monday off your chest.”
“Rebirth (Cook Like Dat)” – One of the most recognizable singles in the history of rap. This
single is to the Digable Planets what “The Choice is Yours” is to Black Sheep. Instead of being
cheapened by a rapping hamsters in a Kia commercial, this song gets cheapened by being
included in “Master of None” a series by Aziz Ansari who is not funny. There’s something
about Aziz Ansari thinking this song is “accessible yet cool” that really pisses me off.
This beat is actually from the group Dread Poets Society, a group Doodlebug was a
member of before joining Digable Planets. Side note: Dread Poets Society is an extremely corny
yet predictable name for a late 80’s/early 90’s rap group. Doodlebug’s former group didn’t care
that he wanted to use the track for his new group.
The sample is a monster, it’s taken from Art Blakey and the Jazz
Messengers’ “Stretchin.” The group gives the common line that they didn’t know they had a hit
and didn’t feel one way or another when the label chose the song as the first single. Usually, I
would call BS on that but in this particular case I believe them because this song doesn’t stand
out in comparison to the rest of the album. No doubt it’s a great song that deserves its elevated
status in the rap singles cannon, but at the same time, you could argue there’s six or seven songs
better than “Rebirth” on the album. Someone who woke up from a 26-year coma wouldn’t hear
this and be like oh, that’s a hit. The bass line (from the same Art Blakey song) must have
resonated deeply with listeners.
There are always larger factors at play when it comes to why singles get heavy airplay.
Rosie Perez chose the song for an episode of In Living Color and the group flew to LA in
January 1993 to record the episode. After the episode aired, the sales for the single went through
the roof and the radio started playing the song non-stop. The group’s album came out a month
later and the rest is history.
The group beat out Naughty by Nature, Arrested Development, Dre & Snoop, and
Cypress Hill to win the 1994 Grammy Award for best performance by a duo or group. The
decision caused some controversy at the time. KRS-One (surprise, surprise) was upset Digable
Planets won the award. Granted the Grammys was more reputable back then but why choose a
Grammy to get upset over? The wack part is I’m sure KRS would have been fine with Arrested
Development, who aren’t in the same league as Digable Planets, winning the award. Cypress Hill
is lame and I’m sure the whole country didn’t want to see them win. Naughty by Nature had an
argument for the best single but the song is so reliant on an Isley Brothers sample like Biggie’s
“Big Poppa” (released the following year). “Nothin’ But a G Thang” should’ve won the award
and is the best and most iconic song out of the bunch but Dre and Snoop losing is not a travesty.
Want to see a travesty? Look at the list of singles that were up for this same award the previous
Beastie Boys: “Check Your Head”
House of Pain: “Jump Around” (Every Celtics fan favorite song)
Kris Kross: “Jump”
Arrested Development: “Tennessee” (won)
Digable Planets thought a song called “Brown Baby Funk” was going to be the single but
the song didn’t even make the album. The song sampled George Duke and he wanted a crazy
amount of money for the clearance so they just left it off. This reminded me of “Hard Like A
Criminal” being one of Das Efx’s best songs but being mysteriously left off of the duo’s
debut Dead Serious. At least “Hard Like A Criminal” exists on the internet, “Brown Baby Funk”
is nowhere to be found, release the track Butterfly, Loose Tracks Matter!
I saw this single referred to as a one-hit wonder. By definition that may be true, but when
I think of one-hit wonders I think of Vanilla Ice and J-Kwon, rappers who used a gimmick for
their single to become famous. There’s nothing gimmicky about Digable Planets and if you
release a classic album that plays all the way through you should not be considered a one-hit
wonder, that should be reserved for rappers that have albums with a popular single and filler
tracks no one wants to listen to. This is probably my nostalgia talking but my favorite rap one-hit
wonder is Cool Breeze’s “Watch for The Hook”.
“Last of the Spiddyocks” – The group avoids the common mistake of following their hit single
with a bland, low-tempo album cut. This track keeps the energy going high after the single. This
is actually the second Digable Planets song I ever heard. I’m embarrassed to say this now but for
a long time I was a fan of “Rebirth” even though I hadn’t heard any of their other songs. When I
bartended in Jersey City, I made a mix of golden age era rap songs that were classic but also
appropriate enough to play for hipsters who paid $9 for an IPA. Under those guidelines,
“Rebirth” was perfect, it was catchy and sure to not offend anyone. “The group is
too hipstery or backpacky to dig into further” I told myself which prevented me from digging
further into the group. Well one night in December, I had an urge to play “Rebirth” and I
couldn’t find the playlist I made so I just went directly to the album and played “Rebirth” while I
smoked out of my gravity bong. I was high so of course I forgot to change the album once the
song was over. This song came on and I found myself really digging it, something about it
happening unconsciously made it feel extra special. “Are all these songs this good?!” I asked
myself and spent the next week listening to the album over and over and wondering why I hadn’t
given the album a shot earlier.
Like I said earlier, there were rap groups by De La Soul and Tribe that were jazz
sounding but rarely did they ever name drop any jazz artists in their tracks. My jaw kept
dropping lower and lower after every Jazz reference in this song. “These guys love the same
guys I do!” I said excitingly to myself. When Butterfly rapped “I felt like Bird Parker when I
shot it in my vein/I toss these major losses on Mingus jazzy strum,” I felt a shot of adrenaline
going through my body. “This guy gets me” I thought in my head. Butterfly wished he was from
an earlier era like me. Butterfly goes on to mourn the loss of Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and
Hank Mobley, as well as giving a shout out to The Cooker album by Lee Morgan which is very
It’s not just the guys, Ladybug drops a bunch of jazz gems in her verse. “Dolphy’s
archetype for cool dudes/Or better still Trane usin’ Afro Blue.” That’s a great line but her best
jazz line of the album is, “My baby loves to kiss when Ornette just lays out.” Amazing. Dear
lord, please bless me with a woman who wants to hook up to Ornette Coleman! She also makes
a references to Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and (personal favorite) Philly Joe Jones. I
wouldn’t even know where to start looking if I wanted to find a woman that really knows old
school jazz. What up tho, Ladybug?
According to Butterfly, the term Spiddyock came from his dad’s era and was used to
describe a real jazzhead person: “You dressed a certain way and listened to a certain type of
music. It was just a type of socialite.” So Spiddyock’s were basically the coolest guys in the
world? I am leading a one-man charge to bring Spiddyock’s back into American vernacular and
will hereby refer to myself as a Spiddyock.
Butterfly’s father also had jazz connections. In Living Color took the group to another
level of game but it was the jazz clubs (remember those?) like Giant Step that played the group’s
records and provided them with the street buzz necessary to end up on the radar of TV shows and
radio stations. Butterfly’s father would visit the group in the studio and bring in famous jazz cats
who would sit, listen and chop it up with the trio. I wonder what Tekashi69’s favorite jazz
“Jimmi Diggin’ Cats” – Butterfly: “Yo, everybody’s goin retro, right? And I was thinking if the
60’s and 70’s were now. Isaac Hayes would have his own 900 number.”
Mecca: “I know, and MC Hammer woulda been a pimp, right?”
Butterfly: “Word, and Jimmi woulda dug us right?”
The acid has officially been dropped, I repeat the acid has officially been dropped!
Instead of pining to live in a previous generation, the group imagines what icons of the 60’s and
70’s would do now if they were around in the early 90’s hip-hop climate. The Isaac Hayes line
isn’t funny but foreshadows Hayes becoming the voice actor for Chef on South Park. The MC
Hammer line is not only low-hanging fruit but doesn’t make sense. The logic is supposed to be
MC Hammer is a radio sellout that gets pimped out to do KFC and Taco Bell commercials. So
why would he be the one doing the pimping? Plus, MC Hammer is the only artist mentioned
from the current era, how does he apply? Also, why assume Jimi Hendrix would like Digable
Planets or any rap for that matter? Hendrix was a student of southern blues and a big Bob Dylan
fan, it’s presumptuous to assume he would like rap. Jim Morrison may not look like he’d be a rap
fan, but he had the soul of an MC more than Jimi Hendrix did. I’m sure Jim Morrison rolled over
in his grave when he heard “Five to One” being sampled for “Takeover”.
The song uses “Summer Madness” by the Kool & The Gang for the eighth great beat in a
row. The group’s sound is so smooth, all three rappers know this and are careful not to overstep
boundaries and bring an energy that is too hyped. Don’t get it twisted, the group is not boring.
They are smart, know their lane and are masters of their craft. The group fully understands the
concept of an album, how a concept is supposed to prevail through a project and how one track is
supposed to seamlessly lead into the next.
The group is really obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. They couldn’t clear the sample to use his
actual voice and it sounds like they used an actor pretending to be Jimi Hendrix. The fake Jimi
Hendrix applauds Digable Planets for being groovy cats and paying respect to the masters. More
outtakes from their LSD-fueled rant on retro icons being around in the early 90’s:
Butterfly: Yo The Black Panthers woulda had their own cartoon, right?
Ladybug: I know and 8-track Walkmans, right?
Doodlebug: True, The Jackson Five would’ve had dreads
Ladybug: Word my man Tito would look fly right?
Butterfly: Word and Jimmi would’ve dug Dig Planets forreal, word.
The Black Panthers would’ve made a great cartoon? Are you serious? Sounds like the
most depressing cartoon of all time.
Black mom in 1969: Son, tell me what happened in “Super Panthers” this week
Black child in 1969: Mommy, Huey Newton got arrested and charged with killing a police
officer and then Edgar Hoover said the Super Panthers are the greatest threat to the country!
Black mom in 1969: That’s just fine, Sonny. Now tell me what’s next week’s show going to be
Black child in 1969: The Chicago police kill Fred Hampton while he sleeps next to his pregnant
8-Track Walkman line didn’t age well but makes more sense than a Black Panthers
cartoon. I’m almost positive Joe Jackson would not have let his sons wear dreads had the
Jackson 5 been around in 1991. I am even more positive that there is no situation where Tito
Jackson could look fly.
“La Femme Fatal” – The group finally crossed the limits and are too conscious on this song. I
should say Butterfly crosses the line because he is the only one on the song. He isn’t rapping on
the song: the track is an homage to the spoken word artists of yesteryear like Gil Scott-Heron and
our guy Lightning Rod. The track is Doodlebug doing a bad impression of The Last Poets. The
song messes up the flow of the album and has the most underwhelming beat on the project.
Butterfly is obviously a very smart dude but comes across as a 90’s version of someone
who has recently seen a bunch of Illuminati videos on YouTube. Which makes sense considering
he was in his mid 20’s at the time which is the perfect age to get into that stuff. The whole song
is one long pro-life argument: considering there’s a female in the group it’s a strange corner
for Butterfly to own. Butterfly points out the hypocrisy of men making the abortion laws but fails
to realize the irony of him (a man) saying that. Sure, have an opinion but why make a song about
a situation that would never happen to you? “They don’t really give a damn about life/They
just don‘t want a woman to control her body/or have the right to choose.”
“Escapism (Gettin’ Free)” – The song and beat gets my award for “song that bumps the most
in the car.” The beat has bounce to it without sounding heavy. More than any other track on this
album, the beat makes you want to get up and start doing the Deion Sanders touchdown dance.
The beat speeds up the drums from “Lillies of the Nile” by The Crusaders and takes the
often sampled “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock and puts it on steroids. It’s just a fun
sounding beat that you never tire of listening to. All the members sound great over it, especially
Ladybug who gets busy in a span of 8 bars. Ladybug pays homage to the God MC by lifting the
“I came in the door, I said it before” from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B for President.”
“Appointment at the Fat Clinic” – Who’s ready for more communist raps?! Butterfly’s first
verse ruins multiple great jazz lines by referring to his dad’s friends as “Chairman Mao’s
Comrades.” In Butterfly’s closing 8 bar verse he invites the listener to “read a little Marx.” How
many copies of the Communist Manifesto do you think Butterfly owns?
Ladybug comes on the track and gives us 8 solid bars before leading the way for
Doodlebug to give us a spoken word verse on the current state of jazz. As a self-appointed
“spiddyock,” I literally have no idea what the hell he is talking about here:
“Jazz, in the last 5 years has progressed in its fits
And starts of sudden discoveries and startled reactions.
New principles, new sounds
New rhythms and harmonies have been advanced with unusual frequency
Not surprisingly, many of the younger musicians have been quietly digesting
This information almost as quickly as it has appeared
As a result, they’ve acquired a degree of
Musical sophistication which supersedes many of the previous standards of excellence
So it’s no longer especially relevant to ask the young saxophone player
For example, to demonstrate his ability by running through all the Charlie Parker licks”
The acid must really be hitting if Doodlebug thinks jazz progressed from 1987-1992.
New principles, sounds, rhythms and harmonies have been advanced?! Please Doodlebug, tell
me what early 90’s jazz masterpieces have I been missing out on. Matter of fact, just name one
jazz album from that stretch that is on par with the classics. Doodlebug telling young saxophone
players to steer clear of proving yourself by playing the Godfather of the Saxophone’s licks is
hilarious and dumb.
“Nickel Bags” – Butterfly’s Ice-T influence is evident here as he uses music as a metaphor for
selling drugs. Selling “Nickel bags of funk” is similar to Ice-T on his hit single “I’m Your
Pusher.” “Nickel Bags” was the group’s second single from the album and unlike “I’m Your
Pusher” the single cover doesn’t feature Darlene Ortiz in a dental floss bikini. I had no idea this
song was a single until I did my research, there was nothing about the song that struck me as
mainstream or radio friendly. At this point in the album, there are no surprises. You’re getting
the same formula: three MC’s with buttery flows over a laid back, smooth jazz sample. This is
not meant as a knock, it’s an accomplishment to be able to stick to the same formula song after
song and the listener not only doesn’t tire of it but keeps coming back for more. Of all the
albums I’ve reviewed, this one took me the longest to get tired of. Part of that is because I had no
previous relationship to the album but the point remains: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Alas, Digable Planets couldn’t resist fixing their perfect formula. The group ended up
overthinking it and became more conscious and backpack rapper-y on their follow-up
album Blowout Comb. The group abandoned their radio-friendly style for a stripped down sound
inspired by albums the group listened to while on their world tour. I respect what they were
trying to do but sometimes an artist bites off more than they can chew. I’m all for artists
progressing and trying new things. Miles Davis is my favorite musical artist and he’s the king of
innovation and creating new styles. I get what they were trying to do but for me it just didn’t
work. I’ve only listened to the album once so I can’t have any concrete takes on it but one thing I
know is the first time I listened to Reachin’ from start to finish I was blown away and couldn’t
wait to listen to it more and lose myself in that world. I had no such desires after listening
to Blowout Comb, there are some solid tracks and some of the sounds are interesting but
personally it doesn’t come close to grabbing me by the collar which is what I want music to do:
good music is supposed to garner a reaction out of you and Blowout Comb left me dry after the
first spin. For what it’s worth, Blowout Comb is critically more successful than Reachin’ but that
strikes me as a case of music journalists trying to sound smart by appreciating something more
musically abstract. Put those loser music journalists on truth serum and I bet they don’t actually
like Blowout Comb more. At the very least, Reachin’ is much more re-listenable.
“Swoon Units” – One final banger for the album. The track takes the Saxophone from Earth,
Wind & Fire’s “They Don’t See” and marries it with Gylan Kain’s “Black Satin Amazon Fire
Engine Cry Baby” to make for an unlikely yet strong couple.
Butterfly got the saying “Swoon Units” from women he worked with in a kitchen at
Reading Terminal (yikes) and every time a good-looking guy would pass by they would yell
“Swoon Units!” Butterfly and Doodlebug adopted the saying and would use it for hot girls they
passed in the street. Butterfly has two very strong verses but Doodlebug’s 8 bar verse steals the
show: he hovers over the beat as the verse ends, right when you’re gearing up for more.
Ladybug is saying “Swoon Units!” on the hook but doesn’t have a verse on the song.
Prior to joining Digable Planets, Ladybug and Doodlebug were a couple. According to
Doodlebug in Brian Coleman’s book Check the Technique they “remained friends but decided to
not go out. That was one of the smartest things we ever did, considering how popular we got. If
we hadn’t done that, we would have hated each other!” Translation: if had we stayed a couple I
would have cheated on her as soon as we got famous and she would’ve hated me and that
would’ve broken up the group. When I found this out, I was fascinated by their dynamic. In the
beginning, did they continue to occasionally hook up on lonely nights on the road? Did Ladybug
secretly resent all the female groupies that were after Doodlebug? When they were a couple,
would their pillow talk be exchanging bars? Did Butterfly ever get caught in the middle of a
domestic dispute? Can a dope 16 turn somebody on? Were Ladybug and Doodlebug
rap’s Nomar Garciaparra and Mia Hamm? There’s lot of questions I need answers for. I can’t
remember a situation where a female and male MC in the same group dated. Usually it’s a
Biggie/Lil’ Kim situation where the male rapper’s elevated status gives him the upper hand.
Here, it’s different because Ladybug and Doodlebug are on a similar playing field as far as MC
skills go. Don’t be surprised if I write a fictional TV show about a hip-hop couple based off my
weird fascination with Ladybug and Doodlebug going out.
“Examinatin of What” – The album’s last track starts with:
“One day while I was sipping some groove juice I realized/That in the span of time we’re just
babies…It’s all relative, time is unreal…we’re just babies, we’re just babies, man…”
The acid is officially peaking. I repeat the acid is officially peaking! If you weren’t
convinced the group was doing LSD before, that intro will convince you. If that isn’t enough,
Butterfly’s last “verse” will:
“Cause Butterfly is…baby, I’m just a baby, man
I’m a baby, I’m just a baby, man
And Mr. Doodle? (I’m just a baby too)
And Miss Mecca (I’m just a baby, man)”
Butterfly goes on to shout everyone out and call them all babies because thinking time is
unreal and adults are babies are thoughts that occur when you’re knee deep in an acid trip. All
jokes aside, the beat for this song is really simple but really good. The instrumental consists of
only The Crusaders’ song “Listen and You’ll See” sped way up. The keyboards on the track fit
perfect with the rhyming patters of Butterfly. The group and this album were born from Butterfly
so it makes sense and is fair that he has three verses on the last song on the album. Well, the last
verse isn’t actually a verse, it’s just him calling everyone he knows a baby because he’s high out
of his mind and can’t come up with anymore rhymes. The first two verses are two of the stronger
of the albums. On the first verse: “Life, it comes and goes and you do not punch a clock/I don’t
take shit for granted, I think of Scott La Rock.” On Butterfly’s second verse we get one last jazz
reference: “My father taught me jazz, all the people and the anthems/Ate peanuts with
the Diz and vibed with Lionel Hampton.” Can you imagine being in a smokey jazz club,
throwing peanut shells on the ground and chopping it up with Dizzy Gillespie?
Ladybug commits a party foul in her two-line spoken word part: “What is really what if I
can’t get comfortable because the Supreme Court is like, all up in my uterus.” Whoa! Holy
imagery Ladybug, chill out! Could you think of a more tactful way to let me know where you
stand on Abortion Rights? The Digable Planets are obsessed with: Communism, jazz and being
The woke-ness and missteps are few and far between on this classic. Reachin’ is a top 50
rap album of all-time. It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to 3 Feet High and Rising and the first
three Tribe albums but based off memories this is right there with all four of those albums. It’s a
step above Black Sheep but not quite on the level of A Trible Called Quest at their absolute apex.
Before we leave, let’s see how Reachin’ stacks up against other rap albums released in 1993, one
of the best years in rap history.
Albums released in 1993 that are better than Reachin’:
Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle
Wu-Tang Clan- Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
2Pac – Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.
Albums released in 1993 on the same level as Reachin’:
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
Black Moon – Enta Da Stage
Oynx – Bacdafucup
Albums released in 1993 that are one level below Reachin’:
KRS-One – Return of the Boom Bap
Lords of the Underground – Here Come the Lords
8Ball and MJG – Comin’ Out Hard
De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate
Freestyle Fellowship – Innercity Griots
Naughty by Nature – 19 Naughty III
Brand Nubian – In God We Trust
Eazy-E – It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa
Masta Ace – Slaughtahouse
Albums from 1993 that are good and deserve mention:
Spice 1 – 187 He Wrote
Tha Alkaholiks – 21 & Over
Del the Funky Homosapien – No Need for Alarm
The Roots – Organix
Too $hort – Get In Where You Fit In
Big Daddy Kane – Looks Like A Job For…
Fat Joe – Repersent
King Tee – Tha Trifilin’ Album
E-40 – Federal
Mac Dre – Young Black Brotha
Mobb Deep – Juvenile Hell
Queen Latifah – Black Reign