Aug. 17 2016 12:14 AM

Hip-hop trio finds new sense of purpose on reunion tour

From left: "Doodlebug" Irving, Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira and Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler
Photo by Chris Lee

On March 6, 1993, Brooklyn hip-hop trio Digable Planets cracked the Billboard top 20. Their single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” a post-Native Tongues mixture of cool jazz samples and laid-back rap verses, became the group’s first hit, landing at number one on the Hot Rap Singles chart at the same time, while being the rare ’90s hip-hop track to crack playlists on alternative stations, which at the time were still well into their grunge phase. It was accessible, yet innovative, fun but impressive in its display of lyrical dexterity. Just two years later, however, they’d be broken up.

The landscape of hip-hop has changed quite a bit since then. Where jazz-rap, boom-bap and burgeoning gangsta rap narratives like those on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic were dominant in the early ’90s, since then rap has evolved through many different regional and stylistic movements—trap, grime, cloud rap, the curious ascent of social media sensation Lil B and the many career shifts of Kanye West. And for their part, the members of Digable Planets have changed and evolved along with hip-hop. Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving each released solo material, the latter under the name Cee Knowledge. And Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler has released a series of albums with his current avant garde hip-hop group, Shabazz Palaces.

The group did briefly reunite in 2005, coinciding with a compilation of archival material called Beyond the Spectrum, but on a second try for a tour, Ladybug Mecca opted not to participate. After Digable Planets spent some time apart and refocused efforts spent on their own individual projects, the prospect of performing music again presented itself in the form of a New Year’s Eve show in Seattle, where Butterfly now lives. It marked the first time that the trio shared a stage together in more than a decade, and Doodlebug says in a phone interview, much to his surprise, it all felt entirely fresh and comfortable, despite their time apart.

“The first time we got back on stage, it seemed natural. It wasn’t forced,” he says. “I was nervous. I was practicing like crazy for the first shows we did. I’d go to different rooms in my house to just listen to the songs. Some of the songs I knew because I performed them in my own personal solo sets. So a lot of the songs I had to review and listen to them again because it had been a while. But once we got onstage...it was like we never stopped doing it. The flow was just there.”

Less than a year before Digable Planets broke up, they released Blowout Comb, which remains the band’s most recent full-length album at almost 22 years old. It sounds contemporary well after the fact, however, its psychedelic blend of jazz and funk samples and Black Panther imagery somewhat outside the mainstream by 1994 standards but certainly innovative, later being reissued on vinyl with expanded liner notes by Seattle label Light in the Attic.

As Digable Planets get ready for the next leg of their tour, however, Doodlebug says they’re also planning on doing something they haven’t done for a long time: Make new music.

“We’ve definitely been talking about it,” he says. “The guitar player in our band, who’s also our musical director... on our next run next week, he’s gonna bring some mobile recording equipment on the tour bus, and we’re gonna see if we can put some demos together on the road.”

Now in their forties, the members of Digable Planets are a good distance removed from the material that put them on the map. Yet as they’ve gotten the opportunity to reconnect with audiences, they’ve noticed something much different in the crowds they’re performing to: There’s a much more diverse range of ages attending their live shows.

“Now we’re seeing the people that were the young’uns when we first came out, they were in their twenties,” Doodlebug says. “Now they’re in their forties, fifties. And then you have all these young kids, I don’t know how the heck they know who we are. But every show we do… it runs the gamut. It’s crazy, but it’s fly. I haven’t seen that too many times at shows I’ve gone to. Either you go to a show and it’s a bunch of kids, or it’s a bunch of old heads.”

Older, wiser and with 20 years of hindsight to reflect on, the members of Digable Planets are “in a much more comfortable place in their lives,” Doodlebug says. Yet without the same pressure they once had, ironically, they’re selling out shows and getting ready to possibly record their first music in decades. Nothing’s set in stone just yet, but being able to breathe new life into their music is enough for Digable Planets to keep going on the path they’re on.

“Music to me is life,” Doodlebug says. “Everybody wants to be loved and liked and feel like what they do is relevant to themselves and other people. So if the crowd is into it, if they love it, I feel like we did something. Getting on stage and being able to rock the songs and have people sing them along with you, that’s a great feeling.”

Digable Planets plays August 20 at Belly Up Tavern


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