Years from now, music historians will call this the Age of Rebirth. Whether it's The Pixies, Wu Tang Clan, Jane's Addiction, Gang of Four or The Beastie Boys, a band's breakup no longer means the end. It's just a necessary step before a bitchin' reunion tour.
In a case like The Pixies, getting back together meant a new sound that they couldn't quite create back in the day-namely, ch-ching!
Despite a few radio singles, The Pixies were underground, which, back then, was a workable synonym for destitute. Years later, their audience has mysteriously grown. They returned with their wrinkles and adult concerns and found themselves a buzz band.
And it's all been due to the education of the consumer. In the past, the dispensers of information were primarily limited to radio, MTV, magazines and word of mouth-a menu as limited as In-N-Out Burger's. Come 2005, the Internet, satellite radio, the evolution of movie and TV soundtracks, plus the diversification of music channels on cable television, the average music fan can choose between thousands of portals for underground music.
As a result, Joe Q. Music is feeling something he hasn't felt in a long time-the thrill of discovery. While that's been a boon to up-and-coming bands, it's also meant that seminal acts are dug from the graveyard of pop culture and given second life.
Digable Planets are one of those bands whose first life was pretty damn good. When they formed in 1991, hip-hop was primarily a bi-coastal turf war, with gangster lyrics from Dr. Dre, Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. and Puffy Combs. But Digable's1993 debut, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), was a cosmic love-in, a chilled-out exercise in mixing poetry with jazz and hip-hop.
Their names were intentionally non-threatening-"Doodlebug" (Craig Irving), "Butterfly" (Ishmael Butler) and "Ladybug" (Mary Ann Viera).
They could've been written off as really big pansies.
Instead, their album became a landmark in jazz-rap, and in 1993 they became the first hip-hop group to win a Grammy outside of categories dedicated to the genre. The award was for Best Performance by a Duo or Group for the song "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," which even now ranks next to "Me, Myself and I" as one of the most popular peacenik hip-hop joints of all time.
(Here is where you insert the essay on why the mostly white Grammy officials could more easily relate to Digable's non-threatening cosmic poetry than, say, B.I.G.'s hard-hitting ghetto tales-but that's a whole other story.)
The trio seemed destined for greatness. But their second album, 1995's Blowout Comb, was angrier, more confrontational about black issues. It didn't sell nearly as well, which could at least partially be attributed to the fact that it alienated a large portion of the trio's crossover (read: white) audience.
In 1996, they broke up. No press conference. No final tour. Just gone.
"At the end of making Blowout Comb, I told the fellas, "Look, guys, after this album, that's going to be it for me,'" recalls Ladybug from Portland, the ninth stop on Digable Planets' 27-date reunion tour. "At that time, we were having the regular brother-sister spats.
"We were literally babies. We didn't expect any of what happened to happen. We were just people who loved to make music, loved to create, loved to play with words, make beats and hang out and enjoy life. And we turn around and our lives were just upside down.
"And we're like brothers and sisters-we're going to argue and get down like that if we have to. But at the end of the day, you still love each other. It's just life-that's what healthy relationships are like."
While recording Blowout Comb, Ladybug also got the news that her mother was terminally ill, and she wanted to be there for the last few months of her life. So Ladybug and her insectile pals went separate ways. She was home to see her mom pass away, and then 11 months later, her father died.
"I still left it open," she says, "but I had to step away from the spotlight."
At the time of Reachin', Ladybug was 18 years old. She, Doodlebug and Butterfly were essentially their own small commune in New York City, sharing whatever money or means they had.
"I had literally applied for a job at McDonald's," she recalls of the period just before Reachin' was released. "There were a whole bunch of other teenagers who were trying to get this job-I think there was, like, one position. This was when the other Bush was in control and there were no jobs."
Then "Rebirth of Slick" took off, and Ladybug's McDonald's application became a collectors' item.
In the decade since their disappearance, Ladybug became a mother to four children (three biologically). Doodlebug adopted the alias Cee Knowledge, releasing Space is the Place in 2002, and is currently working on a mix-tape series called Cosmic Funk Essentials. Butterfly formed Cherrywine, a mediocre funk band that dropped Bright Black in 2003.
Meanwhile, Digable fans awaited Ladybug's solo debut, which had been rumored so long it took on albatross proportions like Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy.
Ladybug was the least visible in the public eye, so the rumors were rampant-that she was on heroin, that she was dead.
"There are writers I hear about from my friends who swear their friend's friend saw me shoot heroin. And I'm like, "Is that right?'" she says with a resigned sense of amusement. "It comes with your choice of career; it comes with the spotlight. And you know, we disappear out of nowhere and we're gone forever and there's no reason why, no press conference. It leaves room for people to create [stories]. They need something.
"It never affected me personally, [but] I think it affects the people around me. Every time I came back they'd be like, "Oh, we have to deal with this.' And I'm like, "Whatever.' They are all untrue-never on crack, never on heroin. I smoked a little weed before, sure. Not dead, obviously."
During the years off, Doodlebug made it his personal mission to get Digable Planets back together. He would phone Butterfly. Then he'd call Ladybug, or vice versa.
"I think in the past he'd approached us at a point where we weren't ready," Ladybug says. "We wanted to continue to grow as individuals, Ish and I. Knowledge did his thing with the Cosmic Funk Essentials. I think [Ishmael and I] needed to get our solo projects off our chests before we were able to get back together as a group."
On June 28, indie label Nu Paradigm Entertainment will release Fantastic by Ladybug Mecca (her full moniker)-what she calls a "more feminine and very, very personal album" that mixes her Brazilian roots with samba, jazz, hip-hop and even rock.
That goal attained, one of Doodlebug's semi-regular phone calls was finally met with the answer he'd been looking for for 10 years. Last fall, Digable Planets reunited for a two-week European tour, plus three shows in the U.S., including a date at Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre that quickly sold out.
Digable's return was being hailed everywhere hip-hop heads gathered, as well as in some jazz magazines. This current tour is preparation for an album of all-new material they hope to release in 2006. In the meantime, a Digable Planets greatest-hits package-including "possibly one or two new songs"-will drop in September.
Ladybug says she doesn't regret any of the decisions they made. Now back together in the same tour bus, on the same stage, and in the same recording studio for the first time in a decade, she says Digable Planets feels right. Again.
Whether their music will still resonate with hip-hop fans is another question altogether. Though not first to mix jazz and hip-hop, Digable was certainly among the pioneers, and Reachin' was one of the best albums the genre ever produced. Now, jazz and hip-hop has almost become cliché. It will take a great band to overcome that cliché.
But Ladybug seems to think they've got what it takes.
"We just connect on this level that I can't say that I've seen before with any other group," she says. "It's kinda beyond us. It's something that's almost spiritual, like we were brought together to do this."
By "do this," does she mean long term?
"Oh yeah, we're definitely thinking long term," she says. "We're just going to keep it all interwoven and support each other on our other projects. Definitely no more 10-year breaks.
"I hope not, I hope not."
Digable Planets plays with DJ Willow at the Belly Up, 8 p.m. on June 28. $25-$27. 858-481-8140.