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In hindsight there should have been little surprise over the sudden success of Digable Planets’ first single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” and its iconic video homage to bebop jazz and Beat poetry. The song more or less follows the formula of Gangstarr’s “It’s a Jazz Thing” by highlighting the same general parallels between jazz music and free verse that had inspired Kerouac to flip the word “beat” decades earlier, but it has the crucial advantage of being a catchier, more marketable track. Moreover, the video for “Rebirth of Slick, while evoking nostalgia for a past era, features a Benetton ad’s cast of impossibly hip café denizens nodding and grooving to the smooth and intriguing flows of the three youthful emcees. In MTV terms this means that “Rebirth” was destined to get more burn than Gangstarr’s somber tribute to the age of be-bop. Coffeehouse pretense aside, the release of the single and the subsequent Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) LP could not have been more perfectly timed. An especially zealous critical cult that had formed around A Tribe Called Quest’s revolutionary The Low End Theory publicly longed for the arrival of an enlightened and consciously avante-garde “Jazz Rap” sub-genre. To their ears, Reachin’ sounds like the next episode.
The album’s familiar horns and drum kits and overt, nearly pedantic veneration of all things Black and retro, from Miles Davis to Nikki Giovanni, gives the spirited, often distinctive sounding record the appearance of a bland but sellable excercise in simplistic positivity. It doesn’t hurt that one can easily discern shades of De La Soul’s “Change in Speak” in “It’s Good To Be Here” (albeit without any actual change in speak) and locate the sultriness of Tribe’s “Bonita Applebum” in “Swoon Units.” It would be unfair to characterize the Planets’ music as a watered down Native Tongue sound, but the influence is apparent even if Digable’s beats don’t hit nearly as hard and the overall feel is so easygoing and familiar that the music comes off as predictable in spots. Advocates of the album were quick to point out the similarities between Reachin’ and Tribe’s debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, but hesitant to note that Digable’s effort lacked the sophistication, flavor, and edge of Q-Tip’s boom-bip. Without jeep-ready beats or Friday night radio mix show presence, a crew that was branded as “bohemian” or “alternative” by Rolling Stone or The Village Voice did not stand a chance of gaining credibility in rap’s underground. In the case of Reachin’ the streets didn’t even bother to disbelieve the hype, as they were already inclined to ignore a swiftly hijacked group whose major flaws were insultingly lauded as improvements upon rap, or even representing a departure from rap altogether.
It’s not as if the Planets did not desire to gain fan’s among Red Alert and Chuck Chillout’s avid listeners. Reachin’ is peppered with allusions to underground luminaries like Kid Capri and Scott LaRock. It is safe to say that the Planets were most likely attuned to the hip-hop culture known and loved by aficianados in the five boroughs. However, these references come off like cautiously sprinkled afterthoughts on an album whose very sound, save for maybe “N.Y. Is Red Hot,” feels better suited for the dorms and cafés that initially embraced the record than the streets that slept. Over a decade later, the album’s seeming artifice is understandable and easily forgivable. After all, Digable Planets were a rap crew formed in college, an act honed at student center talent shows. However, mainstream critics did Digable a major disservice by insisting that the group’s collegiate background is inextricably linked to an exclusive boho sensibility. This is nothing new of course. Ever since De La and Tribe stepped on the scene, critics have falsely assumed that the cuddly artsy image that is imposed on an artist by label execs and reviewers is actually a fabrication or delusion attibutable to the artist. For all of its missteps and quiet storminess, Reachin’ is filled with fiery rhetoric, and buoyed by a relatively mature sense of the coexisting danger and beauty of New York City’s ghettoes. Despite the album’s promise and the group’s obvious potential, any street edge present on Reachin’ is eclipsed by its unintentional pop appeal. Sure, Digable claimed that they treated rapping just like “bustin’ caps” and that they revered the wise words of Clarence 13X, and that they were surrounded by projects and pyramids, but as a wise man once said, success in hip-hop is more a function of where you’re at.
As it turned out, Reachin’ was not a sustainable commercial success. The follow-up singles “Where I’m From” and the anemic “Nickel Bags” were poorly promoted and coldly received. In the minds of many listeners the group’s overall impact and relevance was negligible. At best, Digable Planets was written off as a pleasant but abortive Native Tongue spin-off, worthy of a requisite MTV Party-To-Go slot and afterwards, an eternity of bargain bin invisibility. Digable’s sophomore LP, the beautifully convoluted, fantastically militant Blowout Comb arrived in 1994 with minimal label support and virtually no pre-release fanfare, touching down on a ruff, rugged, and raw rap terrain that had undergone enormous changes in only two years. In 1993, two related movements in East Coast rap emerged and flourished just in time to influence Digable Planets’ post-Reachin’ direction, as if to guide Ish, Mecca, and C-Know to a space much closer to the thematic and stylistic focus of their raps.
The 1993 rise of BK’s Boot Camp Clik and Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan vindicated the East Coast rap underground’s penchant for lo-fi production values and patently uncompromising rhyme styles. Rap’s acute sensitivity to the poignant, ironic, and surreal aspects of a very real urban experience ran wild in a Wu and BCC ruled New York. The broken language that arose from the dilapidated yet media-saturated ghettoes proclaimed a realist agenda while indulging in abstraction. Black Moon’s “I Gotcha Opin” describes the quest for mystic elevation, lyrical immortality, and corner notoriety in the sacred utterances of cipher ritual, while Wu-Tang’s “Can It Be All So Simple” showed that a similar “lyrical high” could manifest visions that were simultaneously nostalgic and disturbing, both coldly literal and irrepressibly emotional. The dense mist of outer-borough slang was rendered even more vexing when it was used to address, dissect, and enlarge upon the unexpectedly broad, kaleidoscopic frame of reference beheld by the ghetto child on the regular. Fervently ingested pulp novels, comic books, karate flicks, mixtapes, and funk 45s(all of which were often bootlegged or boosted), functioned as raw materials for interpreting and reshaping a most hectic reality. Digable Planets were hip to all of it. Records like 36 Chambers proved that a distinctly New York gutter sound could find a loyal audience in a Doggy Dogg world, providing Digable with the inspiration and license to free themselves of their past, go back to the lab, and flex an original, relevant style.
In this new scene, a probing, complex examination of the streets can amount to an aesthetic reinvention of hip-hop and vice-versa, so long as the beats are rugged and the raps are on point. What many critics seem to forget, or ignore, is that the guidelines that dictate the kind of sound that constitute a “rugged” beat and/or a dope rap are, much like the vagaries of urban existence, perpetually shifting and open to interpretation. Sometimes the “ghetto” consisted entirely of low-income housing projects, and sometimes it was expanded to incorporate the working-class neighborhoods surrounding the projects, and sometimes the newly black middle-class outskirts of town were included. The changeability of slang left its speakers without any exact standard to demarcate, for instance, which blocks in a given neighborhood were “ghetto” or “‘hood” or “rugged” and which were definitely “not.” The music that depicts these conditions was logically characterized by qualitative ambiguities; even in a climate where definite “sell-outs” were spotlighted and exiled without remorse, groups like Tribe remained rooted in a respectable though sometimes misunderstood middleground. In this context, the allegedly eccentric public image and sound of the Native Tongues and disciples like Digable fits much more neatly into the historical narrative of rap music. In the early ‘90s, there was room on the truckload of rap gold for three rappers once labeled as hippie has-beens to try again.
The most unforgivable crime of many critics of this time is that they appear to project their distaste for rap’s penetrating yet strategically fanciful depiction of the particularities of street life onto artists who defy obvious conventions, especially in their use of disparate and offbeat sample sources. The insidious implication was, and still is, that street kids who were eccentric enough to sit through Lou Reed records just to find a loop or write rhymes about talking alligators likely feel constrained by rap’s supposed musical limitations and secretly wish to broaden their appeal beyond a street culture that lacks the interpretive capacity to appreciate or even comprehend abstraction. In listening to Blowout Comb, one senses that Digable may have been angrily conscious of the suffocating injustice of their “Jazz Rap” and “Tribe lite” labels. If they were truly amateurish poseurs of the Stereo MCs caliber then they might have pulled a predictable De La Soul Is Dead stunt and denounced their darling status as the botched result of market pressures and critical fallacy. But rather than go out like Special Ed, the Digable Planets crafted an album that was knowingly responsive to hardcore taste-making, true to their evolving stylistic inclinations, and perhaps most importantly, refreshingly devoid of a legible pop sensibility. If outsiders were perplexed by the inclusion of DJ Jazzy Joyce’s club style toasting on the first single, “9th Wonder (Blackitolism),” which casually references a firearms manufacturer, cites the 120 Lessons, and extols the virtues of savings accounts, then all was good.