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The loungy, inviting, easy listening vibe of Reachin’ gives way to the nearly dissonant muddy waters funk of Comb, which touches on moods both sinister and cheerful but remains rooted in a narcotic haze. Residual youthful proclivities (either actual or critically superimposed) towards radical psychedelica and true-to-life ghetto representation begin to mature into appreciably sincere, imaginative engagements with the block parties, corner stores, projects, and barbershops. The use of live instrumentation on a majority of the album’s tracks does little to render the music accessible or even melodic. The mixdown is reminiscent of RZA’s most beautifully fucked up work. The monstrous bass of “Graffiti,” which features a cameo from fellow BK grimy mic-wrecka Jeru the Damaja turns a club-ready rhythm into a sludge of cheap third generation Maxell dub quality, while the hook, a simple repetition of “Noise, noise, noise, noise” says it all and then some. Much like 36 Chambers or Enta Da Stage, Comb is a motley clash of sounds that celebrates boombox batteries-in-the-freezer ghetto ingenuity as a raw, empowered expression. In much the same spirit, Ladybug Mecca, Butterfly Ish, and C-Knowledge manipulate their learned street talk, itself a highly eclectic admixture, to document the chaotic yet vibrant city life that informs their sound. Partly inspired by the militaristic metaphors of the Boot Camp Clik, the trio troops through Medina wearing their inherited b-boy and b-girl swaggers as unburnable ghetto passes. As if the Planets were liberated by rap’s return to the streets, the Five Percenter and kung-fu references that are heard on Reachin’ are more fluidly and triumphantly incorporated into the lyrics of Comb.
The journey is undertaken with a nod to the outlaw ambition of subway graf bombin’ and the stoic purpose of Kung Fu Master’s meandering. This seriousness is regularly tempered by moments of thoughtful repose, childlike wonder, or even outright giddiness. On Reachin’ the Planets coolly note that they feel “good to be here” in technicolor NYC, but on Comb they are downright jubilant and exceedingly grateful to partake in the ’94 rap scene. The “7-od” squad frequently pauses for the cause to bask contemplatively in the“freshly-dipped state” that Butterfly describes on the unlikely manifesto/ down-tempo party groove “The Art of Easin’.” On the rolling, hypnotical “The May 4th Movement” the Planets shape super serious Five Percenter recitation rituals into their own point-by-point program, chanting “one time for your mind, twice times for Mumia and Sekou, thrice times for the Brooklyn dimes and it’s seven times for pleasure.” Whereas BCC commandos Smif-N-Wessun demand army-like discipline for their march, Digable advocates adherence to an ethos of wide-eyed awe and unhindered festivity. They observe, absorb, and rock the many styles of speak, gear, smoke, and sound that New York has to offer and incorporate the various shades of fresh into a stance that is strangely celebratory, wary, indulgent, and subversive. On “May 4th” Mecca speaks for the group when she unapologetically posits herself as a committed leftist “posin’ in B-girl freshness.” Think Jay-Z rhyming over a live jam band in a crisp Che Guevara tee; the whole concept might be cynically dismissed as a contrived, problematic, contradictory, even deceitful youthful expression, but truthfully, it’s too damn slick for that.
Such ironically overconsumptive gestures gleefully anticipate the slang and couture fixations that run through Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, and add fascinating layers of mystique to an already difficult listen. Just as Rae and Ghost’s vividly puzzling back-to-back rhyming develops and normalizes Rakim’s highly bizarre godbody-mafioso microphone persona, the confusion and camouflage of Comb works to illuminate rap’s seemingly contradictory stances and images. On the pitch black “Borough Check” (which like Smif-N-Wessun’s “Home Sweet Home” samples generous portions of Roy Ayers’ “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby”) Butter declares that he is “all city” when “dipped,” conferring the subversive potential of grafitti’s subterranean broadcast onto new wears and fly kicks. In the world of Digable Planets, meticulous style can embody brash rebellion, and is not simply read as a symbol of corporate-engineered conformist complacency. The colors and textures of the redeemed inner-city, teeming with creative and revolutionary potential, are reflected in the carefully chosen apparel of its inhabitants. In this light, recent chastisements of rap’s designer label obsessions, some of which go so far as to theorize a direct link between the purchasing of expensive loungewear and the perpetuation of inner-city poverty and violence, seem laughably myopic and far-fetched. The lyrics of Blowout Comb provide excellent counter-arguments to that reactionary and reductive line of reasoning because the LP’s release precedes this debate and the hasty establishment of its terms. More importantly, the flash and flair of Blowout Comb is not predictably limited to the mere mention of pricey items.
Draped in everything brand new and fresh but equipped with elder wisdom and historical consciousness, the Digable Planets are most at home “for delf roamin’ the New York borough.” On the closing ad-libs of “The Art of Easin’” Butterfly, portraying a Boot Campian drill sergeant, schools his troops on proper attire, which unlike the strict timbs and hoodies uniform of Smif-N-Wessun includes Guess, ‘Lo, and Wallabees in addition to standard issue urban camo. The defined mission, which is also articulated in rhyme by C-Know on “May 4th,” and at countless points throughout the album, is to speak perfect slang and emulate the chillest villains of Blaxploitation, to be slick yet gutter, to look fresh but remain largely unseen. Such stylistic mobility is significant because it establishes Digable’s movement through the streets as an unpretentious plea for citywide unity and poetic UNIversality. ??Comb??’s reverent allusions to rap’s old school records and hip-hop’s earliest days, coupled with the mock New Leftist grassroots newsletter format of the inset suggests that the Planets might well have aligned themselves with Afrika Bambaataa’s social program of reforming and revitalizing a dangerously divisive gang culture, had they not been in grade school at the time. Even the frequent outbursts of pro-Crooklyn rah-rah assist in exporting a translatable message of peaceful coexistence and most importantly, freedom of movement.
At the very least, the Planets demonstrate a remarkable awareness of the dreams and struggles of their late ‘70s and early ‘80s forefathers. On “May 4th” Ish rhymes that he “makes soul darts” and “covers mad areas” in his “crepe-soled Clarks,” smartly namedropping the resurrected formal yet comfortable footwear that allowed b-boys and girls to navigate freely between uptown park jams and downtown clubs in the Sugar Hill/Enjoy! era. On Comb, the beloved Brooklyn borough, and by extension the city as a whole, is lovingly depicted in all of its wondrous microcosmic complexity as a place of convergence and collusion. On “Jettin’” Brooklyn is the chill “ep swinga’s lounge-out spot,” and elsewhere it is the dynamic birthplace of “horn loopers,” and a perilous land governed by the credos of “do or die” and “show and prove.” On the ethereal, guitar-driven, seven-minute ode to identity formation and apocalyptic rhetoric “Black Ego,” Ladybug Mecca teasingly dares d-evils to “check me in another place, space, and joy.” The deceptive levity of her delivery betrays the grave awareness of fratricide and stifling oppression that is present throughout the record. The purposeful revisiting of the highly appealing fantasy of a traversable, united city lovingly exploits rap’s wistfully fictionalized remembrance of the pre-Crack Wars block party utopia. However, Digable Planets are seldom content to limit their depiction of Brook-nam to a solidly realistic narrative of the here and now, and they are similarly reluctant to remain immersed in escapism.
At times, Comb functions as a reminder that hip-hop’s park jam era tended to eschew downtown gloss in favor of dirty, improvisational, risky fun, and that the social ills that plagued the first generation of b-boys continue to fester unabated. For all intents and purposes, Digable Planets exist in the same historical moment as KRS-One, Kool Herc, George Jackson and Malcolm X. The references to these figures, and numerous others, can be rightfully interpreted as markers of a sincere engagement with contemporary social realities as well as the signposts of a highly stylized form of poetry. For Digable, rapping is a political act unto itself, so it makes sense that amidst the seemingly standard braggadocio of “Easin’ we hear Ish characterize himself as a “lil’ Panther” who parlays in the same spot where Malcolm once stood. During some of the album’s lightest, breeziest moments, we bear witness to deadly serious militance. On “May 4th” Ladybug talks of letting bullets fly in the direction of COINTELPRO, on the blissful “Dog It” Ish reminds us that the Planets “got ammunition for the streets,” while the album’s second single “Dial 7” invokes the Nation of Islam’s famous “It’s Nation Time!” chant while instructing listeners to “point our heaters the other way.” This affinity for the menacing sloganeering of radical politics is sporadically apparent on Reachin’ but it is not fully realized and cleverly snuck into the mix until Blowout Comb.
Listeners who are drawn to the album’s laid back atmosphere should be aware that the Planets utilize the expansive, transcendent power of language and style to report, sometimes impartially and sometimes polemically, on many different aspects of urban life and politics. Even the word “Blowout” might well refer to ‘fros, guns, blunts, streetball, reed instruments, or all of the above; the language of the record is often cryptic and ambiguous but it is rarely paralyzing. Whether Ish’s love for “culture-power” (45 RPM) records is also a sly reference to a handgun’s caliber in a moment where “freedom had a pistol,” or his reminiscence of “Lee flavors” refers to the multicolored straight-leg jeans worn by the cast of Wildstyle or to the straight letter graf styling of Lee Quinones himself, or whether Ladybug derives her name from Lady Pink’s character in that same live break-beat propelled film—this is all ultimately besides the point. The beauty and worth of Comb’s language and music rests in enigmatic interpretability. The record evades critical pigeonholing with such slickness that it is perhaps fitting that Comb received such scant attention at the time. Arriving long before the rise of the bland, mainstream-approved pseudo-genre/ideology “Neo-Soul” assisted critics in dividing rap further into “positive” (headwrap) and “negative” (bling) camps, Comb and other LPs of its era inhabit a space far too real, too inclusive to be constrained by such hopelessly oversimplified classifications.