If the music industry had such a thing, a file on artists that should have been popular would bulge with sad, unfair tales. It would surely include a sheet on New York hip-hop trio Digable Planets, which disbanded in 1995 after two stunning albums. The group—Butterfly, Ladybug Ms. Mecca, and Doodlebug/Cee Knowledge—showed great promise with the 1993 debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space). Their intellectual, jazz-infused hip-hop stood in stark contrast to the burgeoning gangsta-rap scene, and it earned them a Grammy and a top-20 hit with “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” The follow-up, Blowout Comb, streamlined Digable Planets’ sound, subtly incorporating more jazz and sprinkling black-power messages in the lyrics—something critics quickly blamed when Blowout Comb failed to recapture the success of Reachin’. Creative differences took their toll, and after Mecca’s parents died in quick succession, the group called it quits. But if 2004 showed anything, it’s that bands don’t stay broken up. Last fall, after almost a decade apart, Digable Planets reunited to tour, plan a new album (due next year), and maybe discover what could have been. Butterfly (a.k.a. Ishmael Butler), who relocated to Seattle a few years ago, recently talked to The A.V. Club about his group’s resurrection.
The A.V. Club: After you guys split in 1995, you didn’t really keep in touch. Was there bad blood?
Butterfly: No, not really. It was more like if you and your brother just fall out for a while, you know what I mean? You understand there’s going to be reconciliation, but you can’t really see when it’s going to be. The experiences that you shared together are things that you will miss throughout your life if you don’t get a chance to do them again. And then there was a lot of foolish pride, like “If this person doesn’t want to do it, then I’m not going to do it.” Doodlebug was the one who really facilitated surmounting all of that petty stuff and got us back into what we really felt and knew in our hearts and minds that was good. That’s why it’s been really easy coming back to it.
AVC: You’ve all done solo work, but nothing has matched the prominence of Digable Planets. It almost seems like the reunion recognizes that this is where you’re supposed to be.
B: Well, not so much in terms of the prominence of it or anything commercial; it’s more personal. Even with the solo stuff, it’s only by virtue of the Digable Planets that we even are allowed to do that kind of shit, you know what I’m saying? Aside from what Digable Planets is, to be there with your peoples on stage, you realize… It wasn’t always Grammys and shit, you know what I mean? It was more about the relationship, the work, the music.
AVC: Some stories have speculated that the Grammy made things worse for you. Is that accurate?
B: Nah, that’s not really accurate. We’ve said things like that, and they could be taken that way, but that’s just another element to something that was already happening. The Grammy wasn’t a big deal in terms of why we split up; it sort of symbolized a lot of what was going on. We got into the rap business and music business at a time when it still had to be, like, original; it was more about the music. Then it started to be more economic, more material, and that disillusioned us. Being young and everything like that, we just sort of copped out. Because we weren’t really the industry types; it wasn’t really like that for us, so we didn’t feel like we were losing out on things. A lot of people are like, “How could y’all give up on all that?” But it’s more about being content and happy than just making money. That’s how we looked at it.
AVC: When you’ve encountered people over the years, did it seem like Digable Planets were still on their minds?
B: Yeah, I mean from the turnout of the crowds and shit, that really surprised me. I’m talking, like, a couple of times we had 1,500, 2,000, 2,100—I couldn’t believe that after that amount of time people were still coming out like that. It’s crazy.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
B: I’m not really sure. I think we live in an era when people get attached to stuff, and it means something. Then I think a lot of people heard about it over the years—like somebody’s older brother might tell them, you know, because we’re from his era, and he might be like, “You need to listen to this; this is what it’s all about,” you know what I mean? I don’t know, man, it’s hard to say. But it makes us feel special.
AVC: A lot of people said Blowout Comb didn’t do so well because it was too militant. You’ve obviously had a lot of time to think about this. Does that seem right to you?
B: Nah. I mean, it doesn’t really matter to me. You do your work. You get up in the morning, you choose an outfit, you know? It doesn’t have to be the best thing that you wear, you know what I mean? It’s music, man. You do an album, complete it, and then musicians are on to the next thing. Nobody cares about how many units it sold as compared to the old one. But ironically, Blowout Comb has a lot to do with us being able to get back where we are now, because that’s really a favorite of people’s over the years. That’s the one people like. You never know what your work is going to do, man, so really, you shouldn’t worry about it. [Laughs.] But pop stars have to worry about it, because that’s their commerce. If you’re not number one or selling units, you’re not going to be able to make a record next year. For us, it’s more like an indie-rock attitude. Put it out, work it, and see what happens. It’ll have a shelf life.