Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
While it’s true that most good things come to an end, sometimes the credits fade before a compelling story has the opportunity to unfold. Promising funkmaster freestylers Digable Planets had a lifespan of just three years: 1992 to 1995. The alien-insect tribe—composed of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira, and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving—didn’t spend enough time on Earth, and only released two records, Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space) and Blowout Comb. Yet the blissed-out trio left crater-like impressions on a vibrant hip-hop landscape.
In 1993, hip-hop was at the brink of a divisive precipice. On one end, the languid stylings of Brand Nubian and the Fugees were spinning heads and hearts with socially conscious rhymes. But salty gangsta rap, whose bicoastal grit and wit would eventually overtake the airwaves, was lauded for its embittered accounts that took the listener to the cracked pavements of Watts and Staten Island in a single verse.
Despite the success of such records as The Chronic and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Digable Planets’ debut, Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space), stands apart in the period when many golden debuts dropped. The Planets’ magnum opus, now 20 years old, was not only a different listen; it also felt different, aurally and spatially. The album threaded heady jazz samples, in lieu of record-scratching, with a steadfast lyrical commitment to social justice and a political agenda that wasn’t as aggressively pronounced as, say, Fear Of A Black Planet.
Two decades later, Reachin’ encapsulates that rare sliver of critical and cultural acclaim—the Planets won a Grammy for their earworm of a single “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” and the record earned praise from a wide range of sources. Though Digable Planets certainly weren’t the first jazz-heads to sample the likes of Art Blakey and Curtis Mayfield behind their rhymes, they were the first to meld the elements of their influences in a way that didn’t feel overtly like a jazz record, or a funk record, or even a hip-hop record, for that matter. Reachin’ is an equal sum of every one of its parts, even the more lackluster spoken-word interludes.
This universality can be attributed to a number of factors, not the least of which are the fluidity of its rhymes and the unflinching positivity. The chorus from the first track, “It’s Good To Be Here,” lays down its foundation from the top, halting a trend of immediate beef and game-spitting. The trio simply says, “It’s good to be here,” before busting into a spoken-word sequence that seems more akin to the Village Vanguard basement than a sweat-dripped warehouse. It’s difficult to list many contemporary artists that were actively and consistently preaching positivity—The Pharcyde and Jurassic 5 are two that come to mind when naming acts that select social justice as overarching themes in their rhymes.
In a way, though, that makes sense: Hip-hop’s street tales are gleaned from the debris of strained upbringings and strife. While negativity can morph into a cathartic brilliance, it can just as easily embitter. “If you got a beef, please express that in silence,” implores Butterfly, “Or else, violence.” The mainstay of hip-hop is confidence; that’s how to gain any sort of respect among peers. On Reachin’, the trio do build themselves up, but never at the expense of others. They call themselves “jazzy” and “fly,” instead of tearing other musicians in the game apart with profanity-laced couplets. This intentional turn away from negativity radiates from the beginning and is notably absent from their contemporaries. There’s a palpable absence of competition, or being “the best in the game.” For the Planets, the only name of the game is getting free.
Digable Planets prefer to address both simple and complicated questions on Reachin’ that are utterly human at their core. The tone ranges from one of simple wonder to utter desperation. “Time, space? What is that like?” asks an inquisitive Ladybug Mecca midway through the album, posing a question the way a child would stare into a blue sky. Yet on latter half of the record, Butterfly laments, “Firebombing clinics? What type of shit is that? Orwellian, in fact” on the gripping “La Femme Fetal,” as he’s urging for women's rights.
Where these interplanetary Planets are from, the beats are infinite and “peace is the greeting of the insect tribe.” As far as anyone knows, the Planets descended upon New York to provide biting social commentary as well as solutions. “La Femme Fetal” is a not-so-thinly veiled pro-choice pronouncement, but it also asks simply why the rights of women are primarily decided by men. “They want a male finger on the button,” Butterfly comments. Although they claim to be inhabitants from another world, the trio nail down life that’s inner city and under pressure. “New York is a museum with its posters and graffiti,” observes Butterfly on “Pacifics,” an understated city-slicker gem slinking through shadows from Ludlow to Lexington.
After repeated listens, it becomes clear that Digable Planets may have been stoned for more of Reachin’s composition than originally guessed. “Time isn’t real / We’re just babies,” growls Doodlebug on “Examination Of What.” It’s possible to hear the words exhaled with a puff from a blunt, and it’s easy to forget the spoken-word interludes that cut into songs unexpectedly, also evoking the atmosphere of a jazz club. Sometimes they come across as a platform for the Planets to repeat that they’re buzzing, peace-preaching alien insects. Other times, they resound as a little cheesy, and there’s a reflexive urge to hit the “next” button. Yet eventually, it becomes endearing when the three pull a sly Herbie Hancock riff out from their sleeves.
While admittedly oddball, Reachin’ is especially memorable because of its universality. Anyone who appreciates a good groove can swoon to these horn solos, and the rhymes aren’t appropriated by a singular subculture with its own slang or mentions of territorial bounds. The messages—thinking critically about legislation, ridding oneself of negativity, wondering about what’s really out there, beyond what we understand as our world—are subjects everyone wonders about at some point. Twenty years later, these questions are still as enigmatic and fresh as they were when the Planets were idealistic youngsters in ’93. In the words of Ladybug Mecca, “Funk is you / Funk is me / Funk is us / Funk is free.”