“After Further Review” was born out of the many online chats I’ve had about music. These are almost always off-the-cuff convos yet, at times, they yield insights I only get through dialogue (vs. trying to untangle what’s in my lonesome head). It’s easy for us to form an opinion around a piece of music (or art or whatever) and just stick to it because there’s nothing else challenging our world view but through dialogue, it opens us to new ideas. There’s something exciting and rewarding about that possibility even if, at the end of the day, we still affirm what we originally thought.
The concept with these columns is simple: take an album that’s far enough from the past that we now have some hindsight vision on it. Discuss.
I chose Reachin’, the debut album by Digable Planets, for two reasons. 1) It’s 20 years old this year (crazy!) and 2) it’s an album that, despite its commercial success, has all been all but passed over. It’s like the Avatar of golden era rap albums. I thought it’d be worth tangling with it again after spending at least 10+ years not thinking about it all.
I invited one of my favorite thinkers on pop music to join me for this inaugural chit-chat: Joe Schloss, author of both Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop and Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York.
Here’s where we began:
OW: Joe, in order to get in the zone to talk about this album, I went back and listened to Reachin’. I don’t think I’ve done that since the Clinton administration. What jumped out was the sound of LP: it’s so damn “cool.”
It’s almost cool to the point of being frosty or worse: inoffensive. Compare this with what producers like Premier or the Beatminerz or Q-Tip were doing at the same time: their tracks could be alternately jazzy and rough/dark/bouncy/lyrical. Reachin’ just felt hella chill in a way that makes me think of the soft, frosted glow of an Ikea showroom.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s nice…but it’s definitely not “banging.” And look, I ride for The Future Sound and Madkap joints too. But Reachin’ was even more cool-ed out than that. I suppose that’s a testament to the consistency of the production but I also think it ended up painting the album as an effort to seek a different audience from those who wanted to mash-out to Buckshot rocking lyrical shots dropped atop Ronnie Laws loops. In short, it’s like Reachin’ – and the group as a whole – didn’t quite fit into the models of “rap artists” we had a feel for in 1993.2
JS: I think you’re really onto something there. Reachin’ is one of the first hip-hop albums I can think of that could reasonably function as background music. And, like you, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. But it is true that it would be hard to read a book or do your homework while listening to Black Moon or Gang Starr.
I also agree the difference lies mainly in the vocal performances. In the case of other artists that used similar beats, the vocals were meant to contrast with the laid-back feel, whereas with Digable they were trying to kind of sink into it. The question is whether that was a musical choice or a marketing choice. Or at least that was the question people were asking at the time; I’m pretty sure that from their point of view it was a musical choice.
One other thing we should talk about with regard to the way they were perceived is how gender influenced these perceptions. At that point, Digable Planets was one of the first mixed-gender hip-hop groups to have emerged in a long time. How do you think that affected the way the group was received in terms of being “cool” and/or “inoffensive”?
OW: Hmm…I never thought about the “gender mix” of voices as being pertinent to the cool-ness of the album but I see where you’re going. To me, the mix of voices was refreshing – there’s something great about having contrasting vocals within a single group; think of how Flavor Flav played off Chuck D for example.
I do wonder though…did DP lead to, say, The Fugees? Or heck, UTD? It’s like rap labels decided, “hey, find us another two men/one woman group!” Notably, I can’t think of a single case where that gender ratio was flipped, i.e. two women, one man.3 Regardless, I think the Butterfly/Doodlebug/Ladybug triumvirate certainly helped the group gain media attention (especially outside of rap press) that might not have existed otherwise. It was different, they sounded different.
But since you opened this door, can I just say? That first DP album was not a whirlwind pyramid of lyrical deftness. Ladybug sounds fine, mostly because her timbre literally sounds pleasing. But something about that clipped, coffee-house-drip-drip rhyme-scheme that they’re all using – especially Butterfly – that begins to grate rather quickly. It’s a bit too affected, like the album is trying too hard to sound “cool.” It’s as if they heard a few Q-Tip (or maybe Justin Warfield) tracks that use that flow and then DP decided to make an entire album built only around that cadence.
Moreover, are there any lines from the album that you can quote at will (besides “we be to rap/what key be to lock”)?4 Provided, there’s probably quite a few albums from 1993 where I can’t remember any lines from either but given that there’s three MCs on here, you’d think “3x the chances!”
JS: That’s an interesting question.
There are actually quite a few lyrics that I can quote at will, but I’ll also freely admit that none of them are all that impressive as pure wordplay. On the other hand, I’m not sure that was ever the intention. As I said, I think the rhyming on this record is there to support the beats and the vibe, rather than vice versa. So for example, take a line like, “On Sunday’s early hours, the city sprouts its flowers,” from “Pacifics”. It’s true that that is not exactly a super scientifical lyrical miracle. But when married to that Lonnie Liston Smith loop, it does capture the feeling of walking around Brooklyn on a Sunday morning, and I think that’s more of what they were going for. So I think that at a certain point what it comes down to is that you’re basically saying they don’t fit the standards of their era very well, and I’m saying that’s because they weren’t trying to, and there’s only so far we can go with that argument. I think the more interesting questions have to do with what they actually were trying to do, how that was received by the hip-hop community at large, and what that dynamic can tell us about hip-hop itself.
On another note, as a deejay, have you ever played any of these songs out? In what circumstances? How did they work?
OW: That’s what I was saying earlier about how almost nothing on the album is “banging.” Tempo and energy-wise, it’s strictly “front of the evening”, what you described as “background music.” I can’t imagine there’d be much here that I’d drop at the top of a night…maaaaaybe “Rebirth of Slick” if I was doing some “strictly ‘90s set” but even then, it’s just not the sort of song that peels off the wallflowers on a “oh snap, that’s my song!” tip.
Musically, it’s a very pleasant album; some Sunday afternoon, reading a book, feet up on the couch listening. That’s not meant as a diss; the album does have a lovely vibe to it but there’s nothing on here that rises above “laid back.” To be hyper-specific, I wonder if part of this lies with the drum programming? When I say, “very little on here cracks,” I’m not just speaking metaphorically – the snares, overall, tend to be fairly muted. Compare songs off this album with something like the group’s own “Dog It,” which came out a year later – take away the drums and the loops themselves aren’t wildly different but “Dog It” has “dirtier” drums. (But comparing this album and Blowout Comb is putting us into a whole other convo).
I wonder too: you think this album deserves to be lumped into the tail end of the acid jazz era, as it sometimes is?
JS: You know, I never considered that before, but maybe so. I haven’t thought about this in years, but you just reminded me that I went through a kind of weird listening curve with regard to acid jazz, and in retrospect it might shed some light on the way I experienced this album.
Within hip-hop itself, of course, people had always sampled jazz records, they just didn’t make a big deal about it. I mean, one of Boogie Down Productions’ best-known records sampled Stanley Turrentine, but no one ever thought of BDP as “Jazz Hip-Hop”. But in the early nineties, some people started to look to jazz not just as a source of samples, but as a source of inspiration for a whole bohemian intellectual sensibility. Basically, they were trying to re-create the overall feel of jazz in a hip-hop context, which then spun off into acid jazz. So at first I was really excited about acid jazz because it seemed to promise exactly what I wanted: hip-hop that was trying to be as much like jazz as it could possibly be. Then one day I suddenly realized that if what I really wanted was music that was exactly like jazz, I should just buy jazz. This was also around the time that I started hanging out with hip-hop producers and realized that that’s basically what they were doing, too, only the other way around. In other words, they weren’t buying hip-hop that was made to sound like jazz, they were buying jazz that sounded like hip-hop. And that music turned out to be exactly what I was looking for (Bob James, Idris Muhammed, Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, Donald Byrd, Grant Green, etc., etc. etc.).
So I wonder if Digable Planets couldn’t be understood as a step in that same discovery process.
OW: What we’re unpacking here is a particular moment in hip-hop (or just pop music generally) where hip-hop and jazz heavily flirted with one another. That’s become part of the lore of the golden era, i.e. “remember jazz and hip-hop albums!” I don’t know if hindsight has been terribly kind of that moment, over all. There’s a tendency to treat it as a fad where either rap producers went heavy into the CTI catalog or jazz musicians learned how to program an 808, but neither really “got” the other style in a way that would have pleased traditionalists of either genre.
I should take a step back and say that I didn’t suggest Reachin’ as an album for consideration simply to dog on it; I really haven’t thought about it in any way for well over a decade. In comparison, Blowout Comb is constantly “revisited” and has become this consensus critical darling (partially, I think, because it doesn’t sound like it wants to be Reachin’ 2: Jazzadelic Boogaloo). Blowout Comb is now the album where “heads that know” give the nod of approval (it’s like the Here My Dear of ‘90s hip-hop) and where labels have lovingly reissued it. No one’s making deluxe box sets devoted to Reachin’ despite it being a far “bigger” album in terms of both sales and impact. Ostensibly, that disparity should feel weird except it doesn’t. Reachin’ isn’t even a guilty pleasure because many would swear they didn’t find pleasure in it.
The thing is: I don’t know how much of that is just revisionism. I can’t say that I love Reachin’ in 2013 – listening to it again, I’m having a hard time rehabbing its reputation as a buried, forgotten relic – but I remember when the album was a big deal, and not just for wanna-be coffehouse bohos. But in trying to find points of redemption, I’m coming up a little short. I’ll get to the “good” stuff on here in a moment, but I have to say, I think the low point on the album for me was “Jimmi Diggin Cats.” Hip-hop is self-aggrandizing enough without claiming, “oh yeah man, Jimi Hendrix would definitely have been loving our group if he was still alive.”5
JS: One of the difficulties with combining jazz and hip-hop is that their approaches and expectations are about as different as two forms of American music can be. Jazz is centered around live improvisation; even studio recordings of jazz are expected to be live real-time performances. Studio techniques as simple as basic editing are often frowned upon in jazz because they are seen as creating a false record of a live performance. If you didn’t play something at that moment, then it’s dishonest to create a recording that makes it sound like you did. Hip-Hop is the exact opposite: the whole process is about editing previously recorded material into something new. In a hip-hop context, playing something live is considered cheating (or at least it was in the nineties), because it means that you didn’t dig hard enough to find a record that had what you needed.
So the exact creative tools that are most important to each genre are specifically rejected by the other genre. That made it very difficult to combine the two without seriously compromising one or both forms. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of “getting it” (although that was part of it). But on a certain level, understanding both genres actually made it harder to combine them, because you had more expectations to violate. That’s why so many of the “jazz/hip-hop” albums of that era – like DooBop and Jazzmatazz– basically just consisted of a jazz musician soloing over a generic hip-hop beat. That seemed like the obvious way to go. But from a jazz perspective, most of those beats were very boring to solo over because they only had one chord (or maybe two), and a very stiff rhythm. From a hip-hop perspective, the solos often didn’t really engage with the beats, or just sounded out of place in general.
I say all of that to say that I think what happened is that a lot of people in the early nineties – including myself – looked at jazz and hip-hop as genres that seemed like they should go together, but then when they actually tried to combine them, they found that it was much more difficult than they had anticipated. And I think that each of them eventually came to a point where they felt that it would be more valuable to just take what they had learned from the experiment and move on to other things. In the case of Digable Planets, those other things were Blowout Comb and eventually Shabazz Palaces.6
As far as the Hendrix thing, I think it’s important to remember that Ishmael Butler and Jimi Hendrix were products of the same African American community in Seattle, and even went to the same high school (though of course decades apart). So I think there may be a deeper connection there than you are giving them credit for. I don’t know what it’s like now, but when I was there in the nineties, the Black community was extremely tight-knit and had a strong sense of its own history. It would not be hard for me to believe that Butler encountered many of the same places and spaces – and even people – that Hendrix did. There was a real sense of continuity there in the Central District from like the forties all the way up until the last few years, when (I’ve heard) gentrification has really torn the community apart.7
OW: Good points; I didn’t think of the Seattle connection and in that context, it makes better sense.
We’ve managed to make it this far without really getting into too much of the actual songs so I’ll kick it off.
If I had to pick out something on here to still ride for, “Swoon Units” would be a top choice. Maybe it’s those weird, slightly dissonant horns that kick it off. It doesn’t hurt that they’re flipping what sounds like a chop of “Funky Drummer” and hey, I’m with the French on the hook.
Tied for second would be “Pacifics” and “Nickel Bags,” mostly because those had the most low-end rumble to them. “Pacifics” via Lonnie Liston Smith (still a truly awesome source tune), the latter via Edwin Starr.8 In both cases, they were instances where the album’s “I’m so damn cool” pose worked better without seeming quite as cloying. “Easin’ In” – always a winner – but this was one of those instances where the album’s so-damn-cool pose actually worked for me.
JS: As I was reading this, it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea who actually produced these tracks. So I just pulled out the CD, and it’s still not completely clear, but from what I can gather, they were all produced by Ishmael Butler (Butterfly). That’s not a surprise in itself, but it is strange that I’ve been listening to this album for two decades and never wondered about it before. But I think that speaks to their identity as a cohesive group, in that I had always thought of the music and the words emerging together from the group as a whole, rather than being pieced together by individuals who were each bringing a specific skill to the table.
In any case, “Nickel Bags” is by far my favorite song on the record. It just captures a certain kind of laid back, summer vibe. One thing that always stood out to me about that song is the name-check of “the West 4th stop”. Greenwich Village was not one of the geographical locations you often heard shouted out on hip-hop songs, but at that moment the village actually was a center for a certain strain of hip-hop culture (Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Bobbito’s Footwork, Fat Beats, groundbreaking Village Voice writers like Greg Tate and Joan Morgan, a bunch of indie hip-hop company offices over on Broadway, the basketball court at W. 4th, etc.). It was also obviously home to a series of older bohemian traditions (jazz, folk, radical politics, etc.). So, to me, that reference really captured the way different histories can often intersect in the geography of New York City, and also reflected a growing sense that hip-hop could be an heir to those older movements.
Finally, I think we should talk about the elephant in the room, which is “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”. I don’t have much to say about it, other than that I think hip-hop people were predisposed to dislike it just because of its mainstream popularity. This was a time when authenticity was of crucial importance in hip-hop, and a big part of that was the idea that hip-hop was supposed to challenge a mainstream/white worldview. So because of that, many people felt that, to be blunt, if white/upper-middle-class/whatever people were comfortable with your album, that alone discredited it as “real” hip-hop. I think Digable Planets were unfairly victimized by that kind of thinking. Listening to it now, outside of that context, it’s a pretty good song! I wouldn’t put it in my top ten, but I like the horn loop, and particularly the way its two phrases work as a kind of off-kilter call and response. I like that they’re basically just rhyming over the bassline during the verses. And I think that the rhymes fit well with the beat, both stylistically and content-wise. What do you think?
OW: I still can’t hang. Musically, I never liked it. Maybe if it were 10-15% slower, so that walking bassline becomes more like a lumber…or maybe if they just carried some 8th notes on the hi-hat. This isn’t the least compelling song on the album but it’s in the bottom half, for certain.
To address the authenticity issue: I think you nail a good point about why this album’s ended up passed over for reclamation. It suffered, however unfairly, from being labelled “crossover.” That was enough to doom it to the same fate as 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of… or other rap albums of that era which were
“punished” for being too popular (read: “with white folk”).10
JS: So basically you think “Rebirth of Slick” would sound better if it were chopped & screwed? I understand what you’re saying, but there are a lot other things you would then have to change if you did that. For example, the lyrics would then be too slow, so you would have to either perform the lyrics in double time or write completely new ones. Also, the drums would be too slow, so (as you suggest) you would have to add a regular hi-hat pulse so the rhythm doesn’t become too disconnected. So basically it would end up being a completely different song. Which is fine, but all of that is really beside the point; the song is what it is.11
To your second point, and this probably goes without saying, but it was never my intention to be an apologist for watered-down coffeehouse rap. Then and now, I find the vast majority of that stuff to be pandering, condescending, smug and boring. But I simply don’t think that Digable Planets fit into that category. I don’t know them personally, and you are free to disagree, but I think they were honestly trying to make a record that reflected their point of view at the time. If that happened to coincide with a fad, then that’s not really their fault.
OK, I am being a little disingenuous here, because interacting with the “hip-hop nation” and navigating their/our insane maze of authenticity issues and political expectations was actually part of the art of hip-hop at that time.12 I mean, half of Public Enemy’s songs were responses to magazine articles demanding clarifications of their political positions! So I think you could argue that Digable Planets should have been more conscientious about that – certainly people were making that argument at the time – but in retrospect it’s just not something I think about that much when I’m listening to the album.
To be honest, what stands out to me more than anything else is that we could spend this much time talking about all these different aspects of this record and at the end of it all, what it comes down to is simply that I like the way the album sounds and you don’t. I think we were born to be academics.
- One of the stupider things I ever did was call up the local jazz radio station in the Bay Area the day Miles Davis had died…and requested Ella Fitzgerald songs. I just really did not understand how important Miles Davis was at the time. (I wish I could say, I was only 10! But no, I was 20. Oops.) ↩
- That observation “sounds right” but it’s also weird to think about since the group, in this moment, also very much sound post-ATCQ musically and post-De La Soul conceptually. Yet I’d have a really hard time imagining them as some lost sub-tribe of the Native Tongues, you know? I mean, even Chi Ali sounded more rugged. ↩
- If that group had existed, wouldn’t some industry suit have insisted they call themselves “Ménage” though?. ↩
- If there’s a Hall of Fame of “you made it a hot line/I made it a hot song,” E-40’s “Yay Area” should be in contention. ↩
- I am amazed that there doesn’t seem to be a mixtape song out there called “Biggie Diggin’ Cats.” ↩
- I should note here that I’m speaking specifically in the context of the early nineties. Clearly, there have been subsequent artists – such as Russell Gunn and Robert Glasper – who have been able to integrate the two sensibilities successfully. But they have used very different strategies to do so, and I would almost argue that those approaches wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago, even if someone had thought of them. In my memory, many of these early jazz/hip-hop fusions were driven by a kind of generational politics that doesn’t really apply today. Specifically, they tended to pair older jazz musicians with younger hip-hop musicians, with an implicit (and sometimes explicit) understanding that they were passing some kind of torch to the younger generation. In other words, the goal was to get people on board with the idea that hip-hop was the new jazz. But at this point, hip-hop has been around long enough that it has nothing to prove on that level, and even if youth do care about the approval of their parent’s generation, their parent’s generation is now more likely to be into hip-hop than jazz anyway. To me, the more successful of the modern artists working in this area tend to be people who are working fundamentally within a jazz idiom, but who then use hip-hop as material for their explorations, because that was the popular culture they grew up with. And since jazz has always used popular culture in that way, the whole thing just makes more sense within a jazz context. ↩
- Documented in this book. ↩
- Speaking of “Easin’ In,” I always thought folks slept on Tone Loc’s flip of the same source. ↩
- I have no idea what the next line, from Doodlebug, is about, despite all the Sesame Street references. Even Rap Genius doesn’t know either. ↩
- The Chronic was never rejected on the same grounds even as it was arguably one of the only rap album that swarms of “bros” owned, partially because it was a “hard” album vs. these other albums which were read as “soft.” ↩
- After I wrote this, I went to youtube and listened to the song at ½ speed (you know you can do that now, right?), and I have to admit that pretty much every element of the song (except the vocals) did sound better: the bass was richer and fuller, and the drums were more resonant and cracking. But the different parts still didn’t hang together as a cohesive whole, so I stand by my point. I don’t think it’s possible to embed the ½ speed thing in a link, but you should listen to it. ↩
- re: “hip hop nation”: I have such mixed feelings about this term, by the way. On the one hand, it’s just so embarrassingly naïve, but then on the other hand, I am still nostalgic for a time when I could actually buy into such an idealistic concept. And, truth be told, on some level, I think I am still that idealistic, I have just become much more pessimistic about my idealism ever being justified. One thing’s for sure, though: whenever I read a piece of hip-hop scholarship that that is not from that era but still uses this term, I presume that the writer is a cornball. ↩