Digable Planets is one of those groups that exists firmly ensconced in the golden age of hip-hop. The early 1990s are almost universally considered to be the high point of the genre, with just the right balance of righteous counterculture, subcultural force, and mainstream appeal, and it's in that time period that Digable Planets begin and end. The group signed with Pendulum Records in 1992 and dissolved in 1995. In between came critically acclaimed records, a Grammy Award, and a crossover single that remains one of the era's most indelible hits, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)."
Looking back on the band and its output, which consists of their debut LP, 1993's jazz-heavy Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and their darker, more political 1995 follow-up Blowout Comb, you'll see a lot of what made that time so distinctive. The group's producer and leader, Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. "Butterfly"), built beats around densely layered jazz samples that harkened back to cool jazz and early funk. Butler and fellow emcees Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira and Craig "Doodlebug" Irving tended toward deft rhyming that wasn't afraid to go from street-smart to goofy.
Digable Planets went their separate ways post-'95, with Butler going on to play in the more-experimental Shabazz Palaces with multi-instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire, Irving starting the live show-oriented Cee Knowledge & the Cosmic Funk Orchestra, and Viera doing occasional solo and collaborative work. Since 2005, they've also sporadically reunited, diving back into the two Digable Planet records now considered classics by hip-hop heads and critics.
For Butler, the casual reunion tours are opportunities. "Because you're a group and you made songs in the past, you're still a group. You may go your separate ways, but the music holds you together," he says. "So if the music gains an opportunity to be performed or somebody wants to see it or hear it, everybody in the group, even though they've gone their separate ways, has to consider it and think about it.
"We weren't really enemies or anything like that," he continues. "So when the opportunities came along that seemed cool and fun, and we wanted to get back and do the songs again, we just thought, 'Why not?'"
Given that the group is now two decades removed from their salad days, Digable Planets clearly functions as a legacy group, a path that can often feel fraught and crass. But Butler and company seem to be in the right headspace, allowing the tour be what it is rather than pretend they can simply pick up where they left off. When asked if the group had plans to record new music or even another LP, he shied away from the suggestion.
"When we made those records, we all lived together in the house. We used to be together all day and night and record together. Before we got a recording deal, we dreamed together, while sharing slices of pizza and shit like that," he explains. "So to come back now after we've been away so long, to just jump into the studio, it would really betray the situation and the petri dish of emotions and where we were at at the time. Now we'll just do the tour and start to hang out with each other again and just see where that goes. It's not like we have plans to not do it or to do it. We're musicians and always want to make new songs, but we got to chill with each other for awhile and see what happens after that."
Still, he's thankful for the critical legacy and faithful audience the group still inspires, a group that has also allowed the members to pursue other musical ends and still return to their earlier creative selves.
"It's very luxurious, and it's almost a little detached from me personally," Butler admits. "You exist in a space where only those that have some real understanding and appreciation for the work remain. And it's not something that catapults you into the stratosphere, but it is something that can sustain you for an extended period of time at a pretty decent level. So it's remarkable. And it's surprising too, because you feel lucky. I appreciate it a lot, the way we fit in the annals of time."
Butler tends to cordon his work off from the contemporary world of hip-hop, but it's tough not to see his fiercely independent ways and sharp political and social conscience and think of him as a valuable arbiter for the state of the genre and the culture today. And, true to form, his thoughts on the matter are complex, disgruntled, and a bit hopeful.
"The new shit is — I don't differentiate it from any other American social result," he says. Of course it's going to be superficial, of course it's gonna lack ethics, of course it's going to be disposable, because what isn't? What ideology isn't up for grabs for a quick exploitation? So of course hip-hop, which always has its finger on the pulse of a society that's moving fast, of course it's going to reflect that. What America does, so does hip-hop. When it was a genre that predominantly African-Americans were involved in, it maintained a self-policing that could usurp the whole need for materialism to be at the basis of the expression. And now that it isn't that way, it is a materialistic expression, I feel like a lot of essential things have been lost. And it's diluting the potency of the community — the way we see life and what we're willing to take."