Digable Planets-Blowout Comb (1994, Pendulum Records)
I bought Blowout Comb a while back because I wanted to be able to tout my cred as a “real” hip-hop fan, and I knew that Digable Planets were considered to be one of the best acts to come out of the 90s “jazz rap” scene. Ironically, I didn’t love the album at first, mostly because it bore little resemblance to the “radio rap” that I claimed to loathe (I have since seen the light and gained a taste for the Migos). I was used to straightforward, 4/4 beats that you could blast in your car or play in front of people to get them dancing. Blowout Comb’s loose, sprawling quality, its heavy use of live instrumentation, and its freeform rhyme schemes were lost on me; I thought that all of the songs were too similar to each other and put this album on my unofficial list of “cool to have, but not my favorite.” I’ve since realized that my mental shelving was done too soon, as repeated listens allowed me to immerse myself in the world of the album and appreciate its unorthodox nature.
Digable Planets, comprising Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Mariana “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira, and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving, had just scored a hit with the Grammy-winning single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” off their 1993 debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). The group caught some flack from certain members of the gangsta rap community for being “soft,” due to the generally good-natured and casual tone of many of their songs. Blowout Comb, released the next year in 1994, is decidedly darker and more political in theme. The Planets present themselves as fighters for the oppressed, namechecking imprisoned black activists like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sekou Odinga, and Geronimo Pratt. They refer to themselves throughout the album as “creamy spies,” expressing themes of excellence through the images of cream rising to the top and spies seeing through bullshit. Instead of using guns, they fight their enemies with “creamy bullets,” “soul darts,” and “mental hollow points,” The album’s theme song, if you will, “Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies)”, featuring a chorus (sung excellently by Sarah-Ann Webb of the British acid jazz band D’Influence) that sounds like a secret agent theme song from a Blaxploitation movie, sums up the album’s mission statement: “We can make life better/Together/Not divided.” Even the booklet included within the CD case is structured like a woke newsletter of sorts, featuring stories about peacemaking gangs in LA, political prisoners, and likeminded musical and visual artists. Needless to say, if you’re not a fan of leftist politics, you probably won’t like what the Planets have to say on this album.
Digable Planets is an appropriate name for this crew. For one thing, they’re “out there” in terms of their Afrofuturist/hipster aesthetic. On the other hand, much like planets together form a solar system, the three members of this collective form something greater than themselves musically. Butterfly, Ladybug, and Doodlebug all have distinct deliveries, but never try to outdo each other with showy or scene-stealing verses. Their voices (male/deeper, male/nasal, female/smooth, respectively) blend together to create a palpable, 3D atmosphere throughout the album; many songs feature two or more Planets chanting a hook, usually just a repeating word or phrase. Their flows spiral around jazzy, off-kilter drum samples and loops, following their own streams of consciousness as they go. For example, Doodlebug’s line on “Black Ego”: “The funkanaut from the kingdom of not/With galactic sure shot/They can’t, won’t, don’t stop/Flock to the rhythm I bring/Sing songs called survival on the Mingus revival.” This is just one example of the lyrical sensibility of this album, which mixes dense, personalized New York slang with historical references and futuristic imagery. Shouts-out to Brooklyn (the Planets’ adoptive home) abound, with some songs featuring snippets of what sounds like ambient noise that you would hear on a crowded NYC street corner.
One of the things that I initially found off-putting about Blowout Comb is that the vocals are low in the mix, so they don’t immediately stand out from the instrumentals. As I’ve listened to the album more, I’ve realized that the backing tracks are just as important as the lyrics, and that you don’t need to catch every word to appreciate the way the vocals sound. (I’ll be honest, some of the localized lyrical references were lost on this white boy from the Philly suburbs.) The subversion of vocals to the backing track is the jazziest thing about the album, because it frames the human voice as just another instrument. In spirit, the Planets’ bars on this album are like the saxophone part on a Roy Ayers track (Ayers is sampled heavily here), freeform and spontaneous. 70s jazz samples are integrated seamlessly with live instrumentals performed by producer and engineer Dave Darlington (the album’s secret weapon) to create muted soundscapes for the Planets to share their musings and teachings. The instrumentals, usually presented at a relaxed pace, are given room to breathe and expand like a cloud of smoke. That being said, if you’re looking for BANGERS, look elsewhere, although “Dial 7” is super funky. In my opinion, everything comes to a high point on the album closer “For Corners.” A chopped, disorienting Skull Snaps drum loop is complimented by a pitched down Roy Ayers sax sample, while guest singer Monica Payne (of the R&B duo Terri & Monica) repurposes Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk” as a chorus, name-dropping everyone who’s “got the funk,” and the Planets trade verses back and forth. It’s a strong representation of the album as a whole.
Blowout Comb is definitely a grower; the album may seem dense, inscrutable, or even boring upon first listen. I would recommend sticking with it and really paying attention to the instrumentals first. Listen on some good speakers with the volume up, and the creamy vocals and creative, rebellious lyrics become more apparent. After listening to the album 3 or 4 times this week, I can definitively say that the Digable Planets “got the funk” (and the jazz.)
Listen to more from Digable Planets: https://open.spotify.com/artist/0gqIrDRL7CEPBWMmkuZPdQ?si=C33QmTVfTcqDwlVw6v8Lgw