Happy 25th Anniversary to Digable Planets’ debut album Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), originally released February 9, 1993.
A strong foundation for hip-hop music had been laid in the ‘80s, so the emerging generation of artists ready to break ground in the ‘90s had plenty of inspiration to pull from. As 1992 closed, pioneering groups like EPMD had created lanes for hardcore rap acts of the East Coast, N.W.A and all its offshoots had blown the door open for the West Coast’s gangsta rap and G-Funk movements, the Geto Boys made inroads for the expansion of southern hip-hop, and 2 Live Crew became media martyrs for everyone’s freedom of expression.
It would have seemed that all a new artist or group had to do was pick a regional role model, perfect a sound with a complementary image, and network their way into the rap business. But as it turned out, 1993 ended up being one of the greatest years of musical originality for new acts across the hip-hop landscape. Throughout the year, a group named Onyx would introduce a heavy metal type of energy to hip-hop, the Wu-Tang Clan would redefine New York’s brand of lyricism, and the Memphis-bred 8Ball & MJG would become the new voice of an American Blues city. At the head of the freshman class however was a trio by the name of Digable Planets, who would offer arguably that year’s first dose of creative genius with their debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space).
The lyrics of the LP’s lead single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” reinforced exactly what the title suggested, as the innovation of their jazz-rap aura expanded the boundaries of what had been considered hip-hop chic. One could argue that Digable Planets were in the tradition of groups like A Tribe Called Quest, particularly their landmark 1991 album The Low End Theory. But upon further examination, the trio of Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira, and Craig "Doodlebug" Irving had curated a unique sound that was all their own.
Produced by Butterfly, along with Michael Mangini and Shane Faber who collectively laced the entire LP, “Rebirth” is immediately soothing as the beat builds the listener’s anticipation with the brilliance of an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers “Stretchin” sample. The addition of the finger-snapping effects as a focal point of instrumentation perfectly aligns, offering a listening experience akin to the satisfaction of experiencing a multi-textured vintage wine that has aged under optimal conditions. Butterfly leads off the vocals, locking you in on the “who, what, when, and why” pattern of the rhyme scheme which is well delivered with lines like, “Who freaks the clips with mad amount percussion / Where kinky hair goes to unthought-of dimensions / Why's it so fly cause hip-hop kept some drama / When Butterfly rocked his light blue-suede Pumas.”
The second verse doesn’t disappoint as the group’s femcee Ladybug Mecca tags in after the song’s infectious hook. Breaking the trend of the hip-hop tomboy, Ladybug’s rhyme was short sweet and to the point, showcasing her comfort and ability rocking alongside her male counterparts: “If it's the shit we'll lift it off the plastic / the babes'll go spastic, hip-hop gains a classic / pimp playing shock it don't matter I'm fatter / ask Butta how I zone (man Cleopatra Jones) / and I’m chill like that.” Not to be outdone, the Philadelphia-bred Doodlebug, who plays the role of anchor many times throughout the LP, comes in hard and ends just as gritty with his rhymes, “The rebirth of slick like my gangsta stroll / the lyrics just like loot come in stacks and rolls / you used to find a Bug in a box with fade / now he boogies up your stage, plaits, twist or braids / and I’m peace like that.”
Securing a well-deserved Grammy award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo, Band or Group, “Rebirth” is simply one of many gems on an extremely fluid and artistic album. “It’s Good to Be Here” opens the set with their metaphorical and sometimes literal references to planetary science, with Butterfly’s outlining the group’s journey, rhyming, “Tell my pops I'm out earthbound with the crew / He said, "Butterfly may the boogie be with you" / Left my mom's a note with these quotes on a trunk / It says "I split to Earth to resurrect the funk" / A dozen Snapple pops and a little box of beats / Travelin' through space with the funky funky beats / Stopped at Pluto to cop some petrol / Met some Klingons and got our things on.”
With “Pacifics” and the album’s second single “Where I’m From,” the three Brooklyn transplants eloquently guide listeners through day-to-day day life in the Big Apple, similar to Gang Starr’s “The Place Where We Dwell” from their 1992 album Daily Operation.
Racking up extra cool points, the group capitalized on the album’s reoccurring theme and affinity for the decade that defined hip, the 1970s. Leveraging a smooth sample of Kool & The Gang's 'Summer Madness,' “Jimmi Diggin Cats” pays homage not only to one of the decade’s biggest rock stars in Jimi Hendrix, and how he would have loved Digable Planets, but also references The Jackson 5, Isaac Hayes, and The Black Panther Party.
Listening to Reachin’ now 25 years later, I personally think it is as strong and important as any hip-hop album released in 1993. The production is superb, with every sample well-placed. Lyrically the trio was successful, yet often overlooked for helping to usher in a neo-intellectualism that didn’t commit to one specific ideology like Brand Nubian or X-Clan, but rather drew more liberally from a mix of street life aesthetics, planetary themes, spiritual dogma, and socio-political concepts rooted in Marxism and feminism.
Totally different from anything recorded by their contemporaries, Digable Planets’ debut is hip-hop through and through, but it’s also inspired in large part by artists like Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, whose work peaked over a decade earlier. Still a much-needed addition to listeners’ mental decompression kits, whether as a downloaded album or the marquee in their vinyl stockpile, the spirit and salience of Reachin’ endures two-and-a-half decades on.