BLOW IT OUT
Demystifying the genius of Digable Planets’ “Blowout Comb”
With tracks that are dense, thick, subterranean and funky, the 1994 Pendulum Records release of Blowout Comb by the trio of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Craig “Cee-Knowledge the Doodlebug” Irving and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Veiria, better known as Digable Planets, upped the collective ante in hip hop and is the quintessential jazz rap album.
Featuring a mind-blowing fusion of jazz, hip hop and spoken verse over hypnotic beats, it’s a sophisticated street-smart, free-thinking manifesto to music on a higher level and is one of the better albums (no matter the genre) in hip hop history.
Yet this musical opus is also one of the most neglected and misunderstood masterpieces in hip hop. Why is that? To even begin to answer, we delve into the trio’s first foray into music courtesy of its debut release “Reachin’ (Refutation of Time & Space).”
REACHIN’ FOR AFROCENTRISM AND CHART SUCCESS
The genre of hip hop jazz or jazz rap, a fusion of hip hop and jazz loops, samples, textures or full-on instrumentation, was popularized by such groups as A Tribe Called Quest, Freestyle Fellowship, Gangstarr, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, The Pharcyde, and a few others during the mid-1980s, early 1990s and added a new dimension to the direction of hip hop.
And for a time Digable Planets was right at the forefront of this artistic movement with the release of its 1993 debut album “Reachin’ (Refutation of Time & Space).”
The album with its buoyant instrumental jazz stylings combined with ebullient raps was a chart-topper that enjoyed commercial success while being a darling of critics and hipsters alike. It was an immediate mainstream smash underscored by radio-ready tracks like “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” and “Where I’m From.”
“Reachin’” was also a bright and vibrant showcase of Afrocentrism, the MC’s adopting bug monikers and talking about everything from Marxism, community activism, and proletariat sensibilities in straight-forward rap flows and cadences spread atop clear, colorful and refined jazz samples and loops.
The release went on to sell over a half million units, ride the billboard charts and win a Grammy for best new artist, while exuding a formula that many were referring to as the next big thing in hip-hop. But instead of stay formulaic, Digable Planets threw the industry one of modern music’s historic curveballs.
While the group enjoyed the commercial success that came with “Reachin,’” there was a consensus among them that the message behind the music was totally missed, and that their “blackness” was lost in the hype surrounding the release. Some pundits even questioned their hip hop pedigree, much as they did with their contemporaries De La Soul during their debut 1989 release “3 Feet High and Rising,” with its upbeat themes and feel good vibes.
As a result, the trio did an artistic pivot and total 180 degree turn on their second album, taking a page from De La Soul who deliberately veered away from the upbeat “Daisy Age” neo-hippie vibe of its debut and symbolically killed their image by going darker with their sophomore effort “De La Soul is Dead.”
Digable Planets went darker, blacker, and in this case better with their follow up, “Blowout Comb,” the reference taken from the grooming instrument used to groom the Afro, a natural hair style popularized in the 1970s by African Americans. The most popular aspect of the product being the fist that was used as the holder.
BLOWOUT COMB: THE LOOK/VISUALS
The actual album art work was strikingly simple, but once inside, the liner notes and sleeves are styled after the newspaper of the Black Panther movement, including propaganda art, ads for soul food venues, taglines to free political prisoners and messages from and for the community.
The theme came out of Ishmael Butler’s parents’ connections to the Panther party. They were former members who worked at registering people to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama, and that sentiment colored the attitude of “Blowout Comb.”
Mixed in were political observations and joyful ruminations on everyday life, of soaking in the texture of the streets and feeling happy to be young, motivated and creative, a sensibility that pervades the album.
BLOWOUT COMB: THE SOUND
The most noticeable elemental contrast between the debut and sophomore releases of Digable Planets is in the sonic production. On “Reachin,’” the beats were bright, jazzy and crisp, with the tracks adhering to a standard 3–4 minutes. On Blowout Comb, the instrumentation is denser, more moody and atmospheric, with a heavier, more layered soundscape and groove-base, and more chilled. Each track feels epic with some stretching 5–7 minutes. The samples mined for the album range from artists who were underrated to the downright obscure.
Another key differentiation from their debut were guest contributions. Guru (of Gangstarr), DJ Jazzy Joyce, veteran of “The Beat,” Jeru The Damaja, Brooklyn native and affiliate of Gangstarr, and Bronx rapper Sulaiman, make well timed cameo appearances on the album.
There is also a mix of live instrumentation, which wasn’t a new concept as A Tribe Called Quest hooked up with Ron Carter to record his live upright bass stylings atop their samples on the “Low End Theory” and “Midnight Maurauders,” but “Blowout Comb” incorporated a greater number of samples and is the more soulful and jazzier equivalent of the albums.
For the first time, Digable Planets hired saxophonist Donald Harrison and guitarist Huey Cox to add a live vibe and improvisational feel to the sample-heavy compositions. All of this makes listening to “Blowout Comb” a seamless, beautiful, musical journey of discovery and a pioneering release with its heavy crate-digging philosophy and rare groove sensibility.
Crate-digging would soon be embraced by artists such as J Dilla and Nujabes and later by trip-hop, down-tempo and chill acts including DJ Spooky, Thievery Corporation, Kruder & Dorfmeister, who would mine obscure grooves and layer them atop a number of other rare groove finds, moving crate-digging from a turntablist past time into a genuine art form.
The samples featured on “Blowout Comb” included the usual suspects like P-Funk, James Brown, The Meters and The Ohio Players, but also an inspired combination of artist choices such as the Motherlode, Grant Green, Eddie Harris, Bob James, jazz-funk pioneer Roy Ayers, and Shuggie Otis. This made for a natural thoroughfare between jazz and hip hop, seamlessly connecting the two genres.
“Blowout Comb” also garners a healthy appreciation for the production, deftly helmed by King Britt’s exquisite vision as the group’s producer/DJ as well as Ishmael “Doodlebug” Butler, who co-produced and would go on to later enjoy sonic adventures after Digable Planets initial break up, founding and fronting Shabazz Palaces.
There is so much going on in the music; the beats could easily stand alone with no vocals and be an interesting listen. “Blowout Comb” is without question one of the best produced albums — EVER.
CONNECTING WITH FORT GREENE
Lyrically speaking, Blowout Comb is an homage to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene (where Digable Planets re-located to), which is ironic because none of the members were native New Yorkers — Ismael “Butterfly” Butler hailed from Seattle, Washington; Craig “Cee-Knowledge the Doodlebug” Irving grew up in Philadelphia; and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira was from Maryland.
Steeped in a rich history (writer Walt Whitman lived there and helped to establish Fort Greene Park), the neighborhood was home to many icons of the Harlem Renaissance such as Gwendolyn Bennett and Richard Wright and then later to other artistic visionaries Truman Capote and John Steinbeck, but also modern day icons such as author/filmmaker Nelson George, Branford Marsalis, and Spike Lee, who maintains his 40 Acres & A Mule film studios in that part of the borough.
It was also a neighborhood filled with African American families and is a center/incubator of black art, some even referring to it as a modern-day version of the Harlem Renaissance. Firmly rooted in Brooklyn, the trio was able to pull from the place of hip-hop’s origins, adding a layer of uncompromising timelessness to the record.
BLOWOUT COMB: A LYRICAL RUMINATION AND REVIEW OF A CLASSIC
What often goes unstated is the lyrical chemistry enjoyed by the trio, who often don’t get the credit they deserve as exceptional MCs. Though Butler was the group’s heartbeat, Ladybug and Doodlebug played vital roles in reinforcing the group’s aesthetic of chill introspection, with each writing a number of powerful verses that dabble in topics of black-nationalism and mysticism. Veiria in particular delivered skillfully offbeat rhyme patterns and laid-back hum that meshed beautifully over the jazzy horns and breakbeat production.
Digable Planets found a perfect balance in relating their rapping styles to the musical concepts of the album. The three MC’s rap in relaxed and intimate flows in a variety of rhythm patterns with a sly charisma and subtle swag that is unforced and chill. The fact they are able to drop conscious flows about black-nationalism amid uplifting and celebratory lyrics is at times breathtaking, as they paint vivid Brooklyn-centric word pictures on an impressionistic sketch.
The album is led off with “The May 4th Movement” where the listener can hear the crackle and pop of a record needle before the blaring horns and saxophone riffs kick in leading to Doodlebug anchoring the track’s lyricism, spewing obscure, abstract lyrics that match the production. The cut uses the Chinese “New Culture Movement” resultant from the popular opposition to their government’s participation in the Post WWI Treaty of Versailles as an analogy to Digable Planets’ own attempt to break from their past. Hence the addition of “Starring Doodlebug,” the permutation added to indicate their political philosophy and that this would be a new revolution, but this time featuring the Planets, thus making the tune a statement of intent. Best line: Cee-Knowledge — “The New York boroughs with classic bombastic/Studied all the styles and got nasty at it/Like a Thelonius Monk, I travel in peace/Left on, right on, black man from the east.”
“Black Ego” opens with a spoken exchange that finds Butterfly being arrested and shaking off a racial slur with a “here we go again” refrain, which ironically fits in with today’s social landscape with the many reports of police brutality and animus between blacks and law enforcement. Butterfly transcends the situation with a mix of affirmations and escapist Afro-futurist imagery. The sound painting on this is mesmerizing punctuated by the dreamy loop, a Grant Green sample of “Luanna’s Theme,” from his “The Final Come Down” album. This is sampled in tandem with a Meters drum loop. The guitar solo played out at the end makes this one of the most unique and beautiful tracks in hip hop history. And the bass groove goes deep, with lovely syncopated claps that line the rhythmic track and a perfect sample drop “That’s right baby,” introducing the whispers of the chorus. Best line: Butterfly — “My sh*t’s, a natural high, the man can’t put nothing on me/ Now catch me when my mind stretch out, it’s astro-black/ Time reaching into end, nappy Afro-blue.”
“Dog It” is lead with a speedy sax loop and features lyrical references to jazz genius Eric Dolphy, Marvin Gaye, bell hooks, and raised fists. The track employs a busy jazz sax sample from “God Make Me Funky” by Herbie Hancock’s backing band, The Headhunters, which was also sampled later on by The Fugees, among many others. Best Line: Ladybug Mecca — “Tote my fist right up right against the fascist/Descend to my borough fix my diction/It’s way on time/Fossil watch fifth line still shining.”
“Jettin’” features the Bob James sample of “Blue Lick” brilliantly layered with Bill Cosby’s “Get Out My Life Woman” from his 1968 album “Hooray for the Salvation Army Band,” (yes, the Cos recorded a jazz album back in the day). The track is an exceptional conscious groove underscored by a vibesy beat and may be the catchiest tune on the album. Best line: Butterfly — “I got raised by the dim street lights of four cities/My heroes died in prison, George Jackson/Action, she’s Buttaflyin,’ I’m cool eyein’/And I rocks no ‘Lo unless its scrambler gotten.”
On “Borough Check,” Digable Planets continues the recurrent theme of presenting a Brooklyn-centric world-view, and expressing love for their adopted hometown. It’s love of all things Brooklyn is most evident on this track and features a perfectly cast Guru (of Gangstarr), who shows up for an amazing cameo, flowing over the Brooklyn-trumping re-work of Roy Ayers’ “We Live in Brooklyn Baby.” Best line: Guru — “The place where I dwell is where the warriors dwell/Too many stories to tell/So on the block we don’t talk/Stack of loot takin’ propers/Might get a serious offer from a corrupt ass copper/So um, stop the nonsense/Brooklyn is the illest, the realest/Observe these words as I reveal this.”
“Dial 7 (Axiom of Creamy Spies),” the second single radio release, Digable Planets made great usage out of Tavarares’ “Bad Times” creating a 1970s style pro-Black detective soundtrack, the song serving as the album’s mission statement. The tune contains a chorus by guest Sarah Webb, but isn’t one of the album’s strong points in comparison to the rest of the material. Best Line: Cee-Knowledge — “In the year of ’89, I stole back my black mind.”
“Blowing Down” employs a deft sample from Bobbi Humphrey’s “Jasper Country Man,” and the group adds a smokey sing-song chorus that makes the track feel well at home in a cypher or speakeasy. Best line: Cee — Knowledge— “When I spread my wings, I dos my thing/’Cause doodle big wants to live like a Zulu king/So I swing with my crew to where the beats be fat/Swoon units by the pound and they natural black.”
“9th Wonder (Blackitolism)” was the lead off radio single and is probably the most popular track on the album. The tune cleverly works in a classic James Brown “Blow Your Head” Moog sample with a slowed-down drum sample of his track “Soul Pride.” They are layered into other works by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (“Superappin’”), Fred Wesley and the JB’s (“Blow Your Head”), Ohio Players (“Love Rollercoaster”), and Donny Hathaway (“Love Sanctuary Band”). Ladybug Mecca lyrically stands out with the song’s best lines. However, this track along with “Dial 7” represents the album’s weakest points in comparison to the other tunes, an irony in that they were the ones chosen for radio airplay. Best Line: Ladybug Mecca — “I’m 62 inches above sea level/Ninety-three million miles above these devils.”
‘For Corners’ is a beautifully transcendent tune that features a distinctive guitar sample from Shuggie Otis, layered atop samples from Skull Snaps (“It’s a New Day), and Roy Ayers (“Ebony Blaze”). The tune is epic in scope, going on for more than seven minutes. Also noteworthy are the breakbeats and offbeat rhythm patterns that are only bested by the off-kilter rhyme cadences of the trio along with Bronx rapper Sulaiman. The beats employed on this track were well ahead of their time and would prefigure a chill style embraced by 2000’s era producers like Nujabes and Lone. Best line: Cee-Knowledge — “And when I get the rock I’m going straight to the hole/My average per game is pure black soul/In the 13, X’d out the ignorance/Got the clearance to speak intelligence on the block.”
As you might expect, Blowout Comb has high replay value with its intuitive chill. Even more amazing, this album was conceived when the members were only in their 20's at the time of its release, yet it sounds remarkably mature, a confident artistic statement just as anachronistic in its own time as it is today.
LASTING IMPACT OF A NON-RADIO FRIENDLY MASTERPIECE
How will history remember an album like this? The initial reception of Blowout Comb following Digable Planets’ break-out debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) was tepid commercially speaking and analogous to how the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (in its multi-layered sampled, anti-radio bias) was initially received– with cold shoulders and puzzled expressions.
The album was not constructed for radio play and devoid of a single as relentlessly catchy as “Cool Like Dat.” Instead, Digable Planets indulged their inner jazz groove, bringing in live instrumentation for extended solos backed by strong, slick raps.
Also, putting it into context, the year 1994 brought an embarrassment of riches in hip hop with the release of Nas’ “Illmatic,” Biggie’s “Ready to Die,” along with the debut release from OutKast’s “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” as well as Common’s (aka Common Sense) “Resurrection” album.
Also at that time, Gangsta rap was hot and as a result, “Blowout Comb” was tragically lost in a sea of thug banging music. The hip-hop listening community’s approach was pitched towards an outright rejection of anything that aspired to be “intellectual,” a tag that was associated with Digable Planets right from the very beginning.
However, “Blowout Comb” is a paragon of “intelligent” rap, funny and weird and catchy and, yes, incredibly smart all at once. The album’s cumulative power lies in its ability to simultaneously bring revolutionary thinking and a celebration of blackness to the table.
While the album is often thought of as an homage to the Black Power Movement, it is more of a tribute to the Black Arts Movement with countless references to artists, authors, musicians, filmmakers, revolutionaries and other standout artistic voices.
And unlike other hip hop at the time, “Blowout Comb’s” edge and focus was music not attitude, vocals not words. Simply put, it’s the heaviest, coolest, most mind-blowing example of genre-crushing hip hop ever committed to wax. It shares the empty spaces between jazz and funk beats almost equally, stretching their concepts out in syncopated streams of consciousness.
Yes, “Reachin’” was amazing (in its own right), but “Blowout Comb” is well beyond that. Every track flows into the next, creating a cohesion of style and presence that is hard to perfect in any genre. In my personal opinion, this is the best jazz-influenced album ever made.
A Tribe Called Quest with “Low End Theory,” and “Midnight Marauders,” (which for me has been the ‘Gold Standard’ up to this point), Gang Starr with “Step into the Arena,” Dream Warriors with “Subliminal Simulation,” The Roots with “Do You Want More,” and “Things Fall Apart,” and Guru’s “Jazzamatazz,” all deserve major props for their groundbreaking work.
But none of them pulled things apart the way Doodle, Butter and Ladybug did on this album. Each track is loose but together, a melting pot of social satire and multiple musical paths.
BLOWOUT COMB AND YOU
Blowout Comb represents the high point of hip-hop’s short-lived early-’90s love affair with jazz: certainly the sound itself, but also the vibe — communal, cerebral, exploratory.
It’s transcendent and one of the most consistent hip hop albums, with its jazzy élan, and poetic flows. You get the impression that if Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin or Nikki Giovanni were coming up today, that this album would be their soundtrack. It’s very beat poet and well….digable. Smart, layered, and seductive, it makes 99% of hip hop I hear today seem disposable.
Its mix of jazz & hip-hop is one of the most organic and natural mash-ups of two genres, a pure and potent mixture sonically and lyrically.
Above it all, “Blowout Comb” is an open invitation to hip hop, a work that puts into perspective its potential as a genre, with its full width, breadth and depth. After all these years, the album offers a fully realized, three-dimensional world worthy of exploration, with so much to be learned, no matter what frequency we vibe to.
Digable Planets have reunited and are on tour and working on a new release. Visit digableplanetstour.com for news, tours and updates.
Chris Campbell is an author, taste maker, DJ and host of The Progressive Underground, a music show that broadcasts on National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate 101.9 FM WDET and is a correspondent for NPR Music (National Public Radio) penning reviews for its “Songs We Love,” and “Heavy Rotation” columns/segments. His books “The Essential Neo Soul” and “The Essential Neo Soul 2.0” chronicled the history of the progressive modern-day soul music movement. Contact him on Twitter and Instagram at @cambeaux.