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THEY'RE COOLIN' IT : Digable Planets Offer Rap for Those Who Don't Want Their Ears Busted In

March 25, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

No rap group has taken the proverbial command to "chill" more to heart than Digable Planets.

The New York trio's hit debut album, "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," is the most laid-back album yet washed up by a cool sub-current in rap that emphasizes reverie and reflection over party-time boisterousness and livid, hard-line protest.

In 1991, P.M. Dawn showed that rap could go to dreamland as easily as it could inhabit dance clubs and mean streets. Last year, Arrested Development's celebrated debut album led with tenderness and a subtle musicality, even while making pointed assertions about social issues. It showed a rap group could be trenchant without being loudmouthed.

Digable Planets is 1993's first significant new link in the lineage of rap for listeners who don't want their bones jarred and their ears busted in.

The group's big departure is its use of jazz samples: Instead of sassy James Brown horn samples, the raps are colored with ruminative sax lines culled from albums by Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and other jazz sources.

Bass lines don't thud; on tracks such as the hit single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," they follow the measured, swinging walk of an acoustic jazz bass. Funk sources still get ample play, but it's funk at its coolest, epitomized by the use of Kool & the Gang's "Summer Breeze" as a basis for "Jimmi Diggin Cats," a flight of speculative fancy about what would happen if time and space truly were refuted and the likes of Jimi Hendrix, MC Hammer and the Jackson 5 were coexisting musically in the here-and-now.

Along with the novel jazz samples, Digable Planets offers some gimmicky image-mongering. The band presents itself as an arrival from some uncharted interstellar zone called Sector 6, come to Earth to perform a show in a sophisticated jazz lounge. (In this, Digable Planets is only about a half-century behind the exploratory big band leader Sun Ra, who takes some of the gravity out of jazz by dressing in wizard's robes and claiming to be from the outer planets. Since Digable Planets is big on crediting its musical ancestors in its raps, it ought to devote some future rhymes to Sun Ra, who isn't mentioned on "Reachin' ").

Not only are the Digables pretending to be space denizens, they're pretending to be bugs. Leader Ishmael Butler is Butterfly; associates Craig Irving and Ann Vieira go by Doodlebug and Ladybug, respectively. Butler has explained that the insect world is one of his models for a cooperative, communal social life. Don't anybody tell this guy about the militarism of ant colonies or the mating habits of praying mantises.

As rappers, at least, these bugs are a model of cooperative endeavor, with three capable voices meshing nicely in complementary solos and unison passages that, given the contrasts in voice, imply a sense of harmony. Also, in keeping with the prevailing cool, they manage to get across without anything resembling a holler. "My throat doesn't feel like Sam Kinison's must have after a show," one of the DPs remarks during "What Cool Breezes Do," and amen to that.

Digable Planets does get caught up, too often, in the rap habit of self-proclamation and self-praise. There's enough going on in the world at large that any marginally awake rapper shouldn't have to make the flexing of ego a major theme. With all those words at their disposal, rap groups who can't achieve narrative and characterization simply aren't trying hard enough.

Digable Planets shows some talent along those lines. "Pacifics" paints a New York City street scene on a peaceful Sunday--an idyllic vision that shows just how different DP's approach is from the hard-core rap epitomized by Public Enemy, with its dystopian soundscapes and its conception of ghetto life as perpetual struggle.

A hint of storytelling ability emerges on "La Femme Fetal." The song eventually gets on a soap box in support of abortion rights, but not before painting a tender, humanizing narrative portrait of a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy.

"Swoon Units" is a nice, subtle illustration of and commentary upon music's capacity to be sensuous, sexy and seductive. It's playfully and charmingly rendered without recourse to crudeness.

But, as cool and calm as they are, the Digable Planets seem anxious about their standing in relation to the musical past they appropriate. Why else would they need to chortle that "Jimi (Hendrix) would've dug us, right?" As far as we're concerned, Homer, Mark Twain and James Baldwin would have dug OC Live! But it's sort of beside the point.

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