Digable Planets' 1993 debut album, "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," put jazz-influenced rap on the map.
Groups had previously dabbled in the style, mainly using jazz beats as background for standard raps. But the New-York-based trio--Ishamael (Butterfly) Butler, Ann (Ladybug) Vieira and Craig (Doodlebug) Irving--shrewdly married the vocal style to the instrumentals.
The raps are cool, with a breezy, elusive feel, like one of those vintage Miles Davis solos with constantly shifting melodic lines. The Digable sound has its roots in the intellectual, jazz-influenced bohemian culture of the '40s and '50s and owes more to jazz than hip-hop. The themes are part party and part political.
"Reachin' " initially seemed fated to be a favorite of critics and a few hip-hop fans who were into jazz. But the single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" was a big pop-radio hit, and the album clicked in the mainstream too, with sales of more than a million copies. Digable also won a Grammy for best rap group or duo performance.
Stardom was the last thing the threesome expected when they teamed up four years ago in New York as college students. Butler, 24, who formed the group, is as cool and breezy in person as in his raps. In a recent interview, he talked about the group's music, its new album, "Blowout Comb," ( see review, Page 72 ) and adjusting to stardom.
Question: Has it been difficult adjusting to being in a hit group?
Answer: It's not easy. It's tough to learn how to deal with the record industry. There's this constant struggle of trying to gain control over what is represented as your art. It's a constant struggle--business vs. art. You don't realize that until you're deep into it. That struggle is always going on. It takes a lot of energy--too much sometimes.
Q: Have you had any hassles now that you're more recognizable to the public?
A: Some hassles, I guess. But we're not that famous so it's not a real problem. We try to keep it all in perspective. We're not the kind of people who are going to get crazed by fame. If I didn't think I could handle that part of it--and it's a real small part--I wouldn't be in this business.
Q: How is the new album different from the first one?
A: We made a concerted effort to be more literal and less abstract. The first album is lyrically much more abstract. The language is so personal it's almost cryptic. Nobody who isn't real hip can really understand it.
Q: Do you have a sense that people really understand the first album?
A: No. I think most people were reacting to the sound of the album rather than what we're saying. Maybe some bought it because their friends did. People will be able to understand this one much easier.
Q: How about musical differences?
A: The first one used a lot of different kinds of music, old jazz as well as funk and fusion. The new one has much less traditional jazz. It's a new kind of thing for us. It's a whole bunch of stuff put together. It doesn't sound like any type of jazz--be-bop, fusion or free jazz. I don't think it sounds like any kind of jazz. It's interesting combinations.
Q: Why did you decide to take that musical route?
A: It wasn't a conscious decision. We don't work that way. We're real loose. We don't have a great plan. We just do what feels right--things just happen. We all write. We get inspired by something, and we write it down and use it. If we sat down and planned things and did things in a very organized way, we just might ruin the music. The music has a loose feel that reflects the way we do things.
Q: Why did you first decide to incorporate jazz into hip-hop?
A: The nature of hip-hop as a resourceful art form is to use the resources that were close at hand. Growing up, we didn't have the money to learn how to play instruments. When we were looking for musical backing to the raps, we went to the things that were already there. Those jazz records were already on hand. My parents were avid jazz fans, so I was familiar with it. Nobody else was doing much with jazz and hip-hop, so it seemed like an area that was open to innovation.
Q: Do you like rap that's not jazz-influenced?
A: People make the mistake of thinking I'm some kind of intellectual snob. I like hip-hop, and I listen to all the hip-hop that comes out. My favorites now are Outkast and Guru.
Q: What do you think about other groups that blend jazz and hip-hop?
A: I like Gang Starr, but I don't care for Us3 too much. They're not doing anything special. The rappers are cool but the music isn't that interesting to me.
Q: Will jazz ever be a dominant force in hip-hop?
A: I doubt it. Hip-hop is always changing. It changes so fast that something like jazz would never get a chance to dominate it. Jazz still doesn't have great mass appeal. If something was to dominate hip-hop it would have to have great mass appeal.
Q: Conversely, could hip-hop be a force in jazz?