Interview: Digable Planets
Digable Planets is a rap trio from New York, comprised of Ishmael Butler (also known as Butterfly, also known as Palaceer Lazaro of Shabazz Palaces), Mariana Vieira (also known as Ladybug Mecca), and Craig Irving (also known as Doodlebug). They’re best known for their two classic albums, 1993’s Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and 1994’s Blowout Comb.
What got you guys out and touring again?
Ishmael Butler: Shoot man, just the opportunity to do shows. Gettin’ requested to do shows, and always wantin’ to play, travel.
Craig Irving: Don’t hurt that it’s the 25th anniversary of the first album.
With all that you guys have done musically since, is it odd at all to go back to stuff from half a lifetime ago?
Ishmael: It’s not funny to me. It’s fun… it’s strange in some ways, doin’ something that you did when you was a little kid, a young person. But it’s fun to go back like that and revisit a little bit. And it’s very different now too, different band and different sounds. Upgrades it a little bit. We’re always doing new music anyway, so it’s like looking at a picture of yourself when you was a kid or something.
Looking at some of the stuff written about y’all at the time, it’s funny to see people shocked at the idea that jazz and rap could co-exist. Like Native Tongues had been sampling jazz, but the idea of rap embodying jazz’s spirit was still new.
Craig: I think to a lot of people it was natural, probably more people than thought it wasn’t. But at the time, rap wasn’t that old, you know what I’m sayin’? So people that covered rap, they weren’t that familiar with it so it was always new. Whatever rap was doing was the latest thing, and kind of shocking in and of itself. But the people that were doin’ it didn’t think like that.
Who’s been coming out to the shows? Is it the same sort of crowd as in 1993?
Craig: I’ve been surprised to see all these young cats comin’ out. Like you, you were born when the first album was coming out! So to see cats like you and even younger is amazing.
Ishmael: I like to see when a parent brings their kids, that they’re turning their kids on because it meant something to them.
Craig: I met a couple of people out there that had their parents with them, and the parents are like “yeah, my pop put me on to this! That’s amazing. Good music is timeless.
I’ve read interviews where you said that the insect theme from Reachin’ had ended up “misconstrued. What happened there?
Ishmael: Not really. You know, it wasn’t something that we ever really got into describing that much, so people just interpreted it in their own ways. That’s the way things go.
Do you think there was any kind of natural opposition between you guys having your own specific musical mindset and goals and something like “Rebirth becoming a big enough hit that it’s reaching new audiences without bringing that context with it?
Craig: Maybe, but tension between things is really what music’s about, too. Tension between notes, trying to find harmonies. It wasn’t like “oh, we want to do this with our music - we liked making it, we liked a lot of people that was making music at that time, and just felt the youthful excitement of making music moreso than thinking cerebrally about it.
Did you guys think of your music as being “conscious or fitting into any particular scene or categorization happening at the time?
Craig: I don’t think we were being super obvious about it. It was what it was, that’s who we were at the time and the music was a culmination of our experiences. That was the music of that moment, and it captured it pretty well. That’s who we were: it was pizza, chillin’, jazz, hip-hop, basketball… you know? Revolutionary philosophies and all that type of shit, that’s who we were at that moment.
Ishmael: Public Enemy was around then, and everybody was tuned in to the leaders of the new movement. They sort of embodied it, and then when De La came out they turned the music world upside down with concepts, rhyme styles, vernacular that we’d never heard before. That era was just a lot of different emcees and musicians making beats, it was crazy.
Craig: We just did what we did, everybody else put it in those categories or figured out how to decipher it. As long as you be you, and genuine with it, leave it to the rest of the world to decide all those things.
What drew you guys to New York?
Ishmael: I mean New York’s still a place that draws everybody in the world, but then? No matter what you was into, it was in New York in multiplications, you know what I mean? And then hip-hop, having been born there and proliferated, mastered there… and then all the labels were in New York. It was the hub that you had to get to to see if you could work it out.
Craig: At that time LA, Atlanta, they hadn’t established themselves as hubs for the music yet. You thought of hip-hop, you thought of New York. The Bronx. There were other little outlets that were doin’ it, but New York was the spot. If you were serious about it, you had to get to New York.
Ishmael: And they were all doin’ it, all the places were doin’ it but the mechanisms wasn’t in place yet. The labels, radio stations, underground stuff. New York was it at the time, and then it really spread out.
Stylistically, a lot of your music has been framed by what it samples, but what kind of hardware were you using?
Ishmael: An MPC, and that was really it. A 2000 was what all the samples was, and then the engineers Shane [Faber, aka “The Doctor] and Mike [Mangini], they played some bass parts and stuff like that. But all of the samples were done on the MPC rackmount 2000. On the first record.
And then Dave Darlington was around for the second, right?
Ishmael: Yeah, Dave Darlington for sure. The diamond. He co-produced it, engineered it, recorded it, mixed it. He was a heavy dude.
Did the MPC feel limiting at all, or have any sort of constraints that ended up shaping the sound?
Ishmael: Hell nah, it was like art to me at the time. I didn’t know nothin’ about it. And it’s still incredible.
Craig: They got many variations now, but that’s still one of the best.
Ishmael: It’s like any other instrument, you can learn to play it and play it for the rest of your life.
How have you guys come to think of your solo projects in terms of fitting into your overall musical legacy or path? Parts of the Digable Planets extended universe?
Craig: That’s a good way to look at it. I guess it could be… like an extension of who we are. Another way to express yourself, just without the constrictions of other people. Not really a constriction, but when you’re doin’ your own thing you don’t worry about how it fits in with this or that verse. You’re just doin’ your thing, as it pertains to how you came up with it and created it in your mind. And then the group thing is beautiful because I like the way we vibe off each other. Especially with these live shows, a lot of the shit we doin’ is just off the cuff. He’ll start a little something and we’ll all jump on it, that’s real dope.
Ishmael: Plus when you make music, you’re always doing different stuff with different people. But you’re always doin’ it, so there’s bound to be different combinations. Sometimes you get a chance to do something a lot, sometimes just a couple times, but you’re always makin’ music.
Do you feel like there’d be an undue amount of pressure or expectation if y’all wanted to do a new record as Digable Planets?
Ishmael: Most people that make music for commercial music, they want pressure like that. That’s where they find the strength and the excitement, you know? It’s like being in athletics, in a game or something, and you’re looking for that situation in which you get an opportunity to show what you can do. So it’s good pressure, it’s excitement.
Did you feel like there was a significant shift in your mindframe between making Reachin’ and Blowout Comb?
Ishmael: Yeah, we was in a whole other studio working with other people. We had toured for a long time with some really incredible musicians.
Craig: I think because of that the production process became more complex; it was a lot more instrumentation, more people and more orchestration.
Ishmael: Yeah, and what was Dave’s last name that played sax? Jones?
Mariana Vieira: Yeah.
Ishmael: The saxophone player, he orchestrated a whole band session that we ended up using as the interludes. It was basically like a blaxploitation soundtrack that was all imagined by this cat, that really gave the album a lot of color.
Craig: And a lot of people to this day come up and ask me what samples we were using on the interludes. But that ain’t no samples, our saxophone player went in there with his homies and wrote notes down.
Ishmael: He was a composer, arranger, like he could write charts and shit. That’s what he did. People ask “how’d you get that little sound in there? He put it in there.
And then ultimately, the record didn’t sell as well on the debut. I think it’s interesting that you guys decided to be a little more straightforward lyrically and became commercially less viable.
Ishmael: Yeah, and then that record’s lasted in a way that’s even iller than the first record in some ways. The way it grew over the years.
Craig: It has like a cult following of its own, a group of people I met all over the world that’s just like Blowout Comb groupies.
Ishmael: But it’s true, that did happen in terms of the sales and stuff. Making music at that time, man… if you didn’t have no hits on the radio, it was hard to stay around.
Do you think it’s a better or worse environment now for attempting some musical project that doesn’t necessarily have broad or immediate appeal?
Craig: It’s a little bit of both, really. You’ve got more access to a worldwide audience than you did back in those days, but there’s also so many voices out there that it’s harder to find your own little lane. I think it’d still work though, because there’s still all those people out there that’s diggin’ in the crates. People that don’t even fuck with the mainstream, they specifically want the obscure.
Mariana: The opportunity to connect with people that are of your shit is greater, I think.
Craig: It would be crazy to hear what we do nice.
How would you describe your current musical inclinations? Working on your own music, Digable Planets music, or just enjoying revisiting the past?
Craig: For me, it’s all of the above. I’m always doing some kind of music, listening or creating, contributing or writing. Music is just always something I’m doin’. This Digable Planets shit, my solo shit, helping my son do some stuff. It’s been a world connector for all of us. Opened us up, introduced us to people we’d have never met. Like they said, it’s the universal language.
Ishmael: He got philosophical with it.
Craig: [laughs, indicating joint] I blame it on this motherfucker right here, it got me rambling and shit. And ain’t nobody stopping me! Normally I got you motherfuckers to say “shut the fuck up, but nobody said that so I ran with it.
A lot of your musical influences are pretty well-documented with regards to Ish’s dad’s records, the Last Poets, and whatnot, but what at the time was forming your sense of what hip-hop was or how you could fit in?
Craig: Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Flavor Unit, 45 King, Rakim.
And were you guys like swapping tapes with each other, or was this something that you could get through the radio?
Ishmael: In the East Coast - New York, Philly, DC, Friday and Saturday nights was dedicated to hip-hop shows. And everybody would make tapes of those shows: Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, they’d be like three hours of all the top shit that was being made in hip-hop.
Craig: I would save my money up and go up to New York, just so I could chill with my aunt up in Harlem and sit and scan the radio. She would be like “oh, you’re coming to visit! and I would just sit up in my room and fuckin’ tape Mr. Magic. I had to play it off and do some family shit, but I was really up there to get my tapes. Back in the day, that was it - New York was the hub for the music, the culture, all that shit.
Ishmael: But it wasn’t a limitation, it was a new outlet. It was the beginning of something bigger and wider, it gave every other region the idea that they could do it for themselves. So instead of seeming like a limitation at the time, back then it was a revolution. It was so many people that travelled the same ways we did, working on music, or art, or dancing.
What led to y’all getting signed initially?
Ishmael: Basically I worked at a record company as an intern, and through working there I found a studio. Back then you could get the trade magazines, and in there they would have the addresses for all the independent labels. And they were just, like, offices in buildings in New York City, you know? So you could just walk up in there, give ‘em a tape, and if you knew the A&R you could drop his name and maybe they would hear it. Our cat ended up listening to it, this dude Dennis Wheeler at a label called Pendulum.
Was there anything informing how you put the demo tape together? Did you have an idea that this or that characteristic would better your chances of getting picked up?
Ishmael: We was informed by the passion. It’s like athletics, if you ask somebody what informs them to get up and shoot baskets in the rain, the kid won’t know. He just has to. Back then you had to set yourself apart - they weren’t looking for raw talent but something that they could sell right away.
I guess before the internet you couldn’t find people at that early st-
Ishmael: But Alfie knew about the internet. Alfie knew!
Craig: Man, if we was smart enough yo… what’s up with that dude?
Who is this?
Ishmael: This guy Alfie who did the voiceover on “Jimmi Diggin’ Cats. When he came to the studio he used to always tell us about the internet, this internet thing’s coming and it’s gonna connect everybody in the world. It sounded crazy and we were just like “yeah, aight bruh.
Craig: He was a cool motherfucker. Damn.