originally published November 28, 1994 / VILLAGE VOICE
A New Refutation of the Alternative Nigga
Don’t you hate those Digable Planets reviews that begin, “In a world of gunslingers and noise-bringers, the insects are fresh…” or “Jazz-hoppers Butter-Fly, Ladybug, and Doodlebug steer clear of the monotony of ‘gansta rap’”? First it assumes that gansta rap (apparently music created by pimps, playas and real G’s) occupies the center of any critical discussion about anything released after The Chronic. More importantly, it presumes that the folks who purchase, produce, and perpetuate the music and culture have agreed there’s this thing called “gangsta” rap, that the dialouge is split between the pro and the anti, that the music’s become monotonous for them. Like if you dug in the pockets of said “G” you’d find only Outkast and Biggie Smalls. And if you did the same with said boho, there’d only be faded copies of the Planet’s last joint and Quest’s first joint. Like those kinds ain’t the same nigga.
Those critics who creamed over the authenticity of Akerikkka’s Most Wanted and We Can’t be Stopped are now bored to tears with black male rage and nihilismtales of poverty, single-parent households and hardcore sexploits. It was shocking and revelatory a couple years ago. Now they argue, it’s hardy as potent, what with white boys from Vermont hitting switches and bitches and Tarantino straight calling niggas niggas—to they faces.
The way I see it Tarantino would leave the borough a limp pulp if he pulled that gumpy but cool Sienfeild-esque whiteboy shit between the aves of Fulton and Myrtle—a Brooklyn border that contains Digable.
Now let me say right here and now that I know the Planets—C Knowledge used to write record reviews at The Source, Butter-Fly was my road dog and Macca is my sister-comrade—and they never had a problem on the Nostrand bound A train. Brooklyn is theirs. It’s no great mystery that Mecca and the Notorious B I G both give shout outs to Fulton Street. They live down the way from each other. It’s the same hood and both Biggie and Digable place the community at the center of their universe. If they differ, it’s hardly on theory. Granted Biggie may have never cracked Ish’s bible, George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye but I know for a fact the Notorious memorized Ntozake Shange’s Crack Annie. They’re both down with cop killing—it’s only a cliche if you’re free form the pigs constant brutality—they both miss static-free block parties and barbecues and they both suffer from mood swings. But who doesn’t? The ghetto is a beautiful horrid place to live and make art. And that’s only a cliche once you’ve defected to Park Slope.
Maybe subtitling their debut jointA New refutation of Space and Time made Digable seem a bit academic to some. But if you ever really listened to Rakim supreme mathematician and highly regarded ghetto philosopher, then maybe he too, made you ponder the relationship between your physical, the sonic, and the sun. This is everyday, all day stuff from barber shops to blocks. It is ridiculous and condescending that Digable is intellectualism is attributed to the fact ish’s dad has a job (He’s a college professor and a revolutionary thinker). On one hand it’s offensive because it presumes that ish can’t be ghetto to his marrow if his dad can read. As if the grassroots movement that was Dr. Butler’s ever left it’s base in the hood. ON the other hand it totally dismisses niggas like my man Black Mike an original player from the juvenile system in Detroit with a no lye perm who put me down with George Jackson’s Soledad Brothers and Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in ninth grade. Matter of fact to Black Mikes everywhere— I see you baby. Keep banging.
The trio’s mixed blessing was landing a release date around the time MTV was thirsty for an alternative to Dre. But it’s also proved their signature nemesis. I guess they didn’t help things by beginning their first video at the Prince Street station across the way from “Soho's” Dean and DeLuca. Along with Arrested Development Digable became a sale. politically correct sexually integrated space for part-time hip hop fans who wanted nothing more to do with ugliness and raised voices.
The usual questions of authenticity were raised but only on the pages of music magazines by writers who thought the rest of the world outside the industry and their little writer friends cared - but didn’t. Tenth graders at Brooklyn Tech pumped Tennessee right along with G Thang and the slick phrase - Cool Like Dat from the Planets gold single graced bootleg T-shirts all up and down 125th. And DP survives AD on the longevity tip it’s only because Butter never made the music a prop.
Blowout Comb (Pendulum/EMI) does react to some of the speculative criticism. Creators of the term jazz-hop will have to search long and hard for the Art Blakey and Ornette samples — there’s barely and ounce of jazz on the whole album. Still, the laid-back hipsters can;t help but come off well, cool, And I wouldn’t go so far as to say their new music video clip, 9th Wonder (Blackitolism) — which opens at the Franklin Avenue Station—is an all-out refutation of coffee houses and Japanese jazz musicians. But if you thought they were into the integrationist (black and white) politics that somehow gets passed off as universal humanism you’ll be plenty disappointed to know that when they’re not preaching the scientific socialism of Fanon and “Mao” they’re giving us straight superiority a la the Five percent Nation of Gods and Earth. In short they’re leaving little room for misinterpretation. Now IF they’d sacrificed style (their nonlinear poetics) and sound (Ish’s deep vast musical library) then all of this would have made them very Hammer but they didn’t, So it doesn’t. and what we are blessed with is a straight classic like Pete Rock and CL Smooths timeless debut Mecca and the Soul Brother. Blowout is one of those rare hip hop albums you could listen to entirely instrumental. Ish cuts checks for some of the most impressive local musicians around, he loops live guitar riffs til they have the beautiful imperfect sound of a sample. And “The NY 21 Theme”, and entirely live jam session dedicated to the 21 Panthers accused of blowing shit up in 1970 is a brilliant allusion to Marvin Gaye’s seamless soundtrack to Trouble Man. It’s refreshing and compelling to hear such a thoughtful marriage of live music and hip hop.
Like fellow Virgo (and equally introverted) Nas, Mecca is one of the most pensive poets of our generation: “And for example, we swift this/lifted up on luck /and for complexing/like brass and brown skin/we of this/built this with South Boogie Down/outs the clowns, in the suits/with the cash.” Like Chuck D, Ish drops shout outs to revolutionary workers who go unmentioned every February in homerooms everywhere—giving much needed props to political prisoners Sekou Odinga and Mutulu Shakur and Panthers legends Erika Huggins and Bobby Seale. This time out, Digable are definitely clearer about their politics., but that doesn’t mean they don’t revel in density—where Snoop and Kurupt nicknamed crack caviar, Ish pimp-strolls down hot blocks poppin’ fish eggs. “Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies),” Blowout’s most perfect track, is more than a spoof on Blaxploitation films; it’s a cool cat’s guide to guerrilla warfare. And fuck it, if myth of action is all I’m gonna get out of this culture we call hip hop, then give me more choruses that tell eighth-graders that the almighty man ain’t shit. (My generation’s political apathy is a direct result of years of Dynasty and Reagan; we actually fell for it—we thought the man was the shit.) And always, always give our little semblance of revolution a soundtrack that’s as fearless as all the fly niggas that came before us.