How Digable Planets ambitiously advanced the sound of jazz rap

In Lifted, Javon Anderson examines the long-standing relationship between jazz and hip hop.


No conversation about jazz rap is complete without talking about Digable Planets. Comprising rappers Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Veira, Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving, they were firm in their creative ambitions and advanced the sound of alternative, jazz-infused hip hop.

Known for their heavy use of jazz samples mixed with witty, free-spirited, political lyricism, this group eloquently captured the essence of inner-city life in New York during their initial run in the early to mid-‘90s.

One of their hits that stood the test of time is Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat), the single for their debut Grammy Award-winning album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space).

The foundation of this record doesn’t just sample one loop — it manages to masterfully weave in three samples into one cohesive instrumental while the MCs of Digable Planets take care of the rest with effortless, laidback lyrical flows.

The main element of the track comes from Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ hard-bop tune Stretching from their 1978 album Reflections in Blue. Butterfly, Mike Mangini and Shane Faber, the trio of producers who put the iconic record together, make use of Dennis Irwin’s bassline by chopping and resequencing while the horn section in the sample comes in on the hook to open up the track. They also used one of the most famously used funk drum breaks in hip hop, the Honey Drippers’ Impeach the President, and a small sound bite of drums from 24-Carat Black’s Foodstamps to round out the rhythm sections.

 

Digable Planets were certainly ahead of their time when it came to experimentation and sampling as an art form, and they even turned it up a notch on their next album Blowout Comb, released in 1995. Much like their contemporaries De La Soul, this album did away with the positive feel-good vibes of their debut, replacing it with a darker tone with musings on politics, urban culture and Afro-futurist imagery. Coming off the success of Reachin’, the group took time collecting records from around the world while on tour for more obscure material. They would sample the likes of Grant Green, Bob James, Bobbi Humphrey and much more. In the creation of Blowout Comb, they would also heavily include live instrumentation working in tandem with sampling which wasn’t exactly new at the time, however this record was far more focused than other examples.

Butterfly would recount in the liner notes for the album’s reissue, “Every song on Blowout is a mix of live instruments and samples. I would program the drums and tell someone, ‘Yo, this is what I hear right here,’ then we’d record and get to slicing.”

This approach to production was mixed so well that at times it’s hard to tell what’s been done with a sample and what’s been done with live instruments. One example is the track Jettin’, which samples a few measures from Bob James’s Blue Lick from his 1979 album Lucky Seven.  

Taking small bites of the last few moments of this record, producer David Darlington turns it into great A and B sections while adding in live vibraphone.

One can go on forever with the many connections to jazz that Digable Planets have made with the alchemy of crate-digging and hip-hop production. Their work can be appreciated as being adventurous, deep and, in hindsight, one of the earliest instances of jazz-influenced sampling in the world of mellow avant garde music.


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