erasing clouds

Revisiting: Digable Planets' Blowout Comb

by Dave heaton

The album art features calls to free Black Panther Geronimo Ji Jagaa Pratt, Mumia Abu-Jamal and "all political prisoners the world over," drawings of clenched black fists raised in the air and slogans like "knowledge is power" and "blessed are those who struggle, oppression is worse than the grave." The MCs spout lyrics like "I stand in the face of oppression with my sisters and brothers, no slipping or half-stepping" and make continual references to their "comrades." What is this: a new album from the Coup? dead prez? Talib Kweli? Um, no. Guess again.

In 1994, a year after their Grammy-winning single "Slick (Cool Like Dat)" propelled their debut album Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) to commercial and critical success, Digable Planets released Blowout Comb, a mature, complex album of social commentary, jazz rhythms and old-school party jams that was a giant leap forward for the group, musically and lyrically. Given the near-overnight success of "Slick (Cool Like Dat)" and its popularity more with top 40 and "alternative" audiences than hardcore fans of hip-hop, it wasn't surprising that Blowout Comb was a commercial disappointment. The group's breakup soon after ensured that their name would mostly be brought up in VH1-style "one hit wonders" blurbs. It's a crying shame, though, for Blowout Comb still stands out as a remarkable achievement, not only in the context of the work Digable Planets had done before it, but in the context of hip-hop music.

The album is filled with the three MCs' articulate, quick-style poetry, similar to on their previous album. Yet the content of their rhymes changed considerably. Reachin', as its parenthetical title A New Refutation of Time and Space indicated, was filled with creative, eccentric rhymes cloaked in metaphors and made-up names and words, sort-of like De La Soul's coded language meets the space-age mythology of Sun Ra, but with insect imagery and all types of other unique verbiage. Reachin' fit right into the genre of "positive rap," with some themes of community and social awareness, most obviously on one track with a pro-choice focus. These themes are what Blowout Comb built from, but with a heavier emphasis on political activism and African-American cultural awareness. They also dropped lots of the metaphorical language, keeping enough to retain a sense of mystery, but dropping any that clouded their message.

On one level, Blowout Comb is straight-up message rap, with the message being freedom, justice and equality for all. The album includes calls for organizing and working together for change. On the track "Dog It," Ladybug, the female member of the trio, raps "I raise every day for the masses/Hold my fist right up against the fascists" and then namedrops Bell Hooks in the next line. This bold alignment with leftist, progressive politics was and is rare in hip-hop. Digable Planets fit right in with the handful of activist groups thriving today, like the aforementioned dead prez , The Coup and Black Star. I suppose the reason Digable Planets are never thought of in this light is that they were lumped into the category of "alternative rap" and thus hardly given the time of day from most fans of "genuine" hip-hop (though the presence of guest spots from Guru and Jeru the Damaja on Blowout Comb shows that somebody was paying attention). Still, considering how often it is said that positivity and social awareness died during the period between PE's popularity and that of a newer batch of current groups, it's important to note how groups like the DPs can get overlooked merely on the basis of marketing categories and demographics.

In addition to the lyrical substance, Blowout Comb is quite an achievement on the musical level too. "Slick (Cool Like Dat)"'s presence on MTV came in part from the music business looking to capitalize on the perceived subgenre of "jazz-rap." Though on Reachin' Digable Planets convey a strong love for jazz (referencing Charles Mingus and others) and used some jazz samples in their songs, to call their music "jazz-rap" or anything of the sort didn't tell the whole story. On Blowout Comb, however, Digable Planets began using jazz in such a way that certain songs or parts of songs actually do combine jazz and hip-hop in a fresh way. A number of songs include live musicians playing keys, vibes, saxophones, trombone and other instruments, and there are a few places where the DPs let these musicians jam, to hip-hop beats and occasionally right in between the MCs' rhymes. These are places where, as on Guru's Jazzmatazz albums (especially the first one), jazz and hip-hop musicians truly collaborate, as opposed to musicians looping a jazz sample so they (or, more likely, their label's executives) can capitalize on a perceived trend.

Blowout Comb's music is a combination of mellow hip-hop, cool jazz and funk-driven, 70's-style soul. The album's vibe is "up," in the sense that the feel is that of a summer block party, with people hanging out and having fun, even when the MCs dwell on important topics. The album is also a celebration of New York City, through and through. Nearly every song gets across the mood of an urban environment. All of this helps to ground a group often seen as dreamers with their heads in the clouds. With Blowout Comb, Digable Planets managed to deal with concrete issues and reach real people on their level, without sacrificing the creativity and poetry that they have a fondness for. It's one of those albums that has the power to move people, both on a musical level and an intellectual one, and it still has that power today. For that reason and a hundred more, it's worth looking up now, even though the group is no more.

Note: Check out this site for info on what the members of Digable Planets are up to today.

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