Digable Planets are touching down at Pumpehuset in Copenhagen on November 16th as part of a unique tour by this very distinct and pioneering hip hop act. We are getting into the show along with some of our favourite promoters in town smashbangpow.

Digable Planets first formed in 1992 and they made an immediate impact with their first album ‘Reaching’ – (A New Refutation Of Time And Space)  in 1993. Ishmael’ Butterfly’ Butler, Mary Anne ‘Ladybug Mecca’ Viera and Craig ‘Doodlebug’ Irving scored a hit with the lead single ‘Rebirth Of Slick ( Kool Like Dat), hitting the No. 15 spot on the Billboard charts. The look and style they pushed may be very familiar now but it was early days then. They were some of the first explorers of the intersection between jazz and hip hop that also reached a broad audience and their second album Blow Out Comb was a very distinct record. While that record turned out to be a swan song it was a fierce and political follow up, with a darker revolutionary awareness that was very influential and also appealed to a broad audience beyond strictly hip hop fans.

There is not only a rich musical passion at play in their music but also a lyrical philosophy which was as influential as their sound. The words celebrated art and culture with a fresh attitude and open minded philosophy. We grabbed the chance to talk to Ishmael Butler of the group on a transatlantic call. I remember when ‘Blow-Out Comb’ came out so I naturally approached the interview from that perspective. He was articulate and generous in his thoughts and offered some hard earned insights from back then and from today through his musical experiences as one half of Shabazz Palaces.

Hi there, Fergus Murphy from Bitchslap Magazine here. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I wanted to ask particularly about the new era and coming out on tour again, finding your way back together with the band and hear about the upcoming tour and show in Copenhagen. Before that though, it would be nice to briefly go over the history. Originally you all met in Philadelphia right?

Yes , that is true.

Are you all from there?

Nah, Doodlebug he’s from Philly, Mecca’s from DC area and I’m from Seattle, but I was living in Brooklyn at that time

I was curious about that because the album features and celebrated Brooklyn in many ways and I understand that Brooklyn has also taken you on as one of its own. What was it about Brooklyn at that time that made such an impression that it found expression on the albums the way it did?

Brooklyn at that time was an exciting place, very intellectually, socially stimulating with so many different people and ideas and such a rich tapestry of Africans, Jamaicans and Puerto Ricans. To be young and in that era of, not only hip hop, but music and art, culture in general. It was sort of an epicentre for that. It was a seductive, motivating environment that seeped into everything we did expression wise; from music to dressing, partying, thinking. It was just an atmosphere, a world really, that continued to amaze after years and years of living there. Toward the end when we were living there in Brooklyn downtown and Fort Greene area, starting to spread into the body of Brooklyn some gentrification started and things are a lot different now but at that time ..it was a sparkly athmosphere to be in.

It’s often the case isn’t it as we have seen in the years since when you get an area that’s full of artists because it’s cheaper and you have a cultural thing going on and then it gets kind of gentrified and property takes over. Staying on the Brooklyn thing at that time. I know your musical influences are quite well documented but I’m thinking about you and the others from the band at that time. Were there any particular clubs you were going to where you were you thought, this is our thing, we’ve got something to bring to this. Were there any particular shows, artists and producers at that time that were influential or set you in motion ?

The Funk Hut, we used to go to the Funk Hut in Manhattan. Just being on the streets, going downtown Manhattan, Washington Square Park, Prospect Park and we were just going all around the city. We were getting the free party aspects of the city which were in abundance man. You could go uptown, go up to Harlem, hang on 125th street or go to the park. It was pretty amazing how much was available for nothing. That’s one of the starker differences between then and now. Manhattan man, you can’t do nothing for free in New York no more, but back then there was a lot of things you could.

One of the things I think about Digable Planets and I suppose I would also compare your work with Shabazz Palaces in this case, is that in many ways you brought new listeners into the genre. I know it has been described in all sorts of ways as bringing indie people into hip hop and this and that but it did seem to expand the audiences for hip hop, at the very least for people who had a slighter relation to hip hop. Was that something conscious for Digable, or even Shabazz. Is it just a knack you have for reaching out or does it come down to the tunes?

Nah… I mean, now I’m not saying I’m at my best but I think when artists do their best they are representing, through the sort of repetition of their experience, with the things they are influenced by. It’s sinking into their consciousness and becoming an influence in their instinct. So I think that instinctively, because of my own broad palette of things that I am interested in and what it is that makes me interested in art pieces; such as newness, a new perspective, or a trajectory off something that is considered a standard or a norm, maybe I reflect that. Maybe I reflect that when it comes time for me to touch my instincts and capture something. I kinda figure that the right thing to do is try to make something that gets me to the feeling that I like when i am looking at or listening to some artistic in-depth work. You feel me ? Maybe because my influences are vast and broad that seeps into what I think is cool when it comes to making something. I am doing what has been done for me. It’s not like I am making it. I’m feeling something and it just comes out so it’s not necessarily me doing it. It’s just this cycle of influence and result and I’m just sort of swept up in it through my passion.

In many ways you celebrated what to me at the time at least was something young and new, an openness and an engagement culturally with many different things.  Expressed through hip hop and jazz but also celebrating street culture, poetries and dance, writers and thinkers. Promoting a kind of independent artistic vision that inspired many.

I think back then we were in our early twenties and coming out of school and the process of learning and finding out about new things, those things soaking in and being influential and being dazzling to your psychology. We were reflecting that at the time and we got that in the lyrics whereas now because of moving on and different responsibilities we revisit those things with some nostalgia but it’s kinda deep, cause of a lot of the themes and people, not in a fun way, we talked about are still relevant. Social issues, racial issues, these are still relevant. Oppression.  My Pop dealt with it, his Pop dealt with it, I’m dealing with it, my son is going to deal with it. Rather than being something special or different I realise this is one of the defining characteristics of this country. That’s when I started realizing revolution and counter culture are all part of the overall culture and have been accounted for, by the quote unquote  ‘powers’ and so it’s this cycle that keeps moving on, like a treadmill, instead of actual progress happening socially, intellectually, culturally. We just keep doing the same things over and over. It was just very enlightening and returning to the Digable thing has helped to clarify that.

What can we expect from the new Digable Planets show when it comes to Pumpehuset in Copenhagen on Novemeber 16th ?

We got together with five really talented musicians, multi – instrumentalists with the approach to take the original material as a point of departure to make new updated sounds that move elsewhere from what the old stuff did. It finds its footing there and it has roots there but is off on another trajectory and even moving forward. It’s the same but it’s different.

I just want to ask you more generally as a person with a unique perspective, who has worked many sides of music over a longer period ( Ishmael has worked as A&R for SubPop, the iconic Seattle label). Where do you see things are at now in terms of artists and musical movements ?

I feel like… it’s crucial now, for all art. It’s almost like there is no more art now. Everyone is hyper conscious of it having some monetary value, everyone is immediately trying to make money off of every single thing. When that happens to art; when the bottom line is always a dollar and that is filtered  into the artists thought as he or she is doing what they are doing, then it ceases to be artistic. That is the place that we are at now and I think that people have accepted it for the most part, that art may die in the way we learnt it to be. You know where an artist has this passion and compulsion to deal with these things and look at the world through his or her passion and feelings almost without thought of money. Losing that I think we lose much more than just our concept of art and what it is. When I look out now I think Wow ! We are really heading into that direction wholeheartedly and not a thought of looking back or even analysing it for what it is and not seeing that there are problems in looking at it that way. I don’t know, it’s daunting.

It’s daunting and an interesting topic, not just about commercialising things but potentially also losing a type of functionality for culture and music.

Yeah it redesigns and re-imagines all of our themes; heroes and suffering, sacrifice, love, joy, individuality, community and purpose. There is no thought that is free of economic concerns, wishes, desires. It’s a corrupting ideology that is very difficult to fold back. Impossible. Those of us who have seen its development know the perils of it and have also seen that we have come way past the shore. You can’t even see the shore !  I’m not one of these guys who thinks, hey we gotta get back to this time.  You assess the time you are in for what is good and what’s not, what is valuable and what is in it. It’s not just about going back but nobody is even doing that. I shouldn’t say nobody, I’m being hyperbolic. You know what I mean.

 

Yes I do. It’s difficult to find some practical actions to take. It seems also to be a time when the old economic model is gone and there are lots of new models floating around but none of them are quite complete. If you want to make your money you have to play a certain game.

Yeah you have to. The places where a person who is hip, in the broadest sense and doesn’t want to jump into the pool. Where can you go ? Everything is being occupied by these imperial, economic dreams. I mean you live in Europe, cats are talking about moving to Berlin and that happens for a little while and then they come there. (laughs) If you want to pay your rent and eat it’s difficult.

In a sense a floodgate has opened up with the access to technology and the access to audience. That whole period you used to have for a genre or an artistic endeavour you were trying to get into, you had to go through a process that would eliminate those that weren’t really about it. But now it’s a clear vehicle to so many other things that human beings somewhat naturally want but also are socially programmed to want. Particularly in a western culture and society of fame and fortune, or at least the illusion of those things. ‘Music’ then is a vehicle for many to get to those things and it’s simple. All you have to do is…. and then there is a succesion of things you can say. For example, all you have to do is: rappers make a beat, repeat a couple of words over and over, do a video and you’ve got a shot.  You got a shot doing that and it diminished the reverence for this thing.

Another interview call comes in on Ishmael’s line and he leaves us in thoughtful mid-flow, no doubt to pick up the thread again musically and lyrically when he touches down in Copenhagen with Digable Planets on Novemebr 16th in Pumpehuset.