As much as I enjoy Ego Trip's "Book of Rap Lists" I've always taken great exception to the fact that on pages 334-335 they list the self-proclaimed "Greatest Albums of 1993" and that Digable Planets is nowhere on the list. It gets worse - on pages 325-326 they profess the "Greatest Singles" of 1992 and '93 and "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" isn't mentioned for either year.
What's wrong with this picture? Maybe one would argue that Ego Trip's editors didn't think "Rebirth of Slick" was that big of a song, but they'd be dead wrong. The song's trademark horn break and "I'm cool like dat" refrain were both widely heard and immediately imitated after the single's release and for years to come. Maybe you could say the editors were just not into jazzy, lighthearted hip-hop. That can't be the case though - for '93 singles they list both "Electric Relaxation" and "Award Tour" from A Tribe Called Quest, not to mention everybody from Trends of Culture to Pharcyde who was rocking a similar style at the time. In fact going back to their list of albums from 1993 you find albums like "'93 Til Infinity" by Souls of Mischief and "Midnight Marauders" by Tribe lauded as being best of the best. Even De La Soul's oft-overlooked "Buhloone Mindstate" made the list.
To say that Ego Trip screwed up not including part or all of "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)" on any of their best of lists would be a GROSS UNDERSTATEMENT. The error is colossal in scale. If you meet any of the people involved in this book's editing on the street, pull them into a record store and point them towards the used CD section, under the heading "D." D as in DUHHHHHHH, what were you thinking? In fairness though Ego Trip is just one of many groups of people, individually or collectively, who have failed to give the DP's the props they deserved. It's far too easy to dismiss them for their short career - two albums in '93 and '94 before Butterfly, Doodlebug and Ladybug went their seperate ways. Perhaps it was their rap names and the seemingly acid trip inspired artwork that put off critics. With references on the back cover like "written and made lovely by all the insects of Digable Planets," many people may have mistaken "Reachin'" as some kind of joke or hippie statement. That just makes their song "Pacifics" all the more ironic though, as it's one of the most concretely rooted statements of New York street life ever penned in rap music, set to a sublimely funky sample of Lonne Liston Smith's "Devika":
Butterfly: "Butterfly, searchin for a relax
Pullin from the jazz stacks cause it's Sunday
On the air is incense, sounds to the ceilin
Tried to get this feelin, since Monday
Lookin out the window, watchin all the people go
Buggin off a funny vibe cause now it seems they're equal
Wonder what would 'trane say, wonder what my pop say
Buggin off the calmness in the Apple
Who me? I'm, coolin in NY, I'm chillin in NY
The hoods is on my block and the brothers at the court
The baseball hats is on and the projects is calm
Dreamtime's extended (and highly recommended)
But early birds like me's up checkin out the scene
The early worms jog, forget about your job
Just come dig the essence while the decadence is hidden
When people act like people, the theory is in pigeon
If you know the norm it's like Hades transformed
On sunday's early hours, the city sprouts its flowers
So get with the rhythms while you gettin with the planets
Vibe off the jams but don't take them for granted
and just chill..."
While Butterfly was visibly the front man of the group, as evidenced by his claims on the album cover that the album was "conceived, freaked, arranged and produced" entirely by him, Doodlebug and Ladybug were not simply window dressing for DP songs. "Where I'm From" illustrates the point nicely. All three flow over the vibes from KC and the Sunshine Band, but while Butterfly is the leadoff hitter who sets things up lovely it's Doodlebug and Ladybug who catch the most wreck on clean-up:
Doodlebug: "Where I'm from - fakin the funk you get did
Projects, tenements... pyramids
Where I'm from, we're livin off the boom boom crack
It's that hip hop rockers jazz when I max
Peace be the greeting of the insect tribe
Pestilent forces can't catch the vibe
We live to love and we love to rock mics
We speak in ghetto tongue, cause ghetto's the life
Food for thought so get a buffet plate
The lyrics are so fat you might gain weight"
Ladybug: "Hip-Hop made a point last year right? (Yeah)
But Planets is the joint this year right? (Yeah)
Planets got the dubs and live to grass-hop
Duck out from the fuzz, that sweat the hip-hop
Risin like we foam, get it from the dome
I'm from where the fat beats stretch for mad blocks
We can get a kit, without, no thread
Feelin funky beats go straight, to the head
Fall into a club, dig on what we love
It be past six, before we reach bed"
Guru and Premier may have set the mold of fat jazz tracks for hip-hop raps, but the Planets took that mold and broke it. Few albums have ever so extensively name-checked jazz in their liner notes, and even though it was made necessary by the post-lawsuit era of sample clearance, the list is as impressive as the songs themselves. The slick bass swing of "Cool Like Dat" comes from "Stretchin" by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The devilishly delicious flutes of "Nickel Bags" come straight from Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love." The lightly uplifting finale "Examination of What" borrows from "Listen and You'll See" by the Crusaders. Every sample is carefully chosen and used to sublime perfection. Great samples alone don't make an album though - great vibes do. Digable Planets had vibes in spades and need make no apology to anyone if they're perceived as hippies - they're just some "Jimmi Diggin Cats" who know good music and want to share it with the rest of us. They're not serious or heavy about making us get their groove though - in fact they can be positively silly and hilarious:
Butterfly: "Yo, everybody's goin retro, right?
And I was thinkin... if the 60's and 70's were now
Isaac Hayes woulda have his own 900 number [...]"
Ladybug: "I know, and 8-track Walkmans, right?"
Doodlebug: "True, The Jackson Five would've had dreads."
Ladybug: "Word, my man Tito would look fly, right?"
The fact that Ego Trip overlooked "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)" as one of 1993's best albums may be a criminal mistake, but it's not one you have to go to jail for too. Their album is a refreshing reminder that hip-hop credibility doesn't necessarily mean how many times you've been shot or how many big name guest stars you can land to cameo on a project. This underrated trio simply existed to jam and love it, which is why even their overplayed "Cool Like Dat" single is still dat cool to this very day. Pick up a copy for yourself and discover why this album should not only be on any rap critic's "Best of '93" list, but why you'll ultimately find it's one of the best and most slept on albums since hip-hop was ever first put on wax.
Music Vibes: 10 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9.5 of 10
Originally posted: December 6, 2005