In 1993, after scoring a crossover hit, selling a half million records and winning a Grammy, trio Digable Planets was dubbed by some as the next big thing in hip-hop. Two years later, it no longer existed.
Thus is the nature of the music industry sometimes—fame may solve some problems, but it can also bring forth others. For Digable, the cracks may have appeared with the pressure to match the success of the band's debut, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Space and Time), which was celebrated for its jazzy, sample-based production and lighthearted lyricism. Rather than follow its formula, however, members Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira and Craig "Doodlebug" Irving decided to go the route laid by their forefathers De La Soul, who, on their own sophomore effort, aimed to kill the flowery vibes of its debut by going darker and more political. Digable's sophomore record, Blowout Comb, marked a major change in direction, and though still well-received by critics, it was met with a lukewarm reception by fans. The group broke up shortly afterward.
Talking to Butler today, he still won't divulge whether the letdown of Blowout Comb was the reason for the group's split. He will say, however, that he's continually hoped since then that Digable Planets would return in some shape or form. Starting last year, the group reunited to play sporadic gigs and has announced it's potentially recording new material.
"[Digable] carries a mystique about it that continues to rejuvenate itself," Butler says. "That amazes me."
Butler's amazement shouldn't be understated. As an A&R rep for Seattle's Sub Pop Records, where he's worked a desk job for three years building up the legendary indie imprint's hip-hop roster, it's his job to weather the countless factors that cause bands to disappear into the ether. He knows too well how rare it is for a 23-year-old song like "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" to still draw crowds. He also knows what it takes to be in a long-lasting band: His Afro-futuristic project, Shabazz Palaces, continues to release genre-bending records and play big shows; it recently opened a few sold-out gigs for Radiohead.
"Wherever I land, I try to make the most of it and to get excited to perform in all those situations," he says.
Vieira and Irving haven't been stagnant, either. The former has been working with legendary producer Prince Paul on a collaborative project, while Irving has been performing with his group, the Cosmic Funk Orchestra, back in his hometown of Philadelphia. Watching footage of their recent performances with Digable, both MCs still seem to have the magic, especially Vieira, whose slightly offbeat rhyme patterns and laid-back hum still mesh beautifully with the jazzy horns and breakbeats. Although Butler was the group's heart, Ladybug and Doodlebug played a vital role in reinforcing the group's aesthetic of chill introspection, with each writing a number of powerful verses over the group's two releases that dabble in topics of black nationalism and mysticism.
But when asked what the difference is between now and 2005, when Digable Planets briefly got back together before breaking up again, Butler doesn't have a concrete response. He mentions that the formation of the group's backing band, which he describes as their Earth, Wind and Fire, helped influence the decision, as did the shows coming together when they did. Beyond that, he says it was a "cocktail of different reasons, some of which I'd have to talk to the other members about," he adds. Perhaps the simplest explanation can be found in a recent interview the group did with Pitchfork, in which Irving said, "At this stage in our lives, we have kids and responsibilities; back then, we were just wild."
What Butler can say firmly is that if the group did record new material, it wouldn't sound the same as either Reachin' or Blowout, but entirely different. For a creative mind like Butler, who handled all the production for both Digable releases as well as the interstellar beats of Shabazz Palaces, that possibility is reason enough to give things another chance.
"There's an opportunity to go back," he says, "but also think of something new that would be totally different." REED JACKSON.
SEE IT: Project Pabst presents Digable Planets at Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., with Camp Lo, on Thursday, Aug. 25. 8 pm. $25. 21+.