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30 Years Ago, Digable Planets' Interstellar Funk Changed Hip-Hop

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A man, a woman and another man all in their 50s pose in sunglasses.
Digable Planets (left to right: Doodlebug, Ladybug Mecca and Butterfly) backstage at Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Thirty years ago, three outer-space insects crashed down on Earth to “resurrect the funk” — or so goes the story on Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), one of the most imaginative albums in hip-hop history.

In 1993, Butterfly (Ishmael Butler), Doodlebug (Craig Irving) an Ladybug Mecca (Mariana Vieira) were 20-something new arrivals to New York, with the city as their muse. In their lyrics, brownstones and graffiti-covered walls come alive, pulsing with rhythms that connect hip-hop to a long lineage of Black artistic innovation and expression. As Butterfly raps on “Where I’m From,” “The kinks, the dance, the prints in all the shirts / My grandmother told my mother that it’s Africa at work.”

With samples from the previous generation of like-minded Afrofuturists — including Herbie Hancock, Lonnie Liston Smith and Parliament — Reachin’ cruises at a laid-back tempo that invites listeners to marinate on the Planets’ fresh-eyed observations. Even as they tackle social issues like reproductive rights, the DPs’ sincerity and playfulness remind us to seek beauty and magic in our everyday surroundings, and not take life too seriously — because our existence is, after all, just a blip on a long continuum. As they put it on “Examination of What,” “We’re just babies, man.”

It’s not surprising that Digable Planets’ far-out frequencies have resonated here in the Bay Area for decades. In 2006, Butterfly’s lyric — “We be to rap what key be to lock” from “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” — got a second life through a sample on “Yay Area,” the standout opening track on E-40’s My Ghetto Report Card. And it’s Ladybug Mecca whose bars “You want ’em / I got ’em / Drippin’ like water” drive Snoop Dogg’s E-40-assisted hit “Candy (Drippin’ Like Water)” from 2009.

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Last month, Digable Planets felt the love from their Bay Area fans at the Blue Note Jazz Festival in Napa, where they performed reimagined versions of tracks from Reachin’ and their 1994 sophomore album, Blowout Comb. The trio’s chemistry was effervescent as an all-star band, led by guitarist Thaddeus Turner and with rising star Kassa Overall on drums, brought new dimensions to their classic material.

Shortly after the DPs left the stage in wine country, KQED caught up with them about the enduring impact of Reachin’, which they’re celebrating with a national tour that stops at the Fillmore in San Francisco on Feb. 3, 2024.

A hip-hop trio, one woman and two men, laugh while seated in the grass.
Digable Planets backstage at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, in 1993. (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Nastia Voynovskaya: This year we’re celebrating hip-hop 50, and you’re also celebrating the 30th anniversary of Reachin’. What’s it like looking back on these songs that you wrote when you were in your 20s, discovering New York? What do you see now when you listen to them?

Doodlebug: I see a young man still trying to find himself. I’m not saying that I literally found myself, though I’ve gotten a little closer. I listen and I hear somebody that wasn’t fully into himself, but I can hear the passion in that voice. It kind of makes me smile sometimes, and laugh, thinking about all the memories that we had when we recorded, especially that first album.

Butterfly: Yeah, it’s like looking at a photograph, almost. ’Cause when you hear the music and hear yourself, the subtleties and the differences. And then you go back in time and you think about different situations and maybe what inspired it. So, like, you feel it in your heart when you listen to it and perform the songs. It’s cool, I like it.

Ladybug Mecca: [I’m] thinking back on being a very, very young woman, and entering into this business of music, and how much I didn’t know at the time. But the beauty of that is that I was living in the moment, being fully with how I felt about the world and the people that I was interacting with. There’s beauty in that.

Digable Planets perform at the Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

There’s this really palpable sense of awe and wonder in those songs, where you’re seeing the magic in the streets of New York. So in that spirit, when you interpolate these songs in a new way with live instrumentation, what’s that process like, and how do you find newness?

Butterfly: That’s a good question. Every time you perform, you gotta try something new. We do go out on a stage with the chance that you might mess up or you might forget something, or the guys in the band might miss a line. You’re living on the edge a little bit, you know what I mean? And it’s fun to be there. We actually feel comfortable there, and kind of seek that excitement out of being on stage. It just keeps it fresh a little bit.

Mariana Ladybug Mecca Vieira of Digable Planets performs at the Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

There’s this spiritual consciousness on your two albums, and it’s something that’s very present in jazz, too. Can you tell me a bit more about that spiritual element and how you see it as part of that lineage of Black music?

Butterfly: Making music is instinct. Instinct is really the core of spirituality. Your instinct is what you know to be true from your feelings, your reaction to things. Music is that reaction, and putting forth a sound vibration and a thought, ideas. And it’s vibrating, it’s moving all the time. … I like to find myself on the crest of that, you know, and that spirituality, really outside and not thinking about yourself and your problems or anything. You’re just in moments of bliss, really, and energy.

Ishmael Butterfly Butler of Digable Planets performs at the Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Y’all are very beloved here in the Bay Area, especially because you were sampled by E-40. Is there a backstory to that sample, or any connection there?

Butterfly: I know Rick Rock produced it, and he likes Digable stuff. He’ll get the acapella, chop it up. 40 and Rick Rock, they’re luminaries, really, and they’re hella fly too. And they made a dope song off of it, so it’s cool to be propagated back into the culture with some fly shit like that, you know?

There’s also a kinship between a lot of artists in the Bay Area and the three of you, with your political and spiritual consciousness. Did you ever interact with the scene here? I know you did some work with Om Records in San Francisco.

Butterfly: I’ll tell you who we used to see. It was Boots and the Coup. They used to come in and fuck with us sometimes, you know? And even through the years, seeing them guys, we would always have a good rapport. Boots always liked us and we liked him. … So to see what he’s doing right now, like his last series, I’m a Virgo — that shit is incredible.

Doodlebug: Coming up here visiting my man Pismo Shou. He was a producer in Oakland and produced for Souls of Mischief. Through him, I met the Hieroglyphics crew. That was a great connection I had with San Francisco, I always had a great time when I came out here.

Ladybug Mecca: Cats in the Bay Area are just so fly, from language and fashion to their own sound and music. They’re innovators. They’re consistently inspiring me. So having Rick Rock or 40 flip anything from us is truly an honor.

Craig Doodlebug Irving of Digable Planets performs at the Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

It was so cool to see that Kassa Overall is in your band. Who do you see in the up-and-coming generation that’s carrying your torch?

Ladybug Mecca: I don’t really look at it like they’re carrying our torch. I just tend to appreciate the next generation for what they do. That’s not to say that they may not be inspired by us and others. Kassa is someone I stumbled upon a few years ago and fell in love with his music. It’s an honor. I just see him creating his own path and continuing to shine and grow.

Doodlebug: Ras Kass’ son is part of a group called Coast Contra. They’re super dope.

Digable Planets and Madlib backstage at the Blue Note Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

As we celebrate hip-hop’s 50th anniversary and we look at the next 50 years to come, what are your hopes for the next generation?

Ladybug Mecca: Ownership of their catalog and continuing to move towards that. Putting back into communities. And just having the financial resources to really be able to lift our communities up.

Doodlebug: I just hope that the next generation, in their pursuit of financial independence and empowerment, that they don’t lose their soul with the music. The industry gets too caught up in getting money. Everybody’s talking about getting money and killing mutha… — it’s a place for that. I just don’t want the next generation to lost in there and forget the soul and the foundation of music.

Butterfly: I hope that they really pick up the mantle of work on behalf of the struggle. A lot of it is very individual-based. You don’t see that many groups anymore – five, six, three people, all representing one thing. Everybody is a solo person. And I think that got away from that community aspect that we sort of all came out of, you know, and because it’s tough times ahead politically, socially, environmentally. Rap could be a catalyst for more than just individuals projecting their desires onto the public. It’s like, get back to some changing things with the vibes. That would be cool. I think it could be possible, too.

This story was updated to include Digable Planets’ Feb. 3, 2024 San Francisco concert date. 

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For more hip-hop history coverage from KQED, check out our series That’s My Word.

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