Graded on a Curve: Digable Planets,
Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time
and Space)

Those who enjoy Shabazz Palaces might be familiar with Ishmael Butler’s prior role in Digable Planets, but if this knowledge only extends to rep, the opportunity to investigate further via turntable just got a whole lot easier. On February 23 Light in the Attic’s Modern Classics division is giving the group’s debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) its first vinyl reissue, expanding it to 2LP for a better sonic experience, and including insightful liners by Larry Mizell Jr. Also, again for the first time, the booklet sports the lyrics of “Butterfly” Butler, Craig “Doodlebug” Irving, and Mary-Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira. Buying online gets you blue and lavender blended wax; in retail stores the vinyl will be gold.

Any survey of 1993’s pop landscape that’s really worth a damn will provide space for Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” It was the first single from the group’s debut record, and their biggest hit by a considerable margin, topping Billboard’s Rap Chart, peaking at No. 15 on the hot 100, and eventually winning the ’94 Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group; this is all triply impressive, as not only does the song not suck, but it helped to refine a fresh direction in hip-hop.

Although De La Soul and especially A Tribe Called Quest helped lay the groundwork, there’s no doubt that Digable Planets were introducing something different to the mid-’90s, and for many, particularly those who felt the form was at its best as an uncompromising, parent frightening thing, they could be a hard pill to swallow. Yes, a couple of years earlier, Tribe’s The Low End Theory firmly established impeccable smoothness as a hip-hop option, but “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” and Reachin’ made the maneuver even more palatable to the pop audience.

But not watered down, though some stubborn holdouts wouldn’t acknowledge this until (or even long after) the release of their second and final album Blowout Comb in the fall of ’94. I stand somewhat guilty of such thinking; while not smitten with Digable Planets at the time (though I certainly didn’t hate or even dismiss ‘em), listening retrospectively (essentially due to interest in Shabazz Palaces) corrected this stance, making me wish I’d initially approached Reachin’ with truly open ears.

For it’s a safe bet that no other hip-hop recording of its decade opens with rising instrumental layering like what’s heard at the start of “It’s Good to Be Here.” Aptly described as inhabiting an electronic-textured retro-futuristic (or should that be Afro-futuristic?) neighborhood, the track wastes no time morphing into a horn sample and bass loop-accented hip-hop scenario and then gets spiked with a norm for the style of the period, a skit reinforcing the Digable Planets’ jazz tendency.

Of course, just as important is funkiness, with springy guitar ambiance and a driving (yet unperturbed) beat integral to the success of “Pacifics,” though no more so than the smooth lyrical delivery and the big points scored in namedropping Max Roach, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, these jazz and literary references also reflected in the album’s title, as Reachin’ nods to the Miles Davis Quintet’s killer string of Prestige discs and the parenthetical expands upon Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “A New Refutation of Time.”

This isn’t to suggest that Reachin’ primes the pump of arcane or unexpected references; “Where I’m From” mentions Karl Marx, but it also speaks of the gangster lean, and as the music hits a mid-tempo glide-groove, this comingling of the library and the street feels natural. Those who’ve only heard “Rebirth of Slick” and said pass will likely be surprised by the range in Digable Planets’ sound, though as “What Cool Breezes Do” and “Time & Space (A New Refutation Of)” utilize samples of Eddie Harris, the Crusaders, and Sonny Rollins, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” famously interpolates Art Blakey.

Furthermore, the title of the single riffs on Miles’ breakthrough recordings of 1949-’50, which were later compiled on the essential Birth of the Cool, and “Last of the Spiddyocks,” which resurrects a slang term for young cool jazz freaks (also called hipsters, even back in the ’50s), underscores their interest in the music as much deeper than surface level; in fact, Butler learned about the form through his jazzbo dad. After all this jazz-centricity, “Jimmi Diggin’ Cats” swings back toward funk with inventive conversational rhymes and a sly borrowing from Kool & the Gang.

In numerous ways, Reachin’ is an album of its era; e.g. with each passing year, more new listeners will need to internet search who exactly Sam Kinison was, and yet the disc counterbalances any strains of datedness with aspects that were unusual then and remain refreshing now. Specifically, “La Femme Fétal” is a pro-choice statement that’s as intelligently articulated as it is strident.

It’s the kind of socially-engaged work that regularly seems to be in short supply, though the severity of current events has brought on a welcome upsurge; “La Femme Fétal” is sadly still relevant. I also like how the “Ladybug” spotlight “Escapism (Gettin’ Free)” rolls right into “Appointment at the Fat Clinic,” where the Planets’ female third more than holds her own across another jazz-centric excursion.

Frankly, the looped flutes of “Nickel Bags” illuminate a predilection on the part of the group for jazz in its more urbane and indeed, gratuitously mersh forms (the sample is from Herbie Mann, who, to borrow a quote from Miles’ autobiography regarding noted bebop era asshole Symphony Sid, is a mofo I never did like). However, this is a tendency far from unique to this album, and like their jazz-centric contemporaries, they make it work as the musical flow of the track is again matched by the wordplay.

And unlike many of their rap contemporaries, Reachin’ isn’t a CD-era marathon, so that the inventiveness of late cut “Swoon Units” still sounds fresh. Plus, the album’s uncommonly well-constructed, with the early Cocoon Club skit not overplayed but returning as a bridge into and out of “Examination of What.” It closes an album that sounds stronger to these ears now than it did back then. As said, this is largely due to my own limitations, but I also suspect it’s because so much (far too much) contempo stuff registers as creatively closed-off.

Conversely, by being open to the past and unshackled by expectations of their present with an eye on the future, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) finds Digable Planets breathing freshness into the well-worn adage that knowledge is power. And for a record now a quarter century old, that its freshness is undiminished is no small achievement.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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