|Photo Courtesy Sub Pop|
(Image by Leif Podhajsky
Original band photo by David Belisle)
There was a point where hip-hop was the soundtrack to my life. This point was somewhere in the mid 90s, punk had broke years ago and flew too close to the sun, grunge had all but died or been turned into something more cumbersome than Seven Mary Three. But hip-hop was a fresh and vital perspective on my city surroundings. At the time I lived in Boston, attending Boston College, which is to say I played NHL 94, got stoned and listened to hip-hop. Digable Planets 2nd album, Blowout Comb, was somewhat of a staple. It narrated many slow passages of time and though it never quite had mainstream success, my friends and I all considered it one of the best of an era. The lyricism was deep, esoteric, streetwise and worldly. In fact, to this day, I comprehend something new every time I rest that vinyl on my turntable. The music was unique as well, dense with rich jazz samples like Roy Ayers "We Live in Brooklyn Baby", Bob James' "Blue Lick" and Fred Wesley and the JB's "Blow Your Head", but unlike most hip hop of the time, there was a litany of guest musicians lending live horn arrangements and complex guitar and bass interplay. The album was layered, nuanced and perhaps distantly ahead of its time. One of the keys to their unique sound was the lyricism, warm voice and production from Butterfly- aka Ishmael Butler.
A funny thing happened to me in 1999. I decided that I both a) had a drivers license and b) that I lived in New Jersey and that those two things together could remedy the New Jersey part. I had heard about California through years of rock n roll brainwashing so I gathered two friends and pointed a car towards the other coast with its rumored palm trees and perfect weather. Before I left New Jersey, my mother, who had raised me solo, encouraged me to make a stop along the way and meet my father for the first time in my life. I had just watched Empire Strikes back and it seemed like a fair coming of age request. I called the first in a series of numbers to track him down (I promise this will lead back to hip-hop and relevance if you give me a minute). The second conversation I had in the tracking process was with an aunt I'd never met before. She knew about me and asked me a series of seemingly random questions.
New Aunt: Do you like hip-hop
Me: (As a black male aged 18-25 I'm inclined to say yes) Yes
New Aunt: Have you heard of Digable Planets
Me: (Is this old lady trying to give me some hip hop 101). Yes
New Aunt: Did you know that Butterfly was your brother?
The old lady hit me with a curve ball. The answer was a definitive caps lock big fonted bold ass NO! Shortly after gleaming this new information I found myself eating lunch with one of my heroes who happened to be my brother as well as a huge influence on my career as a lyricist. We got along well out the gate, we talked vinyl, jazz, hip hop, indie rock, life, food and the infinite, etcetera. In fact, Ish introduced me to the White Stripes in 99 and was just as likely to be talking about Radiohead’s Kid A as a Lonnie Liston Smith sample. This is the open-mindedness that has cultivated the unique sounds he sculpted during and since the reign of Digable Planets.
Tonight I’m gonna be headed down to the Casbah for a little family reunion of sorts. But I’m also going there to see my brother’s new band, Shabazz Palaces. I’m not nearly as familiar with their work as I am with those classic Digable Planets albums, but from my initial listens I can tell that Ish is still making music for tomorrow. The futuristic beats, the trailing sonics, the laced ear candy, the unique cadences and effected vocals allows this project to dodge the conventional constrictions of modern hip-hop. If you were a Digable fan, this is no nostalgia trip, but it is a trip to some futuristic arena of sound, though on your journey that warm vocal tone will anchor your ears to the familiar.
There’s probably a lot more to this story, but I’m typing this out at work and I’m gonna have to ring someone up soon (though this recession gave me a nice window to do some writing). Perhaps I’ll post some more later.