DIGABLE PLANETS: We be to Rap What Key be to Lock
By Marielle V. Turner for RAPstation.com
There is so much truth to this line Butterfly spits on “The Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat.)” Their innovative sound really opened a lot of doors for Hip-Hop to become a more intelligent genre. Digable Planets won a Grammy award in 1994 for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for that song. Their competition for that award were: Arrested Development for “Revolution,” Cypress Hill for “Insane in the Brain,” Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg for “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and Naughty by Nature for “Hip Hop Hooray.” They were also nominated for Best New Artist that year.
I wanted to see them on my Earthday this year on July 30th. They performed at Celebrate Brooklyn, one of the coolest music festivals in New York. Unfortunately, it rained and I couldn’t stay out in it. And it never rains on my Earthday — NEVER. The universe arranged for me to be fortunate enough to see them when they came back during their reunion tour in New York. They performed at Webster Hall on November 10th and Ladybug Mecca put me on the list. Cool huh? And the DJ that opened for them was outstanding! I forgot to ask DJ Earl if he was performing at his hometown festival – The Chosen Few DJs Classic House Reunion July 1st and 2nd, 2017 in Chicago. I guess I’ll see cause I’m there.
I interviewed them individually via telephone as I couldn’t see them in July. Actually, I think this helped me get to know them individually better as group interviews are sort of limiting. I asked them all the same relative questions and got to hear a little about each of them personally this way.
So here go the questions:
In reference to the May 4th Movement, did you write this to show support for this particular incident or to support protest in general? If so, do you see this as a model for future revolution?
Butterfly: To talk about protest we used the May 4th Movement to symbolize and talk about protest in general. I don’t think it’s really a model for revolution because at this point in time, whatever powers you’re protesting against have sort of realized that protests are a way of going against them and they have absorbed the effectiveness of them, especially with the police presence. I think it’s difficult to use that as a catalyst for change. Although I think that protests are good and are a necessary arm of change of things.
Ladybug: In general, things that were happening like the L.A. Riots with Rodney King shaped our perspective. Growing up and becoming a woman at that time, I became very self-aware and aware of my environment and I used that entire album [Blowout Comb] as a platform to express how I felt about White Supremacy, injustice and everything I was feeling and continue to feel at that time.
Doodlebug: We’re always willing participants in any type of positive protest that’s about change. The May 4th Movement was a way of change for us. On the album Blowout Comb it was a way for us to change up that happy-go-lucky first album sound to a more gritty and revolutionary sound. There’s nothing too deep about the actual date. I know there’s a certain substance to that date. I think there’s a gazillion things on this planet Earth that you could pick from depending on who you are and where you come from to protest about and make you stand up to start some type of revolution.
You say, “Won’t rest until they free our brother Mumia-Abu” and “Collectin’ pitchforks ‘til they free Geronimo” on Dial 7. [That is actually Doodlebug’s line but I thought it would be good to hear what they all said about it.] Your focus in the 90s was on the wrongful incarceration of brothers. Today, we have an epidemic of the murder of Black men by the police. How do you relate the two practices?
Butterfly: Systematic oppression has to have many forms. It has to be supported on many levels. I think now with a lot of guys rotating back from the military along with the polarization of the country racially, cats are joining the police force. I feel like there is both a specific and concerted effort to terrorize and eliminate people from the Black community. I think that there are factions within the police force that basically carry out missions with that in mind. Terrorization and elimination — I think we’re seeing those things coming to the forefront. They’ve always been there but it’s like now with all the cameras and social media we get to see more of the results of it. That’s why there’s been a rise in the awareness of it but the arm of oppression and supremacy has been going on for some time. It’s what America has done for some time and most likely always will do.
Ladybug: You know nothing has changed. Actually the only reason it seems like an epidemic is because of cell phone usage and the ability to capture things. [There’s also] social media and the internet. It hasn’t stopped since the inception of this country. It’s just that now it’s being shared a lot easier with the rest of the world.
Doodlebug: It’s part and parcel. Just part of an unjust system that doesn’t really perceive us [Black people] as human beings. They still look at us as chattel — as ex-slaves — as niggers. When you perceive somebody as lower than you, you don’t give them full rights that you would give people you see as your equal.
I was told that Ladybug had family members who were members of The Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Did you [Butterfly] or Doodlebug have members of that group or any other revolutionary group?
Butterfly: My Mother and Father were members. There was a Seattle branch of The Black Panther Party. Back in those days young people like my parents wanted to be part of something that was energetic and radical that had some intellectual and social leanings as well. They realized the power and beauty of that group of people and they had been singled out for a particular type of oppression. They said, “We’re not doing that. We’re not goin’ out like that.” Participation in The Party was something that was almost like listening to Rap music was for our generation. Everybody did it and got swept up in a movement of substance. They traveled around to different places doing voter registration and there was awareness of all kinds. I obviously wasn’t there but I’m just talking from stories and history I was able to gather as I was growing up. Obviously they kept me frosty in terms of being aware and knowing what was going on, having some awareness and sharing in the responsibility to change the situation.
In addition to the question above, I asked Ladybug and Doodlebug this question: How do you equate the effect of your parents’ influence on the Digable Planets’ sound?
Ladybug: I had family members who were a part of a Leftist movement in Brazil, not in the States. I was told stories about my Uncle who was ultimately murdered. Just like what happens here. There are people who speak out against injustice and are active against it. I come from a poor family in Brazil but we have an awareness that not a lot of people have there because of the whitewashing or brainwashing to not acknowledge your Afrakan heritage. I was very fortunate that I was raised to love who I am — all parts of me. Love my hair. Love my skin. My history and my culture. It can all be divided by labels but in essence it’s all a part of the diaspora and the movement to bring change. It shaped who I am. It influence[d] what I say and how I see the world. It definitely effected what I bring to the table — my sound and my observations. How I feel about the world and how I want to see a change.
Doodlebug: My Father was in it [The Black Panther Party.] Like any parent that is active in their child’s life, they’re gonna inspire them. Everything you learn as a kid is from your parents so if you have family that is active in the community and listen to all types of music, that’s what’s going to be in your environment. It’s things you grow up around so it’s just natural to you. Luckily, we just had parents that were actively involved in the community and actively involved in who they are and their place in this world. They also listened to good music. So it just naturally trickled down to us.
How did you all hook up on the East Coast?
Butterfly: My Father was a Philly guy so after I left Seattle and left school in Massachusetts, I always spent summers in Philly. I went to school there for a couple of years, living with my Dad and my Grandma. The ties in Philly were very deep. It was a second home to me. I met Ladybug and Doodlebug in Philly. We used to hang out in D.C. and go to New York parties like the Howard [University] homecoming and the Eastern Parkway parade in Brooklyn. I lived in Brooklyn for 15 years. Mecca (Ladybug) lives in Connecticut somewhere now.
Ladybug: I am from Maryland, the D.C. area. In the last two years of high school I would travel a lot on the weekends to go to music conferences to align with like-minded, creative people. In my journey, I met Knowledge (Doodlebug) in D.C. and then I met Ish [Butterfly] in Philly. We all happened to be in Philly at the same time. We started kicking it, [not sleeping together as the slang term would indicate] listening to music — all over Hip-Hop. That was life and we just decided to do this.
Doodlebug: I was going to Howard University in the mid 80s. While I was there, I ran across Ladybug. When I went back to Philly, I met Ishmael. His Grandmother lived around the corner from my Grandmother. We had common interests and knew some of the same people. He mentioned this group he wanted to form — Digable Planets. Then one day he came to me and asked me if I wanted to start this group and be a part of it. I was in a group at the time called The Dread Poets Society. It was more a mentality than a hairstyle.
I interpreted the style of jazz music for all of your samples but it’s obviously more than that — some of the best samples I’ve heard. You were way ahead of your time doing that. What do you have to say about the use of jazz and other forms in your music?
Butterfly: There were not really cerebral decisions about what music to use. It was more musical instinct and feelings. It wasn’t about particularly using “jazz” samples cause we really don’t accept the genre-fication of expression because that’s a marketing tool. We went to the music we could get a hold of which was our parents’ music collection — mostly my Mom and Dad cause that’s what they listened to. It wasn’t like we were gonna be a jazz sampling group. We got the records we could get to and we used the stuff we thought was fresh.
Ladybug: There’s not only jazz. There’s heavy funk influence there as well. Maybe because of marketing this [the use of Butterfly’s parents’ music] got lost. For Blowout Comb we would find records that we absolutely loved and shared it with each other. Doodlebug picked the sample for Dial 7. I can recall sitting on the bus with Butterfly, listening to a particular record and we would identify parts we could sample and I remember how exciting that was.
Doodlebug: Like I said, your biggest influence as a child is your parents if you’re lucky enough that have parents that are active in your life. We were and our parents listened to good music. My Mom listened to everything from Frank Sinatra to Bessie Smith and all things in between. When it came time for us to start dabbling in music and do our own little experiments, I would take music from their crates. When my Mom wasn’t looking, I would take her records and run down the street to the turntables set and played around with it.
Your lyrical styles are all rather abstract. How did you develop this style?
Butterfly: Style development usually begins with straight out mimicry and then matures into some direct representation of your instincts. Early on [we were listening to groups like] Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, Special Ed, Audio Two and Queen Latifah. [We were] trying to reach levels of expression that were similar to the ones that we were enamored by. Later we carved out our own style. We got past the faculty and facility of being able to sound like people we liked. It was a development over time and maturity that got us to the places we ended up sounding like.
I only asked Ladybug if they collaborated on their style too.
Ladybug: We separately wrote our own lyrics. That’s the beauty of this group. We all allowed each other the space to be who we are as artists. Everyone came with whatever was in their heart and soul. There was nothing that was questioned. I could trust that nothing would ever be wack coming from the two of them so we just allowed each other the space to create.
How did you all name yourselves?
Butterfly: We saw that insects are a part of nature instead of seeing themselves on top of nature in the established hierarchy of the world. We took that notion and took insect names for ourselves to indicate that we felt more a part of nature than on top of the natural order of things as human beings [do]. We use the names to highlight that thought.
I didn’t ask Butterfly why he picked that particular insect to represent himself. I’m assuming he wanted it to sort of sound like his government name — Ishmael Butler. I could be wrong but it sounds logical. I knew the insect name concept was some really cool thing and you can see it is.
In addition to the Ladybug name I’m assuming it was to bring a feminine principal to her name. I also asked her why she added Mecca to her name.
Ladybug: I remember visiting my parents’ home [in Maryland. She was living in New York at the time.] This wave of feeling came over me and Mecca represented wholeness and something that I wanted to change.
In addition to the question about their names above, I asked Doodlebug — what is a doodlebug and why did you pick that insect?
Doodlebug: I got the name from a movie and a character’s name was Doodlebug — from the Cleopatra Jones series in the 70s. Antonio Fargas played Doodlebug. He was a gangster and the arch nemesis to Cleopatra Jones in this flick. I saw it a zillion times. When Ishmael came to me about the group and the insect theory, I knew exactly what name I was gonna pick. Later on I found out there actually is a doodlebug in the insect world.
You all have separate projects. Will there be performance collaborations or will there be new Digable Planets music cause we would all LOVE that?
Butterfly: I have a group called Shabazz Palaces. Besides the performances [of Digable Planets] —nothing yet.
Ladybug: We’ve talked about it but we haven’t gotten there yet. Right now we are touring and just kind of vibing — getting to know each other again, feeling it out, just letting it flow naturally and not forced. We have talked about it and that is a goal. We’re just kind of being in the present moment. We don’t know what the future holds. We’re taking it one day at a time. [In terms of performance collaborations] I don’t know if that would make sense. My project with Brookzill! Is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It’s kind of fusing Brazilian spiritual music with Hip-Hop. I rhyme in Portuguese and English. So if I had to categorize it in terms of marketing it would be like World Hip-Hop [Brookzill!.] [For new Digable Planets] there’s other bumps in the road we need to get past before we can sit down and do that and we’re working towards that. It’s going well.
Doodlebug: [In terms of performance collaborations] I doubt it. Though you can never say never. In the world of creativity, anything is possible. I would think we would initially focus on the three of us and what made that entity [Digable Planets.] Us three doing our thing, our influences and bringing that to the table — having our flavors and mixing it up to become what it is. That’s how it started but you never know. It could turn into something else. We could collaborate. The first two albums it was strictly Us. We never went outside the Us. But this time you never know. It’s been a long time.
Bandits from the Summer 2014 Release To Life, Love, Loot
By the time this interview posts, the tour might be over. The last date is in Lisbon, Portugal on November 26th. I have to remind my home girl in Paris they will be there on November 24th. Tour information can be seen at www.digableplanetstour.com.
If you travel internationally and can get there you’ll enjoy. Their band is slammin’!