Talk about timing. New York’s Digable Planets happened along at the exact moment when many in hip-hop-newcomers and veterans alike-were seeking ways to integrate aspects of jazz into the mix. The trio of Doodlebug (Craig Irving), Butterfly (Ishmael Butler) and Ladybug (Mary Ann Vieira) met as students in Washington DC and began collaborating on rhymes and poetry in 1991. At that time, jazz was generations away from hip-hop; some rappers paid lip service to Miles Davis and other giants but few knew how to make their music emulate jazz’s looseness, its natural feel.
One little song, built on a sample of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “Stretchin’,” would change all that. A positive, laid-back statement of purpose, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” became the catalyst for the jazz-hop movement. With its crisp horns, coy patter and streetwise imagery, the track also became one of 1993’s biggest singles and brought Digable Planets a Grammy. The rest of Reachin’ follows a similar script: ethereal narratives advocating community and consciousness, supported by gently funky beats and tastefully deployed samples. Sometimes the raps stretch the limits of plausibility, but the magic’s in the feel. After years of rap’s in-your-face agitation, such easygoing grooves poured down like a cool, refreshing shower.
Blowout Comb hardly takes giant steps forward. Despite a militantly activist stance in the booklet and an impressive roster of guests — Jeru the Damaja, Guru, D’Influence’s Sarah Webb — the tracks suffer from inertia. Backbeats that had been buoyant seem labored. Digable Planets is dabbling in more aggressive funk workouts, and the trio’s growing social awareness gives its lyrics a sharper edge, but even when talking about black culture’s need to resist mainstreaming — a theme pertinent to everything since turn-of-the-century jazz and Delta blues — the group never gets aboard musical vehicles powerful enough to drive those points home.