Digable Planets’ first album, ‘Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)’ just turned 30. This album should be more revered than it is.
OPINION: The Brooklyn-based trio’s 1993 debut album is a production masterpiece featuring that song that literally everybody knows and quotes.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Digable Planets — the Brooklyn-based rap trio of Butterfly, Ladybug Mecca and Doodlebug — was always a group that I felt both should’ve been more revered while also understanding why maybe they weren’t. They’re an enigma, I suppose. For starters, they made two absolutely amazing albums in 1993’s “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)” and 1994’s “Blowout Comb,” the latter being one of the Blackest musical offerings of all time — I will forever die on that hill.
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But even the group’s first album is an absolute production marvel. The album is a beautifully produced (and mixed; that cannot be stated enough) “jazz rap” album. It features jazz-heavy samples in a way that I’m sure even Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest had to appreciate. Digable Planets’ most famous musical offering from their debut album, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” is as perfect a song as you’re going to get, perfectly meshing Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ “Stretching” with hip-hop drums and lyrical catchphrases that still work in 2023 — 30 years later. There’s a reason why it was a chart hit and won a Grammy — it’s dope, plain and simple. And if you ever needed an example of “jazz rap,” this is your song.
But that jazz-rap label is limiting. The album doesn’t necessarily just feel like jazz. Naw, to me, the album feels like New York City. When I listen to songs like “What Cool Breezes Do” and “Nickel Bags,” I feel like I’m listening to the soundtrack for a walk down a Brooklyn street. It’s Timberland music, through and through, to me. Perhaps that perspective was driven by my location in the South when it dropped.
When “Reachin’” was released, I was still eight years away from my first time ever stepping foot on a New York City street, but I can say with confidence that this album had the vibe I felt. The whole album’s feel is New York City. Lyrically, it fits perfectly fine in the early-to-mid ’90s. The members of the group weren’t exactly lyrical titans, but they sounded fine on the beats, and unlike some classic albums from the time, I didn’t spend the entire listening wishing somebody else had bum-rushed the studio session. Plus, vocally, each member had a distinct enough voice to be interesting.
This is why I’ve always been confused by the lack of street-level reverence for this album. By all accounts, most folks don’t really think heavily about Digable Planets as essential ’90s listening, short of “Rebirth of Slick.” The album production was dope, the lyrics were fine, and it had a monster hit single.
Now, I have a theory about why the album isn’t as revered. I almost think the album was a bit TOO New York considering it was made by three transplants from Seattle, Philadelphia and Silver Spring, Md. The three out-of-towners laying down such a New York sound could have been a bit off-putting. The success of “Rebirth of Slick” probably didn’t help either. I can see the streets in 1993 thinking that anything the mainstream enjoyed as much as that song wasn’t real enough. I remember “Rebirth of Slick” playing on the pop stations. But sometimes songs are just that good, and that one definitely is.
Also, perhaps its cohesion is also a thing that makes the album … forgettable to some. It’s well sequenced, and the sounds are all very similar, which works well, but I suppose against the backdrop of other “jazz rap” albums like A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders” (which would be released later that year), and the rise of the Wu-Tang Clan, which changed the sound of New York City, could also play a part here. I just think that “Reachin’” as a body of music is about as good as you could ask for without hitting the vaunted “classic” label, though it’s a really, really good project.
By the time 1994’s “Blowout Comb” came around, the Wu-Tang movement was in full swing and Bad Boy and Death Row were duking it out, so I’m not entirely surprised the group would be less well-received with such a landmark funky and Black album. But I think if there’s any album worth going back to revisit 30 years after its release, “Reachin’” is as good a choice as any. It’s better than you remember, and “Rebirth of Slick” is also as fresh today as it was then. We should appreciate it more than we do — it’s cool like dat.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).
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