Sunday, August 4, 2019

Digable Planets and the Brief Rise of Backpack Rap | Live at The Neptune Theatre: Aug 9

For the briefest of times, there existed a set of artists at the cultural crossroads of concurrent movements in Sampledelia, Turntablism, Breaks Music, Acid Jazz, Jazz Rap, Classic Hip Hop, and it's more sophisticated cousin, the Alternative Hip Hop of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Theirs was a sound that, rather than drawing from the then burgeoning styles of Miami and East Coast Bass, Hardcore, Pop, and Party Rap, instead assembled new correlations with a genre blurring assimilation of electric Funk and Jazz, Soul, Dub and Reggae. Even occasionally touching on the downtempo moods of Folk and Psychedelic Pop of the 1960s and 70s. In the latter a lineage of lyricism can be seen connecting their sound with the Civil Rights era writing of the Beat poets, African American cultural figure, Gil Scott-Heron, and the work of present day lyricists like Saul Williams. The couplet of Soul Jazz Records compilations navigating the abundance of groundbreaking styles on their ongoing Soul of a Nation and Boombox series, "Early Independent Hip Hop, Electro & Disco Rap 1979 - 83" and "Afro-Centric Visions in the Age of Black Power: Underground Jazz, Street Funk & The Roots of Rap 1964 - 79", lay down the complexities of the cultural moment that proceeded this epoch. Concurrent with the popularization of what was being called the "alternative music" movement in American rock of the early 1990s, this body of Alternative Hip Hop came into being. Originating primarily from East Coast groups such as De La Soul, Black Sheep, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, The Fugees, The Roots, and Digable Planets. In conjunction there existed a West Coast strain epitomized by acts such as The Pharcyde, Digital Underground, Jurassic 5, Freestyle Fellowship, The Coup, Del the Funky Homosapien and his outfit the Hieroglyphics, as well as a lower profile set of Southern acts, among which Goodie Mob and the pop-meets-Afrocentric sounds of Arrested Development made their presence known.

At this era's inception, a trio of now-classic debut albums; De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising", A Tribe Called Quest's "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm", The Pharcyde's "Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde", all achieved commercial success, defined in no small part by MTV and College Radio airplay alongside their "indie" and Alternative Rock contemporaries. Elevated further by the acclaim they were met with from the widely influential alternative music press of the time. Critics for such magazines as Spin, Alternative Press, Q, Ray Gun, Wired and Mojo as the cultural signposts and tastemakers of the 1990s, were quick to hail these works as innovative, intellectual, soulful masterpieces. Often conceiving the artists working within this new field as representative of the future of hip hop as a whole. This would all peak by the mid-to-late 1990s, culminating in the genre's ascent into popular culture, and wider mainstream press embracing of its characteristic sound. This short span of years and the musical era it represents for hip hop is often seen as concluding with the release of Fugee's "The Score", and The Roots' "Do You Want More?!!!??!". At its apogee, this growing body of poetically sophisticated, technologically astute, politically conscious, genre-assimilating hip hop described a developing cultural and economic demographic of college-mobile, working and middle class African American urbanites. The intersection of their cultural moment with the economic abundance of the 1990s, and a accelerated liberalization of American coastal cities, manifest as a confluence of independent non-commercial scenes that ran parallel with the equally middle class college-bound "alternative" lifestyles of the independent rock audiences of the time.

The lyrical and thematic concerns of this new tangent in the course of hip hop differed significantly from the existing commercial rap, instead reflecting the daily concerns of the lettered, urban, liberally-inclined, politically conscious body that were the larger part of the listenership. The supposition of a certain bookishness was inherent in the perception of these shared styles and concerns, thus "Backpack Rap" and "Indie Hip Hop" became the coinage when terminology emerged. No other outfit quite represented for Backpack Rap, like the trio of Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, Craig "Doodlebug" Irving, and Mariana "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira as Digable Planets. Musically, they incorporated elements of Funk, Samba, Downtempo beats and the brand of suggestive psychedelia common then to Turntablism, into their poetic hip hop. With Jazz, in-particular, playing a pivotal role. Not reserved about their debt to Jazz, the group gave shout-outs to icons Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker, and sampled others artists who figured in their collective DNA, including Sonny Rollins and The Last Poets. Originally from Seattle, in his youth Butler was interning at the Arthur Russell-founded Sleeping Bag Records in New York, with sojourns to Philadelphia, where Irving was living and rapping with Dread Poets Society. Fitting then that their initial encounter would be Irving and Vieira meeting while attending Howard University, to then intersect with Bulter who was already recording under the outfit's name, and migrate as a trio to New York. From their demos, Pendulum Records (operated by the senior VP of urban music at Elektra Records) signed them in 1992, inspiring the move to big city where Butler and Irving became flatmates. It was in this setting they were to refine and develop the album which became, "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)".

Aided in no small part by Elektra's distribution into every college radio format and conceivable retail setting, the album was massively received. It would go on in the next year to not only be certified gold by the RIAA, but it's lead single, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" would become a even more widely heard Billboard charting hit, winning the "Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group" at the 1994 Grammy Awards. Within the same year of their Grammy accolades, Digable Planets were to release their second album, "Blowout Comb". A departure in that it was less hook-oriented, with a more overtly contemplative, socially conscious, and political bent. Their sophomore album retained the characteristic production of influences spanning Jazz, World Music rhythms, urban ambience, while also branching out to touch on Afrofuturism. Their debt owed to previous Spiritual Jazz and Afrofuturist explorers, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, George Clinton & Bootsie Collins, Rammellzee, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was expressly woven throughout the fabric of "Blowout Comb". Inherent to their modern-day contribution to this continuity, the album touched on the Black Panther Party, Marxist thought, and observations on Capitalism in relation to urban life, wealth stratification and class divisions. These all rode alongside a consciousness that embraced Third Wave Feminism, Pro-Choice activism, and Black Power poet Nikki Giovanni. This rich weave of Afrocentric cultural history would also be the territory that Bulter would dedicate his life to in the wake of Digable Planets disillusion, which following a year later in 1995. As a solo artist working parallel with and within the 21st Century Afrofuturism movement, The Black Constellation collective and the Los Angeles-based Brainfeeder label, Bulter's following two decades would see a new body of work as Shabazz Palaces bringing his "Sci-Fi Beats With a Pacific Flavor", to a newly minted audience. "Ishmael Butler’s Heavy Afro-celestial Experience" would also lead him back into dialogs with Craig Irving, and Mariana Vieira, with suggestions of new collaborative material and a second performance at Seattle's Neptune Theatre in the wake of the Light in the Attic label's much celebrated reissues.