Vic, March 11

Digable Planets

Metro, March 11

Hype isn’t always a good thing. It’s not a new idea, but it struck me as I watched one of the most hyped groups of the early 90s perform exactly the way they sound on their latest album: hesitant and confused. The irony was that I had just spent 15 minutes lamenting the lack of media rhapsodizing and eager radio play for a band that I feel deserves it.

Digable Planets were the media’s alternative hip hop darlings last year. When they released the single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in 1993 they caught the music industry and record buyers off guard. Hip hop had been narrowly defined as hard driving, street tough, and violent. “Rebirth of Slick” sounded laid-back and breezy. The band murmured esoteric lyrics over jazz samples and, with their Afros and goatees, looked like new jack bohemians. Scads of critics and trend watchers announced that the group was the answer to nihilistic gangsta rap, that the Digables played “jazz-hop,” a wholesome alternative.

The single went gold and received constant pop radio play. Billboard declared “Rebirth of Slick” the number-two rap single of 1993. Their album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) also went gold, and the group won the 1993 Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group.

Well, some things happened after the media hype and Grammy. Some hip-hoppers questioned Digable Planets’ win over Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. The Digables’ album didn’t sell as well as The Chronic, nor did many fans, not even the Digables’ lead, Butterfly, consider Reachin’ a better album. And the “jazz-hop” moniker irritated some who considered it a ploy to dissociate Digable Planets from their hip hop roots.

Their second album, Blowout Comb, was released late last year. In record stores after its release, I heard clerks explaining to potential buyers that the album was “really different” from the first one. But it didn’t sound like the kind of different that makes you shell out $15.

Blowout Comb sounds so laid-back that Digable Planets could be sleepwalking through it. There are many fewer jazz samples but more self-absorption. The trio seem as if they are self-consciously trying to come on “hard.” They give nods to the Five Percent Nation–a Nation of Islam offshoot–and they’ve got a guest appearance by the seriously “down” rapper Jeru the Damaja. Ladybug even slips in a “fuck that” on the first song.

The problem is that none of this sounds convincing or even original. They preach about socialism and black nationalism like they’re the hottest hip hop trends. The seven-page album jacket reads like a communist propaganda sheet, complete with a photo of the trio in huge Angela Davis afros under the headline, “The Natural Liberation Messengers.” When did they become modern-day freedom fighters or start referring to each other as “comrades”?

If Digable Planets seem lost and confused, I think it’s because they’ve been forced to try to develop their sound and identity under all that hype. They barely had time to adjust to their fame before they were spitting out a new album.

When they strolled casually out onto the Metro stage, to the cheering of a multiracial sold-out crowd, they seemed to accept the approval humbly and with slight hesitation–unsure they deserved it.

This same uncertainty leaked into their whole performance. The group opened with “Graffiti,” an overly subdued single from their second album. They followed with more cuts from this album, “Jettin’,” “Dial 7,” and “9th Wonder (Blackitolism).” They rapped the lyrics so softly and with such little conviction that the words never seemed to make it past their microphones. A tight, vibrant six-piece band backed them along with legendary hip hop DJ Jazzy Joyce, but this couldn’t compensate for the group’s lack of feeling.

The crowd was mostly unfamiliar with these songs (an indication of just how well the record’s doing), so no one chanted or sang along. The energy that marked the band’s first tour was missing, replaced by a pensive, self-absorbed mood.

The crowd responded more enthusiastically when Digable Planets performed songs from their first album. “Rebirth of Slick” was greeted with screams, but the rappers rushed through it, and Butterfly even changed his verse, “We be to rap what key be to lock,” to “We was to rap what key was to lock.” I’m not sure if this indicates their desire to cover new ground or points up their wavering identity.

Unlike Digable Planets, Fishbone know exactly who they are. They’ve survived for more than a decade with no radio play, slim media notice, and a record label that didn’t know what the hell to do with them. Fishbone, who mix rock, funk, ska, and jazz, have produced four albums and three EPs despite being, as one fan yelled, “the most underrated mothafuckas in the world.” That’s probably why they’ve been able to grow. Experimenting and finding their way without any media glare, they’ve arrived at a firm sound and identity–a difficult feat for a band that plays a musical hybrid.

As a black quintet starting out in Hollywood’s punk rock clubs, Fishbone faced some of the same obstacles that the Digables, and other bands that combine genres, face. Record labels and stores don’t know how to market groups that can’t be neatly categorized as rock, R & B, hip hop, or jazz. Fishbone created their own sound and etched out their own path; success hasn’t come quickly. Their first album got little notice, and they had a mostly underground following that didn’t buy many albums. This may be one of the reasons that their sophomore album, Truth and Soul, released in 1988, two years after their first, sounds miles stronger, more creative, and more focused than the Digables’ second album. Nobody looked over their shoulders, waiting for them to come up with another hit. Nobody made pronouncements about who they were and what they should do next.

Mind you, the album is schizo, running the gamut from Curtis Mayfield’s hard rockin’ “Freddie’s Dead” to the ska-influenced “Ma and Pa” to the jazzy-funky “Pouring Rain.” But this mix has become the Fishbone sound.

Fishbone also drew a multiracial sold-out crowd, but did it without the benefit of record label publicity, reviews, or a new album.

They opened with “Brand New Nutmeg,” a rockin’, thrashin’ song that ended with the lead singer, Angelo, flinging his wiry body into a hysterical mosh pit. Angelo flailed around with enough mad energy to make Johnny Rotten envious.

The band played a slew of new material, the sax-tempered “Beergut,” the ska-flavored “Alcoholic,” and the funky-edged “Sourpuss.” Recently dropped from Columbia Records, Fishbone are gearing up, according to rumors, for either a new contract or an album on their own label–demonstrating the power and confidence a group can have when they are allowed to form their own sound and shape their own identity without the hype.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Marc PoKempner.