It is about five minutes into Digable Planets' brand-new superstardom, and already there's a small problem. It's not the group's backbreaking schedule, full of interviews and coast-to-coast spots on the Arsenio and Letterman shows. Nor is it the cold that Digable Planet Ladybug has developed from shooting the group's video in freezing New York. And it's not censorship or world hunger, either.
That would leave the press.
Oh, it's not that the Planets are getting bad reviews. They've gotten serious hype from Time and Rolling Stone alike. It's just that certain critics have tweaked the group's collective-individuality nerve by suggesting that its sound closely resembles that of certain other groups.
"One thing I don't like is when people try to pigeonhole us," sniffs 19-year-old Ladybug by telephone from her record-label's L.A. office. "We feel each person or group expresses themselves in their own way. Journalists need to respect that and explain that in their review, and not take on a lazy attitude: 'It sounds like Arrested Development, it sounds like De La Soul.' It's just not true, for the simple fact that we have our own sound. If you listen to Arrested D's and our album, they're two completely different albums."
Still, there's no denying that Digable Planets perch on the same branch of the family tree as Arrested Development, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, P.M. Dawn and Gang Starr. This particular lump of rapdom has been called everything from "alternative rap" to "hippie-hop." The music is calmly funky, the rappers are soft-spoken, and they'd rather blow your mind with spacy introspection than a gat.
Digable Planets are so obviously indebted to the granddads of mellow hip-hop, De La Soul, that Pos, Dove and Mase could almost demand royalties for Digable Planets' debut, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space).
Ladybug, whose non-insect name is Mary Ann Vieira, grudgingly gives it up for the Soul's influence on the group. "Groups like De La influenced us to be ourselves, rather than be like them. By showing a different angle of hip-hop, they showed us how to be ourselves."
Actually, she's got a point. If you put Digable Planets in a police lineup with similar-sounding acts, it would be easy enough to pick the group out. Ladybug counts off the delineations this way: "We sample from jazz, we have three rappers, we have our own language, our own style, our own vibe. We have something to say."
The Digables' jazz thing is their most attractive characteristic. Call it cool, as in Miles Davis' "rebirth of the. . . ." That deftly controlled, white-hot artistic passion bathed in ice permeates the album. Ladybug doesn't mind suggestions that Digable Planets are rebirthing the Miles mood.
"I guess you could say we have a cool sound," she says. "The music is a reflection of who we are. That's cool. It is a compliment."
The title of Digable Planets' single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" is a shout-out to Davis, but it's Miles' fellow bop great Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers who provide the song with its hooky sample. Another jazz giant, Sonny Rollins, shows up through the magic of sampling on "Time & Space (A New Refutation Of)."
The Planets' hip-hop/jazz alloy was no accident. Ladybug and the group's two male rappers, Butterfly (Ishmael Butler) and Doodlebug (Craig Irving), are all huge fans of jazz, schooled by their parents in everything from bebop to Brazilian jazz. Ladybug is just as hip to Mingus and Coltrane as she is to Rage and Yo-Yo.
"We're not trying to be jazz musicians," says Ladybug, offering her own refutation of what is perhaps a common misconception. "We're paralleling the two. We learn a lot about jazz by reading liner notes--the history, what they went through, knowing it was their own culture. A lotta those cats had their own slang, their own way, the slick attitude. Hip-hop is the same."
The insects of Digable Planets first came together in Washington, D.C., two years ago, in no small part because of a common love for jazz. Group leader Butterfly was an engineering major at Howard University, Doodlebug was dabbling in the local hip-hop scene, and Ladybug was dancing for another hip-hop group. Ladybug remembers sitting around listening to jazz records all day with the fellas, then hauling them to the studio when it came time to record.
But jazz wasn't the only thing the Planets came up with to differentiate their product. Working off a riff by De La Soul (or is it Sun Ra?), the Digables have spun their very own cosmic theory into Reachin'. De La claimed to have been teleported from Mars and celebrated the D.A.I.S.Y. (da inner sound y'all) Age, but Digable Planets prefer to explore outer-space landscapes as opposed to urban ones. "When we say outer space, we don't necessarily mean outside of Earth," Ladybug philosophizes. "It's the outer space of your mind."
The official explanation of the group's name reads, in part, this way: "We feel that every person individually is a planet. Being planets, we each have the ability to set up our planet any way we want to, always keeping in mind we have to co-exist in the solar system that is society."
Ladybug, Butterfly and Doodlebug have turned the wrong end of the telescope toward themselves for their names, the hippiest-sounding stage handles since De La Soul's (yeah, them again) Trugoy the Dove. The Planets took the names of real or fictional insects based on a philosophy culled from works by Kafka, Sartre and Marx "that focuses on fighting against oppressors and maintaining community amongst oppressed people," Butterfly intones in the group's bio. "I parallel that with how insects stick together and work for causes--bees, for instance; you can't come around a nest and mess with it, because you're going to get stung."
To all this bee-boy existentialism, the Planets add the strongest feminist platform in hip-hop, by far. When asked what the co-ed makeup of the personnel adds to Digable Planets, Ladybug suggests that the issue is as moot as a comparison of her group to De La Soul. "Nobody ever says to Butterfly or Doodlebug, 'You're two guys rapping with a girl. How do you feel about that?'"
Butterfly is unarguably the group's leader, credited with conceiving, freaking, arranging and producing the album, but Ladybug insists the Planets divvy up the writing fairly. While she probably doesn't get quite a third of the rhyme time, the rapper holds her own with Butterfly and Doodlebug.
"We're all equal in this group as far as the writing is concerned," Ladybug insists. "One of us will have an idea for a song, we'll talk about it, break off, write our own verse, then come together and do it."
The group shouts out its feminism on the anti-antiabortion protest "La Femme Ftal," taking aim at abortion-clinic bombers and men who always want their fingers on the button. (The song gets bonus points for the rhyme of the year: "I hate to sound macabre/But isn't it my job. . . ?")
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"It was something that happened to a friend of Butterfly's," Ladybug explains. "We all came together, discussed it and felt he should say it. It's especially important coming from a man."
But Ladybug stops short of indicting antichoice rappers like Arrested Development's Speech and House of Pain's Everlast. "I don't down them or dislike them, but life doesn't stop after birth. I just feel women should be able to control their own bodies. The whole abortion issue shouldn't be up for discussion."
There's enough of a feminist presence on Reachin' to send Ice Cube running for cover. On "Swoon Units," Butterfly even name-drops radical lesbian feminist-poet Nikki Giovanni.
The Planets' decidedly liberal slant has attracted the media like moths to the light bulbs over the members' heads. But critics aren't the only like minds Digable Planets counts among its following. The cool school that the Planets work so intently to separate themselves from converged, ironically, at the group's album-release party. Members of De La Soul and Gang Starr came to check out the competition and, perhaps more important, to kvetch about the media.
"They were telling us they like our sound," Ladybug says, "and don't worry about people lumping us in the same category. It's refreshing to know they know that.