Ten Most Influential Albums: Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)

Took last night off, but I couldn’t stay away long.  This is post #6 in a 10-post series.  If you missed the earlier posts and would like to read them, here they are:

Thriller

He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper

The Low End Theory

Forever My Lady

A Night at Birdland

Warning: Today was not my favorite day and I’m drinking an unhealthy amount of whisky while typing this.  We can all decide tomorrow in the harsh light of day if the drinking improves my writing.  I’m guessing it will.

Spring of 1993.  Wrapping up my junior year in high school.  I had a small but close group of friends, most of whom are still my best friends to this day.  We didn’t party.  A wild Friday night usually consisted of a high school football or basketball game, maybe some Super Nintendo or some hoops in Tyson’s driveway or that place behind Toys R Us that had the batting cages and the indoor basketball courts with the low hoops so we could dunk on each other.  The night always ended with a late-night Taco Bell run.  Some Friday nights Tyson and I would visit my grandparents so we could play cribbage with grandma and watch Skinemax with grandpa.  We got quite an education from grandpa on those nights.  “THERE IT IS, BOYS!”  The same room where we enjoyed(?) softcore pornography with my grandfather is now my teenage daughter’s bedroom.  That’s both hilarious and horrifying, not unlike listening to your 73-year-old grandpa attempt to explain the intricacies of hitting it from behind.  We were the coolest.

I spent many Friday nights growing up watching Late Night with David Letterman.  Friday nights meant viewer mail on Letterman and there was no better segment in the history of late night television. After Letterman at 12:30 AM (central time) was Friday Night Videos…or maybe that Bob Costas show, then FNV.  I don’t remember.  I just know the shit was late.  Friday Night Videos was a simple show: a guest host – often the star of an NBC show – would present popular music videos for an hour as if they were an MTV VJ.  We didn’t have cable so I got my music video fix wherever I could get it, and the best option was late Friday nights when most people I knew were either out or sleeping.

One Friday night I was pleasantly surprised to find FNV hosted by Karyn Parsons, Alfonso Ribeiro, and Tatyana Ali a.k.a. Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  They played whatever videos were popular at that time for most of the show, but then at some point they each got to choose their own video.  I don’t recall Tatyana and Alfonso’s choices, but I’ll never forget what Karyn Parsons introduced me to that night.  As if I didn’t already have a crush on the girl who played Hilary Banks, her video choice that night was “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” by Digable Planets.  At that time Friday Night Videos was typically showing Mariah Carey, Aerosmith, Janet Jackson, or someone else equally popular.  Instead I got smacked in the face by the coolest video I’d ever seen by the coolest people I’d ever seen.  That claim still holds to this day.

Nobody is cooler than Digable Planets.  Ever.

I may have completely butchered many of the details of this story since it took place 27 years ago and it’s apparently the only piece of pop culture history that you can’t find on the internet.  There’s no proof of this anywhere.  Someone might come back to me tomorrow and tell me that it was Carlton’s video.  I’m not 100% sure Tatyana Ali was even there.  She was just a little kid.  Maybe Kid ‘n Play and Tisha Campbell hosted that episode and it was Play’s favorite video.  You could tell me anything right now and I’d believe you.  I’m pretty sure I got it right, but don’t hold it against me if my memory isn’t perfect.  Can a Friday Night Videos historian and/or Karyn Parsons (Preferably Karyn Parsons) please confirm this story???

My brother was home from college that weekend, and the next day we headed to The Exclusive Company in Green Bay so I could purchase the CD.  The first listen to Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time & Space) was unlike any I remember.  I can count on one hand the times in my life I’ve experienced that wonderful sensation of hearing something so unique and thinking, “I don’t know exactly what this is, I just know I love it and can’t wait to hear it again.”  Yes Lawd! by NxWorries.  Because the Internet by Childish Gambino.  Train of Thought by Reflection Eternal.  I’m struggling to recall others.  None of them come close to Reachin’.

Reachin’ took what A Tribe Called Quest was doing and took it to outer space.  The three rappers – Butterfly, Doodlebug a.k.a. Cee-Know or Cee-Knowledge, and Ladybug a.k.a. Ladybug Mec, Ladybug Mecca, or Miss Mec.  The concept of their album was that they were three insects from outer space.  Much like A Tribe Called Quest, the music was heavy with jazz samples, but DPs did something to push it further.  If you look at the vast list of artists from whom they sampled, you see a lot of similarity between Tribe and DPs, but Tribe seemed to intentionally go for samples that were less obvious.  Pulling from sources like Herbie Hancock’s most experimental music or obscure 70s R&B acts like Hamilton Bohannon to expand the sound of the genre even further.  During a time when Dre and Snoop were dominating the airwaves from the west coast and the east coast seemed to getting more hardcore in an attempt to keep up, DPs went the other way.  Everything they did was mellow and light.  They made a point to record a happy album to contrast everything else that was going on.

No disrespect to Butterfly and Doodlebug, but the true secret behind the greatness of Digable Planets is Mariana “Ladybug” Vieira.  I can’t think of another coed hip hop group at that time, or at least not any good ones.  Ladybug’s delivery is one of a kind.  She uses her voice unlike most rappers.  You could make an argument that on many Digable tracks she’s closer to singing than rapping.  Her flow is light and sing-songy.  She’s delivers mind-bending lyrics on nearly all of her verses and is responsible for one of my favorite lines in all of hip hop.  On Digable’s brilliant single “9th Wonder” she takes the final verse and shuts it down with her opening line:

Now you see that I’m sixty-eight inches above sea level
93 million miles above these devils
Play me in the winter, play me in the summer, play me in the autumn
Any order

Damn right.  I’m tempted to fill this entire post with Ladybug verses to make my argument that she’s one of the greatest MCs to ever bless the mic.  Check out her verses on “Rebirth of Slick”, “Black Ego”, and “The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug” and I rest my case.  Respect to Ladybug, the rapper that elevated Digable Planets from a cool rap duo to the greatest hip hop group I’ve ever heard.  She will forever remain entrenched in my top five MCs list.

Digable Planets performed at the 1994 Grammys and delivered my favorite performance in 30+ years watching the awards.  A hip hop group with live drums, an upright bass, and a horn section featuring Clark Terry on flugelhorn.  While I was watching it I was certain that Clark Terry was at least 115 years old.  As it turns out, he passed away five years ago in his mid-90’s  Respect to Clark Terry.  Rest in peace.  DPs were nominated for Best New Artist and lost to Toni Braxton.  Ouch.  They won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group over the likes of Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg and Naughty By Nature and Butterfly delivered a Hall of Fame-worthy awkward speech.

They released an even better album in the fall of 1994 – Blowout Comb – and then like so many of my favorite artists (D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def), they vanished.  They’ve been touring sporadically but haven’t released an album in over 25 years.  I fear they’re remembered as an early-90’s hip hop one hit wonder with the likes of Sir Mix-a-Lot, House of Pain, Positive K, and Skee Lo, which is a damned shame because they deserve better.  All they did between 1993-1994 is create two of my ten favorite albums, and arguably my two favorite hip hop albums.

To wrap up my tribute to my favorite hip hop group, I feel it necessary to point out that in hindsight I’m not sure how this album influenced my taste in music.  They’re an anomaly.  Digable Planets could be categorized alongside the Native Tongues – De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, and Black Sheep – who are already represented on this list with Tribe’s The Low End Theory.  I can’t think of a single group who I’ve heard since that made me think, “They remind me of Digable Planets.”  I could make the argument that they enhanced my love of jazz with all of the samples they used.  I love listening to trippy 70’s albums by Donald Byrd and Bobbi Humphrey, hearing the songs DPs sampled, and wondering, “How did they hear this and think it’d make a cool hip hop song?”  Digable Planets are unique and peerless.  I considered choosing The Roots Do You Want More?!!!??! in this spot instead.  The original and still the best hip hop band.  More influential and popular now than they were when I started listening to them in 1995.  Ultimately, I just found it impossible to leave Digable Planets off of any list of my favorite music.  If nothing else, they’re still the coolest motherfuckers I’ve ever seen.  We should all be more like them.

Also, thank you Karyn Parsons, for introducing me to Digable Planets.  I still love you.

I’ll be back tomorrow – or even later tonight if the whisky keeps flowing – with the album I consider my most influential of all.

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