• Old 'Stache

Blowin’ Up Blowout Comb

written by: on April 17, 2012

The reception of Blowout Comb following Digable Planets’ break-out debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) was analogous to how Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique was initially received– with cold shoulders and puzzled expressions. But now, with time and a better appreciation for context, just as the sample-rich tapestry of the bad boys of Bard College is now seen as a breakthrough, this record should be recognized as a groovy, jazz-laden hip-hop classic.

True, none of the tracks are an “immediate” hit single like Reachin’’s “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat);” in contrast, the cuts here are far more insidious in their subtlety, but the record was unfairly categorized as a classic “sophomore slump,” despite positive critical reception. Following its release in October 1994, the record vanished in the mists of mid-90’s obscurity, and the trio parted ways in 1995 due to the de rigeur “creative differences” and apparently some family issues (they subsequently reunited for short tours in 2005 and 2008). But it doesn’t take a planetary scientist to conclude that if Blowout Comb had had the same impact on the record-buying public as their stellar debut, the group might have kept their ship together and rocketed on for at least a little bit longer, rather than fading away like a shooting star.

As on their debut, Digable Planets’ ubiquitous jazz and soul samples were supplemented by the dope rap flow of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler (now of Shabazz Palaces), Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira (now known as Lady Mecca) and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving (now known as Cee Knowledge), but this record parted company with its predecessor in a couple of key aspects.

When considered through the lens of titular criticism, the title Blowout Comb sheds significant light on the aesthetic, sound and philosophy of the album.

A blowout comb is a grooming product for the Afro hair style that was used popularly by African Americans during the 1970’s (typically utilized today by Questlove of The Roots, for example). In a ’94 interview, Butterfly told The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot that the title was chosen to refer to the “utilization of the natural, a natural style.” Thus, the approach of the record was more “natural” and organic from beginning to end.

As the album starts with “The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug,” the listener can hear the crackle and pop of a record needle before the groovy jazz kicks in and the trio trips through their hushed yet intense raps. The cut uses the Chinese “New Culture Movement” resultant from the popular opposition to their government’s participation in the Post WWI Treaty of Versailles as an analogy to Digable Planets’ own attempt to break from their past. Hence the addition of “Starring Doodlebug;” it was as if they added the permutation to indicate that this would be a new revolution, but this time featuring the Planets.

“The May 4th Movement” was also indicative of a more clear espousal of the Digable Planets’ political philosophy than what had been heard on their debut; it was an homage to their past and a statement of intent. As Los Angeles performer and literary scholar Mike (The Poet) Sonksen indicated in an online post, they “are the hip-hop incarnate of the Black Arts Movement” which was “the artistic branch of the Black Power Movement,” “a multimedia movement based in music, poetry, dance & theater celebrating Self-determination, Respect, [and] Blackness.” Although history texts usually refer to this movement as lasting from 1965 to 1975, Sonksen sees the work of hip-hop artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and Gang Starr as continuing that tradition, but “None of them though were as focused on the ethos of the Black Arts movement as Digable Planets. The phrasing of the Planets lyrics adhered to a tight theme of empowerment, self-determination & Blackness.  The countless References to Black Arts poets, musicians & visionaries roots the Digable Planets music as a continuation of a long line of voices. . . . Digable Planets packed their lyrics with more references to artists, authors, musicians, filmmakers, revolutionaries, than just about any other hip-hop collective yet.”

Not only did their lyrics provide references to the music that came before, but they freely integrated a liberal use of samples in their compositions, many of which were drawn from their inspirations.

On Blowout Comb this included everything from usual suspects like P-Funk and James Brown, The Meters and The Ohio Players, to more obscure cuts from the likes of Motherlode, Grant Green, Bob James and Shuggie Otis. “Dig It” uses a busy jazz sax sample from “God Make Me Funky” by Herbie Hancock’s backing band, The Headhunters which was also sampled by The Fugees, among many others. Two tracks sample songs by Bobbi Humphrey, whereas three tracks include samples from jazz-funk pioneer Roy Ayers. But they’re equal opportunity samplers, as other tracks lift from “Supperrappin’ Theme” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and even Bill Cosby makes an appearance.

It’s ironic that none of the Digable Planets originally hail from New York City; “Butterfly” was from Seattle, “Ladybug Mecca” originally hailed from Silver Spring, Maryland and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving was a native of Philadelphia. Lyrically, Blowout Comb is extremely Brooklyn-centric– their love of their adopted hometown is a recurrent theme throughout. It’s most clearly evident in “Borough Check” which samples “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby” by Ayers and features an invigorating guest rap from the late Guru of Gang Starr, another innovator in jazz-inspired hip-hop and a fellow transplant to NYC.

Another key differentiation from their debut was the featuring of guest contributions on Blowout Comb. Not only does Guru provide a compelling rap, but “Blakitolism” featured a guest appearance from another New Yorker, veteran of “The Beat” and a former contestant on “The Mix,” DJ Jazzy Joyce. “Graffiti” (which includes another Roy Ayers sample) features a guest rap from Jeru The Damaja, an affiliate of Gang Starr and himself a Brooklyn native. In addition, for the first time Digable Planets hired saxophonist Donald Harrison and guitarist Huey Cox to add a live vibe and improvisational feel to their sample-heavy compositions.

Regardless of the guests, samples, instrumentation or locale, the common thread on Blowout Comb is “a celebration of blackness,” as Butterfly put it. But these thirteen tracks would never have been as compelling without the “rhymes so glorious” that the listeners ended up “dazed and amazed when they hear the three dimensional lyrical skills of the insect in motion” as he so eloquently raps on “9th Wonder (Blackitolism).” It’s a tribute to the artistic tapestry that Digable Planets wove on Blowout Comb that the record still cuts an indelible groove, even now, almost 20 years after its release.

 Download the free Blowout Breaks mixtape

Digable Planets – Blowout Comb tracklist

  1. The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug
  2. Black Ego
  3. Dog It
  4. Jettin’
  5. Borough Check
  6. Highing Fly
  7. Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies) / NY 21 Theme
  8. The Art of Easing
  9. K.B.’s Alley (Mood Dude’s Groove)
  10. Graffiti
  11. Blowing Down
  12. 9th Wonder (Blackitolism)
  13. For Corner