Digable Planets returns with a live album that reminds listeners new and veteran how cool they were. The album invites a re-examination of the group’s hits, and an appreciation for the way Digable Planets deftly fused hip-hop and jazz.
Digable Planets’ universe
The New York City-based trio known as Digable Planets changed the American music soundscape in the early 1990s. The era was full of hip-hop, all sorts of rock music, and the exotic sounds of Enya and Loreena McKennitt. But, popular music had been light on infusions of jazz since Swing Out Sister. And, Swing Out Sister was pop jazz, and British, both of which meant something to certain music listeners.
Digable Planets and the return of cool
When so much of hip-hop and rap was busy making audiences dance and scream, or in other words be louder than life, Digable Planets encouraged a return to cool. The new album shows up in time to remind listeners of what constituted a different kind of smooth during the 1990s.
Digable Planets came along to fuse hip-hop and jazz and make a new brand of cool. Their sound was so smooth as to make listeners believe it was simple. There are three main components: The jazz horn creates one layer, the upright bass forms another layer, and then the voices of the group members make the third layer.
With Digable Planets, it was often difficult to tell what came first, the rap or the jazz. All three emcees are skilled in rhymes and flow. This skill set is important—sometimes, when a performer exhibits skill in more than one genre, it is too easy to conclude that one skill is a gimmick. With the number of effectively crafted songs on the new live album, it is obvious that Digable Planets have actual skill without gimmicks.
The 15 songs on the live album effectively illustrate what was innovative about Digable Planets’ style. Arguably the best song that Digable Planets ever released is “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” from their first album. That is the song that most people call “Cool Like Dat.” A memorable chorus always helps a song. However, with the innovative approaches Digable Planets employed, their songs have proven to be nearly timeless.
“Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”
The upright bass line is cheered for, and the emcees encourage audience members to snap like “cool cats.” There are electronic sounds in the background that I don’t remember from the studio version. The audience sounds as though they have been waiting for Digable Planets to perform. Each emcee (they rap individually) is greeted like an old friend with a great talent. The vibe is friendly and hype, as the group encourages participation in the song. When Ladybug performs her version, the audience is allowed to finish an entire line for her. The song tapers off using big rock guitars mimicking the rhythms that had been laid down by the upright bass.
The performance is a celebration of Digable Planets, and of musical exploration. Just when audiences think the song is over, the melody comes back, still played by guitars. The arrangement of the song is symbolic of Digable Planets’ career—just when fans thought they’d gone, they return, more cool than ever.