Emerging in the early 90s after the buzz of Native Tongues affiliates had somewhat dissipated, Brooklyn group Digable Planets were self-styled revivalists of the thoughtful, soothing style of hip hop pioneered by groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, undeterred by entrenched and dominate West Coast-based gangsta rap and g-funk acts at the time. In 1993, their debut release Reachin’ (A Refutation of Time and Space) contained an unlikely hit in the form of “Return of the Slick (Cool Like Dat)”, a jazz-infused revamp and tribute to the East Coast “jazz rap” scene, and their efforts continued in 1994 with the follow-up and ultimately final album Blowout Comb.
Where their debut release was mostly sample-based, Blowout Comb features live instrumentation mixed with samples, creating a vibrant, organic atmosphere resembling a live performance probably situated in a dark, dusty club somewhere in the streets of Brooklyn. Often it’s difficult to differentiate between genuine, organic sounds and sampled beats in this album, a good example being “Black Ego”, a brilliantly produced number that combines a slightly sped-up, mesmerising guitar sample of “Luanna’s Theme” by Grant Green with a cymbal-thrashing drum track from The Meters’ “Here Come the Metermen”, aided by a very subtle, unobtrusive cello, an instrument not particularly commonplace in typical hip hop releases at the time. It’s also one of the album’s longer tracks, running in at 7 minutes, but almost seems to pass like a breeze – likewise, the album closer “For Corners” acts as a superb representation of what the group were trying to create in this album, overlaying the sounds of Brooklyn (people shouting, cars zooming in and out of earshot) with a jazz-blues-tinged Shuggie Otis sample, an understated drum track from Skull Snaps, and a sedated Roy Ayers horn sample, all combining in a 7-minute snapshot of the group’s home while they give shout-outs to the people and places they identify with and respect, for better or for worse.
There’s a remarkably relaxing, carefree feel to Blowout Comb – not just in the soundscapes, but none of the three MCs sound particularly rushed or anxious during delivery, each throwing down verses somewhat lackadaisically, shaping the album in the vibe of a mammoth spoken word/poetry jam session. A lot can be said for a rapper’s flow, and this group ride these beats perfectly, and surprisingly even guest rappers Guru and Jeru the Damaja (known for their slightly harsher, emphatic rapping) match the low-key, chilled nature of the tracks they feature in. Where some groups rely on particularly strong personas to grab the listener (think Wu-Tang Clan), Digable Planets truly operate as a group with no sense of contest between the three, all working together with the same purpose, promoting the same positive, socially conscious messages. Only through close attention does it become apparent that ringleader Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler dominates the microphone, but so often he makes way for his fellow MCs (Craig “Doodlebug” Irving and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira) that it’s almost impossible to notice, with at times the three rotating verses indistinguishably and in quick succession.
In that sense, as you may have guessed, lyrically Blowout Comb doesn’t barrage the listener with insanely complex, spitting verses. Instead, the laid-back sounds of the album are beautifully matched by simplistic, direct lyrics that reference jazz legends, afrocentricity, coping with adversity, or just describing the streets of Brooklyn, simultaneously constructing an image and soundtrack of their environment, making it as easy as possible for the listener to appreciate and understand the vibe of the album. In this way Blowout Comb acts as an important counterweight to the macho, aggressive hip hop that dominated the mid-90s, dealing with similar subject matter but approaching it in an eloquent, calmer fashion with just as much focus and passion.
It seems that Digable Planets should have been poised to spearhead the second wave of jazz rap, but with creative differences within the group and hard-nosed, confrontational hip hop dominating the mainstream airwaves (not just from the West Coast – 1994 saw the rise of Nas, Notorious B.I.G. and Gravediggaz) it just wasn’t to be. Still, the concept of producing studio-based, organic sounds didn’t completely die off, with The Roots debuting in 1993 with a record unsurprisingly titled Organix, in a way owing much of their success to the work of groups like Digable Planets, with albums like Blowout Comb acting as a sort of blueprint or foundation for this particular offshoot of hip hop.
But set aside an hour, leave your preconceptions at the door and prepare to feel as mellow as mellow gets when listening to Blowout Comb, easily one of the most hypnotic, immersive albums I’ve ever heard. Asked about the album’s title in 1994, Butterfly responded with “It means the utilisation of the natural, a natural style”, in the same interview he referenced hearing George Clinton discuss how things that are initially inaudible for the listener add indefinite replay value to an album, something that is unmistakably apparent in Blowout Comb – it won’t necessarily strike on the first, second or third listen like you may expect from a hip hop release, but it deserves close attention and as much recognition as any other seminal release from the period.