The Old Testament: Digable Planets-Blowout Comb
"Cool Like Dat," Digable Planet's breakout single, was inescapable in winter of '92/93. From top 40 radio airplay to its black and white video that played constantly on MTV, the Brooklyn Bohemians fit perfectly into the left-of-center aesthetic that that hip-hop seemed evolving towards. From Tribe Low End Theory's appropriation of jazz to Guru's Jazzmattaz dabbles, to novelty hits like US3's "Cantaloop", jazz rap was having its moment in the sun. As was eccentric behavior of all sorts, as weird collectives like Arrested Development and Digital Underground could manage to sell millions of records talking about playing horseshoes in Tennessee and virtual sex packets.
In this receptive environment, Digable flourished, going gold with their debut, 1993's oddly named Reachin': A New Refutation of Time and Space. Arriving three years prior to the Fugees, Digable's success established a blueprint for conscious co-ed hip-hop and did so without having to bring Wyclef Jean into the world, something the world has yet to recover from (or least those that heard Ecleftic). But by the time, the notoriously erratic trio issued their sophomore effort, Blowout Comb, in October of 1994, the zeitgeist had shifted radically.
Mellow, peaceful progressive-leaning rap was out. Bleak nihilism was in and NYC hip-hop took a turn to the dark side, as Biggie, Nas, Wu and Mobb Deep's gritty noirish sensibilities became all the rage. Consequently, Blowout Comb was met with a tepid reception, both critically and commercially, with Digable dismissed as quintessential one-hit wonders, a group that managed to capitalize on a passing trend, seemingly destined to recede forever into an abyss of trivia questions and vague nostalgia. Which is too bad, because in retrospect, it's one of the greatest albums in hip-hop history.
Several bloggers took some easy jabs at the predictability of the 25 best hip-hop albums list that Joey and I compiled last month. Fair play. But what got lost in the discussion was the fact that the process got a whole lot of people talking about albums they hadn't thought about in years, forcing everyone to dig up a bunch of great records from the crate and re-evaluate them a decade after their original release. In particular, Blowout Comb caught my eye, earning placement on Joey and Scott Sterling's Best Of lists. Not to mention, Gorilla Vs. Bear's placement of it as his all-time favorite. While it garnered nowhere near enough points to crash the official list, it still got enough love to cause me to finally get a hold of an album I'd somehow never managed to hear, as its mixed reception had always led me to wrongly believe that it was somehow a bad record.
Digable Planets: Seen Here Trying To Figure Out the Meaning of their Name
Finally listening to Blowout Comb, it's not hard to understand why the record bombed commercially. Devoid of a single as relentlessly catchy as "Cool Like Dat,"and saddled with a half dozen 5-minutes plus tracks, Blowout Comb is almost proggish in its meandering, conceived with little regard for monetary concerns. Instead of looking for a quick fix summer jam, Digable indulged their inner jazzman, bringing in live instrumentation for extended solos backed by strong, slick raps. At times, the record feels like what you'd expect if A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots collaborated, smoked a half dozen blunts and let their freak flags wave high. In other words, it's incredible.
Guru drops science on "Borough Check," the Brooklyn-trumping re-working of Roy Ayers' "We Live in Brooklyn, Baby" (later re-sampled by Mos Def on Black on Both Sides), but the album is mostly devoid of guest appearances, as the trio spits eloquently written and subtle political rants over an array of silky-smooth self-produced beats. Distinctly out of its time, Blowout Comb seems to exist in a Brooklyn-centric universe of shadows and diamond heists, speakeasies and slang. Remarkably consistent and fluid, the record lilts with an elegance and grace foreign to most hip-hop. Just in their twenties at the time of its release, Blowout Comb sounds remarkably mature, a confident artistic statement just as anachronistic in its own time as it is today. An unsung classic, it's the perfect fit for any blowout.
MP3: Digable Planets-"Black Ego"
MP3: Digable Planets-"Borough Check"
MP3: Digable Planets-"The Art of Easing"
Video: Digable Planets-"Cool Like Dat"