Akin to rock's psychedelic movement in 1966-'67, hip-hop in the early '90s
experienced an explosion of unbridled, genre-crossing creativity that has
yet to be matched, though the influence of artists such as De La Soul and
the Beastie Boys of "Paul's Boutique" continues to inspire younger rappers.
One of the key groups in what was dubbed "alternative rap," Digable Planets
burst out of Washington, D.C., in 1993 with a classic called "Reachin' (A
New Refutation of Time and Space)." Powered by samples from Art Blakey,
Sonny Rollins and Curtis Mayfield, and full of messages of self-empowerment,
it scored a massive hit with "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)." But though
the follow-up, 1994's "Blowout Comb," was just as creative, it was a
commercial disappointment, and the trio -- Butterfly (Ishmael Butler),
Ladybug (Mary Ann Vieira) and Doodlebug (Craig Irving) -- disbanded.
The three continued to make music on their own, with Butler/Butterfly
forming Cherrywine and Vieira making her solo debut as Ladybug Mecca, but
after a decade's separation, Digable Planets have come together for a
reunion tour and a new album. I spoke with Irving/Doodlebug, who now calls
himself Ceeknowledge, as the group prepared to return to Chicago.
Park West, 322
Q. I saw the reunited Digables do one of their first shows this
summer at Lollapalooza. What was that like?
A. It was nice. The crowd gave us a good response and it was a lot
of fun. There were all those people out there, and I got a chance to meet
Billy Idol for the first time. I love Billy Idol -- that's my man. He looked
just like he did years ago.
Q. Why did the group decide to reunite?
A. The people that did care what we were doing individually only
did so because we were Digable Planets, so it just made sense. It was the
first love. When I go places, they say, "You're the guy from Digable
Planets!" It's our roots, and you can't ever forget your roots. Plus, in my
mind, there was always a sour taste in my mouth, like we left an incomplete
Q. "Blowout Comb" was a great album, but it didn't have a
A. We also got caught up in the politics of the music business.
Our label switched its distributor from Elektra to EMI, and our label head
didn't have a very good relationship with EMI at the time. Plus our
management had its own issues. We got caught up in a situation where we
didn't get marketed well.
Q. But you plan to record again?
A. We definitely have plans to record. Everybody made a
commitment. During rehearsals, we play around with ideas and come up with
some hooks. We'll get serious [about recording] in January or February.
Q. In the early '90s, the group was fairly unique in utilizing
a lot of old jazz and soul samples. I've read interviews where you've said
you were just sampling the records that were handy, the stuff your parents
A. That's true. Basically, their record collections have morphed
into our own record collections. We've got those jazz records in there, the
soul records, I got a lot of reggae tunes, a lot of hip-hop, folk music ...
I like a lot of music. It's been 10 years since the last time we've
recorded, and that's a lot of time, a lot of space, a lot of experiences
that all three of us have gained, so once we get into the studio and figure
out how to get all of those tastes into one pot, it's gonna taste good.
Back in the day, we were more closely related, so we knew what everyone
brought, but after 10 years of being apart, we have to reconfigure that
situation and figure out, "OK, what do I bring to the table, what does
Ladybug bring, what does Butter bring?" The last time, Butter was the main
composer and face of the group, and he still is. But this time around,
Ladybug and I are way more involved in the compositions and putting together
Q. Is Butterfly keeping Cherrywine together?
A. Oh, most definitely. I'd be mad if he didn't. That's my s---!
As a group, you have to compromise, but sometimes you need an outlet to get
some of those things out that you can't in the group.
Q. Mainstream hip-hop has really veered away from what you were
doing in the early '90s, when you got labeled "alternative rap." Do you
think Digable Planets still fit?
A. Hip-hop is like what love is -- you can't define it. Whatever
that person sits down and creates, whatever sounds, whatever beats, that is
hip-hop. Groups like us that were categorized that way still exist, they've
just reverted to the underground, and that's cool. That's the lifeline for
groups to do what they want to do. Groups like Little Brother and Talib [Kwali],
and Common was on the underground until recently. There are a lot of guys
doing really good hip-hop that still knock me off my feet, but nobody is
Reasons for living
Speaking of the early '90s, you're forgiven if a casual scan of the club
listings makes you wonder what year this is: The Smoking Popes are back,
Urge Overkill is kicking around again, Billy Corgan has promised us a
reunited Smashing Pumpkins and now Louise Post is returning with a new
incarnation of power-pop riot grrrls Veruca Salt.
After a brilliant debut with 1994's "American Thighs" and a disappointing
follow-up with 1997's "Eight Arms to Hold You," Post and her original
partner, Nina Gordon, broke up amid considerable acrimony. Gordon drifted
off on the lilac wind of a lame folk-rock solo career, but Post soldiered on
with a new Veruca Salt and released a powerful but sadly underrated effort
with 2000's "Resolver." And then ... nothing.
Post went underground as she battled personal problems in L.A. and split
from the band's second label, Beyond Music. Now she's back with a new lineup
and the promise of a fourth Veruca Salt album coming soon. Or, as
VerucaSalt.com puts it, "She's happy to have had time to focus on
physical and spiritual health (don't worry, no trips to India!), having been
in a prolonged state of industry shell-shock."
What can we expect from the new Veruca Salt? It's anybody's guess, but
Post remains atop my list of the smartest, most creative and most resilient
artists to emerge from the alternative rock era. The group tops a bill with
Juliette & the Licks, the Lovemakers and Porsealin at Metro, 3730 N. Clark,
at 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $16.50. Call (773) 549-0203.