Rewind: Digable Planets' Blowout Comb

Rewind: Digable Planets' Blowout Comb

[Originally posted on TIDAL Read]

With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. In light of Digable Planets’ summer reunion tour, we revisit their sterling second record.

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What is Blowout Comb?

Released October 18, 1994, Blowout Comb is the second and final studio album by Brooklyn-based jazz-rap trio Digable Planets, composed of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving.

The record followed up the surprise success of the group’s 1993 debut, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), a critical darling that featured their biggest single ”Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” which broke into the top 15 of the Billboard Hot 100 and earned them a Grammy for Best Rap Performance.

Blowout Comb features a gorgeous blend of jazz samples and live instrumentation, as well as appearances from Guru (Gang Starr), Jeru the Damaja and DJ Jazzy Joyce. Although the it was viewed as a commercial failure, the album has grown to achieve cult status and is widely viewed as a crowning artistic achievement for the short-lived project.

What does it sound like?

In part seeking to silence critics who chided Reachin’ for being weak in terms of beats and rhyme, Digable Planets labored to craft something nothing short of perfect.

Helmed by the trio themselves, the production is absolutely seamless, especially when measured against most mainstream rap of the time. Rather than relying on samples alone, the group used their newfound standing to get live instrumentalists into the studio, providing an immersive live atmosphere that can’t be faked. Though less radio-friendly, Blowout Comb is equally as catchy as their debut, and as effortlessly cool as any hip-hip album made before or after.

What Butterfly, Ladybug Mecca and Doodlebug may lack in top-tier rap technique they make up for in intelligence, composure and an increasingly smooth flow that elegantly blends with their jazz stylings. Lyrically, the album is deeply socially conscious. While songs like “Black Ego” and “Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies)” provide particularly sharp political commentary, themes of Black nationalism and a preoccupation with life, neighborhood and community in the inner city are consistent throughout.

Featuring the titular “blowout comb,” used to style natural afros, on the cover, and fake advertisements for neighborhood events and soul food restaurants in the liner notes, the album art was modeled after the layout of the official Black Panther community newspaper of the 1970s.

Why should I care?

Although it received mixed reviews upon release, it still earned high marks from outlets like Spin and Village Voice, and was ranked among the best albums of 1994.

Thanks largely to the album’s 2013 reissue on the esteemed Light In The Attic Records, Blowout Comb received a major critical reassessment, earning near universal acclaim. Allmusic’s John Bush called it a timeless classic with some of the finest production in all of hip-hip history. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson wrote that even as hip-hop music and culture has evolved in Digable Planets’ absence, “Blowout Comb, a richly rendered world with so much to explore, is still there and is accepting visitors, and it has a lot to teach us on whatever level we choose to listen.”

In short, Blowout Comb is an under-appreciated masterpiece of ’90s alternative hip-hop. Fusing artistry, ambition and substance, it’s a enduring album that hasn’t lost a bit of relevance or luster.

Where do I hear more?

If you’re lucky enough to live in the right city, you can catch Digable Planets on their brief American tour this July.

Though they would not release another album together, splitting in 1995 due to “creative differences,” they have reunited for live shows several times before, the first instance of which coincided with the release of Beyond the Spectrum: The Creamy Spy Chronicles, a compilation featuring unreleased material and remixes.

The trio’s members have also each released a small body of solo work, most notably Ishmael Butler, who in 2009 would team up with multi-instrumentalist Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire to form Shabazz Palaces, the first hip-hop act signed to Sub Pop Records.

Around the same time as Digable Planets, groups like Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest (R.I.P. Phife) were crafting their own blends on jazz-infused hip-hip to great success. To a less explicit degree, there’s a long and winding lineage of music fusing hip-hop with jazz samples and instrumentation, stretching from Eric B. & Rakim to Kendrick Lamar.

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