Soul power
The CD booklet accompanying Digable Planets' late 1994 release, Blowout Comb, reads almost like a pamphlet you might be handed at a political rally, each page covered in messages and symbols and slogans. A prisoner from the California state penitentiary sends his "message from the belly" (as in, belly of the beast) that encourages his "brothers and sisters on the lock [to] recognize yourselves not as criminals, but as people." Something called the Left Movement Coalition (LMC) calls for the release of such political prisoners as Elmer Pratt Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier. Another page carries a history of imprisoned ex-Black Panther Deputy Minister for Defense Geronimo Ji Jagga Pratt (sent to jail in 1970 on a dubious murder conviction), and also demands his release.

If music and politics make dubious bedfellows, at best, then Digable Planets--Ladybug, Butterfly, and Doodlebug--have blurred the line to such an extent that even choices of fashion and hairstyle carry with them a powerful message. Digable Planets are very much a product of the 1970s brought into the '90s, using the baggage of decades past (Afros and the blowout combs that picked them to majestic heights, the Black Power iconography of the black fist raised in the air, the soul and disco of the Tavares and Marvin Gaye, and such films as Black Caesar and Cleopatra Jones) to empower a generation that has forgotten such reference points. At the very least, Blowout Comb is at once polemic and pop, a call to arms and a call to the dance floor.

Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), the Planets' 1993 debut, was laid-back enough to earn them the label of "new bo-homies"; the buzz-track "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" was the most hypnotic single of the year, Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan propped up by a dance beat, set up by a beat poetry promising a universal brotherhood. But Blowout Comb is the real triumph--a sound track for mental revolution, a musical tour of a time and a place (usually the boroughs of New York City), the corner on which jazz, funk, soul, and hip-hop merge until they finally become one beautiful, scintillating sound.

Digable Planets performs March 3 at Deep Ellum Live. Spearhead opens.

--Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky