Blowout Comb - Digable Planets - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #84

Tough messages often aren’t warmly received, and especially not at first. Even if that message is one that’s been echoing in the right circles for decades, hearing it presented afresh and in a new context is never easy. This goes some way towards explaining the relative failure of Digable Planet’s sophomore album to make an impact. For starters, the group’s first album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) was a critical and commercial success, winning praise from critics and a Grammy for its lead single Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat). As the album name would suggest, the group had an ethereal sound, laced with breezy jazz samples and topped off with the laid back delivery of the three rappers. (One female!) Like all creative minds, they were aware that repetition often leads to stagnation, and despite the likely chance that further success would be theirs should they do a Reachin’ Part 2, they boldly leaped in a completely different direction, to a predictably muted response. The jazzy samples were toned down, and replaced (Although not totally) by live musicians. The result was a more organic sprawl (the title Blowout Comb is also a reference to this: the blowout comb being used by African Americans to groom their hair in the Afro style. Group member Butterfly asserted this was to imply “the utilization of the natural”) of human mess. The beats were darker, edgier and looser, with the cascade of organic sounds denoting a deeper sense of urgency to the music. Music and content are unified by the shift in lyrical content, taking on a more militant, direct nature. Planets didn’t shy away from racial issues on their first album, but here the topic is as fundamental to them as the topic of his penis size is to Dr. Dre.

Liner notes for this album are presented in a newsreel fashion, with headlines, statements and pictures giving the appearance of community and brotherhood. Much of the text concerns the groups’ musical inspirations, calls to stop gang violence and empowerment of black political prisoners such as militant Black Panther Geronimo Pratt. Digable Planets aren’t as forcefully direct as the Panthers, but they share the organisation’s passion, urgency and activist ideology. Opening with a startling, dissonant horn fanfare to rouse our tired minds into paying attention, the album opens with a formula that will soon become familiar: a sparse, dark beat and defiant lyrics from all 3 groups members, whose chemistry has clearly stepped up from their debut. As noted before, there is already a greater sense or urgency and seriousness about their music, and this chilling beat with its moody strings makes us realize these guys have something major to say. The second track Black Ego opens with a faux-dialogue section between one of the rappers, Butterfly, and a Police officer, where the former complains about his lack of rights. The segment ends with the officer asking “Do you wish to give up the right to remain silent?” to which the reply “hell yeah” echoes confidently across the channels. A defiant, empowering statement from the group: they won’t be silent, they have a voice, and they’re making damn sure it’s being heard.

Blowout Comb is in all aspects a celebration of black culture, or at least that’s how it comes across to my Caucasian ears. The album title is a celebration of the Afro trend as well as being a reference to their “natural” style, names of jazz musicians and Black Panthers are referenced, New York boroughs name checked, the struggles and philosophy of inner city black life and their support for the Five Percent Nation are given lyrical prominence. The music itself is a superlative swirl of loose jazz, with muffled bass, chilled vibes and jagged guitars; these all succeed in the group’s objective of creating a natural style. Furthermore, the occasional rigidity of hip hop beats is lost in the live musicianship, resulting in an a sound that is occasionally loose and entirely unpredictable, yet never sloppy, and few wrong paths are trodden. I think the Planets were starting to see themselves as a modern day Black Panthers at this point; if not them, then at least they were calling for somebody to fill this position as it was something they felt was needed. The album calls on the organisation’s empowerment of blacks, celebration of culture and even some of its Marxist philosophy to attempt to elicit change, change that they clearly thought was necessary in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Although their message wasn’t one that was embraced by many, I’m sure they knew this might be the case with their uncompromising, deliberately non-commercial presentation. (The lone single had the decidedly un-memorable name of Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies), for example) Regardless, their refusal to compromise and the strong delivery of their message lends this music eternal relevance. There’ll always be problems and oppressions, and it can take a bunch of talented individuals with something to say to raise awareness and rock the boat. Let’s just hope that those who challenge present day problems will be heard and not get brushed under the carpet like Digable Planets.

Words – Adam.

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