Digable Planets – Blowout Comb: Best hip-hop album of the 90s?

Inspired by a friend’s reminder, I cued up one of my favorite albums of all time: Blowout Comb, the underrated second and final release from Digable Planets. For those who aren’t familiar, they are jazz-inspired contemporaries of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul… but far, far better.

This album is the real deal. Here’s the second to last song, a kind of manifesto:

68 inches above sea level / 93 million miles above these devils

With the recent release of Kendrick Lamar‘s colossal album To Pimp A Butterfly, there’s been a lot of talk about jazz roots flourishing in the world of hip-hop again. Folks mention Three Feet High And Rising and The Low End Theory repeatedly, and if Digable Planets are mentioned at all, it’s about their sole big radio hit, Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat). Since my hip-hop tastes at age 13 centered on Beastie Boys and Coolio, I didn’t have a chance of knowing this album when it was new. It seems most of the world didn’t, either.

Before we move on: don’t get me wrong. I’ve always got room De La, and Tribe helped me get into “real” hip-hop in the first place. I just absolutely love Digable Planets and want to correct for their lack of presence in the popular narrative.

Diving headlong into the spacier realms of out-there jazz, the group transcends the superficial sampling of sax riffs and famous bass lines the “jazz-hop” world was known for. With Blowout Comb, they wrapped their verses around startling, dynamic free jazz structures, almost all recorded with a live band. The lyrics run deep, twisting through social anxiety, problematic relationships, and the sort of spiritual-escapist Afrofuturism that Sun Ra and Basquiat launched into the collective conscious.

DIGABLE-PLANETS

The album spent almost 20 years in relative obscurity before Light In The Attic reissued the vinyl in 2013. I’d loved the album for several years, after educating myself in the mid-00’s on all the great hip-hop I missed as a kid, and picked up a copy right away. It’s one of those albums that feels objectively great, as well as a personal favorite; I feel the need to tell everyone about it.

It’s great that group leader Ishmael Butler has found renewed artistic triumph with Shabazz Palaces (on of the best acts in existence, pushing hip-hop further out of this galaxy than anyone before), but every fan of hip-hop, jazz, or whatever deserves to hear this masterpiece. It’s a release that I don’t hesitate to call one of the best albums of the 1990s, any genre. Listen for yourself.

And let me now what 90s hip-hop albums might top this. I’ve got a couple in mind.

“And it hurts with every heartbeat…”

I don’t really have anything clever or interesting to say about this song, other than this: it hits me right in the feels.

Robyn is one of the best, most emotional dance pop artists I’ve ever heard, and this is one of her best songs. I might be partial to None Of Dem for its pure ass-shaking precision, but this song always catches in my throat, jagged and real.

Maybe we could make it all right
We could make it better sometime
Maybe we could make it happen, baby

We could keep trying but things will never change

So I don’t look back
Still I’m dying with every step I take
But I don’t look back

Just a little, little bit better
Good enough to waste some time
Tell me, would it make you happy, baby

robyn_3

I think I should start posting more Robyn. I should share more of the music that touches me on a gut-check emotional level. It’s harder to write about that stuff, but I’m learning.

Kamasi Washington will detonate modern jazz with The Epic

Who is Kamasi Washington? He’s the guy who made all of the fantastic sax sounds that you loved on both recent (and brilliant) Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar releases. Albums You’re Dead and To Pimp A Butterfly would feel utterly lacking without Washington’s input; his freewheeling tones form the sharp jazz edge cutting through both masterpieces.

This 14 minute tune is but a small piece of the upcoming, appropriately-titled debut album The Epic – it looks to be a sprawling, three hour affair aiming to throw down the gauntlet for modern jazz. In a genre valued for innovation and stratospheric ambition, the traditional live jazz band has been laying in stasis for a couple decades now. Real innovation has come from beyond left field, from electronic artists playing with jazz forms and ideals while never really touching the live band setup. Washington could change that perception.

As Flying Lotus himself put it, “everybody is trying to do the same shit. I don’t want to hear ‘My Favorite Things’ anymore.

kamasiwash

As a hardcore fan of the genre myself, I couldn’t put it any more plainly. This tune, along with a new exclusive song featured on Revive (I hope to have a copy streaming here soon) have jumpstarted my hopes for a new generation of the kind of wildly psychedelic, expansive, weird jazz that sits near and dear to my heart. Fans of later John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and especially Pharoah Sanders are highly encouraged to listen right now.

One last thing: Washington has been featured on this site before, as part of the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson ensemble. The band included Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Rebekah Raff, and Chris “Daddy” Dave, some of the best jazz musicians alive today. Their live take on Drips//Take Notice is one of the greatest live jazz performances recorded in the past few decades, if that’s any indication of this man’s talent.

“I Crave Being Destroyed”

Combing my list of unfinished drafts, I sometimes unearth little gems. This one began as a nod to a certain New Orleans ambient noise band, but quickly veered into a miniature Grand Statement about what I get out of music.

This self portrait is a handy visual metaphor for the words you’re about to read.

IMG_20130124_121652

I was discussing Belong‘s debut album, October Language. I was living in San Francisco and had picked up the album on CD at Aquarius Records. The following is what I wrote almost exactly 4 years ago. I’m sharing because it still applies to my life.

Talking about that feedback-stretched-into-clouds sound, we pick up the thread:

It exemplifies that sort of blasted out, wasted, transportive, mystifying blissful washout only music can achieve. This is the transcendent experience I’m always seeking. Since the same thing never hits quite the same way after a certain point, I’m always naturally moving on to the next thing.

Thankfully I’ve long since moved from substances to music and my heaviest indiscretions involve triple LP sets in the mail. I don’t seek a certain sound or mood or genre or anything; I’m just putting out feelers for whatever can steamroll me with that feeling.

I crave being destroyed.

I am always trying to recreate that total elimination of myself, the connection with everyone and everything revealing itself when one truly lets it all go. The expansive nature of just being. The sheer force of some music strikes the part of my mind that’s ready to make the leap. I hope that it hits a more direct link than drugs could ever achieve, but art of that magnitude is a rare thing.

Green Velvet and Carl Craig – Unity [full album streaming]

Detroit techno legend Carl Craig joined forces with Green Velvet to drop a surprise collection of hard-edged tech-house dance tunes last week. As a gigantic fan of Mr. Craig who’s unfamiliar with the latter, I couldn’t have been more curious.

It doesn’t attempt the timeless artistry and elegance of Craig’s best work, instead aiming for something more directly club oriented. Set your frontal lobe on autopilot and let your hair blow back? This unassuming, low-stakes set is built, as far as I’m concerned, for invigorating night drives and house parties.

Unity

From the outer reaches of the galaxy come two captains from two worlds—worlds that hold traditions which shape the branial particles and molecules of the munchkins, who will and have come to dominate the not-so-distant future with multiple galaxies and intercosmic cosmo cities,” states a voiceover intro on the first track. I don’t know what all that galactic imagery is supposed to mean, but this out-of-nowhere collaboration is at least worth a try.

When Flight of the Conchords Met Michel Gondry

This is Carol Brown, an ode to girlfriends from the past. In typical Conchords fashion, it’s a contradictory mixture of romantic bravado, undercutting irony, and incredibly catchy melodies.

I will always hold a special place in my heart for Michel Gondry, the director of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and dozens of the best music videos of all time. His films unfold handcrafted psychedelia like no other visual artist around. From Björk’s first video onward, he cultivated a style that’s equal parts homespun charm and cosmic mind-bender.

I also possess an abiding love for the geeky, short-lived musical comedy Flight Of The Conchords. If you’re not familiar, it’s a show about a pair of broke musicians from New Zealand, proud losers jobs, relationships, and life, busting into incredibly catchy and accomplished song several times an episode. When Gondry directed an episode, pure magic happened.

flightconchordscarolbrown

That’s a building, not a bus!

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar‘s new album, To Pimp A Butterfly, is out by surprise a full week ahead of time. It’s for sale digitally and streaming in full on Spotify. Click play below. Right now.

I’m sick. I woke up today too ill to even go to work. But then this happened. I’m feeling a bit elevated right now.

Digital-Booklet-To-Pimp-A-Butterfl-page-001

I don’t have anything too meaningful to say yet. Here’s a couple comments I made with friends during my first and only listen:

  • I don’t care about what anyone else has to say on the first day of an album like this, that’s going to have a lot of discussion flying around. I like to hear it “pure” as can be, I suppose. So uh, after 2 tracks I’ll just say that I’m really enjoying this, and the dark swirl of production tics is reminding me of D’Angelo’s latest (Best of 2014 album by the way), in a really positive way. Old and new sounds mixing for something vintage but not dated sounding, maybe?
  • Almost at the end. Loving the thick jazz sound. Not quite jazz-hop in that Digable Planets way, it does remind me of their masterpiece Blowout Comb in a very slight way… which is a good thing since that’s a top 10 album of the 90s for me.

There’s no need for a lot of discussion the moment something as important as this hits our collective ears. Just listen and absorb it. We’ll talk later.

Edit:

Second listen observations: thinking that this evokes the warm but gritty production of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, the sprawling, psychedelic structure of Shabazz PalacesLes Majesty, and the free jazz embrace of Flying LotusYou’re Dead. It’s no coincidence that all of these featured on my Best of 2014 list. I’m linking it again for emphasis – if you like this, there’s a lot of fun music streaming on that page. This album is hitting me with a deep and immediate connection.