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.
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.