The Digable Planets didn’t invent jazz rap, but with their 1993 debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)—which they’ll be performing in full at Riot Fest this year—and its hit single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” they did bring the form to its biggest audience to date. At the time, part of the album’s fun was trying to identify all the samples on the record, inspiring no small amount of people to start aggressively digging the crates.
For the most part, MC and primary architect Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler didn’t have to dig all that hard. “It was all about resources, really,” Butler told John Rawls in Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. “I just went and got the records that I had around me. And a lot of those were my dad’s shit, which was lots of jazz.” He even reflected on this same practice lyrically on “Pacifics”: “Butterfly pullin’ from the jazz stacks / Searchin’ for a relax / ’Cuz it’s Sunday.”
For those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have fathers with good taste (sorry, dad, but John Denver don’t cut it), though, it’s still exciting to go deep with the classic records the Digable Planets sliced and diced to make classics of their own. Below, we’ve picked one sample from every cut on the album (some tracks contain a half dozen or more, so this is hardly a complete list!) for closer examination.
1. It’s Good to Be HereIs from Herbie Hancock’s “Rain Dance”
The rinky-dink drum machine patter that kicks off Reachin’ is lifted from the opening track on Herbie Hancock’s Sextant, easily one of the weirdest LPs released by the jazz legend. Though there’s still a central groove buried in much of this batshit space jazz set, it’s electronically processed almost to the point of oblivion; in fact, the first couple minutes of “Rain Dance” could be said to presage the cybernetic disarray of early industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. While it’s telling of Hancock’s immense popularity in the early ‘70s that he was able to sell a record this obtuse and strange, it was also a bold move for Digable Planets to quote from it right out of the gate.
2. Pacifics (N.Y. is Red Hot)Is from Hamilton Bohannon’s “Take the Country to New York City”
The central groove on “Pacifics” is from Lonnie Liston Smith’s great spiritual jazz cut “Devika: Goddess,” but its “New York is reeeed hot!” hook comes from another, very different master of grooves: drummer/producer/arranger Hamilton Bohannon. Bohannon cut his teeth as a session drummer for Motown, eventually coming into his own as an essential cornerstone of the pre-Saturday Night Fever disco era. Central to his sound was an insistent bass stomp that demands at the very least toe-tapping, and at most an outright dance party.
Besides being sampled in hip-hop, Bohannon was also a big influence on the groovier side of post-punk—especially the Talking Heads. In fact, under their Tom Tom Club guise, Heads Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth basically come right out and say as much on “Genius of Love.”
3. Where I’m FromIs from KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong”
“Where I’m From” gets its beat from one of the most sampled breaks of all time, that of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer;” but the mellow instrumental loop that rides on top is from a deep cut on KC and the Sunshine Band’s self-titled sophomore LP. That album was also home to the eternal movie trailer and wedding reception hits “That’s The Way (I Like It)” and “Get Down Tonight,” but “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong” has a mellower vibe than its more successful brethren. It’s pure cruising music, evoking nothing so much as a picnic at the beach. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!
4. What Cool Breezes DoIs from Eddie Harris’ “Superfluous”
Soul jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris was a major left field influence on the sound of ’90s hip-hop: the decade saw his music sampled by everyone from Gang Starr to Dr. Octagon, and the Beastie Boys went so far as to name-drop him in the first line of the Check Your Head track “So Whatcha Want.”
Other than having a way with a jazzy hook — such as the one Butterfly samples here — Harris gets cred for being down to get weird; running his horn through a battery of electronic effects, singing through the reed, and even filling half of some of his live records with profane stand-up comedy. “Superfluous” is one of his more fiery offerings, diving headfirst into abstract free jazz territory… but the sampled theme is classic Harris.
5. Time & Space (A New Refutation of)Is from Sonny Rollins’ “Mambo Bounce”
Though it was released on a compilation called Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet, bassist Percy Heath is actually the only Modern Jazz Quartet member to appear on this particular track, with drums and piano provided by Art Blakey and Kenny Drew, respectively. Sonny Rollins’ saxophone features most prominently in the sampled section, though, and that ain’t no shame: in the 1950s, Rollins was right up there with Miles Davis and John Coltrane as part of a vanguard of players known for pushing at the edges of jazz forms.
His output got less consistent over the years, sometimes trading on novelty or mawkish sentimentality, but this is Rollins when he was still young, hungry, and blowing hot fire. Having Blakey—one of the greatest jazz drummers to ever wrap his hands around the sticks—backing him up is icing on the cake. Blakey’s track “Stretching,” incidentally, is also sampled on “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” Speaking of…
6. Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)Is from 24-Carat Black’s “Foodstamps”
The stop-start beat that comes in about halfway through Digable Planets’ biggest hit comes from the intro break on this stabbing, strutting instrumental burner from the concept-funk record Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. Starting their career as a rough-hewn Cincinnati stage revue called the Ditalians, 24-Carat Black were taken under the wing of Michigan-based arranger Dale Warren (a rare beast who did work for both Motown and Stax!), who saw potential in them to become the band who’d eventually carry off his conceptual opus (Warren was no stranger to conceptual soul, having had a prior hand in Isaac Hayes’ classic Hot Buttered Soul).
The gamble paid off in the end, quality-wise, but the album never quite took off commercially. It probably didn’t help that half of the original band split off after their first performance of the album in its entirety, at a Stax showcase in Memphis. Dale Warren died in 1994, early enough to have perhaps heard his track sampled, but too late to capitalize on his pet project becoming a crate-digger favorite.
7. Last of the SpiddyocksIs from the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President”
Like “Funky Drummer” or the Winstons’ “Amen Brother,” the Honey Drippers’ 1973 soul thumper has a classic break that’s been used countless times, across most kinds of sample-based music. Using the “Impeach the President” break, in fact, may’ve been the opposite of innovative at this point in hip-hop’s development, but that aside, it’s a great soul track even beyond those few bars of drums… and you can’t say its subject matter isn’t at least as relevant now as the day it was written. #RealNews
8. Jimmi Diggin CatsIs from Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin Pt. 2”
Another great break from a perennially underrated musical hero. In a more just world, Rufus Thomas would require no introduction: After all, he recorded rock ’n’ roll on Sun Records a couple years before Elvis, had legendary hit records on Stax, and was covered by the Rolling Stones when they were still young punks. He even has has a street named after him in Memphis, right off the city’s historic Beale Street. The fact that his records, as soulful as they are outrageous and funny, aren’t held in the same popular regard as the Beatles or Dylan is an international travesty.
9. La Femme FetalIs from Fiorello La Guardia’s “Reading the Comics – July, 1945”
Butterfly’s pro-choice paean features one of the more unusual samples on Reachin’, though it’s somewhat buried. Who’s that high voice, obviously an old recording, trying to get the children’s attention towards the end of the track? Why, it’s none other than perhaps the most popular mayor in New York City’s history, Fiorello La Guardia (yep, like that shitty airport)!
Known by his many fans as “The Little Flower,” the diminutive La Guardia was a Republican during his three terms from 1934-1945; but he supported Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and was unafraid to reach across the aisle on the regular. Perhaps his favorite means of reaching out to his constituency was through his radio show, Talk to the People; the sample on “La Femme Fetal” is from an album collecting some favorite bits from those broadcasts. An odd choice for a sample, sure, but also one that speaks to Digable Planets’ New York roots.
10. Escapism (Gettin’ Free)Is from the Last Poets’ “Black is Chant”
More than anything on this list, the Last Poets are an obvious precursor to the Planets’ approach, both musically and politically. Some say that with their emphasis on rhythm and spoken word, the Last Poets invented rap; that may be oversimplification, but they definitely offered a template for delivering radical black politics in a way that allowed you to dance and chant along. Here, Ladybug Mecca takes their baton and runs with it, mutating the Poets’ chants for her own purposes.
11. Appointment at the Fat ClinicIs from Tom Scott and the L.A. Express’ “Sneakin’ in the Back”
Tom Scott was an Hollywood session cat with a jazz bent; his band the L.A. Express was perhaps most broadly known for backing up Joni Mitchell through the first half of the 1970s. The band’s albums without Mitchell are funky fusion affairs, and are generally sturdy… if sometimes a little predictable. Not the obvious place to find a killer beat, you say? Hey, nobody ever said sampling was about going to the most obvious places.
12. Nickel BagsIs from Herbie Mann’s “Push Push”
To the uninitiated, Herbie Mann might seem as unlikely a source of funk as Tom Scott, but that’d be a perception even more rooted in ignorance. Mann made several sweaty soul jazz steamers throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, often taking risks on raw talents like vibraphonist Roy Ayers and guitarist Sonny Sharrock (the latter’s choppy, wailing noise-jazz guitar beat no-wave and Sonic Youth to the punch by a decade).
“Push Push” might not be Mann’s most adventurous outing, but it’s damn satisfying. The sample on “Nickel Bags,” culled from the album’s title track, features drums by Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, one of the most mind-meltingly funky soul jazz drummers of the ‘70s (pop fans might recognize his style from Steely Dan’s “Peg”). Most people know this album just for its cover, which routinely appears in dumb clickbait articles about The Worst Album Covers of All Time or some such, but fuck that: it’s not cool to shame a dude for feeling sexy, no matter how hirsute he may be.
13. Swoon UnitsIs from Gylan Kain’s “Black Satin Amazon Fire Engine Cry Baby”
Gylan Kain was a founding member of the Last Poets, but his solo record The Blue Guerrilla, recorded after he left the group, is even more fortified with righteous fury than that group’s work. It’s a heavy, gnarly, abstract record, but you’d never know it from the brief sample used on the intro to “Swoon Units,” culled from one of the album’s few moments of relative calm. There’s not much to dance to on The Blue Guerrilla, but its anger levels routinely reach and exceed punk levels, and usually for better reasons that your average punk’s.
14. Examination of WhatIs from the Crusaders’ “Listen and You’ll See”
Though it would be safe to say that the Crusaders were never the most adventurous jazz group around (they shared members, in fact, with the aforementioned L.A. Express), they were certainly versatile, and spent much of the ’70s infusing easygoing funk with hard bop licks. As we mentioned earlier, Reachin’ was informed by a combination of surroundings and economy; as such, it’s fitting to close our examination with a track from a group whose records can still be found in bargain bins everywhere, as common as dirt. This isn’t a comment on the quality of the Crusaders’ music, and certainly not the sample on “Examination of What,“ but a testament to the magic that can be found in places you might not even think to look.
Do what you feel, but only if you feel like seeing Digable Planets play this album in its entirety at Riot Fest 2018. And if you do feel like that, you’d best get tickets.