“What I’m Listening To” is a new series by The Daily’s Music beat in which our staff writers share what they’re playing on repeat with readers. It’s a place for writers to plug in, turn up and let the world know what truly rocks.
This week, Blowout Comb by Digable Planets has been bringing my consciousness into a higher plane. I’m only being a little dramatic when I say you don’t listen to Blowout Comb — you experience it.
A diverse range of groovy samples were chopped and spliced with lush and lovely live instrumentation to produce a groundbreaking jazz-rap record in Blowout Comb. The rap trio moved to Brooklyn in the early ’90s with the express purpose of joining the hip-hop renaissance; group leader Butterfly affectionately called New York “a Mecca for rappers.” And join the renaissance they did, crafting a cool, surreal sound that few other artists were even dabbling in.
Blowout Comb slipped under the radar when it released in 1994. Understandably so — many consider ’94 to be rap’s greatest year of all time. Three of hip hop’s most iconic debut albums dropped: Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik by Outkast, Ready to Die by The Notorious B.I.G. and Illmatic by Nas. Common, Scarface, Method Man, Beastie Boys, Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Gang Starr all came out with classics in the same year. Amid all the competition, Digable Planets came out with an iconic signature sound. Blowout Comb is a marriage of jazz and hip hop that has proven to be a match made in heaven.
I can gush about the jazzy sonics for hours on end, but what truly makes this album important is its lyrical themes: it is both supremely empowering of the Black community and sincerely conscious of the realities they face. Right from the beginning on “The May 4th Movement,” following a grandiose trumpet intro, Doodlebug and Ladybug reference Illmatic (Nas’s masterpiece narrative of drug violence in the Queensbridge projects) and give a shout-out to notorious Black Power movement prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Sekou Odinga. Including the title, a reference to student anti-imperialist protests in China in 1919, there are layers of political meaning to pick apart right from the beginning.
Today in hip hop there’s a constant debate about accessibility versus substance. On one hand, not everybody always wants to absorb some mega-conscious music with layers of lyrical complexity. But on the other hand, maybe relaxing to substanceless lo-fi beats or partying to the tune of “Gucci Gang” is depleting brain cells. Both ends of the argument are holier-than-thou bullshit, but for those who play into it that want a little bit of both, there are truckloads of music at hand. For a contemporary example, take Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Almost every track on the album can be a) blasted from the car while you scream out the window, or b) listened to closely to see a poignant cultural message about poverty and gang culture. Likewise, almost every track on Blowout Comb can a) soothe your soul as you enter the 5th dimension, or b) reveal serious tension and contemplation in the Black community.
For years, rap critics and music journalists have chosen “overtly political” as their favorite buzzword-phrase to describe this album, but I think that’s less-than-fitting. The three subtle emcees are clearly sending a message, but simultaneously they smoothly slide slick stories and meta raps about drug-doing, party-having, Brooklyn-living and hip hop-loving. “Overtly political” makes it sound like you’re getting slammed with the group’s Black nationalist rhetoric and 5-percenter slang, but at the end of the day you can get whatever the fuck you want out of this album.
This week, I’m listening to Blowout Comb. I think next week I’ll re-read “The Autobiography of Malcom X.” It’s the natural progression of things.