“You could have a Donald Trump supporter in this crowd, you could have a fucking Obama supporter in this crowd and they are partying.”
(Photos: Patrick Weishampel)
The members of Digable Planets have a lot to celebrate. This year saw the 25th anniversary of the group’s debut masterpiece, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). Digable Planets has also inspired a slew of rap acts and remain a favorite of indie rock fans. Even though they stopped putting out new music following 1994’s Blowout Comb, Digable Planets remains one of the best rap groups of all time.
I caught up with Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving backstage before their sold-out Halloween show at Portland’s Revolution Hall. We stood huddled around my recording device, talking about history, horror movies and American politics. I found both men open to speaking, generous with their time and super friendly. I’m proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Butterfly and Doodlebug of Digable Planets.
Happy Halloween! What Halloween traditions did you have growing up?
Doodlebug: When I was growing up, I dressed up like different characters.
Butterfly: When I was little we definitely went trick or treating around the neighborhood, got a lot of candy, ate it, got on our sugar highs, got whipped for being too loud, too late at night. That was a tradition which I carried on with my kids for a little while. But anymore? I don’t give a shit really.
Are you guys into scary movies?
D: I used to be back in the day but they are kind of corny now. I’m not really into them that much. Like Halloween and Friday the 13th. And what was the dude with the pinhead?
What about you?
B: I love scary movies. That’s all I watch. When I look at the glossary of genres I start out at horror.
Got any you could recommend?
B: Well, I just saw Mandy. Are you hip to Mandy?
That the one with Nicolas Cage? I haven’t seen it yet.
B: It’s intense. It’s beautiful, though.
D: I like “American Horror Story.” That’s an ill show.
I think the biggest horror story right now is the Trump administration. It’s sad that your music came out 25 years ago and the stuff you were rapping about back then is still stuff we have to worry about now.
B: But I’m pretty sure that cats that was our age now in 1994 and was probably like, “Damn, it’s sad that these guys are talking about the same thing we were talking about 20 years ago.” This is what it is here in America. It may change its look, its dynamics, but in essence there is going to be a hierarchy in which you know who is at the top and it’s stratified on the way down. It has been complicated by fame and fortune of rappers and athletes. Because it makes it seem like there is some equity. But nah.
Do you think any of that shit got better under Obama?
B: It just changed but yeah, it got better. He was a guy who was a politician but he had a remarkably good heart. He was a rare dude. So yeah, some shit got changed. I’m sure some people’s lives drastically changed. If a family member was incarcerated for a minor drug charge and then he was able to come home, then yeah. He had different tax plans and shit. But it’s American politics. There’s going to be some good, some bad.
D: It’s a dirty game.
B: But again, legalization of weed is an exclusive club with people benefiting from it and also they got it legal when the money streams were put in place.
Where is your head now when you’re performing songs from 25 years ago and the political shit comes up?
B: I’m thinking about ladies and girls, man, most of the time. Most of my mental capacity is filled up thinking about females and their body parts and their minds. Music helps maintain a youthful outlook. You go on stage and do something that’s repetitive so you have to find a new angle. Just like a life.
Do you listen to a lot of modern hip-hop?
B: Not a lot but probably more than the average cat because we have kids and we love rap. So we’re always going to sit down and go through YouTube and see what people are listening to. We have a lot of friends that are younger and they come to us and play us music and want to know what we think.
The new rap era reminds me of reggae music. People in reggae, they all rock over one rhythm. What you bring to that rhythm, the little nuance and change, is like what the youth is doing. We was like, “We have to sound different.” Now, they can hear a slight nuance in something that to us might sound the same and they go, “That dude is good. That dude is dope.” I like trying to decipher that because that’s not really where we come from.
Is there a through-line with the work you do with Shabazz Palaces and what you did with Digable Planets?
B: No doubt, it’s the through-line of my presence. It is what I was compelled to do from the first time I saw him (points to Doodlebug).
D: I mean, we never stopped. We just changed form which turned into Cherrywine which turned in Shabazz Palaces. I went and started doing artist development with some cats in D.C. and turned into the Cosmic Funk Orchestra. Ladybug was doing her own thing. So we never stopped doing music. We just changed forms.
What is it about the alchemy of the three of you that makes Digable Planets such a lasting thing?
B: Man, I really think it’s a wordless thing. Truth be told, it kinda manifests itself almost irregardless of what we as individuals are thinking. The opportunity to perform arises and we all be like, “Yeah, I want to do it. I want to go.” We end up going and it’s like magic happens to us.
Is hip-hop with live instrumentation better?
B: I don’t think it’s better. It can be worse. I’ve heard hip-hop bands that are only a band because they might have seen the Roots. They didn’t really have the feeling that was underneath it. And I’ve seen a turntable show that had all the energy and creativity of Charlie Parker.
Still, there’s something about live music.
B: Well, people are making a sound and then people are making it altogether is a power. You can’t really duplicate that with a recorded thing. That’s different, but cats actually playing? There’s a vibration and a power that’s happening that’s very unique.
How does one do positive hip-hop and then take on issues like the bullshit that’s happening in this country right now?
D: That’s something that’s just in you. You can’t fake it and you can’t force it. You talk about it because it’s an issue that’s important to your life, the people you care about and you love. So you talk about it. It’s pretty simple. I can’t get any more in-depth that that. I feel very deeply about social issues that affect people that look like me. I’m going to speak about it. I feel like it’s my duty as a civilized person to speak on stuff like that. Music is my medium. That’s what I do.
It’s awesome that you guys can speak about this stuff and then have an audience leave feeling good at the end of the show too.
B: Yeah, because making music is an action. It’s not a reaction to what somebody else did.
You guys think it’s important everyone gets out and votes?
B: I think if you’re touched by that and it’s important to you, yes. Generally, yes, I do believe it’s important.
D: But at the same time, you get jaded after all. You see the bullshit and realize that it doesn’t matter if it’s D, R or I that they put in front of them. A lot of these cats care only about getting into power. They will tell you anything (laughs). Once they get in the door, they just out. They be like, “See ya in two years. I’m just going to sit here and collect this money from all these fucking lobbyists and all this other shit.” They don’t really give a fuck. But I do understand that my ancestors fought and died for the right to do this so I respect that. But at the same time, being on the planet for 50-odd years, I’ve seen so many things that’s made me think, “This voting thing is bullshit.” I like the energy behind it, but it’s kind of bullshit.
So what can you do?
B: A wave of voters can elect somebody. We ain’t disputing that’s real. Then the person gets elected and then what? One of the most hopeful, special men ever to come through American politics and then the other side was just like, “You know what? Fuck it. Everything he do, we’re going to shut it down.” Everything.
D: That’s what politics has become now. If the Democrats win this time, the Republicans are going to do everything in their power to keep them from being popular. It’s just a constant fight that never gets anywhere.
B: And everything in their power includes lying, stealing, murdering, lying again about the stealing and the killing. It’s a cycle.
D: And they will lie to your face. These motherfuckers are going all day long. For a second, I was feeling bad for that press secretary. What’s her name?
Sarah Huckabee Sanders
D: At this point? Nah. Two years deep? Come on now. At this point you believe those lies you’re spittin’. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t have no sympathy for people like that. That’s bullshit.
B: The thing is, man, politics is just like everything else that matters to Americans. It’s either entertaining or an act. If it’s not entertaining, we’re not going to stay engaged. Let me see some fighting, some cussing, some backbiting, some stealing, some drama. I’ll vote for that. You know what I’m saying?
D: It’s like a reality show now. That’s why he won.
D: Exactly! Exactly! Ten years they would have a looked a dude like him and called him a carpetbagger. Or a snake oil salesman or some shit like that. Now he’s the face of their movement which proves to me that their movement is bullshit. It’s seeped in non-substantial ideas. It has nothing. This dude is corrupt of all that shit.
There’s that picture of all the evangelical leaders laying hands on him.
D: It just shows you how powerful TV is. That shit is powerful. That dude doesn’t give a fuck about those poor motherfuckers. Everything he has done has been for him and his rich friends. But they follow him like he’s the Messiah or some shit.
Do you care about alienating fans that like Trump?
B: I don’t think if someone likes Donald Trump I don’t think they should be talked about or persecuted or ridiculed. I feel like the way America was supposed to be, as foul as it was at the time of the Founding Fathers, the idea they had was brilliant, even if the idea wasn’t to include everybody. Everybody has a say. If you don’t agree with me, we talk and go through facts. We’re supposed to be reasonable and honest.
That doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just people screaming at each other.
B: Exactly. The way it’s supposed to be could work, but everybody just uses this to make their own case.
D: But music is the universal language and it supersedes all that shit. That’s how you could have a Donald Trump supporter in this crowd, you could have a fucking Obama supporter in this crowd and they are partying. But when they leave here they might dispute. But tonight, and any other night, they are here to celebrate the music they love. Music is beyond that shit to me.
Taking inflation into consideration, how much does a nickel bag of funk go for these days?
D: (points to Butterfly) Between me and him it’s free, but you? It’s $20 (both burst into laughter).