Twenty-five years ago this month, hip-hop group Digable Planets released their debut album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). The landmark album, fueled by their hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," broke through the the Billboard charts and earned the trio one of the very first Grammys for Best Rap Performance By a Duo or Group. It cemented rappers Ishamel "Butterfly" Butler (who went on to form Seattle's Shabazz Palaces), Craig "Doodlebug" Irving, and Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira in rap history. This Friday, Feb. 23, Light In The Attic Records will reissue the record for its 25th anniversary. Included in the packaging is in-depth liner notes from writer and former KEXP Street Sounds DJ Larry Mizell, Jr. Ahead of the release, KEXP is sharing an excerpt of Mizell's piece, which includes a new interview with Butler reflecting on the record. Read it below.
“My father taught me jazz, all the peoples and the anthems/ Ate peanuts with the Dizz and vibed with Lionel Hampton…”
“That was all my pop,” Ish says. “That's all Big Reg. He was a saxophone dude—he didn't play, but he knew every saxophone player. It was just jazz around the house. He never really hated on hip-hop, but he was always like, ‘Man, please.’ When I was about ten, he was like, ‘C'mon, I'm taking you somewhere.’ We go see this cat in this little building, he comes out with a box—it's an alto sax. I'll never forget him putting it together. I'm blowing the shit in the car. I played alto sax all through middle school and early high school.”
After his parents’ split, Ish’s life was divided between Seattle and the East Coast. He attended middle school in Baltimore, Virginia, Philly, and New York—“raised under the dim streetlights of four cities,” as he'd later relate. He came back home to Seattle’s Central District, where he attended Garfield High School—home of the Bulldogs, illustrious alma mater of Quincy, Jimi, and Bruce. (The “Dog House” is also world-famous for its jazz program.) Young Ish was already standing out. “When I first got to Garfield as a freshman, niggas was like, ‘Who is this cat?’” “Shit,” he laughs. “Comin’ home with some suede Pumas and Lee jeans and a Starter? What! Cats was rocking curls and shit, I had the short haircut with the parts. B-boy to the bone. Lee flavors with the Pumas, the Triple Fat Goose with the fur. I didn't really fit in—it was a rough couple of months at first! But then when hoop season started, cats was like, ‘OK, he's a regular guy.’”
“Stirrin' up the ground with the sound of Doug E. Fresh/ and the hard rockin' kids that did it for the black/ with the Pumas on their feet and the bombers on their back...”
In high school, Ish started rapping—he had a crew, making demos and rocking Garfield talent shows. “It was just, like, hallway superstardom! Cuz back then, making it in rap? That was like saying you were ’bout to go to the NBA, and you seven.” But hoops is exactly what took him back East, with a basketball scholarship to UMass—but his heart was still in his art. “My man George lived in my dorm and had a lil keyboard-slash-studio in his crib—I hammered out a few early Digable things in there. So I guess about ’88 or ’89 is when I started making some of what turned into Reachin’.”
Ish eventually left school and split back to Philly. “I was living in Wynnefield in this little apartment under my aunty’s house. I used to see this dude around Philly, he was just a weird lookin’ nigga with the orange dreads. He looked like an English dude or something!” That dude would be one of the city’s favorite DJs, King Britt—real name, no gimmicks—whose beloved weekly Silk City was a local hotspot. His inclusion in the crew (as their DJ) is usually treated as a footnote—but truth is, before the album’s recording, he played a crucial and practical role in the group’s development.
“I needed to make duplicates of the demo,” Ish says, “and just, I knew this nigga gotta have a tape-to-tape, a dual cassette deck. I ain’t know him. I cold hit him up—he was working at Tower as the Dance buyer. Like, ‘Yo bro, you got a tape-to-tape? I’m trying to make copies of my demo.’ He said, ‘Yeah’; I go to his crib, and this mufucka’s living with a bunch of other DJs in this big-ass row house. He was already bossing up in the DJ scene in Philly. I’m like, ‘Who the fuck is this dude?’
King recalls, “We talked a bit, and it was like we were cool for years. Ish had the demo tape of the album and brought it to the crib. It blew me away. It sounded more like how [Ishmael’s current project] Shabazz Palaces sounds now. It didn't sound anything like how Reachin’ came out. It was dirtier and more esoteric.”
If you wish you could hear this demo, know that you’re not alone. “Oh, if I could hear that once again in my life, man,” moans Ish. “King said he got one somewhere but don’t know where. I did like a box of 50 of them, and they were in these cases—I had pictures on the front, you open it up, and the left side was a slot for a video, on the right was a slot for a cassette. I had actually shot a video. It was just me doing shit, walking downtown, with me talking over the shit. The other side was the demo tape. I did the artwork for it, the crazy font—I was on it like that.”
Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) - 25th Anniversary Edition is available for pre-order now.
KEXP chats with the singer about the origins of her music and to find out what might be next on the creative horizon.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Digable Planet's Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), KEXP talks with front man, Ishmael Butler about the making of the album and what it’s like having written one of the greatest rap lyrics of all time.
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