AFTER a decade apart, the Planets have realigned.
Digable Planets, that is.
In the early '90s, those whimsically named Planets -- Butterfly, Ladybug and Doodlebug -- fused jazz and hip-hop poetry on "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," a seductively taut single built on bass and horn riffs from Art Blakey's 1978 hard-bop hit "Stretchin'."
Evoking black bohemia and cool jazz, "Rebirth" was the centerpiece of "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," the 1993 album that helped launch what some dubbed alternative rap, or, thanks to such peers as P.M. Dawn, Arrested Development and De La Soul, hippie-hop; at the time, we suggested 'hip-bop,' but nobody paid attention. Digable Planets weren't the first rappers to venture into jazz (see A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr and such influences as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron), but for many, they were the best, and not just because they had both commercial and critical success, even winning a 1993 Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group.
They really were cool like dat. As Butterfly put it in "Rebirth of Slick," "we be to rap what key be to lock."
But a year later, after the release of their "Blowout Comb" album, Digable Planets seemed to have cooled, just like that. By 1995, they were history.
Which is now repeating itself in the best way. Having reconnected last fall, Digable Planets did a successful reunion tour in Europe earlier this year and are in the midst of a 25-city American tour that brings them to the 9:30 club on Wednesday, where the trio made its Washington debut 13 years ago.
Realignment, Ladybug says, "actually wasn't difficult at all. I think over the years, being apart from each other, we really missed each other, and we missed making music together."
For Ladybug, this is a homecoming. Born Mary Ann Vieira, she grew up in Silver Spring, meeting Doodlebug (Craig Irving) when he was an engineering major at Howard University and involved in the hip-hop scene. (She had briefly danced with a local rap group.)
They kept running into Doodlebug's college friend Butterfly (Ishmael Butler) at clubs in Washington and New York, and before long, a shared love of hip-hop and jazz suggested a creative outlet. The group name wasn't that odd, given the trio's manifesto ("We feel that every person individually is a planet. Being planets, we each have the ability to set up our planet any way we want to, always keeping in mind we have to coexist in the solar system that is society").
As for those adopted stage names, they reflected respect for the cooperative, communal social life of insects. You probably had to be there at the time. (Post-Planets, Doodlebug became Cee Knowledge.)
"We were just being who we were -- we didn't expect to create a whole new movement or facilitate it," says Ladybug, who is also known as Mecca. "Our goal was just to make music. We loved to play with words, to speak our mind, and that's really all it was for us, though it's flattering to see people who've been influenced by our music and taken it and reinterpreted it and created their own voice after being inspired by us."
"Reachin' " reached a huge audience with its savvy use of jazz samples (Sonny Rollins's "Mambo Bounce" on "Time & Space," Eddie Harris's "Superfluous" on "What Cool Breezes Do") and R&B sources (Kool & the Gang's "Summer Madness" in "Jimmi Diggin Cats," a sci-fantasy in which Jimi Hendrix, MC Hammer and the Jackson 5 all coexist musically). It even invoked one of the ensemble's own inspirations, the Last Poets (their "Jazzoetry" fuels "La Femme Fetal"). The jazz connection was further emphasized in the trio's casual interplay, with Butterfly envisioning himself as Clifford Brown on trumpet, Doodlebug as Rollins on tenor and Ladybug as Eric Dolphy on flute.
"Blowout Comb" was a little less jazz-rooted and a little more political, and it didn't fare nearly as well as its predecessor. "We are children of socially conscious parents," says Ladybug, noting that Butterfly's father taught history at the University of Virginia. "If you listen to 'Reachin',' you can hear little bits and pieces; with the second album, we just went head-on with it, but it wasn't a reaction off of commercial success or any lack of anything from that first album."
There was some label pressure to return to the original sound, but, Ladybug says, that ultimately had nothing to do with the group calling it quits.
"In 1995, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal disease and passed away four months later. I called the guys and let them know that 'Blowout Comb' was probably going to be it for me for a while. I really needed to go back home and spend time with my mother before she passed away because she was my best friend. So I did that, and then my father came down with cancer and heartache because they were very close. I helped him through his chemotherapy, and then he passed away 11 months after her. I needed a break."
Butterfly returned to home town Seattle and formed Cherrywine, a band that explored a mixture of hip-hop, funk, blues and rock; a 2003 album on the local DCide label made a number of year-end best-ofs. Cee Knowledge settled in Philadelphia, where he formed the ever-shifting Cosmic Funk Orchestra and originated a mix-tape series called the Cosmic Funk Essentials.
Folks would ask about reunions, "mostly fans," Ladybug says. "They would catch us on the street and tell us they needed us. And every couple of years, I would run into Knowledge, or Knowledge might run into Ishmael. Knowledge did a lot of traveling, so it was more us running into him as opposed to me and Ish running into each other.
"But we weren't really in touch that much," she admits. "We were doing our own solo projects, and we had our own families." (Ladybug has four children, Butterfly three, Knowledge two.)
Knowledge, she adds, "had actually been trying to get the group together for a while, but I think Ish and I just weren't ready yet. Then we just got to a point where it made sense to go ahead. We called a meeting and we sat down, and the vibe was good. We were all nervous, but everyone was really humble and not ego-ed out, so we decided to go ahead and do it."
According to Ladybug, the three-week European tour was "a great way to get together and start reconnecting on a real level, as opposed to jumping in the studio, getting to know each other all over again and trying to create an album. We wanted to just hang out and kick it and have a good time together first. It was great, and we're still doing that on the tour now."
"We had a lot of fun just working out the kinks while we were out there," Ladybug adds, noting it took her only "one really good listening" to each album to mentally download the old lyrics. ("I can't speak for the guys," she laughs.)
With a five-piece band that includes legendary keyboardist Brian Jackson (long associated with Scott-Heron), Digable Planets is serving up material from their two albums, as well as from their solo projects, including Ladybug's new CD, "Trip the Light Fantastic," which Jackson plays on.
"I've been trying to put out my solo record for some years," she says. "It's basically a body of work that encompasses my life experiences and musical influences. It's not just hip-hop, and I'm not just rhyming. I'm singing, there's samba on there [her parents were Brazilian], bossa nova rhythms mixed with hip-hop and Afrobeat, a little bit of rock. It's very diverse -- it's me. I'm a fan of music no matter what it is, as long as it resonates with me and who I am. And we're selling it on tour," Ladybug adds.
She's cool like that, though Digable Planets are not too cool with how "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" has been used in ads. Digable Planets sued Target over right of publicity and false endorsement issues after Target used their recording in a 2003 television commercial. The group didn't dispute that Target had acquired a valid license to use the song and recording from the copyright owners, but it maintained the company didn't have permission to use their voices or their "identity" as embodied in their "signature song." The case is continuing.
More recently, Ford used "Cool Like Dat" in car commercials that aired during "American Idol," with puppet-ized versions of the contestants dancing and syncing to the song. Thankfully, Ladybug says, it was a remake, and "they didn't use our voices. But it was really silly, people running around with puppets on their heads! That's like Coltrane doing a Kmart commercial -- it doesn't match."
DIGABLE PLANETS -- Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 club.