Digable Planets' Ishmael Butler Reveals What It Would Take to See New Album

It's not always apparent which music artists will stand the test of time, but Digable Planets has proven to be one of the most fondly remembered and still-listened-to groups of the East Coast hip-hop scene of the early 1990s.

With jazz-influenced samples set behind politically charged and sometimes quirky lyrics, MCs Ishmael (“Butterfly” or “Ish”) Butler, Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving created an original sound that was cut short when the band broke up in 1995, citing “creative differences” and disappointing sales of their 1994 sophomore album, Blowout Comb.

But after performing a reunion show in Seattle in late 2015, the group excited fans around the country by announcing a full summer tour this year. It is the first extended tour since 2005, when the group also released a compilation album called Beyond the Spectrum: The Creamy Spy Chronicles.

Digable Planets will stop in Denver next Tuesday, August 16, to headline the Gothic Theatre. In advance of that show, Westword caught up with Butler to discuss politics, Black Lives Matter, and the potential for new Digable Planets material.

Westword: It's been a decade since Digable Planets last went on the road. As you tour this year, has there been anything that's surprised you?

Ishmael Butler: A little bit. The fact that we’re out and got back together and are touring, for one. And what’s happening socially and politically in this time — we’re in that wave, and we’re participating in it in the way that we do.... It’s cool and valuable to be out here bringing people together. I can’t say how — what the chemistry is and what people do after they leave — but it’s nice to have a message and a band with everyone sharing this ceremony of experience. For the most part, I’d say it's a positive thing going on, and I feel that.

There have been rumors of new Digable Planets material coming out of this tour. Is there anything you’re able to share about that?

I mean, it’s true, but it’s both a long way off and close.

Can you elaborate on that?

We haven’t been together for a long time, and a lot of things have happened in between. We’re now in the midst of mixing elements. With chemistry being a mixing of elements, things can go either way. One thing may bring about something smooth, but you add a little bit of something else and it’s an explosion.

So as we tour and get around each other and get a feel, it becomes clearer whether or not the chemistry and the elements are going to mix well. But we want to do it, and we’ve talked about doing it, so we’re at that stage now.

So what are the specific concerns about chemistry? Are you worried about new material sounding too different from your classic albums?

It’s not really any concern like that. It’s that when we made the records, we were around each other all the time and had a relationship of familial rapport. And if we don’t come close to that again, then I don’t see how we’d be able to make the type of music that we did.... It’s gotta have love, you know?

Would there be any concern trying to balance that work with your involvement with Shabazz Palaces?

No, I don't think so.

Going back to what you were saying about what's happening politically and socially in this time, a lot of your lyrics discuss things like neighborhood violence, phony politicians and the power of the wealthy. And it strikes me that these lyrics could have been written yesterday, because we’re still dealing with these things now. I'm wondering if that makes you disillusioned at all, because it doesn’t seem like there’s been much progress since you sat down and wrote those lines decades ago.

No, I mean, because the same thing can be said about the forty years prior to writing those lyrics. I think what’s evident is that that hierarchy and the social condition are always going to be that way — there’s always going to be exploitative, oppressive entities…. There’s always going to be people on top doing the shit that they do... That’s the history of man, not just the recent American history.

But there’s always going to music and hope and joy and observation, too.

Do you think having your Digable Planets personas — “Butterfly,” “Lady Mecca” and “Doodlebug” – helped you explore those political topics more easily, because you had this fantasy element while addressing reality at the same time?

That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that, but I can see that, yeah.

Considering that we’re still dealing with all of these political issues today, when you're outside of your music, are you or anyone else in the group involved in any movements concerning things like police brutality or race relations?

No, not in any other way than touring and traveling and speaking on it and bringing to audiences the ceremony of a concert and what’s transmitted and shared there. Hopefully that lends some energy to movements in some way.

I appreciate those who speak overtly or directly to those things, like...Black Lives Matter. But I don’t think that that stuff influences change from either the perpetrators or the victims.... My way of looking at things is that, for whoever is being oppressed, their course of action is to not resign themselves to the belief that their oppressor is supreme. In a sense, [this means] to not pay attention to their [oppressor’s] attempts. To understand it, yeah. To realize it, to reconcile it, yeah.... But to then try to appeal to it in any way is an acceptance of [the oppressor] that I don’t think is necessary.

Not to be down on anyone that is doing things that way, but I think that when you express yourself by disregarding the notion of supremacy, it’s more comprehensive.

So you’re saying that you prefer not to validate the power structure?

Right. Because when you’re saying, “Hey, this group is doing this and they’re doing that and nothing’s happening,” of course it isn’t! It never has, and it’s not going to.

Like, if you're the victim of corrupt policing and you don’t get killed, nobody’s going to know about that, or care, or post your name and picture up on social media. Let’s say you just get arrested wrongly, or you get beaten, or get a bone broken and teeth knocked out — that’s not on the news, but that’s happening who knows how often.

So it’s just difficult for me to pick the injustice and then ride out for it when it’s all so much deeper than that.

I don’t want to give the impression that people who do that aren’t valuable, because they definitely are, and we need them. But I just have a little bit of a different take on that.

Anything else you want to add, or are looking forward to before coming out to Denver?

I always like coming to Denver to perform. I live in Washington state, so I like the similarities between Colorado and Washington. We always have a good time, so I’m looking forward to it.

Digable Planets will headline the Gothic Theatre on Tuesday, August 16. The show is at 8 p.m, with Camp Lo supporting. Tickets start at $25.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker

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