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Digable Planets - Beyond the Spectrum

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Artist: Digable Planets

Album: Beyond the Spectrum

Label: Blue Note

Review date: Nov. 29, 2005

In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a few blocks off of the park, there’s a corner store that plays music late into the night, long after it closes its doors for business. The grooves that spill out of the speakers bolted to the outside wall typically fall on deaf ears except for the occasional wandering soul on the way to or from the train station. There’s not much rhyme or reason to keep a closed store’s stereo going on past 2am, but those who are around to hear the horn trills and brushed snares that dance across the night air, it’s as much a part of the neighborhood as the local bakery. A few weeks ago, it was Bird. The other night sounded like Dolphy, but it could have easily been Ornette. Last night was definitely Bill Evans.

Rewind to 1993, a year when the popularity of the jazz-inspired collective The Native Tongues was at its apex: Prince Paul was making some of the best beats of his career, Tribe seemed invincible, and somewhere in Chicago, a rapper named Common Sense was working fiercely on what would become his best record ever. Things were good, and about to get even better for the Digable Planets, who were set to release Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) behind their acclaimed first single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” Their deft use of Art Blakey’s horn sample would only be surpassed by the genius of Black Moon’s “I Got Ya Opin’ (Remix)” released later that year. Finger snaps and hi-hats warmly reverberate across a snug landscape adorned by the vocal deliveries of Butterfly, Doodlebug, and Ladybug. It sounds like it was recorded in a coffee house at an open mic night, and its vintage sound gives a refreshing definition of where hip-hop music draws its influences.

The Planets’ latest record, Beyond the Spectrum: The Creamy Spy Chronicles, reissues “Rebirth of Slick” as well as many other tracks from their early '90s catalog, spanning both Reachin’ and their sophomore record, Blowout Comb. The 12 tracks have all been remastered from the original versions and also include previously unavailable songs and remixes. Unfortunately, while remastering is a technically complicated process, it rarely affects the average listener on more than a marketing level, and it’s unlikely that the improved quality of the disc alone makes it a worthwhile venture.

Another unfortunate aspect of this anthology is the relatively small cross-section of tracks selected. For Digable fans, Spectrum is a welcome walk down memory lane, including maybe even a few head-nodding surprises, but there’s certainly not enough “previously unreleased” material here to quell the thirst for something new from the group. While this record might seem redundant to most die-hard fans that own the first two albums, it does serve as ample one-stop-shopping for the casually curious listener.

One of Spectrum’s highlights is the remix of “Where I’m From,” a darker reworking of the LP version, originally only available as the b-side to the original. Dissonant horn stabs delay from left to right while Butterfly reminisces: “Where I’m from, nappy hair is life / We be reading Marx where I'm from / The kids be rockin’ Clarks where I’m from / You turn around your cap, you talk over a beat / And dig some sounds boomin’ out a Jeep…” The track is one of the most nostalgic on the record, if not the genre, and it serves as much as a glance to the past as it does a hope for the future. In fact, a question likely to arise when one listens to Beyond is, “When are they going to put out something new?” Since the group’s break-up almost a decade ago, this question seemed more like a hopeless plea, sort of like wondering if MacGyver will ever come back on the air. But some of the rumors have been confirmed; the Digable Planets have recently reassembled for a few live shows and to work on new material.

Anthologies, greatest hits records and reissues often signal the workings of artists past their prime, clinging to the creative prowess they once possessed. This won’t likely be the case for the Planets, however, as those who were fortunate enough to see one of their handful of recent live shows can attest. Even if Beyond the Spectrum isn’t really that far beyond the well-traveled tracks, the nostalgia it presents is certainly worthwhile. And nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing; there are probably many nostalgic hip-hop fans who would be willing to rock cross-colors again if it would spark a renaissance of the vibrant music of a decade ago.

For now you can keep your Africa pendants in the drawer. But the Digable Planets will be back, and hopefully usher in a new decade of music not only remnant of “where they’re from” but where the genre should be heading. As for Spectrum, and the older tunes therein, the beats might be remastered, but the vibe has been there all along. At times it might have fell on deaf ears, but the beat was diligently present for the fanatics and wandering souls who just happened to be passing through.

By Chris Tabron

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