Ishmael Butler, better known as Butterfly from Digable Planets, is getting the Unsung treatment tonight, so we talk to him about his love of hip-hop, impact and more.
When Digable Planets (Butterfly, Ladybug and Doodlebug) dropped their first album, Reachin’ with the smash hit “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in 1993, they put black bohemian hip-hop on the map. Their follow-up singles “Where I’m From” and “Nickel Bags” showed their artistic and personal diversity. “9th Wonder” and “Dial 7” stretched them further musically and later Ishmael as a duo with Shabazz Palaces proved to be even more eclectic.
Digable Planets performed with live musicians and showed audiences that there isn’t any box that hip-hip should fit in. There wasn’t “conscious hip-hop” and “gangsta rap.” The group proved through their music and their style that they could be hardcore b-boys and b-girls, intellectuals, and party people all at the same time.
They weren’t afraid to take risks and change their music as they experimented. They changed their names as their music evolved: Butterfly (Ishmael Butler) became Ish, Ladybug (Mariana Vieira) became Mecca and Doodlebug (Craig Irving), a five-percenter, became Cee Knowledge. They all grew up in households shaped by the Black Liberation Movement: Mecca’s parents were active in the liberation movement in Brazil, Craig’s father was a member of the Black Panther Party and Ishmael’s parents participated in the Black Liberation Movement.
That ideology shaped much of their lyrics, in addition to being influenced musically by the psychedelic freedoms of artists like Sun Ra and George Clinton. They hailed from different parts of the country: Silver Spring, Maryland, Seattle, Washington, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, allowing for a diverse mix of musical influences.
The group only lasted for two albums, but their artistic impact on the genre was profound.
Ahead of their Unsung episode, which runs later today on TV One, Okayplayer talks to Ishmael Butler about a myriad of topics.
Okayplayer: Your father bought you a saxophone in the fifth grade. Were you playing it? Do you know how to read and play music?
Ishmael Butler: I did. I know how to, I can’t do it like I used to though. When I was playing in jazz bands I could. I stopped doing that in high school. We were playing jazz standards. The ones you would teach in school for up and coming musicians and people who were just learning their instruments.
OKP: What made you move into hip-hop?
IB: The way hip-hop seduced my generation. Everybody wanted to join in on this new wave of making music, I was no exception. My friend had leased this drum machine, so I just got enthralled with making hip-hop and it took over my life. I had a passion for it.
OKP: You interned at Sleeping Bag Records—when was that? Was it about the same time you met Craig?
IB: Maybe, yeah, in 1989. My grandmother, my aunties and my dad are from Philly, so I was always in Philly. Cee (Craig) was always coming to New York too. It was around that time I met him.
I met everybody there at Sleeping Bag [Records]. Just Ice, Nice-n-Smooth, T La Rock. I was an errand boy, a gopher. Back then we would press up white labels for promotion and I would go deliver them to deejays and clubs and radio stations.
That’s where I met the guy with the studio where I ended up recording the first Digable [Planets] album in. He worked with me at Sleeping Bag. It was definitely about finding a way into the music business for myself.
OKP: What was the Philly hip-hop scene like at the time?
IB: Steady B, Hilltop Hustlers, Three Times Dope and a lot of other people that never got super famous, but they were big in Philly, on mix shows. I was living on 51st and Locust in West Philly and going downtown and hanging at the Gallery a lot and at the Plateau. At the Limelight.
OKP: Do you remember where you met Craig?
IB: I just remember the day I asked him did he want to be in the group with me that was at the Gallery. He was rapping with Dead Poets Society.
OKP: You both had similar backgrounds—your family was in the Black Liberation movement and his father was a Black Panther. Did you connect on that as well?
IB: Yeah, it was clear that we were family in that sense. A lot of kids our age have a similar upbringing in the liberation struggle—some people joined the Black Panthers but that wasn’t the only outlet for that sentiment. We came from that era when that was just how you got down and we were the next generation that followed that, so it’s deeply ingrained in our DNA and our social outlook. Then when Public Enemy came about—even if you weren’t into Public Enemy a lot of the rappers were wearing African medallions: Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest—people were just more aware and it had more of a community feeling. The focus on the individual hadn’t really happened yet, like you’re feeling right now.
OKP: Craig and Mecca were dating at the time was that awkward in terms of being in the group?
IB: No, they didn’t stay together, but it wasn’t no drama.
OKP: How did you come up with the name Digable Planets?
IB: I was basically thinking the music we made was something people could dig, so Digable. I was listening to a lot of George Clinton and Sun Ra, so I was on some space shit, cosmic. I was thinking of each person as a planet, we are all in a solar system, a galaxy and trying to orbit around each other. That was my imagination for those words.
OKP: Who put you on to Sun Ra?
IB: My dad is from Philly and Sun Ra, he had a house in Philly. A lot of musicians lived there.
OKP: Talk about the ‘90s scene in hip-hop.
IB: If you think about all that rap has really become…all of that was not something that was predicted, as a matter of fact, it was the odds on [belief] that it wasn’t going to last. In the face of that, this very energetic, passionate, unstoppable force was being created that would end up being everything that it is now, but at the time it was kind of rap against the world. At the time it didn’t serve you well to sound like someone else. Originality was the thing that got you on. With that being the atmosphere it was a bunch of different shit that was coming out. All these crazy ideas that black youth was coming out with and expressing—it wasn’t homogenous like it is now. Back then you could tell a North Philly cat from a South Philly cat by the way they walked, talked, dressed. It was like cultural utopia. And it was consciousness and art. It was just like being alive during a renaissance. It was magical.
OKP: What’s the connection between what our parents did and what we ended up doing?
IB: They basically paved the way for the notions and the energy that made hip-hop possible by determining their own destinies and feeling like that was the only thing that mattered. We came along and we enjoyed the fruits of that. One of the fruits of that was the notion that self-expression was our domain and we deserved it and it was incumbent upon us to exercise those freedoms and rights that they had fought for in some way. And look what you got… hip-hop that came along and rearranged the world.
OKP: Talk about your group Shabazz Palaces.
IB: As the years went on and having different incarnations and ideas about music and going through periods of time where I didn’t think I would make music for commercial release again, I was still making music. Out of that time came Shabazz Palaces. My friend in the group, he heard what I was doing around 2008-2009 and he was like you should put this out.
OKP: Talk about doing A&R at Sub-Pop now and what kind of artists are you looking for?
IB: All kinds. I signed one hip-hop artist from Seattle, Porter Ray, a dope lyricist. He’s got an album called Water Colors that will be out later this year. Another brother out of Jacksonville, Florida, named Yuno. He’s a singer-songwriter. He started releasing songs this year and he’s doing really well. I’m looking for brothers and sisters that I really like their music and their approach and I can feel their passion and energy and it comes out in some creative and unique ways. It doesn’t matter the genre.
OKP: Back in the day you had to mail in your demo, is that correct?
IB: You couldn’t have one foot in and one foot out back then. You had to be committed to getting a record heard. When I got a deal I was literally going to the offices and sitting in the front at the reception desk. You had to finesse your way into get heard.
OKP: What do you think about the current artists in hip-hop?
IB: I like it. The problem I have with it is more the problem I have with everything in America. It is very self-centered and materialistic and, of course, that’s gonna trickle down to the art. But I don’t get stuck with my involvement with the past, I like the new stuff. I find beauty and power a lot in these expressions. Not to say that there isn’t a lot of bullshit. But think about what they thought about what we was doing. They were saying this ain’t music [laughs].
Tune in to Unsung on TV One on Sunday, June 3, at 9:00 p.m EST / 8:00 p.m. CT, and learn all about this hip-hop savant during his prime.
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor, and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.