Stream: Digable Planets “The Art Of Easing”
Guru’s “Loungin'” portrayed the act of coolin’ out to mellow music as a therapeutic form of recreation shortly after Digable Planets’ own “Rebirth of Slick” drew a line connecting the bop and splendor of the great jazz players to the swagger and lingo of new school rappers. In his early career, Guru, presumably inspired by KRS-One’s advocacy of the rapper as an enlightened teacher of humanist philosophy, was an ardent champion of a rap version of “the life of the mind.” The second Gang Starr album Step In The Arena theorizes a a tough love teaching approach, whereby vanquished contenders humbly take on the role of students, contributing to their self-improvement by gradually mastering the superior poetic techniques and ethics of a victorious instructor. The Digable Planets debut Reachin’ was less committed to didacticism but similarly committed to espousing thoughtfulness as the eminent attribute of a respected emcee.
When Guru branched off into his first Jazzmatazz project, he downplayed the competitive aspect of this process, opening enrollment to his new agey seminar on blissful living to anyone who could get down with the tepid blend of retro-funk, hip hop, and soul-jazz he pushed. Between their Reachin’ and their sophomore effort Blowout Comb, Digable Planets made a move that was nearly opposite, graduating from a Native Tongue inspired program of mind expansion into a politically militant, metaphorically dense lyrical style. Guru’s Jazzmatazz production is understated —almost to the point of soporific— in comparison to DJ Premier’s work on the Gang Starr albums. Blowout Comb, however is funkier and in its own way sharper and more aggressive than Reachin’.
Even though some songs on Blowout Comb are laid back and almost ethereal, the sophisticated rhetoric of the lyrics gives the music an extra palpable force. This is nowhere more evident than on “The Art Of Easing.”
While other songs on Blowout Comb pulse with urgency or blur into a twisted lullaby haze, “The Art Of Easing” is smooth and complex, and announces itself quite literally as such in its opening ad-libs, risking a descent into self-parody. Helmed by nearly any other rap group, the song might be written off as overly slick or cool, but the sitar (or guitar played to sound like a sitar?) sounds lend an initially jarring but ultimately satisfying quirkiness to the sample of the swanky opening bars of Bobbi Humphrey’s “Blacks and Blues.”
From the outset you know that this isn’t your typical Digable joint, let alone your everyday rap song; Cee Know and Mecca are on hand to deliver a few short bursts of rhymes that bookend Ish’s verses, as if humbly helping to focus the listener’s attention on their brother’s elaborate summation of the group’s interests and obsessions. Mecca’s celebratory outro leads into Ish’s version of a military briefing, in which we are encouraged to pursue temporary uniformity of purpose without sacrificing individuality by mixing and matching camo and ‘Lo.
Cee Know eases into his part, performing a stripped-down version of the type of verses Ish kicks throughout the album, announcing plainly but effectively that “the feeling’s right/ the music’s tight.” Ish takes us on a journey through the five boroughs, but he is not describing carefree carousal or posturing for its own sake; his limp, his stance, his Timberlands, his army suit, etc. exist within the living folds of New York City’s black history, within an order he imagines. He voyages through New York City to trace cultural roots that the ’89 school of rap linked all the way back to Africa.
Ish pleads his fellow New Yorkers to ease up, to stop and contemplate the present as a condition rooted in a past that for better or for worse has never been shaken off, right where we stand, right now, where Malcolm X once stood. The progression from chattel slavery to national consciousness (“Imported onto ships with irons around the fist/ graduate to afros, black cats, and fist picks”) is not a minor feat entombed in yellowing parchment. Easing is not the act of a self-indulgent spa goer, nor is represented by a stuffy buttoned down bourgeois affair or the frivolous stroll of youth. The complexity announced at the beginning of the song takes the shape of a verbal jaunt across epochs of cultural assertion and resistance; double and triple meanings point to an active, muscular mind at play.
Growing up in Seattle’s Central District, Ish learned about jazz and black power from his older relatives, and eventually incorporated the imagery and vernacular of these movements into the new school rap styles he knew to be just as expressive and magnetic. As he saw it, he subversive genius of black music and slang wasn’t cryptically exclusive, merely layered and lived-in. You do not have to be aware of the 5%er Supreme Alphabet to understand that “old earth gave me kisses to her culture power records” is some fly shit to say right after “freedom had a pistol” (think 45 rpm and .45 caliber) but if you take the time to flesh out the entire meaning at your leisure, worlds upon worlds open up. — Thun