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Former Digable Planets Frontman Surfaces With Cherrywine

It's been almost 10 years since Digable Planets released their second and final album, Blowout Comb (Pendulum Records, 1994), a classic that wrapped its pro-black politics in some of the funkiest beats of its time. That album followed their Grammy-winning debut, Reachin' (a new refutation of time and space) (Pendulum, 1993), a worthy successor to A Tribe Called Quest's hip-hop breakthrough The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991).

Many hip-hop groups come and go and most, like Tribe and De La — those who should have quit when they were still sharp — overstayed their welcome. Few leave with legions of fans wondering "What's next?" Digable Planets did. Those fans have been left hanging for nearly a decade.

Now, the group's frontman, Ishmael Butler, has finally returned with a new persona, Cherrywine, and a new album, Bright Black (Dcide, 2003).

During a recent interview, Butler was reluctant to talk about the breakup of Digable Planets and those "missing" years. He wanted to talk about what's going on now, not then. He mentioned, several times, in different contexts, that things aren't going back to where they once were. He was speaking of hip-hop, but also of his music, and how he's clearly more interested in the new direction he's taken. There were some personal conflicts alluded to but he wouldn't get specific. I gathered that New York had stung him and, when Digable Planets ended, he was ready to go home to family and friends, in his native Seattle.

Butler said it was his mother and his family that brought him back to the West Coast. "I had been gone for more than 10 years and I just wanted to come back and be around her [his mother]," Butler said during a recent interview. "And my daughter's here, too, so that was first and foremost.... I just wanted to come back home."

Butler's publicist, Alexandra Greenberg of the Mitch Schneider Organization, said that the breakup of Digable Planets was "due to creative differences — I think they just were all seeing things differently by then."

While Digable Planets' work was characterized by its relationship to jazz, Cherrywine, a huge departure, finds its muse in funk, in crunchy guitar licks and spacey synths. It's closer to OutKast than Tribe. Butler's delivery, however, is unmistakable, and still comes in a seemingly effortless flow — especially on tracks like "What I'm Talking," the album's first.

With the album just out and a summer tour looming, Butler, just off a mini-tour and contacted in Seattle, was enthusiastic about Cherrywine and reflective about the current state of hip-hop and music and politics in a post-9/11 environment.

In comparing his earlier work with Digable Planets to his current recordings with Cherrywine, the biggest difference is the movement from a sample-based sound to a looser live band. Even when musicians were used on Digable recordings it was more in the context of producing live loops. With Cherrywine the music is more linear than cyclical.

"After the Digable Planets stuff," Butler said, "I spent a couple years in film school. And then I worked with musicians to sort-of sound stuff out to them and try to get my musical ideas across vocally and then have them duplicate it on their instruments. I just wanted to cut that middleman out. Not that I can do everything I hear in my head yet, but I will be able to eventually.... I just wanted to play and have fun and be able to have that skill."

In terms of a tone-change in his work, from the lightness of Reachin'... to the edgier, darker Bright Black, Butler said, "Yeah, I went through a lot of stuff. But whenever stuff goes bad I never think that something's happened to me, but I always think of it as something that's happened in the world and it's a fact and I kind of just go on from there."

While Butler insists he doesn't consider things too much, his sensitivity to the changes over the past 10 years, both political and cultural, is integral to this new album. He spoke of a pervasive gluttony in this country. "America is overcrowded in everything because everybody's trying to make a buck and trying to hit a quick lick and sell something," he said. "So I think a lot of that is sort of underlying; it's not really a bitterness, I'm not really upset, or even calling 'bullshit' on anything, but you live in the world, and I have to deal with my desires, my wants and my needs and how they bump up against what I consider being right and wrong. Or excess. Or ridiculous. And when I make my music I think that all that comes out.

"I never sit down and have sessions with myself and assess where I am and how I'm feeling. It's more that I might think about a situation — something about love or family — and I never think, 'Oh, OK, I'm about to go make a song about this'. You can see that my songs never really have a really linear subject matter. It's all about creating an overall feeling and picture from the music and lyrics."

Asked to speak to this process and how it applies specifically to "See for Miles," one of the album's most unsettling tracks, a paranoid jam riddled with references to cocaine and its effects, spread over stinging guitars, Butler opened up. "That was kind of a reaction, or action, based on what was going on after September 11. Just how so quickly September 11 sort of became a commercial for the 'new America' and the Bush Administration. And it started to justify everything that was going on. And what they had planned for us.

"The first verse is about people getting things that they don't deserve by putting people in a jam, in a situation where they can't say no," he continued. "We just seem to want to be able to finagle our way into things rather than earn it. Placing ourselves in a situation where we have leverage on something to where they can't deny us what we want. And that to me is like that gratification of a cocaine experience, you know, when you get high and you think everything is possible and you're capable of everything, and there were just a lot of parallels. And the sound was ominous and foreboding so that kind of had that element of cocaine, too, and also exciting at the same time and somewhat enigmatic."

Regarding the music industry and how hip-hop's changed since Blowout Comb — a release which marked the end of Butler's major label tenure — he spoke, without bitterness, about how the business, and hip-hop specifically, has become overrun with shady characters more intent upon hustling than making good music.

"I think hip-hop was taken over by, literally, by hustlers and people that had experience in hustling products — whether it was drugs or clothes or guns in the street — and also, administratively, there was a hustler's mentality in terms of labels," he said. "Producing massive amounts of shit and just getting it out there and trying to sell it, trying to make something hit. So I just think that changed everything around.

"Back in those days, with Digables, being successful was kind of like a curse. Being successful, being a pop sort of group, meant that you were liked by people that hip-hop cats didn't feel were valid and legit. Whether that's right or wrong, I don't really know. It did have a sort of self-policing atmosphere that I thought was healthy, and that just isn't there anymore."

With Butler having been there for what many fans consider the most fertile period in hip-hop (late '80s-early '90s and groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy, EPMD, Beastie Boys, Gang Starr, all at full strength, releasing one classic after another) I was curious what his take was on the newer guys' acceptance of sacrificing street credibility for a Coke commercial and a paycheck.

"If you're doing good, you're making money, who cares how your music sounds? People like you, you're cool," Butler said, with a laugh. "It's hard to know what's going through these cats' minds.... There's a lot of shit influencing your decisions and most of it is financial. You get cats telling you it's a Coke commercial but it's going to be a black director and it's going to have a really positive theme, in a club. And it's really clichéd and watered down and a poor representation of African-Americans that furthers stereotypes, but shit is happening so fast for these cats. It's hard for me to call 'bullshit' on it. I don't really know where they're coming from.

"But it's over now," he continued. "There's not going to be no revolutionary turnaround and things are all going to change and hip-hop's going to go back to those days. I think we're in a spiral that can't be turned back. And I think these guys know that and they're just like, 'Fuck it.' And it's sad, but that's the reality of it. I don't really know what to make of it — it's a watered-down, diluted thing.

"But once that happens," Butler said, sounding more hopeful, "underground shit pops up. Cats are going to keep some subversive shit going. I'm definitely not opposed to progress. Like I'm not down with these cats that are like, 'What's up with the Cherrywine?' They want shit to sound like it sounded in '93 and I'm like, that's not hip-hop. That's more Jesse Helms than anything, you know, to be a conservative about shit. C'mon man, let's move forward.

"To be a revolutionary now, we got to come up with a way to undermine this popular music shit. And all the stuff we do in that direction lays the groundwork just like the groundwork was laid for the way stuff is now. But it's not going to be through that old-fashioned shit like talking about 'Keeping It Real' and going to the underground clubs. You've got to really put your shit on the line, otherwise you're not going to have an effect, 'cause it's too big. In order to get at this music stuff now, cats have to come up with a way to undermine them. To sell records, to become popular, to have credibility and to generate funds."

Butler said he's discouraged by the care artists must now take in expressing their political and social views. "It's real scary, man. Not only what we're doing, what the government is doing, but just the shit muthafuckas are choosing to accept. I mean, to this day, Bush has said the reason they attacked was they don't like our freedom. Like everything that's gone on is based on that. Like your whole foreign policy is to just blow muthafuckas up that don't agree with you whether you even fucking know who they are or not," Butler said, disgustedly.

"And we, the people in America, have bought that shit. That's not the reason that shit happened. If you start a relationship with somebody based on a lie and you keep going on for years and years, that's terrible. In the end, whatever happens between the two of you is going to be horrible. That's kind of where we are now with the war in Afghanistan and then Iraq. There's nothing being resolved, nothing being solved except these cats are going and making more money. So it's gonna get hard. It's gonna get hard to say things that are anti-government. It's gonna get hard to make things like records and films. Censorship is a real thing, man. It always has been, but now it's just over the top." — Jesse Zeifman [Monday, June 9, 2003]

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