Digable Planets' Craig Irving Makes His Comeback as Cee-Knowledge

By Elliott Sharp
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Jan. 18, 2012

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Photo by ryan strand

Craig Irving didn’t grab the mic until his freshman year of college at Howard University. There, he met a Philly kid named DJ Trouble Trev and they started a group called the O.S.A.G.E. (Out for Sex And Gettin’ Exotic) Crew, named after the West Philly street where the MOVE house was bombed in 1985.

After graduation, Irving returned home to Philly—where, as a teen in the ’80s, he’d tape Lady B’s rap radio shows—and met a like-minded MC named Ishmael Butler who was living with his grandmother near West Oak Lane and working at Reading Terminal. “We sat around my grandmother’s house [in Germantown] listening to music for hours,” says Irving, then a member of the Dread Poet’s Society.

Soon after, Irving became Doodlebug. Ishmael became Butterfly. Mary Ann Vieira, an MC who was Irving’s girlfriend at the time, became Ladybug. Digable Planets was born.

The standard Planets narrative glosses over Irving’s Philly connection. But the trio’s jazz and soul- powered debut, 1993’s Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), carries the torch of the city’s frequently under-appreciated black music history. Burning throughout it are the sounds of Philly jazz cats Lee Morgan and John Coltrane, the intergalactic Afrotopia of Sun Ra Arkestra, Kenneth Gamble’s and Leon Huff’s soul, and Philly’s thriving 1980s hip-hop spirit. Planets settled in New York City, and their tongue-twisting verses frequently referenced Brooklyn, but Doodlebug ensured that Philly blood flowed through the Insect Tribe’s veins.

Beating out Snoop Doggy Dogg & Dr. Dre, Arrested Development, Naughty By Nature and Cypress Hill, Planets won the 1993 Grammy for Best Rap Performance By a Duo or Group for the hit song “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” If you’re alive right now, you know the hook.

Planets dropped Blowout Comb the next year. It was as smooth as Reachin’, more funky than jazzy, but significantly gloomier and overtly militant—it marked the death of slick and the rebirth of Huey Newton. It didn’t take off like Reachin’. Perhaps it was too politically radical at a time when gangster-rap was all the rage, or maybe it was the lack of a promotional push from Pendulum/Elektra, whose partnership deteriorated leading up to the release date. Citing “creative differences,” Planets split in 1995.

“We went our separate ways,” says Irving. “I didn’t know what to do. I stopped making music, cut my dreads and considered getting a real job ... But then I started gettin’ that music feeling again.”

Now calling himself Cee-Knowledge (he’d done so at least as early as Blowout), Irving reappeared in Philly in the early 2000s. In 2001, he visited the Sun Ra house in Germantown for the first time, and collaborated with Marshall Allen and other Arkestra members on a 12-inch called Space Is The Place.

Picking up where Blowout left off, the tracks kicked ethereal vibes and live jazz-funk instrumentation over which Cee dropped knowledge about “space hustles” and saving planet Earth.

A surprise phone call in 2005 led to Planets’ first reunion, and dates in Europe and the U.S. followed, including sets at the Coachella and Lollapalooza music festivals. “I was shocked people remembered us,” Irving says. “Everyone normally jumps onto the next trend quick, but people were still hungry for our sound.” The demand was there, but Planets once again imploded after a backstage blowout at Red Bull’s Big Tune producer competition in 2008.

Back in his hometown of Seattle, Butterfly/Butler began making music as Shabazz Palaces. He signed with Sub Pop, and released Black Up last year. A heady, Afro-futurist collage, it was far-out and psychedelic—an experimental hip-hop album praised by both indie and hip-hop critics. A few months later, Cee-Knowledge also released his strongest post-Planets album yet, Futuristic Sci-Fi, which combined spaced-out experimentation and Golden Age swagger. Both albums had Planets written all over them.

Critics overlooked the way-underground Futuristic, but Black Up got Planets buzzing again in the press. The Internet exploded at the close of 2011 with rumors that Planets were uniting for a new studio album. While talks are underway, nothing’s confirmed. “I’m down, no doubt,” says Irving about another reunion. “Planets was the best time of my life, but a gift and a curse. As a musician, I wanna spread my wings and not always be stuck as ‘that Digable Planets dude.’ I wanna try new things and experiment.”

It’s uncertain whether a Planets tour and new album will transpire, but Irving’s definitely back, and his live hip-hop group, the Cosmic Funk Orchestra, is almost finished recording their debut album.

“I’m trying to get my foothold back on the Philly scene again,” he says. “The 215 makes me who I am. I’ve lived in a few places, but no matter where I was, Philly was always in me. I took Philly everywhere I went. My music’s always been rooted here.”

Follow Cee-Knowledge on Twitter @ceeknowledge

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Comments 1 - 4 of 4
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1. Victor Shade said... on Jan 18, 2012 at 02:05PM

“hey i love Digable Planets and i can't wait for the reunion plus Cee Knowledge solo projects are hot. His Seven n a Crescent crew (CFO) Cosmic Funk All stars have a great show and thought provoking lyrics. Their first solo album The Intifada (Uprising) had me ready to fight the power but The recent release of Futuristic Sci-Fi is musically phenomenal i love it!!! Go and get it or download it now you wont be disappointed believe dat.. PEACE”

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2. Anonymous said... on Jan 18, 2012 at 02:11PM

“hey i love Digable Planets and i can't wait for the reunion plus Cee Knowledge solo projects are hot. His Seven n a Crescent crew (CFO) Cosmic Funk All stars have a great show and thought provoking lyrics. Their first solo album The Intifada (Uprising) had me ready to fight the power but The recent release of Futuristic Sci-Fi is musically phenomenal i love it!!! Go and get it or download it now you wont be disappointed believe dat.. PEACE”

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3. MyHBCUInterview said... on Jan 19, 2012 at 07:37AM

“We are glad to hear that Howard University had a hand in crafting your greatness Mr. Irving!”

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4. Nicolette Poore said... on Jan 24, 2012 at 10:19AM

“i love Cee Knowledge's music and he is not too bad to look at either lol...i got all his indie releases and i look forward to his new music with his band the Cosmic Funk Orchestra and of course i am a fan of his group the Digable Planets who i think helped change the landscape of hip hop when they released "Rebirth of Slick" in the 90's...its about time Philly showed him and his music some love!!!!”

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