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
Who’s hot in Philly hip-hop right now? That’s the perilous question we asked ourselves at the beginning of a long journey. It’s impossible to answer. Or, more to the point, impossible to answer succinctly. The list is lonnnnnng. So we’ve broken it down.
“Jahlil Beats. Holla at me!” If you didn’t hear those words kick off a song last year, you didn’t listen to rap music. There was no escaping it—the club, the car, the street—especially in Philadelphia.
“People always ask why I ain’t got a girlfriend,” says Young Chris during a break from working in a Northern Liberties studio. “I tell ’em, ‘Yo, rap’s my girlfriend.’” The North Philly-born rapper’s been devoted to the game since the early 2000s, when his Young Gunz duo with MC Neef Buck was signed by Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, and their first single, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” was nominated for a Grammy in 2003.
Perhaps change will come this year, as several female rappers are gaining momentum. Harlemite Azealia Banks’ “212” displays the 20-year old’s impressive range and skill, and White Girl Mob leader Kreayshawn definitely has more than the “Gucci Gucci” meme hidden up the sleeve of her baggy Fred Flintstone jacket. Will these ladies threaten Nicki Minaj’s queen-status in 2012? Maybe. The only thing that could hold ’em back are the dick-centric rap fans and critics who guard the gates.
In hip-hop, many of today’s rappers are putting out three or four or 40 releases a year. They’re shooting and editing their own videos. They’re their own publicity firm. They’re booking their own shows. They’re working smarter and harder than ever before, and doing it independently. And perhaps no Philly hip-hop act exemplifies this DIY spirit more than young upstarts Ground Up. They’re their own insulated, independent music universe.
Books are mostly how he makes his living, but the heart of Bookman’s street vendor operation, located just outside 52nd Street Station at 52nd and Market, is hip-hop. Most days, he’s bumpin’ beats from his tabletop rig—a CD player and speakers powered by a car battery. And those in the know know Bookman’s the man when it comes to getting your hands on the latest, greatest mixtape to hit the streets. Albums are nice, but underground mixtapes (they’re CDs, but the classic nomenclature sticks) have been the life-blood of hip-hop for ages.
PW's Music Issue 2014