The Flow Of Music: 25 Years Since Reachin' And Ishmael Butler Is Still Working With Friends

Jake Uitti
Photo by Jim Bennett

On February 9th, 1993, the New York-based hip-hop group, Digable Planets, released their debut LP, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) on Pendulum/Elektra Records. A few months prior, in November of 1992, the group released the album’s debut single, “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” one of the world’s greatest and chillest tracks. Featuring a walking bass line, smooth and mellow voices and an overarching thoughtful atmosphere, the song has lived on in the heads of rap fans ever since. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of Reachin’, Light in the Attic Records, has issued a vinyl release of the classic record. And to celebrate that landmark, we thought it best to talk with Digable’s front man, Ishmael Butler, about the making of Reachin’ and what it’s like having written one of the greatest rap lyrics of all time.

What did your workspace look like when you were making Reachin’?

Reachin’ started out on demos for Digable Planets back when I was working at Sleeping Bag Records in New York. One of my coworkers had a studio in Astoria, Queens and I used to ride the train out to his house, much to his girlfriend’s chagrin. I spent a lot of time out there. He had a really advanced home studio for that time - we’re talking 1990, 1989. He was a producer, played guitar and he sang. But he let me come in and he had this room off to the side dedicated to his studio. He taught me how to use all the machines, I had all these ideas for songs and he let me into the studio, and with his help I got ‘em down.

I secured the record deal with Pendulum before I actually met Knowledge [aka Craig “Doodlebug” Irving] and Mecca [aka Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira]. It was a long time in between getting the promise that Pendulum wanted to sign Digable and doing it. In that time, I had two different group members with me, but they left. They didn’t think it was going to happen, which I understood. Then I met Knowledge. I saw him around and he was this popular dude, throwing parties in the D.C.-Philly area. He was a smooth guy. I wanted him to be in the group and he knew Mecca.

We ended up signing a deal with Pendulum in like 1992 and went out to record in this home studio in Jersey. There was this whole apartment dedicated to the studio - keyboard, drum machine, sampler and they had a closet for the mic booth. That’s when we hammered out the songs for Reachin’.

What did it feel like when you went to record?

I had been developing the concept and, like, living with the dream for many years. So, I had all of that stuff really ready. It was sort of of this young mind that hadn’t been influenced or tainted by anything in the industry. Just like, “Wow, I’m really going to get a chance to flesh out these ideas I’ve been having for years?”

What did it feel like you were making at the time?

Well, I thought we were making something that was going to be competitive with the contemporary music from the genre that we were jumping into. You couldn’t, at that time, have any inkling of what kind of success you could possibly have. Even if you were at a major label, which we kind of weren’t, we were on a subsidiary. And the rap game was kind of new in terms of labels, as well. When you’re making it, you don’t have any idea at all of what’s going to happen. But I felt like, yeah, I’m ready to show this and be in competition with the other stuff out there.

Do you remember what you did the night you won the Grammy?

My mother and father were in town. We were staying at a really nice hotel close to Radio City. And we went to the after party at MoMA. I hung out with my parents and the group and their parents. We shwanked it up for the night, man! Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Juliet Lewis, Bono were there. It was a serious swank event. We just kicked it.


What does it feel like to have one of the greatest lyrics in hip-hop: “We be to rap what key be to lock”?

I always say that later on in my life I’m going to start a campaign in which I claim to be the Undisputed 26th Best Rapper Of All Time and dare anybody to come up with any evidence to disclaim that! But, it’s cool. I love rap. It was something that, like, really grasped my imagination and the possibility of life for me at a young age. I was familiar enough with music when I was young; I was already playing the saxophone. I loved music. I knew all the jingles and sit-com songs. I had a predisposition to love music. But when rap came along, it solidified that and blazed a path and a horizon for me. I’ve been lucky. Rap did a lot for me. So, to have a line like that is, I don’t know what to say, I can’t even believe it. But I’m happy, you know?

Before the reissue, did you find yourself thinking about Reachin’ often?

It’s a big part of my life and there are always memories and references to it, whether you pursue it or not. And there’s subconscious things. Situations change, you know, and that brings that time back in your life. Yeah, it’s huge in my mind.

You’ve been a mentor to many musicians in the city. What makes you want to reach out in that way?

I see people that are amazing to me and have talent and passion, ingenuity, drive and, you know, if I feel like I can help to do for them and let their music get to the people and have them feel the way they made me feel - it’s not necessarily a duty, but if you have the means to do that, then I don’t understand why you wouldn’t. I want people to feel the way I felt when I heard it. If it takes helping to get more exposure to it - whatever I can do, I try. Someone heard my music and did that for me. It’s the way music goes. It’s this selfless, giving kind of thing. Obviously, commerce and marketing have changed that. But, at its core, it’s about a flow. I’m lucky to be a part of it.

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