Digable Planets’ Cee Knowledge on the Trio’s Reunion
Digable Planets: Craig Irving, Mary Ann Vieira, and Ishmael Butler
In the early nineties, a sharp young trio of Brooklyn dwellers — dubbed Digable Planets — brought jazz-laced hip-hop and interplanetary rhymes to us earthlings. While they emerged in the same golden age that bred De La Soul and Arrested Development, Digable Planets outshone many of their contemporaries through their prescient songs about reproductive rights and racially fueled violence. They also weren’t afraid to get weird: Their "Insect Theory" and a story line about the trio as "Creamy Spies" are integral to their albums.
The Planets parted ways after the release of their sprawling 1994 album, Blowout Comb, and briefly reunited in 2005. Now, the classic lineup of Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira, Craig "Doodlebug" Irving, and Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, are embarking on their first tour together in eleven years, performing tracks from Blowout Comb and their debut, Reachin’. In the interim, they’ve each been pursuing their own formidable musical endeavors, with Butler helming one half of Shabazz Palaces; Vieira leading BROOKZILL! along with Prince Paul, Don Newkirk, and Rodrigo Brandão: and Irving returning to space with his own group, the Cosmic Funk Orchestra.
Ahead of the trio’s performance at Prospect Park’s Celebrate Brooklyn! on Saturday, we caught up with Craig "Doodlebug" Irving (who now goes by Cee Knowledge) to talk about the reunion, Digable Planets’ immortality, and the comic book series he’s now working on.
Did you ever think the Planets would realign right now, in 2016?
I always held on to hope. Every once in a while we’d bring up the idea but we never followed through, because other things were pertinent in our lives at the time. I guess 2016 just was the right time, the right place, the right space in time. Everything converged. I’m happy that people still hear what we’ve got to say and are excited about it. It makes us excited, you know what I’m saying?
Are you excited to return to your old stomping grounds, in Fort Greene?
It’s going to be good. It’s going to complete the trinity. We were in D.C., where I lived for a while. Tomorrow night we’re going to be in Philadelphia, which is where I was born and raised. Then Saturday is Brooklyn, where I was raised musically, and helped shape who I am today. It’s great going back to all those places that had a major impact in shaping in who I am as an MC and a person.
Do you have specific spots you’re looking forward to revisiting in Brooklyn, or is it mostly the show you’re doing this time?
I got friends I’m going to check out in Fort Greene, Williamsburg, Flatbush. I’m walking around the old neighborhood, seeing what it looks like.
Every city I’ve gone to has just changed so crazy. Gentrification is mad real. It’s a whole new city! We walked through Adams Morgan [in D.C.] yesterday, Chinatown area, Northwest, Southeast. I was like, wow! I’m seeing people walk next to areas that used to be the drug market, these crazy fly futuristic Jetsons-looking buildings and shit. I can’t even imagine what Brooklyn looks like right now.
Is that a bittersweet thing, walking around your old neighborhood in Fort Greene?
A little bit. It’s good to see progress, but you don’t want to see progress at the expense of other people. That’s a hard balance to make, you know what I mean? I’m not a businessman, so I’m not looking at it from a real estate investor perspective. I’m just looking at it from the perspective of another human being. They’re not thinking about other people. They’re thinking about money.
On a lighter note, I often think of the ethos in Digable Planets’ "Creamy Spy Theme," in that you say the "cream always rises." Do you feel that way, given that the barrier to entry has been broken to making music? Is it harder for the cream to rise because there’s just so much out there?
In a way it’s a gift and a curse, this breaking down the barriers. Now it’s allowing people that never had the opportunity to get heard worldwide. But now the curse is that we’re so inundated, it’s so hard to keep up with everybody.
I think you as an artist have to figure out how to market yourself, how to promote yourself, figure out your niche market, get to those people. And some people are better artists than marketers, so they don’t get heard. They get lost in the sauce. And some people are better marketers than artists, and they get all out there.
Your Creamy Spy name is Agent Duke Togo Renegade. Where is that from?
[Laughs] It’s Creamy Spy Agent Duke Togo. Duke Togo was a character from a classic Japanese animation cartoon called Golgo 13. That was his code name, and Duke Togo was his real name. He was almost like a super James Bond–type dude. I related to him on an animated, fun, hyped-up kind of level. We try to find different things that illustrate your wild style or wild flow. That character just resonated with me. You gotta see the cartoon; the cartoon is a beast.
So I guess people don’t call you Doodlebug anymore much these days?
Yeah. People who know me from the group say that. Most people call me Cee, or Cee-Know. Or if they really really know me, they call me Craig.
I heard you’re writing a comic, The Epic of Heaven and Earth. Can you tell me about it?
It’s a comic book based on the story line of Afronauts versus the Wretchin. The Afronauts are the protagonists of this place called the seventh dimension. Wretchin are this evil entity based off of corporations. They just want to collect things. [There’s also] a big twelve-member council of monks, who protect something called the twelve jewels. And the Wretchin think those are actual jewels, things that are worth money. But it’s just information — knowledge worthy of understanding. So they’re on a quest to try and catch and conquer the seventh dimension and try and gather the twelve jewels.
A lot of the characters are based on musicians and friends of mine in the music world I know. I’ve been working on it for years. I’ve always loved comic books, graphic novels, animation. But hopefully next year we can let the world see what we got. I’m not trying to rush it, because I want it to be right.
Are Digable Planets members characters in the comic?
Oh, no doubt! I mean, the Creamy Spy Agency is a real thing in this comic book. And we’re the main Creamy Spy Agents. We’re like the veterans. I based a lot of our history in the music industry in the comic book; it’s related.
So what is your superpower?
I’m kind of like a Yoda type. I have martial arts skills, ESP like Professor X, on that. I’m like the older veteran character. The storyline goes back and forth. It starts in the here and now, but it tells stories of the old days of the Creamy Spy Agents and the seventh dimension and how the war started between the Afronauts and the Wretchin, and myself, Butterfly, and Ladybug are veterans who were old-school, on the front lines of the heyday of the revolution, when the Wretchin were trying to conquer.
And in the here and now, we’re trying to recruit and train new Afronauts and Creamy Spy agents. So that’s basically my role in it, and trying to develop new, younger characters and honing new talent. New MCs. But you also want them to be privy to your experiences.
Do you have any recurring dreams?
Why you getting deep? You getting like Dr. Phil on me here. I have a dream where I’m flying around and saving the world. I don’t know why I always have that. I don’t know if it’s because of my fascination with comic books and superheroes, but I definitely have those dreams a lot.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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