Jazz-rap pioneer Cee Knowledge returns
Even today, it’s one of the most recognizable bass lines in the hip-hop canon — the slinky, undeniably funky riff nicked from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger’s 1978 jam “Stretching” that formed the bedrock of Digable Planet’s 1993 Grammy-winning crossover smash Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat). The trio’s critical and commercial success with that song now denotes the high-water mark for the uplifting, socially conscious brand of jazz rap that they and other groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul pioneered.
Sadly, Digable Planets would disband just a few years later, with the three members each going onto to their own solo careers. Cee Knowledge, who went by Doodlebug in the group, will be playing a show with his Cosmic Funk Orchestra at The Grey Eagle on Thursday, April 24.
As Cee prepares for this tour, he’s busy finishing up an all-live album he’s been recording with CFO over the last four years, but he’s happy to reflect on his days in that now-classic hip-hop outfit.
“That group was my foundation, my primary school,” he says. “Ishmael [‘Butterfly’] Butler did most of the music, but we did the lyric writing along with him. I learned a lot of studio techniques, mixing techniques, how the process of recording a live band works. And I learned a lot from that sound, but [what I do now] is my musical vision and philosophy. When you are in a group like [Digable Planets], you have three different views of the world and three different ideas about things, so you have to mix and match a bit more.”
As for the trio’s lasting place in history, Cee’s first reaction is a hearty laugh. “It feels like it was just yesterday! Where did the time go?” he says, but then follows up with a humble recognition of how important the group was. “It’s a big thing because a lot of groups don’t survive more than a year or two in this game. So for it be 20 years and there be a group of people around the world who think favorably of us and still actively listen to Digable Planets’ music is a blessing.”
While these days Cee and his live band tend toward funk and rock-tinged tunes that showcase the instrumental prowess of its nine-member lineup, the veteran emcee does not think jazz rap is gone or irrelevant.
“I think the mid-’90s was the golden era of that style of music — Stetasonic, A Tribe Called Quest and a couple of other groups helped spark that whole movement — but I don’t think it’s dead so much as it’s not mainstream anymore,” he says. “It had its moment, but now it’s kind of gone underground. It’s still out there going well and strong — you just have to look for it, have to search for it.”
This opinion seems to reflect much of Cee’s current philosophy about the state of hip-hop — he professes love of gangsta rap but also points out how the diversity of rap music being made is not reflected on the radio. “What I love about [hip-hop] is that it’s one of the few mediums where you can pull from pretty much anything and it’s sort of accepted,” he says. “It’s always been a medium that borrows from a lot of different styles and rolls them into one.”
These days Cee mainly revels in the collaboration with a live band, where he enjoys the experimentation and creativity of bouncing ideas off his colleagues. “I brought five or six songs in [first] and taught them the music, but once everyone started getting comfortable with the flow and idea of the music I wanted to make, everybody began bringing in their own ideas,” he says. “Somebody will hum a bass line or come up with a riff — it’s very organic, a very different process than writing with a drum machine and some loops.”
Cee’s also excited about returning to Asheville. He’s played here many times before and remembers it fondly, though he hasn’t been here recently. “Asheville has always been a town of open-minded music lovers,” he says. “The first time we were there, I didn’t know what to expect, but we just met so many cool people and saw so many great shows. I can’t believe it’s gotten that different [since], except some of the faces will have changed.”
Cee Knowledge and the Cosmic Funk Orchestra
with Free Radio
The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
Thursday, April 24, at 8 p.m. $10 advance/$13 day of show