by Ian Gabriel
The Regent Theater on Main St. has seen the history of Downtown LA unfold during its century-long lifespan as a classy cinema turned seedy adult movie theater turned abandoned building. Its reopening in 2014 was yet another example of the increasingly common restoration and reuse of historic buildings in Downtown LA. It is now an intimate concert venue that hosts not only big-name indie and hip-hop acts and decade-themed dance parties, but screenings of presidential debates and a Rock ‘n’ Roll flea market.
Fittingly, the Regent has booked Digable Planets, whose 1993 debut and most famous album Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) is also historic, albeit in hip-hop terms. The product of an afrocentric, jazz-heavy, bohemian niche in hip-hop carved out by groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Pharcyde, Digable Planets (Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira, and Craig "Doodlebug" Irving) is an important group because it refuted the violence and misogyny of early 1990s popular hip-hop with free-spirited and iconoclastic messages. In a time when hip-hop giants like Dr. Dre and the Notorious B.I.G. rapped about guns, money, and bitches, Digable Planets called out fascists and pro-lifers, referenced Marx, Charlie Parker, and Dalí and celebrated kinky hair, winning a Grammy in the process.
While drugs, violence and patriarchy are still prominent tropes in current hip-hop, there are plenty of popular artists today following in Digable’s footsteps. Out-there acts like Young Thug, Danny Brown and Lil B (whose 2014 show at the Regent caused a riot) rebel against hip-hop’s rigidity. Joey Bada$$ and Mick Jenkins use boom-bap jazz samples. Vince Staples, Chance the Rapper, and Azealia Banks sharply criticize the system. And Kendrick Lamar, perhaps the most post-Digable rapper out, racks up sales and accolades by combining all of these elements.
Camp Lo, another unique act from ‘90s known less for its political statements and more for the indecipherable lingo oozing with slickness that its members Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede use, will open for Digable Planets at the Regent on August 21—a show that hip-hop heads and history buffs will want to attend.