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Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

December 19, 2012 at 2:10 PM

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Ishmael Butler on Digable Planets: 'I think it's the end'

Image by Leif Podhajsky / original photo by David Belisle

There are hardly any active rappers/producers who've been successful in different eras, but Seattle's Ishmael Butler is one of them. His old trio Digable Planets won a Grammy back in 1994 for their jazzy song "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," back when Butler was called Butterfly, joined by rappers Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca. Now he's Palaceer Lazaro or just Ish in his current duo Shabazz Palaces, which stands on the artistic cutting-edge with a sci-fi/African style. Seattle almost got back-to-back concerts from both acts at the Neptune Theatre Dec. 28 and 29 — which would have been rare and very cool. But at the last minute, Digable Planets canceled.

Butler called me to explain why (see partial, edited transcript below). He said it was Ladybug Mecca's fault for being difficult to work with, and he does not see a future for Digable Planets, calling the situation "a heartbreaker."

Digable Planets has been through this before. They toured with a Mecca stand-in for a while, Lady Madarocka, but Butler didn't want to do that again: "I didn't want to compromise the integrity of the originality of the group, truth be told." Mecca did not respond to my email asking for her side of the story.

As it stands, the Neptune hosts Shabazz Palaces with THEESatisfaction Dec. 28 (look out for my concert preview soon). The following night, Digable Planets has been replaced with hardcore Detroit rapper Danny Brown. Previously bought tickets will be honored at the Brown show or refunded at point of purchase.

Digable fans do have one thing to look forward to in 2013, though: one of their albums will be rereleased with new liner notes.

OK, so what happened with the Digable show?

Mecca, in all her royal inglory, canceled the show last week. First when I got back from [Shabazz Palaces' fall tour] in Europe, I called her, like, "Yo, what day you coming out here, so we can rehearse?" And she was like, "I can only come out on a Friday." And the show's on Saturday. She said she had a prior obligation. I'm like, "Aight. If that's what it is, then I'll rehearse everybody, and when you get here, you can just fall in line. It'll all be gravy." She said, "Aight." The next day, I called her and she didn't call me back. So then I emailed her and was like, "What's going on?" She was like, "How much is the promoter giving me?" 'Me,' like that. And I'm like, "You? The promoter's paying us, as a group. Do you need an individual contract?" She never hit me back.

So then I hit her, like "What's going on? I need to know what's happening so I can take care of you," whatever. So then she calls and says, "I need to see a contract." So I'm like, cool, whatever — it's the Neptune, [booked by Seattle Theatre Group's well-known talent buyer] Adam Zacks, everything's good! I didn't know what she was worried about. So I tracked everything down, sent her [a copy of] the contract. Two days later she hits me back and says, "Nobody signed the contract. Is this thing for real?" I'm like, "Mec, what are you talking about? Check the website, check ticket sales, check anything. Just check my resume. Of course it's real."

So we tracked Adam down again. This is all going through [our booking agent]. So we get [Zacks] to sign it. He sends it to her. She emails me back, because she won't answer the phone, and says, "Hey, I need to get $5,000 personally. My definitive rate is $5,000." The email said, "Am I being punked? This is the most unprofessional deal I've ever been a part of. My definitive rate is $5,000 for myself. Not including expenses and travel. I can't do this. You wasted everybody's time." That's what the email said. And then she wouldn't pick up the phone or answer texts. So, I don't know what the deal is. Maybe she's scared or doesn't want to come. I don't know what she's doing for entertainment, but $5,000 a night is unheard of, unless you're on the upper levels of performing. And calling those guys's all just weird.

But one time [in the past] we had a 25-city tour set up, which she set up — made us quit one booking agent and go through someone that she wanted to go with — and the day before the tour, she quit the tour. That was our last experience with her. So this time was kind of a roll of the dice. But we love this [music], and wanted to do it.

So that's what happened. And I just wanted to let cats know that, Knowledge [aka Cee Knowledge/Doodlebug] and I, more than making money, we just feel honored and crazy-surprised and appreciative that fans want to see us at all. No amount of money, or small amount of money — which, the money wasn't small at all, trust me — would keep us from performing for people who wanted to pay to see us perform. To do [what Mecca did] is totally disrespectful and a lack of appreciation for the fans that make us have the ability to do the things we're doing now, in the present. So I'm sorry for that. And I'm sorry that I tried to do something, and got some people excited to come see the show, and wasn't able to pull it off. But I tried. And so did Doodlebug. And it's really through no fault of our own. And you know me, I don't even like talking about inside stuff. But this was a different situation, because Mecca, for whatever reason, ruined it. And tried to make it seem like the deal was unprofessional and the money wasn't right, but I know that the deal wasn't unprofessional and I also know that the money was really good. It's a heartbreaker.

Sounds like she was making those stipulations so that the situation could be impossible.

I can't speculate. But let me ask you this, let's say your definitive rate was $5,000. Wouldn't that be the first thing that came out of your mouth? Why you asking people to jump through all these hoops, and at the end of all the hoops, then you pull everything with the price bit?

So would you say Digable's status is indefinite, or broken up?

I just can't see it. I think it's the end.

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