In the early '90s, Craig Irving helped bridge the gap between jazz and hip-hop as Doodlebug in the Digable Planets. With a heavy helping of cosmic spirituality, the group combined politically conscious lyrics, cool-jazz samples and laid-back flows to win a Grammy for their debut, “Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space).”
Digable Planets split in the mid-'90s and since then, Irving has been performing as Cee Knowledge with the Cosmic Funk Orchestra in an arrangement that Irving describes as “an extension” of the Digable Planets sound.
On Saturday, he and the Cosmic Funk Orchestra will perform at Downtown Music.
A lot of your fans know you from back in the Digable Planets days. Why the switch from Doodlebug, which you were known as in Digable Planets, to Cee Knowledge?
I was always Cee Knowledge. My man Ishmael Butler, also known as Butterfly, created the concept for Digable Planets and I became Doodlebug to fit in with the concept. When we got together in the late '80s-early '90s, we just discussed music and philosophies and life. His own unique approach came through Digable Planets. I was in a group at the time called the Dred Poet Society. Back in those days, it was like: you doing something, I'll work with you, get a bunch of irons in the fire and let it pop off.
You started out with the live hip-hop jam band the Vybe, then played Mississippi funk-rockers Swole, and now you're rolling with a trip-hop band called Astronauts of Antiquity.
That was a couple years back — 2006 or 2005. We've got a project that's still unfinished, though.
What's with all the switching up? Are you like James Brown, always dissatisfied, always searching for perfection? Or are you just restless?
[Laughs] I'm just doing my thing. Going where the music takes me. When one situation starts to stagnate, I've got to keep moving on. Some projects were just that — a project. The only obligation I've ever really had was to Digable Planets. Anything other than that, I did it as a chance to do something different, challenge myself and try to have fun.
You don't have many dates lined up, at least on your MySpace page. Why Arkansas?
They asked me to come. I've never been there. I'm an eternal explorer. It's my duty to travel around and see new things and new people and spread the message of love, peace and happiness through the music. I'm hoping that we can create a movement while I'm out there and be able to come back out on a regular basis. I don't know too much about Little Rock, so it's almost going to be like going to a new planet.
What do you think of the term “conscious”? Does getting pegged as a conscious rapper marginalize you?
I don't see any problem with it personally. I mean, think of the word — who wouldn't want to be conscious? If you're not conscious, you're unconscious, you don't know what's going on, you're knocked out, just walking around aimlessly. I don't hope to be that kind of person. On the other side, in terms of marketing your record, it puts you in a pigeonhole, where you can only sell a certain amount of records or get seen or heard by a certain amount of people. But other tags don't seem right to me. I'm not a gangster. I'm not a thug. I'd rather go with the conscious rapper tag.
After about a decade apart, Digable Planets reunited in 2005 and there was some indication that y'all were going to record again. What happened?
Oh my God, there was so much indication. I thought it was going to happen. Everyone came together and we thought it was going to work out, but we got to a point where after a while of touring, we kept trying and trying to get everyone in the studio. Everyone had their own agenda, and we couldn't ever get on the same page. So we took a break. Now, we're talking again about doing some stuff. We're going to hit Los Angeles in like two or three weeks and try to record some new songs, so hopefully, cross my fingers, something positive will pop off.
What other projects do you have going?
I'm doing a Cosmic Funk Allstars straight-to-digital album put out through a label in Japan called Root 70 Lounge later in spring, early summer. It's called “Intifada.” I'm doing another project with a producer/DJ in New York. The album is called “Futuristic Sci-Fi.” I'm also working with a female out in Los Angeles, who kind of reminds me of a modern-day Debbie Harry, kind of similar to Amy Winehouse, a little Portishead. We're doing an album called “Intergalactic.” And I'm working on some film soundtrack stuff and reality show stuff.
Sounds like you're a busy man.
You got to be. This music business changes so quickly. You've got to keep it moving.