Happy De La Weekend™️ to those who celebrated! It is indeed a joyous occasion – after many years, De La Soul’s classic albums are now finally on streaming services. It is a long and winding tale of underhanded music industry dealings, record company bankruptcy, and hard to clear music samples that will probably somehow be made into a limited series on Netflix. It is a homecoming of sorts for any veteran fan of rap music. As for my own appreciation of De La, let’s go back to the beginning.
The year is 1989. Far from my future as a Dadrock superhero, I’m a senior in high school standing in the middle of Music Plus in Studio City (next to Trader Joe’s). In my hand is compact disc, shrunk wrapped into one of those unnecessary long card boxes, featuring three black and white photos of a trio of unknown (to me) emcees, bathed in a florescent wonderland of cartoon flowers. It’s hard to remember – music discovery on the fly, with no benefit of previewing the tunes. It was actually quite a leap of faith; at that point everyone was rebuying their music collections for what was touted as a superior digital version, all at around $12.98 a pop. There was something about the look & feel of Three Feet High And Rising…I decide to take a leap of faith, plunking down the ducats on the counter to buy an album solely on the strength of the wondrous album art, a bold gesture for this cash strapped teenager.
At that point, I was firmly ensconced in the world of hip hop, as much as a white valley kid could be. I may have not been a hustler in the west Bronx in 1973; rather it was 1986. I was at a school camping retreat, a friend had a couple cassettes, and the rotation consisted entirely of Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball”, and Run DMC’s King of Rock album, in particular the diss track “You Talk Too Much”. Later that summer Run DMC’s Raising Hell would come out. That fall, the Beastie Boys Licensed To Ill. It didn’t seem that significant at the time, but the die was cast. Gen X had its very own music genre, a descendent of everything from “race music” of the 50’s and 60’s to soul and funk and disco of the 70’s. We had no way of knowing that three and a half decades later this new sound would have overtaken rock as the preeminent cultural soundtrack, influencing all forms of youth culture.
But that’s an epic for another time. In addition to not knowing the future of hip hop, I took a chance on a really weird album with something like 27 tracks, buying it at the least bohemian record store, Music Frickin Plus. The music was irreverent, fresh, diverse, rambling, odd, but also damn funky. De La was more of a mentality than a treatise in technical rhyme spitting, but the voices of Posdnuos and Trugoy The Dove aka Plugs 1 and 2, introduced us to a world that welcomed all music comers. At the time, me and my good friends straddled the high school social strata of both the stoner rock punks and the hip hop kids. We were equally deep into Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking and NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, two dark and provocative albums. We loved them, but we were also preparing for college and sometimes dudes just want to have fun. Three Feet High & Rising was that delivery of fun we needed. It was in heavy rotation as the chapters of my life turned from high school to college.
Their sophomore follow up, De La Soul Is Dead is the cynical response to how the traps new fame can befall a young group. Nirvana’s In Utero, Green Day’s Insomniac (their sophomore efforts of massive fame, if not their actual second albums) carried the same middle finger to it all. De La Soul Is Dead is so much more than that, of course – a mediation on music biz hype, black tropes, race/class, suburban malaise, inappropriate shopping mall Santas, Tracy Chapman, roller skating, smoking crack, letting annoying phone calls go to the machine. It came out towards the end of my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara, and I ate that shit up like it was a monster burrito from Freebirds.
I always love the thrill and irrational expectations of sophomore albums – will they live up to the debut?! – but a potentially equally compelling moment in a band’s career can be their junior effort. When the hype has stabilized, we’re left with the true essence of an artist…by their third album, do they still have something to say, in an interesting way? 1993 was a great year for hip hop (Wu Tang, Cypress Hill, Tribe Called Quest etc) but it seemed like maybe the rap world had moved on when De La’s Buhloone Mindstate came out that year. On the one hand, totally understandable – Buhloone Mindstate is a weird fucking album title. If the cover of Three Feet High & Rising was all about a futuristic turn for hip hop, the cover of BM felt, um, deflating. But to overlook this album would be a mistake – it has all of De La’s sardonic charm and creativity and packages it into a more focused, sharper statement. If the general public had moved on to throwing their hands in the air like they just didn’t care to the likes of Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hurray”, I doubled down on De La. 30 years later (!), it has endured as my favorite album of theirs, possibly because the tracks are so damn good, but also perhaps because my connection to DLS felt more personal at that time. Like I was the last person at the party, even though I wasn’t.
From there, their output was a bit less satisfying overall. Stakes Is High is a solid Prince Paul production, but from then on they moved on to other, younger producers and tried to be more commercial, undoubtedly to make money. Understandable, but commerciality and De La Soul go together like oil and water, or maybe Biggie and Tupac. There were some bright moments, but ultimately De La suffered the worst fate a veteran artist can suffer – irrelevance. The early 21st century wasn’t kind to them. 2016’s “…and the Anonymous Nobody” was a reminder of the fun and freshness De La could deliver, but when you consider how we listen to music these days, with everything at our fingertips and a killer playlist’s potential to trump the strength of a single album, the new stuff longed to be paired with the old stuff.
A few years ago was the first hint that De La’s music catalog was finally going to be reissued. I “preordered” DLS Is Dead on Amazon, but after a few months it became clear that this was an empty reservation. Then the announcement came early this year that finally, all of the legal wrangling and industry challenges had fallen by the wayside, and fans were finally getting what they wanted. De La Soul is ALIVE!
With only a couple weeks till the De La Revival, Plug Two, Trugoy The Dove, passed away at age 54 from heart disease. A tragic development for a group that not only was finally ready to look back at their legacy, but perhaps look forward to a comeback for a new generation of hip hop heads. That comeback is going to have to come from the killer Hall & Oates and Steely Dan samples. Or the thought provoking interplay of “Bitties in the BK Lounge”. Or the old school shout outs to the five boroughs in “Area”. There’s a lot to consume, and I look forward to rediscovering De La Soul’s brilliance, as they take their rightful place – in playlists mixed with their peers like Tribe and the Beasties, as well as the new guard of hip hop boundary breakers like Kendrick, or even Tierra Whack and Little Simz. It’s great to have them back.