A primer on one of the most original, most inventive hip-hop acts, still active and influential today.
Listening to Kendrick Lamar’s great ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ this week made me think of De La Soul. Kendrick’s a relative newcomer from Compton, releasing an important major-label milestone, and De La are from Long Island, a well-loved and well-established three-piece, but something clicked – maybe it was the skits. Regardless, really any comparison to the group is big praise because, well, they’re my favourite, and truly one of a kind.
De La Soul consist of three members, Posdnous, Trugoy the Dove and DJ Maseo, though super-producer Prince Paul could well be added as an honorary member. The core trio were known as Plug 1, 2 and 3 on their debut album ’3 Feet High and Rising’. The group are still at it today, and while ten steps can’t wholly encompass a twenty-plus year career, here are some key points of introduction to this rich body of work.
ME, MYSELFAND I (1989)
Alongside Eye Know and The Magic Number as one of the first songs most people would think of when De La are mentioned, Me, Myself and I from the 1989 album ’3 Feet High and Rising’ is about individuality, and its video sees the group’s Afro-centric leanings set against the shell suits and gold chains that typified hip-hop style at the time. Eclectic, heavily sampled production from Prince Paul and the calm, unassuming delivery from Plug 1 and 2 set a memorable but ultimately troublesome image of the group as smart, lovable oddballs.
BUDDY (REMIX) FT. JUNGLEBROTHERS, Q-TIP, MONIELUV & QUEENLATIFAH (1989)
De La Soul were founding members of the Native Tongues Posse – a collective of like-minded hip-hop acts that included, amongst others, A Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers and Queen Latifah and later Common, Mos Def and The Beatnuts. This extended posse cut, which celebrates free love, is a good manifesto for the early collective’s loose charm and positive social conscience. It’s also got the funnest video ever.
Following the huge success of ’3 Feet High and Rising’ – for an indication, NME voted it their album of the year in 1989 – De La Soul were irked by their popular image. The D.A.I.S.Y Age was meant to stand for “da inner sound y’all”, a mindset rather than an aesthetic, but they felt they were being taken for mugs. The somber cover for ‘De La Soul is Dead’ showed a pot of cracked daisies, and Pease Porridge was the group’s affirmation that they definitely weren’t just hippies and could duke it out with the best of them.
A ROLLERSKATINGJAMNAMEDSATURDAYS (1991)
‘De La Soul is Dead’ is a purposefully difficult record, sometimes more like a collection of surreal skits than a typical album (Trugoy laughs off their label’s demand for another Say No Go at one point), and the first single A Rollerskating Jam Named Saturdays is probably the most accessible. It’s packed full of samples by Prince Paul but rounded into a weekend song based around an imaginary rollerdisco and beautifully topped off by Vinia Mojica’s chorus.
EGOTRIPPIN’ PT. 2 (1994)
De La Soul’s third album ‘Buhloone Mindstate’ can be forgotten because of the strength of their first two, but it’s great and shouldn’t be. The basic idea behind the album is being successful without selling out – “it may blow up but it won’t go pop” – and Ego Trippin’ Pt. 2 was one of its most pointed criticisms of contemporary rap. De La Soul may be all about peace ultimately, but their put-downs can be cutting.
I AM I BE (1994)
‘Buhloone Mindstate’ also saw De La work with live musicians and I Am I Be featured jazz veterans Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis on one of the group’s most mature songs. The introspective I Am I Be muses on family, love, their careers, Black consciousness and the growing fractures in the original Native Tongues Posse.
ITZSOWEEZE [HOT] (1996)
1996s ‘Stakes is High’ was the first De La Soul album not produced by Prince Paul, and was one of their most outspoken: explicitly tackling the decline in standards and morals in hip-hop and its growing influence. Itzsoweeze is performed entirely by Trugoy the Dove, often the secondary vocalist in the group, who asks for a change in attitude. He calls bullshit on the rise of the mafioso subgenre in particular, telling rappers that “the only Italians they knew was ICEE’s”.
OOOH FT. REDMAN (2000)
De La Soul started the new millenium with a planned three disc ‘Art Official Intelligence’ series but they only released two. They linked up with old friends like Prince Paul and new ones like Chaka Khan and Devin the Dude. With their status comfortable and some fresh impetus, they sounded much livelier on the two ‘AOI’ albums ‘Mosiac Thump’ and ‘Bionix’ than they had in previous years. Oooh, featuring Redman and produced by Prince Paul, is a track that follows from earlier singles without being reductive.
The ‘AOI’ trilogy was interrupted to release ‘The Grind Date’ – probably their most concentrated album, it was entirely produced by a developing wave of new producers like J Dilla, Madlib and 9th Wonder. The single Shopping Bags didn’t get much airplay and BET in particular stated it wasn’t relevant to it’s audience’s interests. Looking back that seems harsh and short-sighted but hardly criminal; De La Soul still had a loyal fanbase, but after nearly 15 years were simply not the pioneering top billers they once were. De La Soul were now in the category of classic or niche hip-hop, more treasured than adored. Incidentally, around a year later they collaborated with Gorillaz on Feel Good Inc. and shared the 2006 Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
FIRSTSERVE – WE MADE IT (2012)
In the years since ‘The Grind Date’, De La made an exercise mixtape with Nike and put out an album of previously unreleased material, but have been generally quiet. Earlier this year, however, they popped up with a conceptual project called First Serve, in collaboration with French DJ duo Chocolate and Khalid. The idea is that Posdnous and Troguy are young rappers desperate for their big break and they stay in character throughout. It’s not really a De La project – DJ Maseo isn’t involved for one – but it does carry on the struggle between artistic and financial wellbeing and the spoof First Serve Tumblr, near perfect in its lack of imagination and complete with the occasional self-referential nod, shows that De La are still sharp but, as always, not bitter.