Happy 15th Anniversary to De La Soul’s seventh studio album The Grind Date, originally released October 5, 2004.
No one in hip-hop history has refined being different into an art like De La Soul. The Long Island trio, made up of Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, and Vincent “Maseo” Mason, started their career living on the “edges” of contemporary rap music. For over a decade, they went against the grain of what was popular and what was expected of you as artists within the culture. They eventually established themselves as veterans and elder statesmen, becoming so good at what they did that their version of “different” didn’t even sound odd. And still, with their seventh full-length album The Grind Date, they again demonstrated that they were committed to their craft and could still be iconoclasts.
The Grind Date came about during a strange time in De La’s career and the music industry in general. For decades, the group had a contentious and complicated relationship with Tommy Boy records, their first label. In 2000, the group released the first part of what was to be a trio of Art Official Intelligence albums—Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump. The three albums would have fulfilled De La’s contractual obligation to the label, and they would have been free to move on.
However, shortly after the group released the second installment, Bionix, Warner Bros. records ended its relationship with Tommy Boy. Things were in flux for the next few years, as the acts on Tommy Boy were shopped to other labels under the WEA umbrella. The group ended up leaving WEA altogether and worked out a deal with Sanctuary Records. The “urban” division of the label, headed by Matthew Knowles (as in Beyoncé’s father), agreed to distribute their AOI imprint, allowing them to leave Tommy Boy behind.
In some respects, The Grind Date has the most in common with De La’s Buhloone Mindstate (1993). They’re similarly lean, as Grind Date runs around 49 minutes and is almost completely devoid of skits. But whereas De La sounded bitter and disillusioned on Buhloone, they’re positively energized on Grind Date. Feeling empowered with their new deal, they come across as seasoned veterans comfortable with their place in hip-hop, but still feeling like they have a lot to offer.
Much of The Grind Date centers on the importance of hip-hop to their lives and espousing the importance of hard work to their legacy. The title track, produced by Supa Dave West, focuses on the latter, as De La explains how they’ve approached their careers as rappers as a blue collar job. Pos likens his rap grind to a life in agriculture, rapping, “I've been rewired to work more efficiently in the dirt / I'm hands on with it all up in my cuticles / Some try to get off the farm but fell into harm / Of getting in the game of those street pharmaceuticals.” Meanwhile, Dave acknowledges the effects of constantly hustling, rapping, “The grind'll make today look gray and paint a tainted picture of tomorrows in enamels of black.”
Another strength of Grind Date is its production. De La enlisted some of the best producers working at the time to bless them with soulful music that sported a boom-bap edge. The album features two collaborations with the late great J Dilla. Detroit’s master-level producer had worked with the group during the nascent stages of his career, notably crafting the title track to Stakes Is High (1996). His pair of contributions help show the group’s range and serve as the vehicles for some of De La’s best lyrical performances on the album.
The boisterous “Verbal Clap” is built on a mix of Mountain’s “Long Red” drum break and a sample of interwoven synthesizers taken from Rick Wakeman’s “Catherine of Aragon.” Pos and Dave give positively energized performances, with Dave declaring in a verse that only barely rhymes, “We present these flares to put fire to your ears / To lay smoke like rusty exhaust pipes / We run mics, let Sean run the marathon / Yo, raise that money son, we raisin’ these kids.” Later, Pos asserts, “I’m hated on by n****s I love most / So what threat could you possibly pose when I’m on your coast?”
In contrast, “Much More,” the album’s first single is a more thoughtful endeavor, at least in terms of subject matter. Here De La reflects upon their place in the genre and their impact on the lives of their listeners, content that they give their audience music with staying power.
Grind Date also features two tracks produced by Madlib, L.A.’s very own beat conductor. The distorted and slippery “Shopping Bags (She Got From You)” is a weird entry, as Pos and Dave describe women who use their beauty for material gain. “Come On Down” is more successful, as Madlib channels Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad, mixing a warped sample of Esther Williams’ “Last Night Changed It All” and mixing it with a cacophony of whistles, voices, and drums, making a dizzying backdrop for De La to kick “these fricasseed raps on Caribbean riffs.” It’s fitting that the song features madcap backing vocals and ad-libs from Flavor Flav, who comes close to achieving his late ’80s/early ’90s form.
De La shine on the 9th Wonder produced “Church,” where they go line for line as the sampled vocals soar, espousing the healing power of hip-hop music. “He Comes,” featuring a verse from Ghostface Killah, feels similarly inspirational, as all three employ some of their best braggadocio over a horn heavy track. The group later enlists longtime homie Common for “Days of Our Lives,” where they explore how rappers live on the knife’s edge. As Common raps, “I ain't far from a Benz, or dude on the bus.”
Grind Date ends with its best song, “Rock.Co.Kane Flow,” a three-way lyric-fest, where Dave and Pos are joined by fellow Long Island verbal soldier MF DOOM. The beat, produced by Jake One, is brilliant in its execution, punctuated by shifting tempos, alternately speeding up and slowing down like the futuristic cousin of DOOM’s “Tick.”
Pos, Dave, and DOOM all make it their own, each two verses apiece over a track, and each sounding effortless in doing so. DOOM proclaims in his drunken slur that he “eats rappers like part of a complete breakfast / Their rhymes ain’t worth the weight of they cheap necklace / String ’em up, ring ’em up under whack junk snack / And get that out your hand, punk, jump and get your dunk smacked.” Later Pos drops some perfect gems, reminding emcees that “everyone cools off from being hot / It's about if you can handle being cold or not / And we was told to hop on no one’s dick by Prince Paul / We stayed original ever since, y’all.”
Grind Date would turn out to be De La’s last official group album for more than a decade. While they remained active on the road, they didn’t release much music, aside from stuff like the 2006 Impossible: Mission mixtape, featuring unreleased material, and First Serve (2012), a fairly bizarre project headed by Pos and Dave. Everything for the group would change a little under a decade after releasing Grind Date, when they made their Tommy Boy era digital catalogue free to all their fans. This “event” would put the group on the path to the release of and the Anonymous Nobody… (2016) and their return to the forefront.
It should be noted that The Grind Date is one of the only De La Soul albums available on streaming platforms (along with and the Anonymous Nobody…). While their feud with Tommy Boy over streaming revenue has been public and acrimonious, even as of late, it appears that they have more control over this album. And while their earlier albums are (correctly) remembered as classic, The Grind Date is as good as any of their albums at giving a beginning listener a taste of what has made De La Soul so unique. Fifteen years into their career at that point, and they were grinding as hard as ever.