Happy 25th Anniversary to De La Soul’s sophomore album De La Soul is Dead, originally released in the UK on May 13, 1991 and in the US May 14, 1991.
This is a journey back in time. A trip down musical memory lane, back to a bygone era nostalgically regarded by many as nothing short of golden. An age when hip-hop music was fundamentally defined by a vivacity and adventurism that has evolved, expanded, and mostly faded over the past few decades.
This is also the story of three gifted gentlemen who proved instrumental in defining hip-hop during this most fertile of periods in the genre and culture’s storied history. Formed in 1987 on Long Island, NY by Kelvin Mercer (“Posdnuos”), David Jude Jolicoeur (“Dave,” formerly “Trugoy the Dove”), and Vincent Lamont Mason Jr. (“Maseo”), the imitable De La Soul have always been and continue to be the embodiment of all that is pure and unfettered about hip-hop. True masters of the art form. Trusted ambassadors of the culture. Treasures of American music.
In the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, De La Soul—together with their kindred musical spirits the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest—evolved the Native Tongues’ unique aesthetic and philosophy, defined in equal measures by whimsy and wit, unparalleled bohemian cool, Afrocentric sophistication, and admirable humility. Musically, the collective placed a heavy premium on appropriating and reimagining a widely varied array of samples, across rock, folk, pop, soul, funk, jazz and beyond, in the interest of crafting fresh and vibrant compositions that reinforced the power of music to move minds, bodies, and souls.
When it comes to the quality and consistency of musical output, even among the many incredibly skilled and prolific artists that emerged during hip-hop’s seminal golden era, only a select few can rightfully claim masterpiece status for each of their first four albums of their careers. De La Soul most certainly fulfill this rarefied criteria, and I’d argue that their legendary colleagues Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, and the aforementioned Tribe qualify as well.
While most fans and critics alike cite De La’s watershed 1989 debut LP 3 Feet High and Rising as the strongest album of their esteemed catalog, I’ve always considered their sophomore album De La Soul is Dead to be their greatest achievement to date. In fact, I’d say it qualifies as one of my five favorite albums of all time across all genres, perhaps even cracking my top three. OK, definitely cracking my top three.
Released in the spring of 1991, De La Soul is Dead was a mainstay on my 5-disc carousel CD changer and Sony discman for the entire summer and fall that followed. A cleverly conceived and expertly executed repudiation of the misguided “hip-hop hippie” label that was naively bestowed upon the group amidst 3 Feet High and Rising’s thematic references to “The D.A.I.S.Y. Age” (translation: “Da Inner Sound Y’all”), the album showcases the group’s versatility and vitality in more pronounced ways than its precursor does. In a 2000 A.V. Club interview, Posdnuos reflected on the group’s natural creative evolution, informed by their staunch refusal to conform to others’ myopic expectations for fear of having their musical identity unfairly pigeon-holed, explaining that:
We wanted to go somewhere else with the music than we had on 3 Feet High And Rising. I'm glad we did. I would never think it was a wrong move, because we saw that people unfortunately pay too much attention to visuals. Everyone had gotten so caught up in how we looked and what we were about visually, and once those visuals were over, people could consider the group again. Look at great groups like Arrested Development: They had so much to say, but when it wasn't cool to be dreaded and wear earth clothing and dashikis, everyone sort of moved on to something else. That's how rap listeners are: They're very fickle in who they support. And it's not even that we did it for that reason, but being artists, we never planned to just be all about visually showing you these flowers, or being lighthearted. As we grew, that's what we showed you. It's no different from documenting someone's life: You document a two-year-old's life up to age eight and he's gonna change, and that's what we did. We were changing as we were growing, and we had no problems showing it.
Mind you, the trio originally refuted the erroneous claims of hippiedom in the second verse of 3 Feet High’s most recognizable single “Me Myself and I,” in which Posdnuos adamantly proclaims “You say Plug One and Two are hippies / No, we're not, that's pure Plug bull / Always pushing that we've formed an image / There's no need to lie / When it comes to being Plug One / It's just me myself and I.”
However, with De La Soul is Dead, the trio mitigated all risk of ambiguity or misinterpretation with respect to their position on the matter. Nowhere is this more immediately evident than in the album’s cover art, which features a painting of a shattered flower pot containing three wilting daisies. It’s an unequivocal reference to the death knell, once and for all, of the so-called D.A.I.S.Y. age and more precisely, all of the ridiculous assumptions and associations unfairly assigned to the threesome since 3 Feet High’s release.
Throughout the album, the trio take the piss, examining the dichotomy between the laughable critical perception of the group as fitting within some arbitrarily defined category and the reality of the group’s desire to simply craft music that inspires, labels be damned. A handful of brief satirical skits peppered throughout the album’s 27 tracks poke fun at the group’s naysayers. Meanwhile the interludes mostly revolve around the fictional radio station WRMS, which plays nothing but De La Soul all day long. With plenty of witty sarcasm and self-deprecation, the skits are imaginative enough to not be immediately skippable filler, but they’re certainly not the driving forces of the album.
In the wake of their debut album’s unanticipated success, the group and producer extraordinaire Prince Paul discovered that they had more creative freedom & flexibility at their disposal than ever before in developing its follow-up. “(Tommy Boy Records) were pretty supportive, basically because we were tried and tested,” Prince Paul told music scribe Gino Sorcinelli. “The success of 3 Feet High came as a surprise to everyone. After it came out, we were able to come in and tell them what we wanted and how we wanted it done because we were so ahead of the curve on everything.”
The relative carte blanche with which Prince Paul and the trio shaped the album also paved the path for the group’s signature dedication to continually evolving by exploring nuanced approaches to songcraft. Indeed, this commitment is brilliantly manifested on the two excellent albums that followed—Buhloone Mindstate (1993) and Stakes is High (1996)—and across each of their recordings during the ensuing two decades.
Like 3 Feet High and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet released a year before in 1990, to suggest that De La Soul is Dead is a sample-heavy affair is an understatement. Despite the fact that sixties pop group The Turtles sued De La Soul for sampling a 12-second excerpt of their 1969 single “You Showed Me” on 3 Feet High’s “Transmitting Live from Mars” interlude and were granted a $1.7 million settlement, Prince Paul and the group refused to abandon their production approach. De La Soul is Dead consists of nearly 100 different samples—a mind-boggling number—from their Golden Age hip-hop brethren to the staple James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic to rock artists including ELO, Tom Waits, and Lenny Kravitz to more obscure 70s soul-funk bands The Mighty Ryeders, The Whatnauts, and Lafayette Afro Rock Band.
Not to mention that their liberal reliance on sampling would never fly today, due to the landmark 1991 Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. copyright case, which involved Biz Markie’s unauthorized sampling of a Gilbert O’Sullivan song. The court ultimately ruled that Biz Markie and Warner Bros. infringed upon O’Sullivan’s copyright, and the ruling established the precedent that artists and their record companies are legally required to secure proper clearance from the original copyright owners before selling records that contain sampled material. Ever wonder why you can’t find De La’s early albums on Spotify or iTunes? I’m sure there are a few copyright lawyers that know all too well.
Legal issues notwithstanding, what’s most remarkable about the group’s extensive sampling is how they still managed to ensure that the music sounds so fresh and original, never derivative. “The key to making it work isn’t necessarily how much you layer, it’s how you arrange the samples,” Prince Paul has explained. “You have to put samples in key so everything sounds like it belongs. How you EQ everything…there’s a science to it. Early Public Enemy production used layers upon layers and layers, and their arrangements were always super-duper incredible to me. We were kind of like students to what they did.” The end result of De La Soul is Dead is a grand testament to De La and Prince Paul’s uncanny penchant for transforming such ambitious musical vision into flawless execution.
As with all of De La’s long players before and since, standout songs can be found in abundance across the album. No single track encapsulates the band’s philosophical recalibration from album 1 to album 2 better than “Pass the Plugs,” which finds the group renouncing the baggage of both public and label pressures, while charting a new creative course. When Posdnuos’ declares “Arsenio dissed us / But the crowd kept clapping,” it’s a direct reference to the trio’s infamous 1989 performance of “Me Myself and I” on The Arsenio Hall Show, during which the late night host condescendingly introduced the group as “the Hippies of Hip-Hop,” much to their chagrin. Dave follows in the song’s second verse with the lines “Head full of dreds / But knowledge inside / Singin' on records, making it hectic / Wishing it all would fall and die / Radio works it, public consumes it / Tommy Boy wants another ‘Say No,’ huh,” a conspicuous nod to their label’s desire to replicate the success of the noticeably more pop-driven, Hall & Oates’ sampling single “Say No Go” from 3 Feet High. “Pass the Plugs” is also notable for featuring the rarely heard “Fourth P,” Prince Paul, dropping rhymes on the final verse.
Released as the album’s lead single in March 1991, “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” is a euphoric disco-tinged celebration of the respite and escapism we universally indulge in when the weekend arrives at long last. I’ve listened to tens of thousands of songs over the course of my 38 years, and “Saturdays” may very well be my favorite song EVER. No jive, no joke. To my ears, it sounds like sunshine on wax. Pure bliss. From Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons’ playful intro to Q-Tip’s evocative first verse to Posdnuos’ wistful admonishment to “slip your butt to the fix of this mix” to Dave’s invitation to “wet me for one, Mr. Sprinkler” to Vinia Mojica’s joyous chorus, this is the sound of a group that knows more than a thing or two about the simple pleasures in life. Sonically supported by the magnificent mélange of samples that includes The Mighty Ryeders‘ “Evil Vibrations,” Young Holt Unlimited’s “Light My Fire,” Frankie Valli‘s “Grease,” and Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park,” “Saturdays” is the quintessential feel-good anthem of summer, or any season for that matter.
A few months after “Saturdays” surfaced and two weeks after the LP’s release, the threesome dropped another gem in the form of second single “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey).” It’s an undeniably irresistible track driven by astute commentary, unabashed sarcasm, and the rousingly rhythmic groove propelled by the prominent sample of The Whatnauts’ “Help Is on the Way.” Playing upon our then-rampant dependence on answering machines—admittedly now considered an obsolete relic of yesteryear in our current smartphone-obsessed age—the song explores the group’s efforts in evading their sycophantic fans, the “rap bandits” masquerading as aspiring yet uninspired emcees who force their “wick-wick-wack” demo tapes upon the group. The memorable chorus chant (“Hey, how ya doin’ / sorry you can’t get through / why don’t you leave your name and your number / and I’ll get back to you”) is actually indebted to the obscure 1989 single “Name and Number” from the British pop quartet Curiosity Killed the Cat. Further testament to De La Soul and Prince Paul’s uncanny penchant for merging obscure samples with more familiar fare to craft instantly unforgettable tunes that stick with you.
As with “Ring Ring Ring,” De La offers a healthy dose of comic relief throughout the album. On third single “Keepin’ the Faith,” they try (and fail) to connect with the rigidly arrogant object of their affection—the appropriately named “Padlock Judy”—who refuses to give up her goods, so to speak. In glorious, headnod-inducing fashion, the track marries the recognizable bassline of Slave’s “Just a Touch of Love” (1979) with elements from Bob Marley & The Wailers’ “Could You Be Loved” (1980) and Bob James “Sign of the Times” (1981), and it sounds wonderful. “Bitties in the BK Lounge” is an endearingly humorous anecdote about a disgruntled Burger King employee, more affectionately depicted as a “BK mademoiselle / Wrinkled uniform and bottom bell / And some Jelly stuff on her sleeve.” In a clever twist, Pos flips the narrative in the second verse and assumes the role of the BK employee, becoming the object of the same woman’s ire in the process. On "Afro Connections at a Hi-5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum),” one of five bonus tracks included on CD versions of the album, De La offers a tongue-in-cheek parody of so-called hardcore rap acts that ultimately fell off by embracing softer, more superficial musical leanings.
Other highlights include the lyrically inventive “Oodles of O’s,” comprised of bars that each end with the phonetic “o” sound, and “Pease Porridge,” which showcases Pos and Dave’s playfully stutter-filled rhymes (“My name, my name, my name is the Pasta / Now I like, I like, I like to plug the real thing / So loose, so loose, so loose with the tap dance / The funk, the funk, funky funky stuff I bring / My tribe, my tribe, my tribe is known as Native Tongues / Consists, consists, consists of Jungle, Quest and others”). As a counterweight to the more whimsical songs that dominate the album, the sobering “My Brother’s a Basehead” explores the devastating complexities of drug addiction, while “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” explores a daughter’s tragic quest for retribution against her sexually abusive father.
For more than a quarter-century, De La Soul have blessed the world with undeniably addictive music, infused with their distinctive, Native Tongues-flavored mix of wry wit, unabashed humor, beautiful beats, and of course, plenty of soul. With good reason, the charismatic threesome are one of the most universally beloved hip-hop groups of all-time. In fact, a compelling case can be made that they are one of the most revered musical acts of all-time, regardless of genre classification.
As evidenced by last year’s outpouring of fan support for their Kickstarter campaign designed to fund their forthcoming LP and the Anonymous Nobody... (due August 26th), the love that people possess for De La Soul runs deeper than deep. Personally, they are hands down my #1 favorite act of my lifetime. So when I discovered their crowdfunding initiative last year, my contribution to the effort was less a conscious decision than an automatic reflex, activated by my undying gratitude for all of the wonderful music De La Soul has delivered throughout their storied career.
A convincing case can be made that De La Soul are more important today in 2016 than they were 25 years ago, for contemporary hip-hop artists—plagued by a rampant dearth of substance and originality—can unquestionably benefit from Pos, Dave, and Mase’s seasoned wisdom and undying respect for the art form. And anyone with a pulse can benefit from listening to De La Soul is Dead, the most masterful of De La Soul’s multiple masterpieces.