It’s impossible to overstate De La Soul’s impact on hip-hop music and its culture – but for decades their groundbreaking early albums weren’t widely available, due to a jumble of legal complications that plagued them. prevented them from circulating and, above all, outside of streaming services. But today, the shackles are lifted, the samples are erased (or bypassed), and the albums, including their platinum-boosting 1989 debut “3 Feet High and Rising,” can be released legally.
The band had the great misfortune of being a precedent for the now-common sample laws, and the dense thicket of samples on their albums, and other associated legal dramas, kept their music out of general circulation for many years. But as part of its acquisition of the Tommy Boy Records catalog, New York-based Reservoir Media resolved the contentious quagmire that surrounded the band’s first six albums, allowing the band to distribute them on streaming (and vinyl) platforms via Chrysalis Records.
“3 Feet Tall and Rising” is one of the most important and pioneering albums in hip-hop history – but even though one of the album’s biggest hits, “The Magic Number”, was used in the end credits from the hit 2021 film “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the song wasn’t legally available to stream or purchase. But today — and tragically, less than a month after the co-founder passed away of the group Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur — all that changes.
A visionary musical mashup that spans a kaleidoscopic (and ultimately highly contentious) range of samples – from Johnny Cash to Steely Dan to Turtles – “3 Feet High” brought streets and suburbs together like never before. While hip-hop largely had an aggressive and sometimes violent image – see Public Enemy, Ice-T and NWA – by 1989 there were already pop-friendly rappers like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, whose second 1987 album “He’s The DJ, I’m the Rapper” went triple platinum and won the first-ever rap Grammy. But De La Soul preserved the soul – both existential and literal – between the hard edges of hip -hop, with a peaceful, psychedelic vibe that still unafraid of the realities of city life, a complexity reflected as clearly in the trio’s lyricism as it was in the pioneering production of former Stetsasonic DJ Prince Paul.
Freely framing their songs with a “game show” (which played no small part in the proliferation of skits that bogged down so many hip-hop albums for years to come), Prince Paul assembled the band’s playful creativity into a musical and existential journey. that rejected traditional signifiers of wealth or success, expressed thoughtfulness and vulnerability, and exuded exuberance and good old fun. As the trio looked at their culture and interiority, Paul paired their insights and playfulness with musical detours that flowed effortlessly like pieces of dozens of different puzzles that fit together perfectly, like bouncing off a serious love song ( “Eye Know”) to a dismantling of consumerist trends (“Take It Off”) to an environmental call to arms (“Tread Water”). Additionally, their singles not only featured remixes of mind-blowing tracks, good for the original , but B-sides like “Brain Washed Follower” and the “Muppet Show Theme” sample “Double Huey Skit” which further explore the themes covered on the album. But perhaps most importantly, it was incredibly, without eye-catching effort from start to finish without giving in to anything even remotely fashionable.
Unfortunately, they would not enjoy the same freedom from the outside or the inside on “De La Soul is Dead” an even more ambitious yet surprisingly defensive follow-up that slapped critics of the band’s “DAISY Age” philosophies – starting with the cover art depicting an overturned yellow flowerpot. Even as Paul deepened and diversified his sample base (Serge Gainsbourg, the Doors, Tom Waits), the three rappers reflected on the pitfalls of success while redoubling their commentary on the cultural and social ills that many of their contemporaries were only so happy to find out. exploit.
Although the record did not produce as many hit singles as its predecessor, “De La Soul is Dead” took many years to be fully appreciated, including by fans. Even by the band’s own standards, it was a maximalist effort, incorporating more skits and digressions than “3 Feet High” (this time with a children’s book theme instead of a game show) and exploring musical territory that was not as enjoyable as before. ; tracks like ‘Johnny’s Dead AKA Vincent Mason (Live from the BK Lounge)’ and ‘Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum)’ even ironically lean more towards bitterness than the buoyancy of the past . The album’s remixes and B-sides brought a certain levity, such as “What Yo Life Can Truly Be”, where Paul adds a chorus of Woody Woodpecker laughing at their dance party single “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’ and enlists Tribe Called Quest member A Q-Tip for a verse.
To call the band’s third album, “Buhloone’s State of Mind”, more restrained is a claim that could only be made with De La Soul’s discography: at 15 tracks, it was their shortest album to date, and its interludes are either too brief or too bizarre to qualify. of skits in the way they were created for the previous two ones. But unlike, say, the deep jazz samples of A Tribe Called Quest, Paul and the trio have embraced the spirit of jazz (and some real-life luminaries) for a colorful, dynamic and perhaps most introspective record. While it’s easy to forget how brave Posdnuos was back in the day to rap “Fuck being hard / Posdnuos is complicated” on “In the Woods,” listening to the entire record just reiterates to how out of step it was with virtually all hip-hop at the time, and why so little else in the genre’s history sounds like it.
It’s a record that features legendary saxophonist James Brown/P-Funk/Prince Maceo Parker to play on three tracks, one of which is just an instrumental that Parker riffs on. It’s a record where Japanese rappers SDP and Tagaki Kan melt the ears of American hip-hop fans with a 90-second showcase of rap’s reach in other cultures. And it’s a record where Posdnuos and Trugoy unfold their autobiographies, encapsulating personal, professional, economic and artistic struggles with a balance of honesty and optimism that has become synonymous with their best work. In interviews, Paul says it’s the record that many comedians (including Chris Rock, whose “Bigger and Blacker” he produced) say is their favorite, despite lacking the crazy humor it brought. to his previous collaborations with the group.
Paul and De La Soul split before their fourth album “The stakes are high” which further explored their concerns about the recording industry and the state of hip-hop. The trio produced the lion’s share of the LP themselves, a choice that unifies the sound of the record but eliminates the idiosyncrasies – and perhaps the personality – that Paul brought to their music. As a result, the record sounds comparatively much more generic than its predecessors, though there are more than a handful of great tracks, including “Supa Emcees”, “The Bizness” (featuring Common) and the title track produced by Jay Dee. .
In the menacing shadow of their work with Prince Paul, the record simply couldn’t compare, but it was a necessary step for both the band and their iconic producer. While Paul teamed up with Dr. Octagon/Gorillaz producer Dan the Automator for Handsome Boy Modeling School, De La embarked on what might have turned out to be their most ambitious project to date: a triple album entitled “Art Official Intelligence”. Producing again for themselves – save for a few nips from chart-topping J Dilla, Rockwilder and Paul on the club banger “Ooooh.”, they delivered it in sections, starting by “Mosaic Thump” in 2000, and a follow-up, “Bionix”, a year later.
“Mosaic Blow” featured a revolving door of guest stars, including Redman, Xzibit, Busta Rhymes, Mike D and Adrock of the Beastie Boys, and even singer Chaka Khan. But while their subject matter is still razor sharp, the production sounds too much like what else was going on in hip-hop at the time. The Chaka Khan with “All Good?” could easily have been played by Fabolous or Ja Rule, for example; and for better or worse, Marvin Gaye’s sample “With Me” sounds like an empty run for Erick Sermon’s “Music,” which a year later reached No. 2 on the US Hot R&B/ Hip Hop Songs.
“Bionix” is similar but different: again handling the lion’s share of the producer, De La Soul sticks to midtempo beats even as they bend in intriguing samples from Cal Tjader and Paul McCartney (the latter making “Wonderful Christmastime” funky for the first and only beat in the song’s history). They even revived skits for the taping, with a thread featuring “Reverend Do Good,” a character that allowed them to offer additional social commentary. While like the first installment there are a handful of hard-hitting tracks, these mid-career recordings lack the adventure, irreverence and exploration of their early releases.
These six albums, which arrived after so many years in the wilderness, are like a time capsule of a formative age, revealing influences that, due to their long absence from the mainstream, generations of hip-hop fans n were probably unaware. What will they think? Time will tell us. But finally, after decades of waiting (and contrary to the title of their second album), De La Soul’s music is widely available, for generations to come.