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The timeless innovations of De La Soul, now (finally) available for the streaming generation

Before De La Soul, says Hank Shocklee, “beautiful and rap weren’t two words that went together.”

Shocklee would know: As a founding member of Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad, he is as responsible as anyone for shaping the blaring, dissonant, belligerent sound of hip-hop in the mid-to-late 1980s. when the music “was almost like a football game – just hitting you on the head,” as the producer puts it.

But less than a year after Public Enemy released the pummeling “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” — and NWA released the furious “Straight Outta Compton” — De La Soul’s three middle-class misfits from Long Island dropped in 1989 “3 Feet High and Rising,” a lush and whimsical debut that “wasn’t abrasive or agitated or in your face,” says Shocklee. Intricately put together by De La Soul and their producer, Prince Paul, from dozens of samples of widely-released songs by the likes of Steely Dan, Liberace, and Hall & Oates, the LP showcased a more playful and melodic idea of ​​hip-hop, with the rappers musing on identity and friendship and lust in a coded language over welcoming, slightly psychedelic grooves riddled with hooks.

“It gave rap a different sonic texture – a mushroom and daisies vibration,” Shocklee says of “3 Feet High and Rising.” “Rap at the time was all about confrontation, and it was pretty much all screaming. You wanted your voice to be heard, so you shouted it out. But these guys had a different opinion. It was very, very relaxed. And man, it was just Nice.”

The album was an instant success with listeners and tastemakers alike, topping the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll and charting at #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart with the exuberant “Me Myself and I,” which earned a Grammy nomination. for rap performance. (Young MC’s “Bust a Move” ended up winning both “Me Myself and I” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”.) Longer term, De La Soul’s innovations—Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur and Vincent “Maseo” Mason – “expanding the cultural tent of what hip-hop could be and who saw themselves in it,” says author and professor Dan Charnas, making room for future risk-takers like Outkast, Kanye West, Lil Yachty, and Tyler, the creator.

“If you want to talk about hip-hop and its 50th anniversary” – as many are this year, half a century after DJ Kool Herc rocked a back-to-school party in the Bronx in 1973 – “one of the reasons hip-hop hop is just as could grow and mature as well as it did,” adds Charnas, “is De La’s aesthetic and musical expansionism.”

For all its influence, the group’s music has been frustratingly hard to hear in recent years, the unfortunate result of a series of record industry disputes that kept much of its back catalog from streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Music. But that’s finally about to change Friday with the belated digital arrival of De La Soul’s first six LPs, which comes in a tragic twist just weeks after Jolicoeur’s death last month at age 54.

In an Instagram tribute to his late bandmate, who spoke of his struggle with congestive heart failure, Maseo wrote: “On the one hand, I’m glad you no longer have to suffer the pain of your condition, but on the other hand, I’m extremely angry that you are not here to celebrate and enjoy what we have worked and fought so hard for.”

De La Soul outside Harlem, New York’s Apollo Theater in 1993.

(David Corio/Getty Images)

Why exactly De La Soul’s classic albums took so long to get streamed – in addition to “3 Feet High and Rising,” Friday’s release includes 1991’s “De La Soul Is Dead” and 1993’s “Buhloone Mindstate” — is a complicated story about sample release issues and disagreements over money between the trio and their old label, Tommy Boy Records. The 2021 sale of Tommy Boy to music company Reservoir Media for a reported $100 million is apparently what sparked the deal, according to Dante Ross, who signed De La Soul and worked as the group’s first A&R rep before taking the led careers. from Brand Nubian, MF Doom, Busta Rhymes and others. (He’s the Dante affectionately ribbed as “a scrub” in a song from “3 Feet High and Rising”.)

“But it had always seemed inevitable that one day it would happen because of public demand,” says Ross.

To dive back into De La Soul’s early music of today, when the phrase “information overload” takes you about halfway through the experience of scrolling through TikTok, you marvel at the foreknowledge of the silly sonic approach – the all-goes flattening of old hierarchies of taste — plays a role in a song like “The Magic Number,” which mixes bits of Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes,” Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge” (via a Double Dee & Steinski song from the middle of the 1980s) and the soundtrack of the children’s TV special ‘Multiplication Rock’.

“In rap, you always knew where you were going to get your samples from, and back then it was funky, hard-hitting R&B,” says Shocklee. “Then there were areas that you didn’t really get into — more folksy stuff, for example. But (Prince) Paul used Johnny Cash and he used the Turtles. He tasted things that were not our first impulse when we went looking for a sample.” (In 1991, the Turtles sued De La Soul for more than $1 million for using a snippet of the band’s 1960s “You Showed Me” on “3 Feet High and Rising”.)

Shocklee says the freewheeling sound of De La Soul’s debut inspired him to think broader for Public Enemy’s 1990 LP, “Fear of a Black Planet.” “I was looking for different textures, different emotional sides of the tapestry, whether it was some Beatles stuff we used or things I would consider a bit more esoteric,” he says. “It was like, OK, now we have the freedom to go in a different direction because these guys came out with a very different frequency.”

Ross says, “Suddenly people making beats realized they could sample a Carole King record.”

The exec, who attributes De La Soul’s omnivorous tastes in part to the members growing up listening to New York’s Top 40 WABC radio station, points out that Posdnuos, Trugoy and Maseo were “more involved in their production than many people knew . They had files and knew how to use equipment. Paul sorted it out; he cleaned things up. But I was there when Pos made’Eye knows,” he says of the tender and funky single “3 Feet.” “He borrowed my Lee Dorsey record and made it himself.” (Prince Paul is still active and recently teamed up with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, who played De La Soul on the 2005 Grammy-winning “Feel Good Inc.”.)

Asked to compare “3 Feet High and Rising” to 1989’s other seminal sampling work – “Paul’s Boutique” by his friends the Beastie Boys – Ross says, “Well, for starters, De La Soul just rap better than the Beastie Boys. It’s more poetic, more original.The Beasties were working on a paradigm that was written by Run-DMC, and De La Soul was working on a paradigm that was written by De La Soul.

But he also signals a clear attitude in the sampling. The Beastie Boys, who made “Paul’s Boutique” with the Dust Brothers, “really tried to show everything they could: ‘Look at me! Look what I’ve got!’” says Ross. “While De La Soul was much more natural and organic. It didn’t have that swaggering feel.”

Indeed, the trio’s relative softness on “3 Feet High and Rising” led some to “think of them as soft,” says Charnas. “Not the people actually in hip-hop – everyone in hip-hop loved De La Soul – but backwoods idiots to toxic masculinity. The group’s thoroughly painted fashion sense and use of flowers and peace signs established the idea of ​​De La Soul as “the hippies of hip-hop,” as Arsenio Hall famously introduced them on his TV show; an advertising campaign explicitly targeted shoppers of white record stores with the slogan “I came in for U2 – I came out with De La Soul.”

Members quickly grew tired of the image. “People questioned their Blackness, which they didn’t appreciate,” says Ross, adding that “they’ve been known to pass out a few knuckle sandwiches along the way.” De La Soul’s “3 Feet” follow-up made the group’s feelings clear: darker and more caustic than their debut (even though it retained the dense patchwork of samples), “De La Soul Is Dead” reflected on drug abuse and the obligations of fame in the midst of an ongoing meta-story of whether or not the band dropped out; as with “3 Feet’s” late-stage social media anticipation, “De La Soul Is Dead” now feels like it set the table for the brooding self-awareness of a project like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta.”

Ross, who had moved from Tommy Boy to a gig at Elektra Records by the time the album came out, heard “De La Soul Is Dead” as a “middle finger to the label” for perhaps leaning too heavily into the hippie angle. “I saw Tom Silverman squirm when he heard the title, which is always fun to do,” he says of the founder of Tommy Boy, with whom De La Soul has feuded over contract matters.

A hip-hop trip performs on stage.

De La Soul performing in 2017.

(Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)

To Charnas’ ears, “De La Soul Is Dead” reflects the group’s exhaustion from “pushing against the hip-hop status quo, which was very taxing on them.” At the time of its release, he adds, “the culture is already moving in a different direction. Cypress Hill introduces this weed-induced somnambulance, and Dr. Dre is about to create the G-funk thing.

In a way, though, it turned out to be something of a boon for De La Soul, who places Ross in a lineage of “great black outsiders from Sun Ra to Rammellzee to Parliament-Funkadelic to Pharoah Sanders.” Instead of stopping after ‘De La Soul Is Dead’, the group continued to explore with the jazzy ‘Buhloone Mindstate’ and the mournful but hard hitting ‘Stakes Is High’. In an art form that is now only entering middle age itself, De La Soul stuck together to become a model of endurance, which for Shocklee “is what puts them in my hall of fame,” he says.

“That’s why Dave’s passing surprised me, because it happened exactly like this group that was the pinnacle of everything a group should be — right when they were about to have another rebirth.”

Will the music’s availability on streaming, which will be celebrated with a tribute to Jolicoeur on Thursday night at New York’s Webster Hall, foster a connection with a new generation of fans? The group’s most recent album, 2016’s “And the anonymous nobody…made minimal impact (although the trio remained a reliable live draw last year). And no one in hip-hop currently really sounds like De La Soul, which is, of course, a sign of the genre’s health — of its continued commitment to the kind of change that De La Soul embodied from the start.

Yet the group’s legacy is palpable, albeit indirectly, in rap’s increasing emphasis on melody and in its ever-expanding emotional bandwidth; more importantly, the trio’s classic material can still hold you back, like when “The Magic Number” showed up in the 2021 blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

“It remains to be seen if the music will translate to youth,” says Ross. “But anyone who makes smart, cerebral music within the idiom of hip-hop – whether they know it or not – owes something to De La Soul. I don’t think that will ever change.”