From The Soul: The Music and Influence of De La (Part One)

08.19.08 9 years ago 110 Comments

I’m a certified music junkie. I own hundreds of CD’s, mixtapes and cassettes. I lost count of my record collection years ago. I’ve been to many a live show and I’ve rocked for big crowds as a party DJ. Throughout the countless hours I’ve spent listening to music over the years, no group has had more of an influence on me than De La Soul. I can say with a straight face that their music has changed my life.

The more I’ve talked about De La Soul with people in the music scene, the more I’ve become aware of how many different lives they’ve touched. I decided one day that I wanted to write an article that captured the significance of their music. I asked my boy Sloppy White, a Chicago-based rare rap record aficionado, to share some of his thoughts on De La to help kick start some brainstorming. He finished his email to me by saying “To me, 3 Feet High and Rising epitomizes what a Hip-Hop album can be: funny, creative, funky, political, dirty and way out there. The only rules are the ones you put on yourself.” The last two lines of his email stuck with me. “When it came to following rules, De La Soul usually said “Fuck that.” They rarely went with the hottest gimmicks, guest MC’s and producers. They did what worked for them.”

De La stuck to their guns and did what they did best. Instead of following trends, they set them, or just ignored them completely. They made music from the soul. And they continued to challenge us as listeners as much as they challenged themselves as musicians.

Fortunately for fans like me, De La has not been resting on their past success. With the 20th anniversary of their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising approaching, there is talk of a tour where the group will perform the album from beginning to end. They are also working on a project with sneaker giant Nike and performing at this years Rock the Bells tour. Most recently, it was announced that the group has been selected to be one of this year’s VH1’s Hip-Honors recipients.

With so many projects on the horizon & well-deserved accolades on the way, TSS decided to take our readers on a musical trip down memory lane. Here is a look back at their first four albums through the eyes of those who were inspired by their work.

Jaycee, member of The Aphiliates, Ludacris’ Tour DJ, Mixtape DJ, on 3 Feet High and Rising:

The first time I heard De La Soul was back in ’88. I was listening to the radio and “Plug Tunin”’ came on. They were playing it on this mix show that used to come on every Friday night on V103 called “The Fresh Party.” I can’t even tell you how wack I thought that name was. (Laughs) This Spanish lady named Wanda Ramos was the host of the show. When I first heard “Plug Tunin”’ I thought it was dope but I didn’t know who it was.

At the time I had this friend named Boobie from my neighborhood who had turntables before I did. A lot of times I would practice at his house. He was a real spoiled kid. He was the youngest and his mom would literally give him anything he wanted. If he said he wanted a Technics 1200 turntable she would work extra hours so he could get one. I can’t even begin to tell you how spoiled this motherfucker was.

On the weekends we’d get on the bus and go all over the city copping records from different spots. We’d go to Lenox Square, Greenbriar and a bunch of other malls. We’d start early and try to hit as many malls as we could. We took the bus and we’d haul records around with us all day.

As upcoming DJ’s we had this thing with labels. If you saw an album released on a label with a track record of releasing dope shit, you’d pick up the record based on the other stuff the label has put out. We picked up doubles of “Plug Tunin” without listening to it because it said “Produced by Prince Paul” on the sticker and it was on Tommy Boy, which was home to Stetsasonic and Fresh Gordon. We brought it back to the crib and listened to it I was like, “Oh shit, that’s the record I heard on ‘The Fresh Party.'”

When the “Potholes In My Lawn” single came out, I thought the cover was kind of weird. It had a hot pink color and these three goofy looking dudes on it with flowers and African medallions and shit. There was no visual for “Plug Tunin,” so we didn’t know what these dudes looked like until we saw the cover for “Potholes.” I remember thinking, “They look kind of weird, but fuck it. I trust them because ‘Plug Tunin’ was dope.”

What really sold me on De La was “Me, Myself and I,” which came out as a single slightly before the album dropped. They absolutely killed the “(Not Just) Knee Deep” loop by Funkadelic. That shit was so dope to me. Another standout cut from 3 Feet High for me was “Eye Know.” As a kid growing up in Detroit, they used to play the hell out of “Peg” by Steely Dan on the radio, so upon hearing the opening notes, that shit was an instant head nod. The skits were funny as hell too.

I was already digging the album version of “Buddy,” but then they came out with a video for the remix that used the Taana Gardner “Heartbeat” sample. They also had Monie Love on the cut and I was jocking her hard. After her appearance on Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First,” anything she was on would get an automatic listen because she didn’t sound like nobody else and it was cool to hear a chick from overseas rap.

When I got 3 Feet High and Rising I remember listening to it on the bus and thinking, “Damn, they’re not using the typical samples that other people are using.” A lot of early to mid 80’s rap was based on James Brown loops and Ultimate Breaks and Beats samples. A lot of Def Jam’s sound was ruled by straight Roland TR-808 with samples manually layered on top of it. If you listen to Original Concept’s “Pump That Bass”, “Charlie Sez” and “Knowledge Me” as well as the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill stuff, it’s real bass heavy. De La just didn’t sound like anything else, period. I was so impressed with the album that I bought it on all formats: CD, cassette, and LP. My only complaint was that Tommy Boy didn’t press the vinyl loud enough. Whoever mastered the vinyl for the album needs their ass kicked (Laughs). That shit was low as hell.

Ethan Brown, author of Queens Reigns Supreme and Snitch, on De La Soul Is Dead:

3 Feet High and Rising was embraced in a huge way. It was a big commercial success and it was one of the first hip hop records to reach a white college audience. There where really high stakes when it came time to do De La’s second record. I was a young kid when 3 Feet High and Rising came out. Honestly, I didn’t get it. For me, it had a really heavy college, almost fraternity vibe. I didn’t understand De La Soul until their second record.

While I wasn’t initially big on 3 Feet High…, I loved De La Soul Is Dead immediately. To make that album the way they did…it was insane. Essentially it was a big fuck you album to everyone. Maybe they would disagree, but in a weird way I also felt like it was a fuck you to their fans and people who liked their first record. I was in college when that record came out and while I was a hip hop fan growing up; I got deeply into it during college. I remember being completely blown away by how sophisticated their sampling was throughout the album. De La Soul is Dead came out when people were rediscovering old Funkadelic records and there were some incredible Funkadelic samples on the album. They utilized cuts like “I’ll Stay,” which they sampled in a big way for “Millie Pulled A Pistol on Santa.” “I’ll Stay” is one of my favorite Funkadelic songs ever.

I was really getting into Funkadelic at the same time I was listening to De La Soul Is Dead. Everyone tried hard to figure out what records they were sampling. It was almost like a competition to see who could figure it out first. This was before the Funkadelic catalogue was released on CD and it was difficult to get certain Funkadelic records. Some of them would cost you 40 to 50 bucks. This was also around the time The Chronic came out. That album was sampling Funkadelic as well, but in a very different way. You could easily tell what was being sampled. Dre would just jack the chorus sometimes, so you knew what the source material was. But with Paul and De La, it was much more mysterious.

Paul was sort of like a Timbaland-equivalent producer before hip hop became a big business. What I mean by that is that Paul was getting called in to produce records for Big Daddy Kane and Queen Latifah. He had a side of him that was known as a “go to” producer, but he was doing it at a time when Hip-Hop was a lot smaller. Not only can Paul do individual records for big name artists, he also has this incredible conceptual mind as he has shown on albums like 6 Feet Deep, A Prince Among Thieves, 3 Feet High and Rising, and De La Soul Is Dead. It’s a fascinating mix and I don’t think anyone in hip hop has ever duplicated what he’s done throughout his career.

I guess when you do something relatively successful as a first project; you get pegged as a certain thing. If you’re at all interesting, I think you find yourself trying to smash the expectation. Throughout their career, De La has shown that they are willing to tear up the blueprint of their previous album. De La could have easily done 3 Feet High and Rising Part 2, especially when you think of Prince Paul’s sampling skills. Instead, they chose to create an album that was difficult in every way. Everyone knows that Paul likes to use of skits and how important they were to some of his records. De La Soul Is Dead has so many skits that it’s almost out of control. From the music, to the skits, to the bell sounds used to keep with the storybook theme, all the way to the weird Burger King fixation that you hear in a bunch of the songs, it was an incredibly challenging record.

DJ Sorce-1 on Buhloone Mindstate:

Buhloone Mindstate is a strange De La album. In terms of production, I’ve had the hardest time digesting this one. I always like “Breakadawn” and “I Am I Be,” but I think a lot of the rest of this album went over my head when initially heard it. Sometimes great albums take a while for me to fully process.

While this album was not an initial favorite of mine, as time has passed Buhloone Mindstate has obtained a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. For one thing, one of the first 12″ singles I ever purchased was “Breakadawn.” I bought it during my first summer of heavy duty record shopping. The year was ’99 and I was in 9th grade. I was working full-time and getting paid under the table, so I was literally blowing hundreds of dollars a week on records.

I remember finding “Breakadawn” in a crate at one of the local stores and pulling it out. It was a re-issue, but who cares? I copped it and listened to it over and over again. The beat fit that summer’s vibe like a glove. Being 15, partying, sneaking out late at night, doing shit I shouldn’t have be doing…all of that comes back whenever I hear that beat drop. Different De La material brings up memories from various points in my life. For “Breakadawn,” it’s the summer after my freshmen year of high school.

It seems like with each album De La grows in terms of flow and lyrics and Buhloone Mindstate is no exception. Posdonus in particular made me hit rewind numerous times with lines like, “Fuck being hard, Posdnuos is complicated.” To me, this line says so much about Posdonus as a rapper. Throughout his career, he somehow always managed to make the status quo in rap look silly without sounding pretentious or lame. In my book, Pos is one of the illest to ever grab a mic.

Buhloone Mindstate also represented a dramatic shift in some of the larger collectives De La belonged to. As Pos rapped:

Or some tongues who lied
And said “We’ll be natives to the end”
Nowadays we don’t even speak
I guess we got our own life to live
Or is it because we want our own kingdom to rule

On “I Am I Be,” it alerted fans to the fact that the Native Tongues posse was experiencing inner turmoil. While Pos would later claim, “That’s why the Native Tongues has officially been reinstated” on “Stakes Is High,” the crew’s presence could never duplicate what it was during the early days of De La.

The change in relations with certain Native Tongues members would foreshadow another monumental change the group would have to endure. Honorary fourth member Prince Paul parted ways with the group after the completion of this album. That was a hard change for me to accept partially because Paul is my favorite producer of all time. Although I think De La Soul’s material post-Prince Paul has been amazing, he has yet to work on an entire album with the group since Buhloone Mindstate. I’d like to see that happen again some day.

I’ve always viewed De La Soul as The Beatles of rap. They’ve been able to reinvent themselves with each album and not miss the mark during the process. Buhloone Mindsate is a shining example of that. Fans looking for a simple return to 3 Feet High and Rising or De La Soul Is Dead may have been disappointed, but they shouldn’t have been. They were instead given another excellent album that went in a completely different direction musically.

Prince Paul (Former De La Soul Collaborator and Super Producer) on Stakes Is High:

We started recording Stakes Is High at my house. I had the ADAT system that they used early on. We parted ways during the early part of recording that album. For us, the transition of De La working with me to working alone was pretty easy. First and foremost, I’m a fan of De La’s work. I love Stakes Is High…a lot. I’ve always told them that out of all of the albums they’ve made, that one is my favorite. As ironic as that is, I like it even more than the ones I worked on.

Stakes Is High has a lot of personal significance for me because I was going through a serious transition period in my life when that album dropped. I was trying to figure out the next thing I was going to do; I was going through a custody case for my son, and I was running out of money. There were a lot of things going on at the time and in a sense, that album pulled me through everything. I listen to that album as a fan more than a producer or someone who scrutinizes it and picks it apart. I think that’s why I enjoy it so much. I listen to the De La albums that I produced with more of a critical ear. I can sit and enjoy them at times, but I tend to pick apart certain things that we did.

Outro with Brian Coleman, Author of Check the Technique: Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies

After talking to the group for my book, it’s interesting to see how sensitive they were as artists and how success fucked them up so badly. I think it was both good and bad for them. It was good because it helped them make some really good music with De La Soul is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate. It was also unfortunate because it made them somewhat bitter and I think that showed itself Stakes Is High. There’s world weariness on Stakes Is High that wasn’t there on 3 Feet High and Rising.

I guess it happens to everyone as they get older. You become more world weary and lose that brightness that was in your eyes when you were 18 years old. The good thing is that after this happened; they were still making good music. It was just a very different De La Soul. I think the Stakes Is High De La is still around today and there is a very dark edge to what they’re doing now. It’s not all “Daisy Age.” I think there’s a bit in their music that’s upset that it’s harder than it should be to make good music and have it be successful.

Throughout their career, De La has had a lot lower profile than some other groups. They’ve never been hugely popular post-3 Feet High and Rising. To be fair, part of that is their choosing. They could have done a whole bunch of stuff along the lines of “Me, Myself, and I” and made a shitload more money on their second album. They made a conscious decision not to do that.

I don’t know if De La Soul has any regrets about their decision to shy away from pop records. They aren’t just sitting back on their laurels and lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills, but I consider De La Soul hugely successful. They still tour actively to this day and they just put out the Impossible Mission Mix Tape. They have their priorities and I don’t get the impression that their main priority has ever been popular success. I get the sense that all of the De La guys are very comfortable with their role in the group. They aren’t fighting to be doper than one another; they just make great music together. That’s what longevity is.

Be sure to check back for Part Two, Reconstructing The De La Soul Years With Prince Paul.

For now, download & listen to the companion piece, The Smoking Section Presents From The Soul: The Music & Influence Of De La Soul.

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