De La Soul’s Trugoy Exemplified Hip-Hop’s Constant Reach For Reinvention

The last time I wrote at length about De La Soul was on the 30th anniversary of their groundbreaking debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising. I fully expected to write about them again, especially with their catalog coming to streaming for the first time, but not so soon and definitely not like this.

On Sunday, February 12, Dave Jolicoeur, aka Trugoy The Dove, aka Plug Two, passed away at the age of 54. He’d had a number of public struggles with his health in recent years, including a battle with congestive heart failure in 2018, and a hospitalization in 2020.

The news was devastating to hip-hop as a whole, with an outpouring of grief coming from a plethora of the genre’s most prominent stars, including frequent collaborator Common. Social media was deluged in tribute posts from Dave’s fellow Native Tongues, as well as rappers, producers, and music business veterans.

The timing of his death felt like an especially cruel irony. Just days before, De La Soul had been pivotal in the Grammys’ 50 Years Of Hip-Hop tribute, and in just over two weeks, De La Soul’s catalog would be available for the first time to generations of rap fans who’d always heard about their influence but perhaps had yet to experience the trio’s pioneering music for themselves.

I was one of those who lived it in real time; although I was too young to really appreciate the stylistic experimentation of 3 Feet High, De La Soul Is Dead, and Buhloone MIndstate, my teen years were informed — actually almost wholly consumed — by De La’s latter output. In fact, the first rap CD I bought with my own money from my first summer job was Stakes Is High, the group’s 1996 diatribe against the ongoing commercialization (read: selling out) of hip-hop.

Stakes Is High was a huge part of the reason I spent my high school years sneering down my nose at my peers for bumping “mainstream,” radio-friendly rap (I know, I know, but at least I grew out of it, right?). It was the album that introduced the world to Mos Def — now known as Yasiin Bey — and contributed greatly to the rise of the legend of J Dilla, who was known then as Jay Dee.

It was also the album that developed my appreciation for Trugoy’s lyrical talents. “Itzsoweezee (Hot)” was the album’s second single, and Dave is the only group member to rap on it — it’s also the first De La Soul record I remember memorizing from top to bottom. It was never a huge hit, but it wound up informing the way I came to perceive rap.

It’s also emblematic of his style as a whole; breezy but cerebral, freewheeling but precise. When I say that no one in hip-hop has ever rapped like Trugoy — before or since — I need you to know that it’s one of the few inarguable statements I’ve ever written on this site. Despite the somewhat grumpy outlook of the beloved album, Dave refused to be as staid as rap peers who felt the same way, infusing his rhymes with the sort of humor that underpins De La’s longevity compared to those peers who fell by the wayside.

“See them Cubans don’t care what y’all n****s do,” he rhymed, undercutting the rising wave of studio gangsterism he saw infiltrating hip-hop. “Colombians ain’t never ran with your crew / Why you acting all spicy and shiesty? The only Italians you knew was icees.” Sure, rap may have been inundated with phony mobsters who rhymed scenes straight out of New Jack City, but all Dave could do was laugh at them.

On future De La standouts, Trugoy showed his versatility, from the languid party rhymes of “Oooh.” to the body-positive come-ons of “Baby Phat.” He never lost his edge, though; on “Rock Co.Kane Flow” from the group’s 2004 album The Grind Date (the last they’d record until 2016 as record label disputes waylaid their continued output), he closes the punishing posse cut with a defiant dismissal of any insinuation that the crew had aged out of relevance:

The elements are airborne, I smell the success
(Yo let’s cookie cut the shit and get the gingerbread, man)
Sacrifice mics and push drugs to these rappers
Puff ponies ’til I turn blue in the lips
Sipping broads like 7-Up (ahh) so refreshing
I finger pop these verses like first dates
The birthdate’s September 2-1, 1-9, 6-8
Too old to rhyme, too bad, too late

Trugoy, and his rhyme partners Posdnuos and Maceo, were unafraid to age in what many have long considered a young man’s game. From opening the doors of hip-hop to hippies and iconoclasts to challenging the status quo, he was always unafraid to zig where others zagged, standing in opposition to complacency and intertia in favor of surprise and reinvention.

On March 3, the world will finally be able to revisit De La’s catalog and appreciate the efforts Dave made toward constant progression. It’s tragic that he won’t be here to enjoy being celebrated, but one thing that we can be sure of is that he would only have continued to extend, to reach, to strive for that elusive sense of originality and joy that made hip-hop such a global force to begin with. Although he’s gone, at the very least, his musical legacy will live on to inspire future generations to do the same.