When I first heard De La Soul’s debut, Three Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989), I must admit to being both puzzled and astounded. Its unique game show format replete with silly skits and apparently inside jokes had me scratching my head. Was this a comedy album? A spoof of a rap record? Or an actual rap record. What about the candy-colored cover and those crazy haircuts that the group’s members sported? The whole package was just so bizarre and different than anything else out that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. At the same time, however, I marveled at the record’s creativity and how amazing it sounded. It blew up every rap stereotype on every level—from the samples used to the song structure and lyrical content, and, of course, the album’s whole conceptual nature. De La seemed to speak in their own language, inventing slang like “Jennifer” (for vagina) and “Strictly Dan Stuckie” (meaning awesome). Meanwhile, they sampled everything from P-funk to French language records to Hall & Oats. The album’s sequence was so perfect that all you had to do was put it in your tape deck and press play. After the 23 tracks ran their course, I listened to it again and again in an effort to decode it. Though never able, I, at least, enjoyed the hell out of it for a very long time.
As a college student at the time, I can attest that this was an album that played well on campus. Songs like “Me, Myself, and I,” “Plug Tunin’,” “Say No Go,” “Potholes in My Lawn,” and “Buddy,” were certified party rockers that, unlike most rap, appealed to the ladies as well. The record was also Walkman-friendly--one that you could roll with in between classes since there was so much to digest. In fact, it took years for me to appreciate some of its genius. Just after graduating, De La dropped another hot one, De La Soul is Dead (Tommy Boy, 1991) that picked up where they left off. Though it was a very different album—more grown-up, and even a little darker—I could tell that this group’s creative credentials were untouchable. By this time, I was well acquainted with the crazy antics of Posdnuos (aka Kelvin Mercer), DJ Maseo (Vincent Lamont Maceo Jr.), and Trugoy the Dove (Dave Jolicoeur), three buddies from Long Island’s Amityville High, who had hooked up with producer Prince Paul (aka Paul Huston), formerly a deejay for the Brooklyn outfit Stetsasonic. These guys could do no wrong in my mind.
Like clockwork, 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate (Tommy Boy) represented a further evolution for the group as they continued to push boundaries and just do their own thing irrespective of what else was going on in hip-hop. Unfortunately, by their fourth studio LP, Stakes is High (Tommy Boy, 1996), I could see cracks in the foundation as the team parted ways with creative director Prince Paul. Once again, I think it was a case of the business interfering with the music, and for the next few years, De La’s well-documented problems with their record company Tommy Boy began.
Even though they released albums like Art of Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000) and AOI: Bionix (2001), in quick succession, these records did not pack the same punch as their earlier work. They seemed to get back some of their mojo on The Grind Date (Sanctuary/BMG, 2004) featuring cameos by MF DOOM, Ghostface Killah, and Flavor Flav. But ongoing legal battles with Tommy Boy hampered their output for much of the 2000s. It wasn’t until 2016 when the group released And the Anonymous Nobody, funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $110,000 in under ten hours, that their enduring popularity was confirmed.
Last year, De La made waves once again when they announced the end of their legal battles with Tommy Boy. Thanks to the acquisition of their catalog by a company called Reservoir, fans would finally have access to their music on streaming services. It’s worth it to dig in and listen back to those early releases, because they still hold up today, sounding dope and creative as ever--the definition of classic.