It was 1991 and De La Soul was fucked. The group’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, had come out in 1989 and made them critical darlings, topping that year’s Pazz and Jop poll of the year’s finest records. The album beat back the formidable challenges posed by that year’s other critical faves, Neil Young’s Freedom and Lou Reed’s New York, to win the top spot. Like I said, De La Soul, a group as interested as any in 1989 in proving themselves to be a vital force in contemporary pop music, was fucked.
To make matters worse, boosters had damned De La Soul with accolades that praised the trio—consisting of MCs Posdnuos and Trugoy the Dove, alongside DJ Maseo—for their gleeful positivity, sweet gentleness, and all-around good intentions. Though they had perpetuated the rather silly phrase “daisy age”, this turn of events wasn’t entirely De La Soul’s fault. Their debut’s bizarro humor and absurdist sensibility wasn’t without its own eccentric edge. But the album came at a moment when any number of concerned critics decided to adopt a Horatio-on-the-bridge stance vis-à-vis emerging trends in hip-hop, wherein up and coming MCs demonstrated an enthusiasm for fighting, fucking, and making money that alarmed the professionally high-minded everywhere. De La Soul’s dedication to varieties of blissed out strangeness and sophomoric goofiness was heard as an anti-dote to gangsta rap. De La Soul thus became the great hope for good manners and healthy living in the hip-hop world, the nice guys from Long Island who would eventually triumph over those scary L.A. bullies like NWA and Ice-T. (Did I mention that De La Soul were fucked?) Things reached their nadir during De La Soul’s 1989 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, during which the former Alan Thicke sidekick and then current arbiter of hip—it was a strange world, children—introduced the group as the “hippies of hip-hop”.
Their follow-up, 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead, tried to set the record straight. De La Soul Is Dead makes many moves meant to confound everybody who thought they had the group figured out, but its most influential gambit remains the inspired, playful skits that weave their way around the tracks. In 1991, the hip-hop skit was still relatively new, having been popularized by De La Soul themselves. De La Soul Is Dead represents the apex of the artform, an easy enough accomplishment given the plethora of skits that serve little purpose beyond shoving in dumb jokes or giving voice to desperate hangers-on. But here, the skits raise the stakes, providing a bitterly funny backdrop for understanding the album’s ambitions.
In the opening, a group of kids busily debating the merits of Vanilla Ice discover a demo tape of De La Soul’s latest in a trash bin, indicating this is an album meant for the garbage heap, a disposable product that embraces its own obsolescence in the pop cacophony that Vanilla Ice so ably epitomized. But before the kids can become our surrogate listeners, a couple of De La Soul-despising low-lifes snatch the tape away, and spend the rest of the album injecting largely unfavorable asides for the listener’s edification. The result plays out as a supremely canny move, an expression of panic and self-doubt in the form of an uproariously funny putdown of the group’s critics. The members of De La Soul weren’t spaced-out hippies—they were deeply neurotic comedians.
Throughout the album, De La Soul demonstrates a scathing, scattershot comic sensibility that evokes the anarchic nonsense of both the Marx Brothers and Richard Pryor. hip-hop’s connections to stand-up comedy, especially as assayed by Pryor, are often asserted, but only periodically audible on the records themselves. However, nearly every cut on De La Soul Is Dead contains some macabre punch line, a bitter yet hilarious detour that sends the mind reeling for a beat or two. Take “My Brother’s a Basehead”, your average neighborhood cautionary tale of drug abuse and the dissolution of the African American family, wherein Posdnuos recalls his brother’s descent into crack addiction over jaunty samplings from Wayne Fontana and the Mindbender’s “Game of Love”, giving the story a crooked comic rhythm. For his part, Posdnuos breaks his story down into a series of insults and word games that acutely convey heartache and outrage.
And then there’s “Millie Pulled a Gun on a Santa”, a slow-motion nightmare whose shock-comic title works as a hook to get the listener to listen to a domestic horror story that makes chemical self-obliteration seem like a rational choice given the available alternatives. But then the album jumps to its new joke, and a few minutes De La Soul is mocking/celebrating house music. The move from silly joke, odd sample, and utter devastation then back again constitutes the album’s deftest gesture. De La Soul Is Dead fights with its listener. Are you ready a good time – well, here comes a bad time. Ready for sober reflections on how life can fall apart on you while you’re busy forgetting your name—well, here comes a nostalgic reverie about roller skating and other ancient rites of the late 1970s.
Only the mercurial intelligence keeps it from pissing you off. I’m not sure if that’s a virtue or failing given the depths of the album’s resentment, though I can’t say I keep myself up nights worrying about it.
For all of De La Soul’s supposed distance from the hardcore scene, De La Soul Is Dead proved prophetic of the fatalistic absurdism that came to characterize the genre’s mid-‘90s masterworks, from Wu Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) to Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready to Die. The album’s ability to juxtapose tragedy with absurdity, bravado with vulnerability constituted the lingua franca of much of the very best hip-hop produced in the decade following its release. Production-wise, Prince Paul’s genre-hopping, colorblind pastiche of aural pop culture at the end of the millennium prefigured the aesthetic moves that would help make Kanye West inescapable in the aughts. But for all the suppositions of influence and foreshadowing one might make about the album, De La Soul Is Dead fascinates largely because of how odd and unique it remains.
Listening to the album means immersing oneself inside a funny but terrifying universe, where brutality and self-destruction exist side by side with smart-ass jokes and sex talk and good music. The only intelligent response to the hilarious waste of a world the album evokes is to barricade yourself in your home, put on your earphones, and listen to De La Soul as you laugh your way into oblivion. Good habits for sane living in 1991 and 2011 alike.