De La Soul's 'De La Soul Is Dead'

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

6 June 2014

Hey, how you doing. Sorry you can't get through. Why don't you leave your name and number and I'll get back to you. In the meantime, a 1991 hip-hop milestone is the week's Counterbalance. You could read that.
cover art

De La Soul

De La Soul Is Dead

(Tommy Boy)
US: 13 May 1991
UK: 13 May 1991

Klinger: A couple months ago, the news broke that venerable hip-hop artists De La Soul were offering up their entire catalog for download free of charge. Because De La Soul’s albums are, of course, chock full of samples, some of which are buried so deeply that it would take a sonic archaeologist to sort it all out, placing them on iTunes would present copyright headaches that could stretch out for decades and singlehandedly employ all of the nation’s attorneys. Offering them free of charge neatly sidestepped the issue—at least for the time being. Needless to say, not only did my dial-up modem get quite the workout, but the news also led to an inevitable flurry of internet thinkpieces about De La Soul and their place in hip-hop history.
It seems that De La Soul’s lack of ready availability has led to a certain devaluation of their legacy. Younger generations, I’m told, are far more aware of fellow Native Tongues artists A Tribe Called Quest, which is essentially the opposite of the situation 25 years ago. So this flood of De La Soul into the marketplace might reset the scales somewhat, and it gives us the opportunity to talk about De La Soul Is Dead, a fascinating example of a group attempting to make sense of immediate critical and popular acclaim—and its complicated backlash. But before we dive in to all of the things that make this album so fascinating, Mendelsohn, I’ll give you a chance to talk about how clearly brilliant this album is. Go.

Mendelsohn: Ahh, c’mon, Klinger. Don’t put me on the spot like that. It only ends in disappointment. Don’t believe me? Check this out. I can’t stand this album. I have nothing but respect for De La. I love Prince Paul’s work. But I’d rather not listen to this record. Ever.

Seriously. The amount of extraneous material on this record is insane. I know we nixed the whole, “this album would be great if it was trimmed down” argument. But now that we are out of the Canon (De La Soul Is Dead ranks at #986 on the Great List), I’m going to go ahead with it anyway, because it is the only way I listen to this album. So that’s what I did. De La Soul Is Dead is a great record if you cut it down to the core 13 tracks. I cut everything that wasn’t a proper song. Interstitials, skits, too much yakkity yak? I cut it.

What I was left with is the record you described above — De La Soul running through their complicated position with extreme lyrical style and panache, a testament to the art form of hip hop.

Is it fair for me to alter the artist’s vision for my own enjoyment? No. Could someone have told De La to knock it off with the record button? Mos def.

Klinger: Yeah, I figured this would be your reaction. But I think you’re listening to this wrong. De La Soul Is Dead is clearly less a standard collection of songs than a full-blown concept album — practically a sonic collage. In fact, I’d say that its closest point of reference isn’t so much hip-hop as it is the immersive weirdness of ‘60s/‘70s hippie comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre. There are so many bits of oddness that exist layers below the surface, and so many obscure points of reference (Is De La Soul opening a donut shop? Is it really better to be someone’s Hey Love? And who exactly is this Doo-Doo Man you speak of?) that I can’t help getting caught up in it and leaning forward to hear more. Apparently you can. (Also I should point out that some of those are “CD Bonus Tracks”, so maybe you’d do well to seek out the cassette version.)

But even if you were to strip out the stuff that doesn’t constitute a “song,” it’s pretty hard to deny that the songs on De La Soul Is Dead are not only fantastic, but they also address the overwhelming impact that sudden acclaim can have — especially when it’s based on people’s reactions to the cartoon trappings of 3 Feet High and Rising. Posdnous, Trugoy and Mase are obviously bristling under the strain of being pigeonholed as hippie rappers, and their general dyspepsia might explain why De La Soul Is Dead was such a bafflement to listeners and critics back in 1991.

Mendelsohn: I don’t care for the inside jokes and I’ll never understand hip hop’s fascination with trying to be funny. If De La Soul wants to bellyache about the publics’ perception of their work, beliefs or general hip-hoppiness, I have no problem with that. They address it eloquently, pushing back with humor and wit, reminding us why 3 Feet High and Rising is so highly regarded. And while I see your point about this being a sound collage on the level of a concept album, I would contend that most of it ruins the groove. Without the extra material, this album tight from start to finish.

I’m curious, though, Klinger — why this record. We already talked about De La Soul a couple of years ago. Is this the better album in your book?

Klinger: Oh, perish the thought, Mendelsohn. As I realized during our journey through the Unassailable Dylan Triptych of 1965-66, I vastly prefer the exuberance and joy of discovery over prickly pearishness any day, and it’s hard to beat 3 Feet High and Rising for exuberant discovery joy (a concept for which I’m sure there’s a German word). Even so, I think De La Soul Is Dead merits a lot more consideration than it’s received. Especially as the group takes on not only their own experiences with fame, but also the overall culture of hip-hop at the time. The more conscious and more East Coast stylings of the Native Tongues were quickly being eclipsed by hardcore and West Coast gangsta hip-hop, so it’s not surprising that De La Soul was on the defensive by 1991. Of course they were also ultimately victims of their own studio sampling wizardry, as the groundswell of intellectual property lawsuits was about to make their model unsustainable.

Now I’m curious about something too, Mendelsohn. Where exactly are you drawing the line between “songs” and “not songs”? Because there are a lot of tracks on here that could fall into the gap. You’re not suggesting that, say, “Bitties in the BK Lounge” is somehow expendable, are you? Because if that’s the case, our little round-and-round is just getting started.

Mendelsohn: Are you kidding me? De La Soul spends so much time wasting tape, trying to be comedians, writing skits, and the funniest thing on the album is “Bitties in the BK Lounge.” And not only funny, but also a deep meditation on fame, the nature of the rap game, and the socioeconomic conditions they and their peers would have to face. Within the confines of one song they address the sudden effect of fame, poke fun at themselves, take on their haters who claimed they were soft, shine a light on the social injustice and the trap of low wage jobs. They come at if from all angles. There is so much material in “Bitties in the BK Lounge,” I could write a term paper about. I’m not going to, because I don’t have to, but any of you kids out there looking for a fun paper to write, it’s all in the BK lounge.

My point is, Posdnous, Turgoy and Mase don’t need to fill the album with every single odd and end they found lying around in the studio. They are more than able to craft funny, witty and biting commentary within the confines of the conventional song structure. I’m not saying there is anything conventional about the De La. They are all unique flowers, I just don’t need skits — drop the beat and let to flow, let yourself go. I know that all the other stuff on the record serves a purpose, but it’s tough to wrap your head around from the offset.

You make a good point about De La Soul’s relative obscurity to the younger generation due to lack of availability but I would also posit that it might have something to do with the wide-ranging nature of their records. Gangsta rap pretty much became the default through the 1990s and De La Soul didn’t play that game. Be it the fact that they dressed like geeks or simply wrote lyrics on a higher level, they are a world apart from their hip hop peers.

Klinger: And for whatever reason, the hip-hop world still hasn’t circled back around to De La Soul’s overtly conscious, slightly goofy approach. I suspect that people are aware of their work and their importance, but for whatever reason this doesn’t seem to be a genre that puts much stock in legacy. I hope the group’s recent internet blitz will help address that, and perhaps even return some of the Native Tongues style into the current mix.

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