Stakes Still High
Telemarketer: Good morning I’m with TCL Communications . . . I have some exciting news about your long distance rates.
Huey: Wait, I have exciting new too. De La Soul is releasing a triple CD this year. . . .
It was one of the classic moments during the first year that Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks was nationally syndicated. “Huey” returning the havoc wrought by a telemarketer. In a year where McGruder and “Huey” would go after BET (now that’s entertainment!), Whitney Houston, the Y2K scarefest (the commercial coup of the century) and Michael Bolton, McGruder took time to drop a pound on De La Soul. “Huey” was alluding to Art Official Intelligence the first of the De La trilogy. Though they seemingly distanced themselves from the daisy age a half-minute after their 1989 classic 3 Feet High and Risin’ dropped, De La managed to maintain their position as hip-hop’s legitimate avant-garde. Though it barely moved 300,000 units, Buhlone State of Mind (1993) was one of the most clever and musically sophisticated hip-hop recordings of the decade. With the brilliant Stakes Is High (1996) De La became the artistic gatekeepers—über-critics—of the tradition, dropping dime on “Champagne sipping money fakers” on tracks like “The Bizness” and the title track. The initial dropping of the trilogy Mosaic Thump was as queer as any De La joint, though this time it was because they chose to play it straight. With volume two, AOI: Bionix De La Soul returns to classic form relishing their status as one of hip-hop’s longest running acts and flaunting their roles as hip-hop’s cerebral older brothers.
The trio rarely attempts to keep step with their peers, always remaining well above the curve, but with cameos by two-thirds of the Beasties, Busta Rhymes, Tha Liks, and Xzibit, De La seemed as though they were trying to please the masses with Mosaic Thump. On the real, the blunted gem “Oooh” with Redman was one of the hip-hop pleasures of 2000 and only De La could have pulled off a so-so sweet appearance by Chaka Khan (“All Good?”). Where Mosaic Thump was greeted with some anticipation, Bionix was overshadowed by another Jigga summer, DMX’s on-going state of the depression, Ludicris—the crown prince of Def South, and yet another attempt by Nas to return to Illmatic form. But De La has never needed trumpets and marching bands and yet everybody knows they’re coming—just ask the “shiny suit man,” who felt compelled to respond to De La despite the fact that they have only sold a fraction of what Diddy has with his three solo discs. These days De La has spirituality, economic stability and “thick” gals on their minds.
On the infectious lead single “Baby Phat” De La give love to the women thick and extra-thick. The title is of course a wry nod to the HIP-HOP MOGUL and the feminine side of his Phat Farm clothing line, which incidentally grossed over 200 million last year. The joke of course is that few of the “thick” women that De La indirectly celebrate (a short list for the uninitiated include god-blessed “childs” like Vivica A. Fox, Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Angie Stone, BET’s Kim Whitley and Chaka Khan) can actually fit into any of the Baby Phat line. Though no one will ever mistake De La for burgeoning feminists or hyper-sensitive men, they do follow the kind of keeping-it-real dictums where “Every women ain’t a video, or runway model anorexic.” On the track the trio manages to be both funny and humorous as Dave jokes “Skip a salad girl bring us both the menu/Eat the whole box of chocolate I sent you.”
On the thumping “Simply”, which features a sample of The Beatles “Wonderful Christmas Time”, De La give a nod to classic hip-hop, while also undermining critical assertions that their cerebral musings exist outside or in opposition to the hip-hop status quo. The track begins with Dave giving love to the legendary Harlem duo Nice & Smooth (check the cameo with Redhead Kingpin in the film Strictly Business). Specifically Dave’s first verse is performed in Greg Nice’s signature cadence with requisite absurd lyrics (Last day of spring, first day of the H-E-A-T/I’m callin’ out my troops so ya’ll best R-E-T-R-E-A-T/Tryin’ to win the eyes off of Little Bo P-E-E-P/While I’m pushing Big Bird up Sesame S-T-R-E-E-T). Greg Nice’s hilarious and often incomprehensible lyrics include ditties like “Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick/I’m sweeter and thicker than Chico stick” (the popular ghetto snack alongside Now-A-Laters, Bon-Tom Chips and them 25 cent super-sweetie juices) or “Ohh la la oui oui, you say Muhammad Ali, I say Cassius Clay/You say butter, I saw parkay” from his cameo on Gangstarr’s classic “Dwick”. Nice and Smooth have been given short shrift in hip-hop’s annals largely because at their peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s their non-sensical lyrics simply couldn’t compare with those of the more “serious” Rakim, KRS-One, Public Enemy’s Chuck D and even LL Cool J, who were all also at their peak. But as De La understand and most critics don’t (at least in the mainstream), hip-hop is never simply about what you say, but how you say it and there are few who had as distinct flow as Greg Nice.
It is that tradition of old-school rap boasts that are firmly on De La’s mind on the track “Watchout”. Backed by an insatiable groove grounded in Cal Tjader’s “Mood for Milt”, Pos boasts that “My vocab grabs money/Long to cultivate rap since Kim Fields’s mom jacked penny.” Actress Kim Fields’s mom is of course actress and director Chip Fields, whose Good Times character physically abused her daughter “Penny” (Janet Jackson on her first major television role). In other words bruh been in the game for 25 years or in other words 12 or 13 years before “Lil Bow Romeo Wow” was born. In a moment where it is clear that so many hip-hop artists (and labels) are simply in the game to make cheese, De La is clear that they “Do it for the art, and the childrens, the dough, paper mache up inside your mottos.” Ain’t nobody taking any vows of poverty here but as De La reminded people in their brilliant “Stakes is High” video, keepin’ it real is about doing laundry, mowing the lawn, getting your shorties to daycare on-time, making sure your utilities are paid and always about preserving the “art”. This is De La trying to find a balance between furthering the tradition, while still finding receptive audiences. While De La has rarely sold (or ever will) on the level Jigga, Shaggy, or even LL, they are among the busiest road acts in hip-hop, precisely because they are all about the performance of the art. It is in this vein that De La can legitimately chide those who embrace the underground like a badge of honor (“I heard ‘em say a lot of niggas rep for the underground, they die for the underground/but ain’t making no money/Stupid.” Like Duke Ellington, James Brown, and Bob Marley, who were all flagship artists in their respective genres, these brothas are always on the road, and this is the place where the game is elevated, just like them early days when the “road” was that lamppost in the park across from the sprinklers and the monkey bars.
But Bionix is more than another attempt by De La to reaffirm their legacy within hip-hop. In the post-9/11 world the soon-be middle-aged De La find themselves confronting middle-aged concerns like some serious evaluation of the choices that they’ve made for themselves as artists and as fathers and lovers. On the “solo” joint, “Held Down”, which features spectacular cameo vocals by the “Goodie Reverend” Cee-lo, Pos gives real-life insight into the margins that De La have chosen as artists and that they each chose as young men coming up in the world. Pos opens the song giving praise to all those folks “diagnosed with a bad case of that proper up-bringing/and never took the time to fall in line or follow or swallow the thoughts of the recognized committees. . . .” This is the anthem for folks comfortable with thinking outside of “ghetto-fab” boxes, especially when the boxes are financed and distributed by transnational conglomerates. Whereas their classic “Me, Myself, and I” can be seen as a marketing scheme to distance themselves from the “B-Boys” of the late 1980s, Pos reminds listeners that it was a choice informed by a real-time world dominated by Kangols, shell-top Adidas, high-top fades, dukey chains and some old-school essentialism. Given the antiquated and archaic institutions that pass themselves off as venues for public education in so many ghetto-hoods around the country the choice to stake out a space in opposition to the status-quo may be the distinction between living past the age 22 and dying well before your time. As Pos laments, “I’m living in times when my daughters are found around kids who can’t afford thinking caps/But always found drinking raps and eatin’ on beats.” In reaction to what have likely been numerous street beefs throughout his life, Pos says “Claiming law of the street/But who made the laws?/Everybody playing rebel with no sign of a cause.”
Whereas so many artists talks about their “seeds” like they disposable commodities, Pos gives a clever nod to fatherhood with a line like “Yo, I’m never singing the blues, but finding the clues to maintain.” These are the words of a man who has been profoundly impacted by having to spend quiet, quality time with his kids watching joints like Blues Clues, Dora the Explorer and Little Bill (quick shout to Nic Jr. for holding it down) or finger painting. It is in this context that Pos can admit, that despite not getting all the critical and commercial accolades that De La deserves, that he’s “been blessed to reign supreme over nearly every dream I had and I made it come true.” It is also in this context that can also admit that “the biggest oppressor could be your own ego/lookin’ for an excuse to plant roots/In a field of self-sorrow.” The song is a poignant moment of self-reflection, one that has the feel and texture of a testimony or as them “chuc’h” folks say, some ole school “testifyin’”. Not surprisingly Pos and crew give the “Goodie Reverend” some space mid-way through the song to do his “sanctified dungeon shit”—that world where blunts, gold-teeth, perm kits and pig-feet come together with Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Rev. C.L. Franklin and a Hammond B-3.
The sense of newfound spirituality that pervades Bionix is given its most lucid presentation on the brilliant and fascinating “Trying People” which is built around the vocals of the Fifth Dimension (singing the late Laura Nyro’s “Black Path”). Dave lays out the challenges of the moment lamenting “You see young minds are now made of armor” later asserting “I’m trying to pop a hole in your Yankee cap . . . Absorb me/The Skies over your head ain’t safe no more/and hip-hop ain’t your home/And if it is, then you fuckin’ up the crib son/You make life look like I don’t wanna live one.” Referencing an earlier line from “The Bizness” (“I speak divine of God theories, no need to be high”), Dave reminds his younger hip-hop heads that “This God Theory overcomes the worst of weathers/As long as you willin’ to try, you on a good start homie.” In one touching sequence Dave also gives love to his daughter as he gushes “I cherish warm thoughts like a gray goose/and float soft kisses to my baby (yo ain’t that Dave’s little girl?)/yeah respect her for that./She gon be somebody, Instead of somebody baby-mama.” Pos is even more reflective, bemoaning the “local shorties” who “lately wanna flip grammar instead of grams/Like that’s the only choice they got” and that his career is having a negative impact on his relationships despite the “acres, the houses, the horses.” According to Pos, “Got fans around the world/but my girls not one of them/And my relationship’s a big question/Cuz my career’s a clear hindrance to her progression/Said she needs a man and our kids need a father/I’m not at all ready to hear her say don’t bother.”
On the standout track “Am I Worth You?”, which features the vocals of Glenn Lewis, who debut Epic release, World Outside My Window, drops in March, De La gives a nod to Vaughn Mason’s “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll”. It is a moment of pure nostalgia, that recalls early hip-hop grooves like Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”, Secret Weapon’s “Must Be the Music”, and The World Famous Supreme Team (“Hey D.J.” and “Buffalo Girls”). The song’s chorus “I make the best of the life I’ve been given, making the most of the moment among the living and it feels good,” captures the essence of Bionix. With Stakes Is High. De La attempted to create a moment of clarity (while eatin’ a muffin) for an art form that was being poised to become a major cog in the transnational exchange of American Culture. With AOI: Bionix, the stakes are still high, except now De La are more concerned with safety and sustenance and their own mortality, or rather the things that mark the beginning of the transition into middle age. Hip-hop has never been there and it is fitting that De La Soul be the group to do it.