[12 December 2004]
If time travel were a reality, I could see myself at this concert. The only question is whether I would go as the 24-year-old fan of conscious hip-hop or the 17-year-old punk kid who was more into gangsta rap. Until it does become a reality, De La Soul’s Live at Tramps, NYC, 1996 catapults listeners back to a volatile era in hip-hop. Gunshots rang out across the hip-hop nation, resonating with an audience of middle-class youth. Fueled by a more than healthy dose of testosterone, gangsta rap asserted itself as the dominant force as idealism lay in an alleyway, bloodied and beaten by the East Coast/West Coast beef. Rap endured its first psychosis, a splitting of its personality, with materialism as the great divider. For many, those golden years would be the final resting place of conscious hip-hop, now marginalized and forced to hide in the shadows.
Three years had passed since Buhloone Mindstate, but when Maseo, Posdnuos, and Trugoy the Dove took the stage at the legendary Tramps, they proved that De La Soul could weather the march of time.
A high-pitched whine escapes from the microphone as Maseo steps up to address the crowd. As the crowd roars, he promises that fun is on the agenda, before ripping into classic material and introducing tracks from the upcoming album Stakes is High.
With its debut album 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul became hippie rappers, a group of suburban emcees from Long Island, New York who infused a message of peace with psychedelic sensibilities. Who else could you find rhyming about “Oodles of O’s” or “Potholes in My Lawn”? When the instrumental drops on that track, the crowd erupts. After some world-class yodeling, the clock rolls back to 1988, a time when keeping it real didn’t mean packing a piece. It meant cold rocking a block party.
On “Big Brother Beat”, De La Soul calls upon the mighty Mos Def. Together, they drape their lyrics over a drowsy, guitar-driven track. Their camaraderie is spectacular and it comes through when they throw in ad-libs at precisely the right moment. I’ve racked my brain trying to conjure up the name of a rap group that could come close to matching that. Sadly, the search continues.
You’ll wish you were there when Mos Def asks De La Soul to play its most popular song to date, the one he hates (just fooling) but everyone else loves. Jokingly, the group breaks out into a chorus of “We hate this song, we hate this song, but y’all love the song”. That song is “Me Myself and I”, a sarcastic tale of keeping it real that begins with Trugoy the Dove singing, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me mirror what is wrong / Is it just my De La clothes or is it just my De La soul”.
De La Soul steps out of the spotlight just long enough for Common to puncture Ice Cube’s helium-inflated ego with “The Bitch in Yoo”. It seems out of place. The album’s liner notes acknowledge that the East Coast/West Coast beef intensified rap’s path to self-destruction, something the group despised. But if that’s true, why let Common throw gasoline on the fire? Nothing ever came of their dispute, but people had to die before the beef was quashed for good. At this point, De La Soul ignores its own warnings to support a friend.
By the end of the show, the stage is set for a critical examination of hip-hop’s more detrimental aspects. On “Stakes Is High”, the lead single from their upcoming album, they recount the long list of rap trends they’re sick of: gun control, Versace glasses, name-brand clothes, and songs where girls just shake their asses make the list along with a whole lot more.
Released around the same time as The Grind Date, its seventh studio album, De La Soul’s Live at Tramps, NYC, 1996 is a time machine for fans old and new. Then again, De La Soul has consistently managed to sell records by never aging. Fifteen years after the debut of its first album, the group continues to record music with the idealistic morals of its past still intact. This collection of songs is classic De La Soul: a mixture of thought-provoking lyrics and teenage high jinks. If you figure in all the material that’s missing from the concert, including tributes to Boogie Down Productions, EPMD, and others, the legendary status of Tramps, and De La Soul’s hippie ideology, it seems to me that this is HOODSTOCK: 40 minutes of peace, love, and happiness.
“White, black, orange, purple, green, blue, yellow”: De La Soul is for anyone and everyone who likes to party without the bullshit.