Even though it proclaimed the death of its playful bohemian aesthetic in 1991, De La Soul didn’t really leave it behind until five years later, when the trio of MCs largely self-produced its fourth album, Stakes Is High. Until that point, producer Prince Paul was essentially a band member, his unconventional samples and kaleidoscopic funk/game show pastiches arguably the most defining element of the De La sound.
In hindsight, it was a great move. Stakes Is High put Paul’s toy chest to the curb, in favor of sparse, airy beats that could fit on a four-track. Posdnous, Maseo, and Dave smartly didn’t try and fill the space too much, floating through every verse with chilled-out confidence. Only two other producers contributed to this welcoming new sound, and one of them was Jay Dee, who produced the title track and would later be more commonly known as J Dilla.
So while De La Soul hasn’t released an outright dud since then, it makes sense that its new Dilla tribute Smell the Da.I.S.Y. is the first time they’ve truly recaptured that ’96 sound. It’s a taut, mellow mixtape, with the group revisiting classic lyrics over previously unreleased beats from their fallen hero. (J Dilla, whose real name was James Yancey, died in 2006 as a result of complications from lupus.)
The concept might sound lazy on paper, but it’s a clever way to do justice to its subject. It’s a blast to hear Posdnous whispering the chorus to “The Magic Number,” or the trio slowing down “Oodles of O’s” to a snail’s pace – but what this ad hoc remix approach really does is get you to focus on Dilla’s beats. And they’re enchanting.
“Goes With the Word” colors a beautifully austere bass and drum loop with washes of backwards guitars. “Taking the Train” gets more out of two clipped organ chords, a bass drum, and a snare than it has any right to. “Dilla Plugged In” makes James Brown saying “Get down!” sound not only fresh, but reassuring, enveloping him in a loop of gorgeous major piano chords. While the mixtape takes advantage of sampling immunity (leaning heavily on Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, tossing in clips of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and a goofily mucked-with SpongeBob SquarePants theme) it remains a testament to the yeoman’s work of a Dilla production – drums, bass, and atmospherics.
The forced acronym in the title stands for “Da Inner Soul of Yancey”, and it represents not only the group’s passion for the Detroit producer, but their softening toward the neon-flowered peace and love identity that made them famous. While it’s not a sonic return to the daisy age, hearing these guys rapping “Potholes In My Lawn” again makes you think they might finally have enough distance from 3 Feet High And Rising to cop to its awesomeness. They’re toasting one of their inspirations, yes, but they’re also celebrating one of hip-hop’s unassailable discographies. It’s such a lovely thing that they’re still together – a new studio record, You’re Welcome, is due this summer – and that they sound so comfortable in their own skin. The stakes aren’t nearly as high these days, and they’re enjoying the reprieve.