Bohemian Rap-Sody

How New York's hippie hoppers ushered in the philosophical D.A.I.S.Y. Age. And then pronounced themselves Dead

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They’re here, though sometimes it seems they don’t want to be. Run-DMC, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan have all been split, slaughtered or sidelined in hip hop’s rush to world domination, but De La Soul, of all people, have stayed the course, although the album 3 Feet High & Rising may still define them.

But a group who seemed doomed to be a one-hit footnote, even shooting themselves in both feet like trench veterans unable to face more fire with its follow-up, De La Soul Is Dead, have somehow become rap elders, in the middle of an album trilogy?Art Official Intelligence?that’s as ambitious as anything they’ve done.

The story told by these reissues (plus a singles-only not-really-best-of) is still one of soured hopes as much as sustained ideals. But it begins, at least, with a burst of possibility-broaching brightness which has few equals even now.

When 3 Feet High & Rising was released in March 1989, De La Soul’s oldest member, Trugoy the Dove (aka Dave Jolicoeur), was just 20, while fellow rapper Pos (Kelvin Melcer) and DJ Mase (Vincent Mason) were only 19. The expansive confidence of youth’s first flush flows through its grooves. Listening to it now, you’re also reminded how much it was part of a general reversal of ’80s culture’s worst traits, and helped usher in the ’90s. With its swinging soul beats, pervasive laid-back horns, and samples ranging from The Turtles to Ben E King (and Steely Dan, and Hall & Oates…), it reclaimed and re-channelled the then-discredited ’60s, as the Stone Roses’ debut did the same year in Britain. With their Afrika pendants and flowery clothes, De La, all middle-class boys from Long Island, also revived bohemian black style in the face of the street-simple gangsta rap then starting to burgeon (N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton fought back that August; Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life”-including Club Classics, meanwhile, mirrored De La’s attitude in black Britain, a mere month after 3 Feet High).

A new community of like-minded New York-area rappers, the Native Tongues, was also introduced here (A Tribe Called Quest and founders the Jungle Brothers being the most prominent), along with a philosophical era, the D.A.I.S.Y. Age. “DA Inner Sound, Y’all” was the nearest De La got to defining it. But play 3 Feet in 2003 and it still sounds like “the new speak” they claimed then?Pos and Trugoy rapping a little too fast, casually and lightly, in language you can’t quite understand. This De La lingo’s secrets rest in childhood, with the whispered schoolyard taunts of “Can U Keep A Secret”, and the almost embarrassing De La fable “Tread Water” (including a rap from “Mr Squirrel”). The genuinely funny game-show sketches (beginning rap’s ‘skit’ obsession) which link tracks, in which musical styles flash by as if producer Prince Paul is channel-hopping, show the overall spirit of easy invention. In the same year Public Enemy drilled racial schisms with “Welcome To The Terrordome”, De La Soul were still, somehow, able to revive Motown’s vision: a new Sound Of Young America.

But then, two years later, they said it: De La Soul Is Dead. In the time between, The Turtles had sued them for their uncleared sample, and fame and industry demands had torn the Native Tongues apart, rubbing 3 Feet High’s innocence away. You can hear the change in single “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)”. “Hey, how ya doin’, sorry you can’t get through,” runs the numb showbiz-fake answerphone message that passes for a chorus. 3 Feet High’s game-show skit is meanwhile replaced by a sourer framing device, as a teenager announces to his gangsta-fan friends, “I just found a De La Soul tape in the garbage,” and begins to play De La Soul Is Dead. The youths act as a Greek chorus, accurately predicting audience disgust: “Stop it, stop it, I can’t stand it any more!”, one screams after “Ring Ring Ring”, and the idea that this is rap’s longest suicide note, widespread in 1991, still tempts.

Like Dylan’s similarly provocatively titled, pressure-dispersing Self-Portrait, though, De La Soul Is Dead no longer sounds like one long “Fuck you!” Loose, fractured and inconsistent, deliberately smashing the 3 Feet style that might otherwise have choked them, the bad temper of some tracks is balanced by wild humour, social conscience and ragged invention. It’s 3 Feet High’s forgotten cousin, bitter but still bright.

Buhloone Mind State (1993) couldn’t regain lost innocence, but used live musicians, including the JBs’ Maceo Parker, to return to 3 Feet High’s sunny sound. “We felt like we’d dispelled the tension”, Dave Jolicoeur recalls. “Now let’s just do some music”.

But it was on 1996’s Stakes Is High that they found their true mature voice. Faced with sales declining so steeply that De La might soon really be dead, and rap’s growing, gangsta-happy commercialism, they retired “the new speak” to re-engage with this new reality. Dispensing with Prince Paul for a simpler sound, the boy wonders were now street elders, railing against rap’s self-harming state. “Stakes is High” itself, introduced by a homeless man’s exhausted rant, saw De La address “sick” black America in apocalyptic terms over dark, pensive brass loops. Their bleakest album, it was also their biggest US hit, returning them to the mainstream from where, rejuvenated, they began AOI’s trilogy. Mosaic Thump (2000) was interesting enough (and their first US Top 10 album), but 2002’s Bionix was a mature masterpiece. In many ways it was a gospel record, as with “Hold On”, where gravelly female vocals and churchy organs (partly drawn from Al Green’s old Hi studio band) achieve a transcendence beyond its hater-dissing lyric.

On the closing “Trying People”, the travails of black America and hip hop are interwoven with Pos’ marital strife, over cyber-choirs turning Curtis Mayfield’s old promise to a question: “People, are you ready?” “Yo, Maseo, we need to hold on,” Pos pleads. They still are, and that’s good.


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