De La Soul…. Ooooohweeeee… where do we even start? Personally, I’ll start by saying that I’ve been with “De La” since Day 1—since that day in 1989 when I first heard Me, Myself and I and its infectiously fun representation of a few high schoolers just having a heck of a good time just as I was getting ready to enter 9th grade.
But in trying to answer this question in critical terms, luckily for us De La Soul themselves have already provided us the blueprint, complete with instructions to assembly, in their 1989 debut classic “3 Feet High and Rising”. All we really need to do is step back, listen closely and learn as ‘De La’ laid out the roadmap for understanding their seminal work… oh, and by the way, while they were at it, they might have also given us the roadmap to understanding the whole goddam world.
“De La Soul posse consists of three and that’s the magic number”
Formed in the Amityvile area of Long Island, New York in 1988, De La Soul consists of Kelvin Mercer aka Posdnuos aka Plug One, Dave Jolicoeur aka Trugoy aka Plug Two and Vincent Mason aka Maseo aka Plug Three. The three formed the group known as De La Soul, directly translating to From The Soul, in high school and quickly caught the attention of producer Prince Paul with a demo tape of the song “Plug Tunin'”.
The group’s Long Island roots may help explain their unique, quirky, spacious and eclectic perspective. Once removed from the hustle of New York City, but close enough to be well familiar with the roots of hip hop culture and music, De La Soul expresses a side of the black hip-hop experience that may benefit from, and also be a benefit to, the space and distance they enjoyed to truly digest, re-interpret and create an evolutionary hip-hop sound based on playful wordplay, innovative sampling and, of course, their trademark wisdom laid out over positive and soulful grooves.
Early concepts for 3 Feet High and Rising involved music being transmitted from Mars by three microphone plugs (each one representing a member of the group). Though this idea was abandoned, the titles “Plug One”, “Plug Two” and “Plug Three” still became relevant on the album and the group’s subsequent career as identifiable monikers that express the group’s unity and individuality.
“Downstairs where we met, I brought records, she cassettes”
As noted, one of De La Soul’s trademarks and innovations is the use of funky, quirky and eclectic sampling to create an unmistakable, upbeat vibe of unfiltered fun. One of the early tracks on 3 Feet High “Jenifa Taught Me” is one of the best examples of the De La sound. Utilizing a primary sample from Maggie Thrett’s 1965 diddy “Soupy” about a playful cat and dressing it up with high-energy cutting and scratching, De La transforms the sample into a teenage anthem of a pre-pubescent play date with a girl name Jenifa that turns into a PG-rated sexual encounter.
In the second verse of “Jenifa”, Posdnuos arrives to Jeny’s home ready for play time, rapping “The downstairs, where we met / I brought records, she cassettes / Lost the breaks, found her shape / Jenifa, oh Jeny”. Of course Posdnuos arrived at his school-age crush’s home record crate in tote; he had probably just come from a session of soul record digging to find the perfect sample for the fella’s next song. And while Pos arrived at Jeny’s house ready to teach her about some records, Jenifa was ready to teach him about something else.
On a personal note, I clearly remember recording a portion of this song’s hook onto my sister’s outgoing answering machine message. Her name is Jennifer.
“Eye know Eye love you better”
Despite their youthful exuberance and expression, moving through 3 Feet High and Rising quickly reveal that De La Soul possesses a wisdom and sensibility beyond their years. Perhaps this sensibility in no better expressed that through the consistent themes of love and respect for women, an issue that had until this time and continues to pervade hip-hop.
Over a brilliantly wholesome musical composition that uses Steely Dan’s “Peg” and The Mad Lads “Make This Young Lady Mine” as a backbone, De La Soul offers an earnest and sincere love song aimed at wooing a target of their affection. Posdnuos summarizes his proposal, rapping “It’s I again and the song that I send / Is taking steps to reach your heart /Any moment you feel alone /I can fill up your empty part”.
The pervasive whistling melody on this track serves as exactly the opposite of a “cat call” and instead offers an invitation to the ladies of the world to whistle along with their favorite hip-hop tracks. As one of the best hip hop love ballads on this record, or any record of its era, a song like Eye Know paved the way for hit A Tribe Called Quest track “Bonita Applebum” and helped show a hip hop audience that love is all right.
“Always look to the positive and never drop your head
For the water will engulf us if we do not dare to tread
So let’s tread water”
As 3 Feet High and Rising enters its middle portions, De La Soul has fully perfected its alchemical balance of fun and wisdom, with a heavy dash of silliness. The track that precedes “Tread Water” called “A Little Bit of Soap” is simply a classic teenage tease track suggesting that certain people need to wash themselves a bit better.
“Tread Water” is De La Soul’s turn at pulling a page from Aesop’s Fables, famed ancient Greek storyteller who used characters from the natural world to tell stories covering religious, social and political themes and provide ethical guides for children and adults alike.
On this track, Posdnuos and Trugoy aka Dove bring us on a little journey in which they encounter a series of animals. First, they encounter a crocodile expressing how he may be misunderstood and “villains try to hold you underwater”. Next a squirrel expressing his natural needs saying “Like the Daisy, I need water I need chestnuts to consume”. Followed by a visit from Mr. Fish who seems to be grateful for his world “cause my water’s clean and no-one’s mean”. Finally, a monkey who just needs a little assistance to get his needs met, “My bananas are at their ripest, but they all stand at three feet”.
Through these little encounters and fables, De La Soul provides us the wisdom of compassion, temperance, gratitude and service to others.
“Now when Tribe, the Jungle, and De La Soul
Is at the clubs our ritual unfolds”
Don’t get it twisted. De La Soul knows how to have a good time. And “Buddy” is one of the best examples of a De La track that shows the unbridled fun and camaraderie that De La Soul helped birth alongside their Native Tongues brethren.
Paraphrasing Angie Martinez from the 2011 A Tribe Called Quest documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life”, Native Tongues was never about “Fight the Power” or “Fuck the Police”… we had other groups for that… Native Tongues was about expression and upliftment using the best tool out there: fun.
The Native Tongues is a collective of late 1980s and early 1990s hip-hop artists known for their positive-minded, good-natured Afrocentric lyrics, and for pioneering the use of eclectic sampling and later jazz-influenced beats. Its principal members are the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. Built on the foundation of likeminded youngsters and support from hip-hop veterans DJ Red Alert, Afrika Bambaata and Prince Paul, Native Tongues stormed the gates of hip-hop in the late 80’s and early 90’s, with Jungle Brothers being the first to hit.
But next to hit was De La Soul. On 3 Feet High and Rising crew cut “Buddy”, De La layered samples from Commodores and Bo Diddley to create an era-defining party track with an accompanying music video featuring the entire posse. With contributions from the members of Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Monie Love and Q-Tip, Posdnuos sums it up, rapping “Now when Tribe, the Jungle, and De La Soul / Is at the clubs our ritual unfolds / Grab our bones and start swingin’ our hands / Then Jenny starts flockin’ everywhere)”.
De La Soul was a pillar of Native Tongues, and while other members came and went, outgrew each other or matured into other endeavors, De La has remained a hip-hop institution, releasing 9 studio albums, still doing shows and helping usher in a new generation of hip-hop artists. On their 2001 album AOI: Bionix and reflective track “Trying People”, Posdnuos raps “Throughout my change to grow, Some of my people got left behind / They didn’t listen for the gun, as I leaped from off the line / Thirteen years deep in this marathon I’m runnin / Paid dues and still got bills to pay”.
“But when it comes to being de la
It’s just me myself and I”
Deeply tied to the De La Soul ethos is the concept of self-expression and self-acceptance. “Me, Myself and I” is the anthem for this philosophy and one of 3 Feet High’s hit tracks. Over disco-funk infused samples “(Not Just) Knee Deep” by Funkadelic and “Funky Worm” by Ohio Players, Trugoy aka Dove raps “Proud, I’m proud of what I am / Poems I speak are Plug Two type / Please oh please let Plug Two be / Himself, not what you read or write”.
“One Million Demonstrations have been heard
My hair burns when I’m referred
Kid shouts my roof is on fire”
It’s likely no coincidence that De La Soul wraps up 3 Feet High and Rising with a simple message over a simple beat. The term D.A.I.S.Y. Age was coined by De La Soul: it stands for ‘DA Inner Sound Y’all’. This Daisy Age references and pays homage to the flower children of the 1960’s who pushed for social change while re-interpreting the ideas of social awareness and activism for a new age. As one observer has written, “at a time when we had bands such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. penning these fired-up, political and vastly important songs, there was a movement emerging that took a more peace-and-love, pacifist approach; the need for us all to come together and create some love.” THIS is De La Soul’s legacy. More than legacy, it is their live that they live and share with us through their art.
Peace, love, justice, equality, fun, togetherness, self-expression and self-worth. Yep, De La Soul gave us the blueprint, assembly instructions included. And if we’re following De La’s blueprint, let’s all take a look at their May 27th, 2020 post on what we should be doing and thinking right now.
Joe Lapan – Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House