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De La Soul

Championing psychedelic soul through a kaleidoscopic viewfinder of funky “daisy-age” proportions, the sample-tastic DE LA SOUL posse were pioneers in switching the narrative of hip-hop and rap. And influenced more than a little by the mid-80s urban scene via GEORGE CLINTON/PARLIAMENT/FUNKADELIC, the trio dressed mostly in baggy sportswear, infusing their lyrics with a pseudo flower-power visionary attitude not really associated within their East Coast playground. DE LA SOUL were the hope and conscious of a new genre.
Formed 1987, in Amityville, Long Island, NY, former high school buddies Posdnuos (aka Kelvin Mercer), Trugoy The Dove (aka David Jolicoeur) and Pasemaster Mase (aka Vincent Mason. Jr.) were under no illusion that to break into the mainstream music scene, they’d need the youth to identify with their hardcore hip-hop manifesto; incidentally, Posdnuos’ in-joke moniker derived from the reversion of his “Sound-Sop” DJ tag, while Trugoy used the same method to turn around fave food, yogurt.
Scratching out sounds from the vinyl grooves of JAMES BROWN and many, many others, DE LA SOUL were ready to send a demo tape to New York whiz-kid on the block, PRINCE PAUL (then known for breaking ground as kingpin with STETASONIC). Without a hint of hesitation, he handed their music to Tommy Boy Records, who returned the favour by letting the man produce the trio’s debut `Plug Tunin’’ / `Freedom Of Speak’ 12-inch EP. This heavenly hip hop alliance of summer ’88 was further investigated on the trio’s impressive double-headed follow-up `Jenifa (Taught Me)’ / `Potholes In My Lawn’, both tasters on the soon-to-be critically-acclaimed cross-Atlantic debut album, 3 FEET HIGH AND RISING (1989) {*10}.
Hippie hip-hop magpies with a penchant for raiding the vaults from a wide spectrum of artists, the trio had a transatlantic Top 30 smash on their hands, helped in no short measure by the multi-sampled and equally resonating `Me Myself And I’ (released in Germany the previous August!). One of four major Brit hits to emerge throughout the year: `Say No Go’ (sampling HALL & OATES), `Eye Know’ (sampling STEELY DAN) and`The Magic Number’ (twinned with the JUNGLE BROTHERS and Q-TIP-peppered `Buddy’), one couldn’t find a bad word – maybe an exotic one! – between the sheets of this indispensible concept.
The trio’s much-anticipated, but daisy-dissing, 1991 follow-up, DE LA SOUL IS DEAD {*7}, might well’ve accurately predicted their fate. However, as with the preview single `Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)’, the Top 30 (UK Top 10) album sold globally. On reflection, many critics acknowledged that it contained some disturbing but poignant messages, including the disco-tinged `A Roller Skating Jam Named “Saturdays”’, the druggy `My Brother’s A Basehead’ and the uneasy, not-so-festive incest-addled `Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa’ – the latter pair based on true stories from the ‘hood.
For their third transatlantic Top 40 long-player, BUHLOONE MINDSTATE (1993) {*7}, the alt-rap DE LA SOUL posse were back on commercial – not claustrophobic – form once again, firing subtly subversive broadsides at the middle class ruling system. But no need for black-versus-white gangsta hip hop, and almost dispensing with their surreal signature skits (limited to `Dave Has A Problem… Seriously’ and `Paul’s Revenge’), kaleidoscopic jazz-soul and psychedelia were indeed the jokers in the pack; MACEO PARKER and the JB Horns were a feature on `I Be Blowin’’. Could it be that the tricky trio were enjoying themselves as they extended their invitation flyers to some Japanese rappers on `Long Island Wildin’, there were enough banter-bullets in `Breakadawn’ (a UK hit) and the 12”-only `Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)’, to roll off the old-school rap production line.
On the back of an inspired hit hook-up a la `Fallin’’ – alongside Scots indie-poppers TEENAGE FANCLUB – for the ground-breaking rock-vs-rap “Judgment Night” film soundtrack of ’93, a time-out was called before the street-smart STAKES IS HIGH {*8} entered the fray in summer 1996. Unaffected, but overshadowed by the hype afforded the gun-totting East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop wars that blighted the movement, DE LA SOUL were caught between a rock and a hardcore place (as part of NYC’s anti-violence “Native Tongues” crew). Drilling out their doctrine of peace and love with satirical songs like `The Bizness’ (introducing a young COMMON) – note that `4 More’, `Big Brother Beat’ and `Pony Ride’ featured the respective talents of Zhane, MOS DEF and Truth Enola – creative outcasts DE LA SOUL still found it tougher than most to gain acceptance within a rap/pop music industry baying for blood in the media colosseum.
The trio took an extended break before coming back with the first instalment in a proposed triumvirate of albums; the first billed as ART OFFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: MOSAIC THUMP (2000) {*5}, proved as weak as the prosaic pun of the series’ title. Like many old school crews, DE LA SOUL had obviously found it difficult to square their refined sensibilities with the more aggressive climate of current day hip hop. Despite stellar contributions from Jaydee, BUSTA RHYMES, Ad-Rock & Mike D of BEASTIE BOYS, CHAKA KHAN, Tash & XZIBIT, among others, DLS’s attempts at sounding contemporary was forced at best.
Not so the second volume in the series, AIO: BIONIX (2001) {*7}, a belated return to form revelling in the kind of irreverent playfulness they seemed to have consigned to history more than a decade ago. Catalysed by producer Supa Dave West’s winning sonic backdrop, the veteran trio turned in some of the best lyrical smarts since their celebrated debut; notwithstanding their “Wonderful Christmas Time”-sampling `Simply’. However, the record cut no mustard with the buying public, who were less than impressed with their star-studded grooves alongside Yummy Bingham, B. Real, Slick Rick, et al.
Throwing in their “AOI” label with seasoned stronghold Sanctuary Urban Records (run by BEYONCE’s dad Mathew Knowles), DE LA SOUL delivered their seventh set, THE GRIND DATE (2004) {*6}. With production cameos from the likes of Madlib (on `Shopping Bags (She Got From You)’), GHOSTFACE KILLAH (on `He Comes’), and even an appearance by COMMON and FLAVA FLAV (for `Days Of Our Lives’), DE LA SOUL still couldn’t buy their way some ascending sales figures. More high profile was the trio’s own cameo on the GORILLAZ hit, `Feel Good Inc.’, a 2005 link up which netted them all a Grammy.
Deciding to let others to the rapping (DJ Maseo taking an extended hiatus), only the DE LA SOUL sanctioned faux-concept PLUG1 & PLUG2 PRESENT… FIRST SERVE (2012) {*6} was cutting-edge enough to garner a commercial release away from their mix-tape fixation. Produced by French crew Chokolate and Khalid, this strut through disco, funk and retro-Blaxploitation was worth pulling from the racks. Fame and fortune would subsequently entice the DE LA SOUL trio back to the party.
Bolstered by an envious top-end 6-figure funding from Kickstarter, August 2016 finally unveiled a proper “comeback” set, AND THE ANONYMOUS NOBODY… {*8}. Curiosity and a plethora of funk-driven pop stars from all avenues, the record returned them to the Top 20 – on both sides of the Big Pond. Underrated by reviewers not at ease with their mix/mis-match of guests and proper musicians (although Axl Rose and WILLIE NELSON were said to have shunned their invitation), several of the un-sampled songs worked well within the context of the hour-long album. JILL SCOTT opened proceedings with the thought-provoking/tear-jerking `Genesis’, as it eased into an almost BRAINTICKET-ed “Celestial Oceans”-journey of `Royalty Capes’. Coolaid kid SNOOP DOGG levelled the chill-out section via `Pain’ (surely a hit in the making), whilst the robotic Roc Marciano expelled some sardonic (sc)raps through `Property Of Spitkicker.com’. At a time when troubles were rife in an America falling apart at the seams through cop killings (both sides of the coin) and a plethora of race-hate crimes, the calming ambience of DE LA SOUL on the soulful `Memory Of… (US)’ – featuring Estelle & producer Pete Rock – was worth turning on to. As for The DARKNESS/Justin Hawkins interruption of the MERCURY-injected `Lord Intended – back-to-back with DAVID BYRNE on `Snoopies’ – the jury was out. Ditto the reunion of sorts with DAMON ALBARN for the `Here In After’. A cosmic cosmopolitan attempt at reunification, USHER, LITTLE DRAGON and 2 Chainz, guaranteed that nostalgia didn’t go too far off the rails. An album worth revisiting to relieve stress levels.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2006/GRD-MCS // rev-up MCS Sep2016

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