De La Soul - Biography
By Paul Glanting
In the late 1980s, Hip Hop's bloodstream began to flow with competitive acts of machismo. The two most visible faces of Hip Hop of that era, N.W.A. and Ice-T, were often snarling at their public. Meanwhile, De La Soul fluttered onto the scene with joyfully stoned grins, rhyming about "The Daisy Age." One of the spearheading forces behind Hip Hop's Afrocentric movement, De La Soul fused lighthearted lyrics with humorously absurd samples to create a lovable presence that the genre had never seen before. De La Soul remains one of Hip Hop's longest lasting groups.
Childhood friends Trugoy (David Jolicoeur) and Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer) met Maseo (Vincent Mason) while attending high school in Long Island, New York. They put a demo tape into circulation, which featured the song "Plug Tunin." The tape eventually got into the hands of eccentric producer Prince Paul (a.k.a. Paul Huston). Paul's quirky taste in sampling and off-beat humor would steer De La Soul into territory that had never been explored in Hip Hop before.
The group's 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising (1989 – Tommy Boy) is considered to be the trio's magnum opus. Even rock and roll-centric publications like NME crowned it "Album of the Year." Prince Paul's production traversed more diverse musical territory than any major Hip Hop producer. Together, they mined samples from artists like The Monkees, the Turtles, Led Zeppelin, and Steely Dan. The positive and whimsical tone on the album earned the trio the unfortunate reputation as being the "Hip Hop hippies," a label that the group hated and would collectively try to escape for the rest of their careers. Named after the Johnny Cash song "5 Feet High and Rising," 3 Feet High and Rising yields some of De La Soul's most enduring tracks like "Me, Myself and I" and "Buddy," which features one of the first appearances from rapper Q-Tip. The album’s collaborations with Q-Tip and the Jungle Brothers launched an alliance of artists that was soon dubbed The Native Tongues. This collective projected a positive and Afrocentric message through their music, and 3 Feet High and Rising solidified their rise to popularity.
De La Soul's second album, De La Soul Is Dead (1991 – Tommy Boy), is a testament to the trio’s frustration with the scene. By 1991, Hip Hop had become dominated by artists of a far more violent ilk. "Fanatic of the B-Word" shows De La Soul's condemning of what they believed was an over-saturation and glorification of violence in Hip Hop. Conversely, De La Soul was also bent on escaping the limiting label of "Hip Hop hippies" and bust out with punchier and edgier songs like "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa." Additionally, the album art features a broken flower pot spilling flowers…an attempt by De La Soul to break their flower-toting image. While De La Soul Is Dead did not sell as well and their debut and received mixed reviews, the Prince Paul-produced album is still tinged with witty and sarcastic humor, especially on the skits that became a trademark of his production.
In 1993, De La Soul released Buhloone Mindstate (1993 – Tommy Boy), which deals heavily with the human ego. Specifically, songs like "Ego Trippin'" explore and simultaneously satirize the difficulties in remaining humble amidst fame. Buhloone Mindstate is De La Soul's most musically sophisticated album, as can be heard on the songs "I Am I Be" and "Patti Dooke," both of which feature jazz legends Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, and Fred Wesley. Their third release would also be the last full-length De La Soul album produced by Prince Paul.
Between releases, De La Soul supplied prominent DJs with the six-track EP Clear Lake Auditorium (1994 – Tommy Boy). Only 500 copies of the highly sought-after EP were pressed. Consequently, Clear Lake Auditorium is often bootlegged. The EP contains four songs from Buhloone Mindstate as well as the two unreleased songs "Sh.Fe.Mc's” (with A Tribe Called Quest) and the guest-heavy "Stix & Stonz," which features verses from Grandmaster Caz, Tito (Fearless Four), Whipper Whip (Grandwizard Theodore & the Fantastic Five), LA Sunshine, and a few others.
As time progressed, the artistic common ground began to dissolve between De La Soul and their Native Tongues brethren. The next generation of the Native Tongues began to bloom on De La Soul's fourth full-length effort, Stakes is High (1996 – Tommy Boy), released in 1996. The album is largely responsible for introducing the Hip Hop world to Mos Def on the song "Big Brother Beat" and Common on "The Bizness." Somewhat similar to De La Soul is Dead, Stakes is High shows a significant amount of concern towards the state of Hip Hop as well as its image in society at large. Though no artists are named specifically, "Itzsoweezee (HOT)" is critical of the mafia-themed Hip Hop that was ubiquitous at the time. The album also shows De La Soul accepting the "classic" status that their 3 Feet High and Rising had achieved. With Prince Paul now absent from the production, De La Soul did a majority of the production themselves. However, the late J-Dilla (credited as Jay Dee) also contributed his prowess to the album's title track. Critics praised the eclectic album but Stakes Is High was commercially a disappointment, continuing the pattern of diminishing sales for each progressive De La Soul album.
De La Soul continued to tour but did not release any new material until 2000, at which point they planned to open the floodgates. The Long Island trio announced that they would release three albums within the year in a series called "Art Official Intelligence." While several of the previous De La Soul albums were critical of Hip Hop, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000 – Tommy Boy) manifested a sense of gratitude towards Hip Hop as a genre. Mosaic Thump is enhanced with collaborations from several East Coast Hip Hop artists whom De La Soul had influenced, such as Redman and Busta Rhymes. Mosaic Thump also gives a nod to the golden age of Hip Hop with "Squat!," assisted by Adrock and Mike D of the Beastie Boys. In another homage to the now-legendary trio’s early days, the album contains skits featuring cameos from rappers Black Thought (The Roots), Pharaohe Monch, and Phife Dawg (A Tribe Called Quest), which “advertises” rap-enhancing Ghost Weed. Thanks to the two singles "Oooh" and "All Good?," featuring soul-diva Chaka Khan, Mosaic Thump is De La Soul's best selling album since their original masterpiece 3 Feet High and Rising.
Despite the original intent of releasing all three "Art Official Intelligence" albums in a single year, the second installment AOI: Bionix (2001 – Tommy Boy) came out the following year in 2001. Their ode to plus-sized women, "Baby Phat," is a testament to De La Soul's ability to produce some of the most original yet comedic song concepts in the history of the genre. Critics also highly lauded Bionix. However, the jovial nature of the album was cut short as it was released just as their longtime record label Tommy Boy collapsed.
De La Soul scrapped their plans for a third "Art Official Intelligence" album and instead made their Sanctuary Records debut in 2004 with The Grind Date (2004 – Sanctuary). Despite not completing their planned trilogy, De La Soul delivered a classic album. Powered by a plethora of blue-chip producers like Madlib, J Dilla, 9th Wonder, and Jake One, Grind Date was well received by fans and critics. The album caused a newsworthy stir when the BET cable network announced that the single "Shopping Bags (She Got From You)" held no relevance to the station’s demographic. As a result, several prominent music journalists and critics publicly defended De La Soul’s relevance and importance to the history of Hip Hop.
Post Grind Date, De La Soul was featured on Gorillaz's "Feel Good Inc.", the lead single from Demon Days (2005 – Virgin). The single won a Grammy for "Best Pop Collaboration." De La Soul have also proven themselves as icons of counterculture by designing a sneaker for Nike, as well as being made into an set of action figures.
One of Hip Hop's gems, De La Soul continues to tour and produce thought-provoking Hip Hop. As leaders of the Native Tongues, De La Soul brought an Afrocentric and sensibility to Hip Hop and their influence is still echoed today by the likes of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, among others. Successfully evading labels, De La Soul has always emphasized the importance of creativity and artistic evolution.