In the June 1991 issue of The Source, there were full page ads for new albums by Terminator X, Young Black Teenagers, Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs, Cypress Hill, Success-N-Effect, KMC, Tony Dee, and Chubb Rock. Within its pages were articles covering people such as The Genius, Nia Peeples (then-host of The Party Machine), and Lifers Group. There were still regional scene reports, with people like Billy Jam covering the Bay Area, Geoffrey Watts covering Chicago, and DJ P looking into the music of L.A. Inside were reviews of music by Rodney O & Joe Cooley, Dream Warriors, 3rd Bass‘ new single “Pop Goes The Weasel”, Kid Capri, Busy Bee, and YZ. Of interest was an article by Scott Poulson-Bryant on the power of Fishbone, whose “alternativeness” (compared to the regulars in The Source) made them a potential crossover. There’s also an article by Chris Webber on police brutality. The magazine also had a section called Unsigned Hype, where young artists could submit a demo tape in the hopes of being recognized for potential signage. In this issue of The Source was the magazine’s first and only DJ to be honored in the column, an 18-year old music man from Davis, California who called himself Shadow. He made music with a Yamaha MT-100 4-track recorder, and impressed writer Matty C enough to put him in the magazine. We now know Shadow as DJ Shadow.
However, the focus of any magazine is the cover story and for this issue it was De La Soul and the release of their long awaited second album, what was called De La Soul Is Dead. There was also an “anonymous” editorial at the beginning of the magazine which looked at what they felt was Rap Music’s Identity Crisis, so the idea that this music was having issues was very apt. I’ve often cited the idea that rap music was going through a moment of uncertainty in 1990. Rap music was grand and bold, but I had wondered if artists were wondering if this hip trend would be over with, that the “fad” would no longer be valid in the 1990’s. Yo-Yo may have been ready to stomp into the new decade, but were major labels ready? Little did we know how ready major labels, and corporate America, would be.
As for De La, the group were still celebrating the popularity of 3 Feet High And Rising, which was not only an album with a good amount of singles (and videos to go with it), but was also cited for its use of unauthorized samples. Some were wondering of De La Soul could actually do a second album, since many felt 3 Feet High And Rising, produced by Stetsasonic DJ/producer Prince Paul, was too freaky, too weird, too “out there”, too… dare I say, “white”? It left many to call what De La did “alternative hip-hop”, since what they were doing was a complete 180 to what was being pushed in the mainstream media. Keep in mind The Source was still a rap magazine barely available in stores, and it’s safe to say very few understood (or wanted to understand) what Posdnous, Trugoy, P.A. Pasemaster Mase, and Prince Paul were trying to do or say. De La Soul spoke of the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age”, which they said on the first album meant “Da Inner Sound, Y’all”, but when everyone saw flowers, paisley clothes, and homemade Flowbee-type haircuts on these guys from Amityville, New York, people were like “damn, are these fuckers really from Mars?” They poked fun at themselves, but it seemed as if it was at the cost of people thinking they were legitimate, as if all they were was a bunch of day-glo nerds. Maybe they were, but their second album was a strategic move to kill the misconceptions, and arguably themselves.
In popular music, people love a good “dead” story. People enjoy reading about musicians dying, how and why. Maybe the idea of calling the album De La Soul Is Dead was an attempt to poke fun at people who would see that and go “oh, if they’re dead, maybe there are clues to find”. It’s as if stating they were dead was like a Paul McCartney moment. People looked at the new De La logo the group were now using, and how when you turned the word “LA” upside down, the A could be the Roman numeral 5, and the L looked like the percent ( % ) symbol. Were they part of the 5% Nation Of Islam? The upsidedown L also looked like it could be the number 7, so were they dropping mathematics? Seeing the illustrated cover of a pot of daisies fallen to the ground was obvious: De La had to be doing something different. Combine all of these elements, and what you had on the surface was a brand new album with new music, new stories, new lyrics, and new puzzles to figure out. While the group had released “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” as the first single from the album, the group would make their new mission known when De La Soul Is Dead was released on May 13, 1991.
The album did not have a proper concept, but rather it was done in the form of a read-along story book, complete with “dings” that would allow listeners to turn the page to a book that did not exist. You did that in your mind. What the group and Prince Paul did was arrange the songs in a way that had some level of narrative, but did it really? No. The narrative was done through Paul’s skits, allowing people to find out what would happen if you were a kid who found a De La cassette in the trash and be bullied because you did not listen to MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. To listen to De La meant you were different, even if you weren’t. But already, the group were already showing how fans were stigmatized for not listening to something that was “typically rap”. The group would jump on various examples of the stereotypes, on how you had to “hold my crotch ’cause I’m top notch”.
At the same time, it was time to reflect about what hip-hop had become circa 1991, one of the threads of continuity on the album. In “Oodles Of O’s”, one of the first songs where the majority of the song rhymed in a continuous fashion, Dove basically said it was time to sell some O’s at the corner store. It was as if he was saying “for a moment, let’s go back to when we were kids, when the corner store meant everything to us and our friends.” The song briefly looked back, and then looked forward as the album would proceed. Prince Paul was already showing his audio continuity by reviving the “oh, shit” sample from 3rd Bass’ “The Gas Face. Then there’s “Talkin’ ‘Bout Hey Love”, and while it’s kind of toss-off/joke song where the female vocals repeat the same vocal melody over and over, it’s almost as if that influenced hip-hop hooks in the last decade. It’s almost as if someone focused on that part of the song and loved it, so it could be an influence. What may have also been an influence: the WRMS breaks heard throughout the album used Joe Sample‘s “In All My Wildest Dream”, slowed down slightly but still evident. Its slow tempo was very much unlike the hip-hop going on at the time, where people were either wanting to go hip-house or just being funky, there was no “laid back” vibe. A year later, DJ Shadow would take credit for creating the trip-hop movement, in that the sample used was slow enough to make people trip out, and yet Shadow himself might cite these De La interludes, The Beastie Boys “To All The Girls” (Shadow also sampled “Loren’s Dance” in his own “Shadow’s Legitimate Mix” he did for Zimbabwe Legit or Queen Mother Rage‘s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” as an inspiration, and yet Prince Paul was doing his thing to let people know that yes, slow and mellow samples work too. (2Pac would use the Joe Sample track again for his song “Dear Mama”.)
Upon first listen to De La Soul Is Dead, it almost seems like a sensory overload, or that the group were trying to do everything to create something that didn’t quite happen, but to my ears that’s far from the truth. They saw the changes happening in hip-hop, how the music was turning into something where only “hardcore acts” were gaining respect, while being light was considered weak, as they talked about in “Afro Connections At A Hi 5 (In The Eyes Of The Hoodlum)”. They were not afraid to talk about the threat (perceived or otherwise) of gangsterism, and yet in “Pease Porridge”, Mase was not afraid to say he will not hesitate to pop someone in the face if need be. The group had been perceived as peace loving hippies, but as they said on one of their earlier B-sides, it wasn’t too hip to be labeled a hippie, especially when that was something created by their label, Tommy Boy Records. Here was a group making fun of themselves as being peace loving gentlemen, while also talking about how the music was becoming more business-like and corporate. In an interview they did with MTV that spring on Yo! MTV Raps, they told Fab 5 Freddy they were going to have De La Glow Nuts, a store that sold glow-in-the-dark doughnuts. There were glow-in-the-dark T-shirts made to promote 3 Feet High And Rising, so why not have their own store? (It would be awhile before groups would acknowledge the benefits of having their own store filled with merchandise, as with the Wu-Tang when they had their Wu-Wear stores and seeked to make Wu nail salons a national success.)
My first exposure to the album was the cassette version, which lacked a number of tracks that were on the compact disc version, released about three months after the album hit the streets. Cassettes were still the format of choice in rap music, vinyl was (as it has always been) a DJ thing and only vinyl purists were looking for the actual record. (There was hesitation, since 3 Feet High And Rising‘s duration of 70 minutes was slapped on a single piece of vinyl, reducing the volume and audio quality on an album that was good as is. Tommy Boy solved this by releasing a promo-only double LP of De La Soul Is Dead but eliminating the interludes, although original stock copies had always been difficult to find.) For me, this is how the album was introduced to me:
Oodles Of O’s
Talkin’ ‘Bout Hey Love
A Rollerskating Jam Named “Saturdays”
WRMS’ Dedication To The Bitty
Bitties In The BK Lounge
Let, Let Me In
Afro Connections At A Hi 5 (In The Eyes Of The Hoodlum)
Rap De Rap Show
Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa
Pass The Plugs
Not Over Till The Fat Lady Plays The Demo
Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)
WRMS: Cat’s In Control
Fanatic Of The B Word
Keepin’ The Faith
If your exposure to the album has only been with the CD version or digital download (equal to that of the CD), you’ll see that a good amount of songs are missing:
Johnny’s Dead AKA Vincent Mason (live in BK Lounge)
My Brother’s A Basehead
Who do u Worship?
Kicked Out the House
It may be a mere four songs, but for me, these songs were able to add a bit more continuity to the songs on the cassette version. For example, “Who Do U Worship?” sounds like a track that was almost out of place, although at a time when Afrocentricity and faith were minor issues in the music, and it was almost as if some were trying to have hip-hop be one thing or… nothing. In other words, you really couldn’t be “other”, or at least the only thing that existed was “hardcore rap” and “good rap”, and good rap for many meant wholesome and cuss free, such as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and Kid ‘N Play. De La Soul represented a completely different “other”, so maybe the group were as out of place as “Who Do U Worship?”, and yet people who heard them loved what they were hearing because it was different from what was becoming an accepted norm. At the beginning of “Skit 3”, Mase asks what in the world was that “Who Do U Worship” crap, the sign of the devil or something? On the cassette version, it seemed like a random part of the album’s conversation, as if he was talking about someone else (or heavy metal music, which in 1991 was all about the evil that was Guns N’ Roses). With the extra song, Mase’s conversation made much more sense, even though (IMHO) the song really doesn’t add anything to the trail of thought going on. “Kicked Out The House” was the group making fun of hip-house, a style of music that their fellow Native Tongue affiliates were having fun with (let’s not forget that the first Jungle Brothers hit was the now-classic “Girl I’ll House You”). At the end of “Kicked Out The House”, there’s a vocal sample that repeatedly goes “put it on vibrate” before ending with the Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick sample. With the next song, “Pass The Plugs”, it begins with someone saying “this time, put it in mellow”. While the connection may not be a major one, it was almost as if Paul was adding this little things to see if anyone would/could figure out his sense of continuity, or at least he was adding his own storyline to the album. In other words, the bumping house music was annoying to where someone is yelling “put it on vibrate”, and when the song is over, they’re asked to “put it in mellow”, and we get that. I still feel that at times, the cassette version worked a lot better without the extra songs that made it on the CD, although out of the four bonus tracks, “My Brother’s A Basehead” is the best one.
The cassette version shows how the album is properly divided, so that the first half ends with “Afro Connection At A Hi-5” and the second half begins with “Rap De Rap Show”. The first half has the group hanging out at the corner store, having fun, being wise asses and showing who they are as individuals. The second half is a bit more serious in tone, with “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” covering child abuse that leads to a murder, “Ring Ring Ring” showing how the group’s successful status lead to people feeling they were the ones who could rescue new artists with a recording contract, when they felt it was nothing more than “demo abuse, getting raped and giving birth to a tape”. De La’s corner store raps were being threatened by the business of the business, and Dove casually says he “found it hard enough dealin’ with my own biz”. As worldly as the group may have sounded to fans and critics, they kept on establishing that they were down to Earth and wanted to remain that way. What success (or someone’s view of their success) lead to was people saying “here’s my tape, make me famous too”, which is why the song’s chorus has them reacting as if they were an answering machine, which was (back in 1991) also recorded on tape and added to the “piles and piles” of tapes that the group had to deal with.
Initially, the last three songs on the album were hard for me to embrace at first. They were all good songs, but my original outlook was that they slowed down the pace of the album. It would take a number of repeat listens to make me rethink this, so today, “Shwingalokate”, “Fanatic Of The B Word”, “Keepin’ The Faith” are a perfect way to end an incredible sonic adventure. On this album, Mase found himself not only rapping in a few tracks but becoming a more vocal member of the group, figuratively and literally. You also had appearances from Q-Tip, Afrika Baby Bam, Mike G., and Dres, the group most certainly brought a party atmosphere into their music, or at least made it out that “the bigger the family, the better things will be”. We now know through interviews and articles at at times, the Native Tongues collective may have been too crammed at times to where even people who weren’t part of that musical family were trying to make a name for themselves by saying they were. In 1991, it was still about the music, and that these side controversies would never be a big issue as they might have been had the group started in 1999.
(SIDENOTE: As an alternate way to hear De La Soul Is Dead, I tend to prefer the single mix of “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” as heard in the music video, and at times I also like the extra samples and vocal hook in the “Full Mix” of “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” (which Prince Paul would later use to good effect in “Mommy What’s A Gravedigga?”). The “Straight Pass” mix of “Keepin’ The Faith”, used in the video, is also a nice switch over the original, complete with a nice scratch of The Mohawks‘s “The Champ” heard throughout. I also highly recommend “What Yo Life Can Truly Be“, a nice reworking of “A Rollerskating Jam Named “Saturdays””, and “Who’s Skatin’ Promo“, a mock radio spot. Both of these mixes were released on the 12” single for “Saturdays”.)
De La Soul were not only playing games with fans and themselves, but they were also doing it when they promoted the album. With an appearance on BET‘s Video Soul, Dove was credited as one “Rahlow”, and I know I had no idea what that meant. Rahlow was discovered to be “Cousin Rahlow”, the guy who sold blow in “Afro Connections At A Hi-5”. For a group who were more than willing to “kill themselves” in order to prove they should be worthy of being heard amongst everyone else, they were still not afraid to let people know that their lyrical twists and turns could also be explored in their promotional game, at a time when “promotional game” was not something everyone flirted with in 1991. Perhaps they were taking a few hints from the Beastie Boys, who once did a full week on MTV showing them traveling around the world, when they were doing nothing more than driving around Los Angeles.
The group’s fictitious death was arguably a rebirth, and the group would mature into their fictitious teen years with their follow up, Buhloone Mind State. When that album was released on September 24, 1993, rap music was not just rap music, it had become hip-hop, which in a way it had always been. But now, people wanted to use slogans and tags in order to define the music and to show how relevant they were by being a fan and creator of the music. In fact, some felt you could be proud enough to call yourself hip-hop. At the same time people started using that as a badge of honor, the music was selling more, started gaining more mainstream press (often times for reasons having nothing to do with the music itself), and along with MC’s becoming known for their verbal game, record label owners wanted some of that fame too. People saw the success of Tone Loc‘s “Wild Thing”, Young MC‘s “Bust A Move”, Vanilla Ice‘s “Ice Ice Baby”, MC Hammer‘s “U Can’t Touch This”, and Sir Mix-A-Lot‘s “Baby Got Back” and realized that wow, hip-hop could be bigger than what was called “ghetto gold”? People boasted about their road to the riches, but the true road to money and success was having #1 hit singles, and some of the characteristics of the music began to change too. Album sales were still strong, but you got noticed outside of hip-hop circles if you had the pop hit, it meant you truly blew up successfully. In the words of De La, “it might blow up but it won’t go pop”, which was their way of saying if your sole aim is to be a pop artist, once you blow up, it’ll be very difficult to go back to a status your fans loved you for. De La Soul exploited the lure in their music, even though they released a number of songs that showed they easily had the potential to “blow up”. Fortunately, they did not (although the success of Gorillaz‘ “Feels Good Inc.” showed that patience came to those willing to wait, and by then, it didn’t matter that Dove, who simply wanted to be Dave, did a line about the Care Bears.) A few months after the release of Buhloone Mind State, a group from Staten Island, New York called the Wu-Tang Clan would mark the end of the uncertain hip-hop era of the early 90’s and mark the start of another era. The common link? Prince Paul, who found himself not only heard during (what else) an interlude at the end of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), but found himself working with The RZA at the same time on what would become the Gravediggaz project. By then, Stetsasonic was pretty much over, Paul’s relationship with Tommy Boy Records was coming to an end and Buhloone Mind State would become the last full album Paul would do with De La. When the group followed that up with Stakes Is High, it was the group’s mission to let people know that they were a group with their own ideas and characteristics, a way to let fans know that they were much more than Prince Paul’s group. For awhile, Paul did become the group’s unofficial 4th member, he was very much a part of what the group were about on their first three albums. If 3 was truly the magic number, then those first three albums are truly magic. De La Soul no longer wanted to be mystical, but they weren’t about being fake gangsters, that was not their thing. Stakes Is High was the start of a new era for the group and the end of another, and regardless of what some fans or critics think, the group remain with us to this very day. Prince Paul ended up being a Gravedigga (and perhaps it was he who killed Tommy’s boy, so maybe Paul has been a gangsta all along), but a solo album on Wordsound would also mark his true independence from De La. It made him into the king of hip-hop interludes, and if you wanted a certain sound to your music, Paul was and remains the man to go to.
In retrospect, maybe the music seemed much more simpler than it is now, maybe it seemed more refined and defined, when in truth, many artists weren’t following definition but creating new things on a regular basis. There were artists who did follow certain guidelines and rules, but those were ones regarded as those who wanted a #1 hit. Hip-hop success in 1991 meant you heard it a lot on the radio (when you could find it on the radio) or saw the video a lot on MTV and BET. Hip-hop success was not defined by major media campaigns, nor was it dictated by an assumption of what could be a hit. A hit was judged by fans and if it was good, a “hit” meant it was a good song to you. Liking a song for its chart status as if it was a baseball card statistic was not an issue for anyone but industry insiders who were looking to make another million, and was there a chance the music could make an unheard of billion? Def Jam Recordings was not the big giant it was in the mid to late 80’s in 1991, but a year or so later, jumping ship from Columbia/CBS to Polygram would not only mark a new era for the label, but for hip-hop as a new, young (perhaps naive) corporate entity. Jay-Z was still the quirky looking guy in The Jaz videos who seemed better than the person who made the actual record, but never finding a way to come out with his own music. That, of course, would change a few years later. As N.W.A would take over audience’s hearts with increased focus on rap music from the West Coast, it didn’t stop anyone to enjoy music from “the best coast”. There may have been egos tossed back and forth on who made the better music, but what was unspoken was a willingness to make good music, in the hopes of making and taking that money, all without (hopefully) sacrificing one’s integrity. De La Soul may have only thought about putting out a collection of songs that would follow up a very solid debut album, but what they ended up doing was creating a staple of the genre that many still look to as an example of how good music can be made. In 2011, there are many different staples and stitches on the fabric of hip-hop, but the quilt work created by De La Soul and Prince Paul showed that you could raise your freak flag high when people felt you were a freak or geek, but it was perfectly okay to be both and live life while fighting your way towards self-identity. It was KRS-One who once said that you had to have style and learn to be original, or everyone would want to dis you. De La Soul are true originals who became the target of everyone who wanted to throw hate because they looked and sounded different. They later did a song called “I Am I Be”, and that is exactly what they were and are. De La Soul killed themselves so that they could live, and by doing so, they revealed what they have been since “Plug Tunin'”: individuals who made music “from the soul”.