De La Soul made rap history as one of the first groups to go against the hip-hop grain of macho braggadocio, hectoring social comment and mammoth beats, all while winning respect and acclaim from inside and outside of the hip-hop community. With its middle-class suburban Long Island roots, light rhythms, laid-back raps, thoughtfully irreverent lyrics, esoteric sampling, and quasi-hippie attitude, De La Soul paved the way for a steady stream of adventurous "alternative" rap groups (A Tribe Called Quest, P.M. Dawn, Basehead, and Digable Planets).
De La Soul began as three high school friends whose stage names reflected their sense of whimsical in-jokery: through backward spelling David Jolicoeur became "Trugoy the Dove" (yogurt, his favorite food, spelled backwards); Kelvin Mercer derived "Posdnuos" (his nickname as a high school DJ, "Sound-Sop"). Their first demo, "Plug Tunin'," attracted the attention of Paul "Prince Paul" Houston, of local rap group Stetsasonic. He played the tape for colleagues on New York's rap scene, and soon De La Soul signed with Tommy Boy.
Prince Paul produced the group's debut album,3 Feet High and Rising, a mock-game show soundtrack that introduced such De La terms as "the D.A.I.S.Y. Age (Da Inner Sound, Y'all)." De La Soul were labeled "hippies" — a term at which the group bridled — but also hailed as ingenious revolutionaries. The album brimmed with off-center inventiveness, its samples taken not from the usual James Brown rhythm tracks but from TV shows and obscure recordings, many from De La Soul's parents' collections. "Transmitting Live From Mars" set a sample from a French lesson record atop a sample from the 1968 Turtles hit "You Showed Me." The former Turtles filed a $1.7 million lawsuit, charging their music was sampled without their permission; the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Three Feet (Number 24 Pop, Number 1 R&B, 1989) yielded a hit single in "Me Myself and I" (Number 34 Pop, Number 1 R&B, 1989), set to a sample of Funkadelic's 1979 "(not just) Knee Deep." De La Soul then helped formed "Native Tongues," a loose alliance with A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and Black Sheep.
De La Soul's second album was an obvious reaction to the perception that its debut, however innovative, was "soft." Titled De La Soul Is Dead (Number 26 pop, Number 24 R&B, 1991), it took a darker, more serious tone with songs about drug abuse ("My Brother's a Basehead"), incest ("Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa"), and the vicissitudes of fame ("Ring Ring Ring [Ha Ha Hey]" [Number 22 R&B, 1991]). Critical and commercial reaction to the album was mixed.
De La Soul came back strong in late 1993, however, with Buhloone Mindstate (Number 40 pop, Number Nine R&B), hailed as a return to the group's quirky, groundbreaking form. A more conventional effort, the 1996 album Stakes Is High found the group stuck in neutral. Three singles — "The Bizness" (Number 53 R&B), "Stakes Is High" (Number 70 R&B), and "Itsoweezee (Hot)" (Number 60 R&B) — failed to stir sustained interest.
De La Soul wasn't dead, however, as the trio returned to the studio for a 2000 release, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Number Nine Pop, Number Three R&B, 2000), part of a reported three-disc series. Guest artists include Chaka Khan, the Beastie Boys, Busta Rhymes, and Redman. The next year, the group followed up with a second installment of the series, AOI: Bionix, but a third part never showed up. Instead, in 2004, the group's longtime label Tommy Boy tossed out a dated, badly recorded performance disc, Live at Tramps, NYC, 1996. It ended De La Soul's relationship with the label.
The trio signed with indie label Sanctuary Records, a company known more for putting out new albums by older metal and hard rock acts than for its roster of hip-hop. De La Soul's 2004 Sanctuary debut, The Grind Date, was generally well received but broke no new ground. In 2005, De La Soul appeared with the Gorillaz on the single "Feel Good Inc." (Number One, Modern Rock; Number 14 Pop), which won Best Pop Vocal Collaboration at the Grammys. The following year, De La Soul returned with a self-released mixtape, Impossible Mission: TV Series, Pt. 1, on which Posdnuos announced the mission statement in a track called "Freedom Train:" "No longer backed by record companies but back by popular demand." The clunky rhyme was not totally accurate; by 2006 a collection of spotty old and new material failed to chart at all. In 2008 the band toured with A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Pharcyde and others on the Rock the Bells tour.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).