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New Faces of 1991: De La Soul

With its sophomore album, 'De La Soul Is Dead,' the pioneering rap trio breaks with the D.A.I.S.Y. chain and concentrates on growing up

De La Soul
Ebet Roberts/Redferns
April 18, 1991

It's Grammy Night, and Posdnuos is bugging. His two partners in De La Soul, Trugoy the Dove and Baby Huey Maseo, are nowhere to be found. He had planned to work tonight, to master "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey),'' the first single from the forthcoming album De La Soul Is Dead, but somebody brought the wrong tape to the studio. He didn't want to go to the awards show "We went last year when we were nominated [for Best Rap Performance] and saw what it was,'' he says and he would much rather go home to Amityville, out on Long Island, than go to any of the post-Grammy parties. Finally, Posdnuos gives up.

"I hate hip-hop!'' he cries. "I'm gonna start making jazz records.''

Considering De La Soul's mercurial past, it's hard to tell how much Posdnuos is joking. The group's celebrated 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising full of goofy humor, poppy melodic hme mooks and stunningly original samples from the likes of Steely Dan and Johnny Cash represented the triumphant coming of age of middle-class, black suburban children of the Seventies. De La Soul Is Dead is a sprawling, ambitious challenge to the immediate gratification of 3 Feet High. Slower and often more serious, it explodes the expectations created by the first album, just as that record destroyed all definitions of rap that had preceded it.

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: De La Soul, '3 Feet High and Rising'

Eventually, Mase finds his way to Manhattan's Calliope Studios. It's a party night for Mase, nominally De La's DJ, and he, his brother and members of a new group called the Black Sheep burst in and start freestyling, trading rhymes nonstop for the next few hours. Dove, true to his name and his reputation, proves more elusive he won't surface for an interview until a full week later.

The contrast between the Serious One, the Playful One and the Spacey One is so striking it almost seems like a cartoon. But bringing out these different temperaments was part of De La Soul's plan for the new album. "The way we came off on the first album was a lot of bugging out, a lot of fun,'' says Pos. "It was all about these three kids just coming into the business, trying to do something different. This time around, we're in the business, we've been around the world and learned more things. More things to write about.''

With its Day-Glo cover, peace signs and flowers and its rhymes about the coming of the "D.A.I.S.Y. Age'' (which stands not for a new form of flower power but for "Da Inner Sound, Y'all''), 3 Feet High and Rising earned the members of De La Soul an image as the hippies of hip-hop, a description the group has never accepted. Dove thinks that "100 percent of the people listening to De La Soul were really attached to the image and not to what we were trying to say.'' Pos says that when he and his partners returned to the studio for the new album, they were determined to shake the familiar De La image. "We didn't want to be pinned down to a visual look,'' he says, "and so we thought, 'This whole daisy thing has to just die.'''

Indeed, the stylish black-and-white video for "Ring Ring Ring'' includes a slow-motion shot of a pot of daisies falling off a table and shattering to bits. It's a neat summary of De La Soul Is Dead's achievement; from the unblinking anticrack narrative "My Brother's a Basehead'' to the elaborate tale of sexual abuse and revenge in "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,'' this is the work of an older, wiser De La Soul. Not that the group's lighter touch is gone – its repartee with a Burger King waitress in "Bitties in the BK Lounge,'' for instance, is at least as silly as anything on the first album.

"I feel like we're showing something else to the people we introduced to a whole new sound on the first album,'' says Pos. "Like a lot of the white kids – we're bringing them to more of a street level this time.'' Mase says: "We wanted to show the one side that, yo, it ain't gotta be a rough beat all the time. And let the other side know there is a rough side.''

This expanded scope makes for a demanding, often bewildering brew. The beats are slow for a hip-hop album, and the grooves are often interrupted by spoken-word segments or careening tempo changes. The three rappers are sometimes too clever for their own good. But they've anticipated some of the criticism they'll undoubtedly provoke: The game-show theme that ran through 3 Feet High has been replaced by a "read-along'' story of three knucklehead hoods who bully a schoolmate into giving them a De La Soul tape he's found in the garbage. They're not impressed. "These rhymes are so corny,'' our narrators complain. "Sounds like Vanilla Ice wrote 'em.''

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