De La Soul: Their Incredible Career in 15 Songs
Last month, toward the end of a lively, hour-long conversation with rappers Pos and Dave — the idiosyncratic duo at the heart of De La Soul, together with DJ Maseo — we delivered two requests on behalf of their loyal fan base. One: that they record a reunion album with Prince Paul, producer of the group’s first three groundbreaking classics from the late ’80s and early ’90s (3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate). Two: that they finally record an album with the Native Tongues, the loosely-knit rap collective with an Afrocentrist aesthetic that counted De La Soul as one of its core acts alongside the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and others.
“You asking for a lot!” Pos responded, with a riotous laugh.
Less than three weeks later, Dave — also known as Trugoy the Dove, or the Plug Two to Pos’ Plug One — was gone at the age of 54. His sudden death, from causes not immediately revealed (though he previously struggled with congestive heart failure), adds a bittersweet tinge to what was otherwise a celebratory interview. While we now know those fan fantasies won’t ever be fulfilled, the songs that De La Soul made live on, their words and music as essential as ever.
First collaborating as teenagers at Amityville Memorial High School in suburban Long Island, Kelvin Mercer, Dave Jolicoeur, and Vincent Mason delivered something altogether innovative in the springtime of 1988 with the “new style of speak” on their debut single as De La Soul, “Plug Tunin’.” Transformed into Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo, their unorthodox lyricism (“Different in style is definite/And style which I flaunt is sure legit”) and B-boy bohemian bravura heralded a new wave of hip-hop that stood apart from N.W.A’s gangsta tropes, Public Enemy’s political polemics, and the supercool poses of Big Daddy Kane.
Wholly original for its time, 1989’s 3 Feet High and Rising carved space for the blerds and bohos of hip-hop culture, with an eclectic sample-collaging sound laying claim to everything from Hall & Oates to Funkadelic to Schoolhouse Rock, a French-language instruction record placed alongside a comical orgy on wax. Sketch comedy skits stitched together an album containing an enormous 24 tracks (unprecedented for rap albums back then), launching a trend that would be imitated in years to come by Dr. Dre, the Notorious B.I.G., Kanye West, ad infinitum. The party continued on 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead, where the group laid waste to its own image as the hippies of hip-hop, and evolved along with changing times in the decades that followed. (Check the alternative adventurousness of 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate, the backpack-rap advocacy of 1996’s Stakes Is High, and the dad rap of 2004’s The Grind Date in particular.)
Sample-clearance complications, music publishing issues, and other legalities with pioneering rap label Tommy Boy Records meant that De La Soul’s discography went unavailable in the streaming era. This interview came together because that’s finally changing: On March 3, via an arrangement with Reservoir Records (owner of Tommy Boy master recordings as of 2021), the first six De La Soul albums become available on Apple Music, Spotify, and elsewhere for the first time. It’s a momentous occasion that offers countless listeners their first chance to have their minds opened by one of hip-hop’s most inventive, multi-layered catalogs.
Pos and Dave chose 15 songs to weave the history of De La Soul, from 3 Feet High and Rising to 2016’s And the Anonymous Nobody…
‘Plug Tunin’’ (1988)
Dave: “Plug Tunin’,” to an extent, was a big-words record, with the inspiration of Ultramagnetic MCs and even LL Cool J or some Run freestyles that were just really big words. T La Rock. It’s in the spirit of their songs, but it takes a little bit of a left turn in hip-hop. That was confidence and fear at the same time. I think we knew we had something special. But we also knew we had something totally obscure, something totally different. Listening now, it was one of those records where it was just brave. We didn’t know we had something that was gonna be on the radio or be sold or played. We just thought, in the midst of our own circle, we had something special. The reception and camaraderie from other artists made it feel that was what it was supposed to be. “Plug Tunin’ ” was the introduction of De La Soul and what we stood for. Tapping into our creative sense, overcoming that fear and just going for it.
Pos: It gave me, Dave, and Mase the names Plug One, Plug Two, and Three. We never assigned that to us. It’s funny how those stuck. It was never really supposed to be a name at all.
‘Me Myself and I’ (1989)
Dave: “Me Myself and I” was almost like a punishment. It’s typical — the label comes and says: “Hey, we need one more, but we need something poppy and something familiar.” I’m not too sure who brought the music to the table, it might’ve been Prince Paul and Mase.
Pos: It was Mase. Mase always wanted to do that record.
Dave: When we heard that, we were like, “Of course we love [Funkadelic’s] ‘Knee Deep,’ we could work this. This doesn’t feel like the worst punishment in the world. Let’s do this.” The rhyme style is from Jungle and Tribe’s “Black Is Black.” We borrowed that; we nicked that from there. Once the song was completed, it was like, “Yeah, this is a great song.” We didn’t have the indication or idea of commercial radio [loving it]. The label saw that and knew they had something they could really work with. It’s a blessing. We sometimes feel like, “This one’s easy, this one’s nothing. Why is everybody making so much fuss about that? They need to go check out ‘Oodles of O’s’!” But I’d never want it any other way. That song was special for us. We’ve obviously played that record more than any other record in our lives.
Pos: Q-Tip was already spreading his wings as a DJ. I remember Tip being like, “Yo, we just ran this in the club. I’m telling you man, this gon’ be big!” I was like, “Really?!” You just never knew. It came from a sincere place and people identifying with not wanting to be like everyone else. Arrested Development and the Pharcyde being like, “Yo, that shit was hot to us, it made me feel like I can express myself.” [George Clinton] even had us perform with him. He was a champion of sampling.
‘The Magic Number’ (1989)
Pos: Before recording it, Mase had his little Casio that you could sample into. He put in the Schoolhouse Rock record with the beat. It was just one of those early ideas that was fun because, yo, this a Schoolhouse Rock record! Even down to just putting all those samples at the end, throwing in the different things. We’re all sitting there picking songs. I remember stepping back from that like, “Yo, this is crazy.”
[Writer gives props to inclusion of sample from Robert Downey, Sr.’s 1969 comedy Putney Swope.]
And we didn’t know that! [Laughs.] We knew that shit from Double Dee & Steinski’s record. We didn’t find that shit out ’til we was way into the fifth album! I didn’t know that shit was from an old movie from Iron Man’s pops!
‘Tread Water’ (1989)
Pos: Paul played us a bunch of different beats. The way he did the music to “Tread Water” at home, there was more of a kind of hop to it. By the time we laid it in the studio, it felt different. I really wasn’t into it. Dave came up with the idea: “Why don’t we flip it on some children storytelling things?” So, we went in that direction. It was dope, people loved it. I recently was telling Dave how, throughout our career, we kinda dissed the record. We performed it a few times onstage with a New Jack Swing [sound]. It was just a record we would never do. But I was telling him recently, clearing everything for our catalog, it was amazing how it meant so much to me now as an older person: treading through negativity, keeping your head above and looking for something more positive through the pandemic. I was telling him I love “Tread Water,” that’s my record.
Dave: When we went to a show in Boston — had to have been ’88, mid-spring — we met Jungle Brothers for the first time. We were fans of seeing those guys before we even got on. Like, “Yo, that’s Jungle Brothers and Red Alert!” We hadn’t met them yet, and we finally met them at a gig we did with Antoinette. Jungle had performed “Jimbrowski” at the show. We were like, “We got this idea to do this song called ‘Jenifa’ in response to ‘Jimbrowski.’ Are y’all cool with that?” They was like, “Yeah, it’s all cool — we’ll come together. We got a gig in Queens coming up next week, why don’t y’all come through?” The relationship just started getting closer. We met Q-Tip there for the first time. When they came to Calliope [Studio], we happened to be working on “Buddy.” Our sessions were always like, whoever’s there is gonna be involved. Hence, “Buddy.”
‘A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’ (1991)
Pos: The song itself wasn’t originally for De La. The Native Tongues was really fascinated with how George Clinton had all these little different subgroups. We came up with an idea where Dave, Sammy B, Mike G, and Jarobi was called Kids on Zenith Avenue. And me, Q-Tip, Afrika Baby Bam, and [the Beatnuts’ Junkyard] Jujus, we called ourselves the Fabulous Fleas. Juju made this amazing record; Afrika made this amazing record. And I said, “What I’ma come up with?” I came up with all the music and it became “Saturdays.” I was like, “Let’s rhyme the way they’re singing.” We was gonna rhyme in that cadence, but then that wound up becoming the chorus. We were working on De La Soul Is Dead and Tommy Boy was bothering us about, “Yo, we need a single.” I asked [the Fabulous Fleas], “Yo, can I pull this back to be a De La record?” They was cool wit’ it and it came back to De La. There was another song called “The Night I Got Swatted.” Everything was coming out so dope! We was having fun. Recording De La, it fell to the side.
‘Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa’ (1991)
Pos: The way it started from the very beginning was just a title. I think we took the Long Island Rail Road into Penn Station, caught another train to whatever club we was going to. Got off the train about to walk upstairs and I see this homeless guy with a Santa suit on. Literally the first thing that came to my mind was, Millie pulled a pistol on Santa. I always walked around at the time with a little notepad. I wrote it in. A few months go by. I told Dave the title. He said, “Yo, it sounds really dope. What would it be about?” I said, “I’m not really sure.”
I started developing a story because someone close to me went through a situation where she was molested by her father. “This could really work with this type of ‘Millie killed her father’ story.” Paul had a bunch of music at the time when we were trying to work on stuff. I heard the music [Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay”]. And I was like, “Just the sound, the energy of this music, this could be what fits everything together.” It clicked and that’s when I started weaving the story. It means a lot to me in terms of the subject matter.
Dave: That was one of the first songs I recall approaching with some seriousness, having a respect for what Pos had in mind. This wasn’t joking around. I recall feeling like I’m gonna take the back seat and follow direction, because this has some sort of meaning to Pos. It was a serious moment in our recording career.
‘Eye Patch’ (1993)
Pos: I don’t remember how we came up with the title. I just remember we were in Denver and I found the record [As Jimmy Is by Jimmy Reed]. I was like, “This would be dope to rhyme off of.” A lot of people don’t realize that the intro to Stakes Is High is basically what would have been the “Eye Patch” remix — the next single [from Buhloone Mindstate], “Ego Trippin’,” was gonna have this remix to “Eye Patch.” But we never put it out. So, at the top of Stakes Is High, right before “Supa Emcees,” that’s what that is.
Dave: The time was really experimental for us. I remember being influenced by Pharcyde’s release [Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde]. It felt like those guys are just rhyming, having fun. And once again just feeling like, “Let’s go past our norm. Let’s try something different.” “Eye Patch” was really different for us, even the rhyme style was different.
‘En Focus’ (1993)
Pos: “En Focus” was dope to me. Being at that point ample music enthusiasts, we knew we could come back to Paul like, “Masta Ace done used this sample first [Grand Funk Railroad’s ‘Nothing Is the Same,’ used on his song ‘Music Man’]. We need it the way we flipped it.” We took two sections and made it into a whole different record.
Dave: Recording that album, I always remember the studio being dark, quiet, like a cave. The only thing that I felt came out of those sessions there was rhymes. We were rhyming. Again, that was that time around Pharcyde. The influence of hearing dudes rhyme again and being creative just came over me personally. I considered a song like “En Focus” a raw beat. There’s no real concept. The approach was, we can’t make this a concept song. We gotta just rhyme on it.
‘I Am I Be’ (1993)
Pos: I’ve always leaned toward storytelling. That’s what “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” is: telling a story. For some reason, I lean more towards talking about what’s going on in my life. Even unfortunately in this record. I treated it like a journal. At that moment in time, me and Q-Tip actually had an issue with each other — that’s what I was gonna talk about. But now, honestly, I wish I wouldn’t have did that. That was something we got over. It was hard for us to get over it because the world was gonna listen to it for the rest of their lives. But the way I put together the words about what’s going on in my life, seeing what’s going on in the world, it’s a special record to me.
Dave: I think I took the title really literal. Like, “I Am I Be,” this is gonna be about who I am, defining myself. And I personally found difficulty because I didn’t know myself then. I wasn’t prepared to delve into who I am, because I was still discovering, experiencing, and figuring it out. As much as you wanna be a contributor to a group, sometimes there’s a moment where you learn to sit back and just become a part of the cast and take direction. I think that was that song. It was one of those moments for me of learning humbleness, learning to be a student in the midst of your own classroom.
‘4 More’ (1996)
Pos: O.Gee produced it, from Diggin’ in the Crates. It was just a beat.I don’t recall why we saw that and thought it should be a De La record. That music could’ve easily been something you bond to once the vocal of the old Sharon Redd record “Never Gonna Give You Up” came into play. Me and Renée [Neufville] of Zhané became close during the recording. We were thinking maybe we should add them, try them for this record. They came in, heard it, powwowed with each other and started following our direction, adding all these upbeat vocal tones to it.
‘Stakes Is High’ (1996)
Pos: Stakes Is High was the first album where we had the title before we even went into it. I rhymed to the Heath Brothers sample [“Smilin’ Billy Suite Pt. II”]; the same thing Tip had used for Nas on “One Love,” I used a different section of it. I started rhyming to it, it was all right. But I was like, “Nah, this ain’t gon’ work.” And hanging out with Tip at his crib, he started playing this beat tape from Dilla. The song was amazing. I told Dave, “Yo, we need that.” Thank God we got it.
Dave: Also, for the first time we had an outsider. It had always been the three of us and Paul. It was truly one of the first times an outsider came in and defined some of the stuff we wanted to do. There were people like O.Gee, and I think even Tip was producing a song on Stakes Is High that didn’t make it. But Dilla was such a breath of fresh air, to hear those type of songs.
“Stakes Is High” was one of the moments where we were challenging ourselves. Everything else we were breezing through before that. We were having a good time. But Stakes Is High — working with other artists and pulling in music from different places — that was a challenging album. An album that definitely was like: We’re on our own now, let’s do this. The song and concept “stakes is high” stems from that. This is all or nothing right now. We’re doing it for ourselves.
[Concept albums were] the trend for us for our first three albums. I think we approached it like, yo, we don’t wanna do a concept album. We don’t wanna do something that has a running theme or some sort of thread that laces everything together. We just wanna make a raw hip-hop record. Stakes Is High was the first time we approached it that way. This record definitely was a flag for “Yo, we gotta be a part of helping save hip-hop’s direction.”
‘Copa (Cabanga)’ (2000)
Dave: Dave West, who is part of our team, was producing music with Q-Tip. I used to go hang out at Phife’s house down in Atlanta quite often. One day, Phife played me some beats and I was like, “Who is that?!” He was like, “Oh, this dude named Dave West that Tip is workin’ with,” and played a couple of songs. I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing. Can I get in touch with him, get his number or something?”
I was like, “Whaddup man? Love what you doing. I heard some songs Phife was playing. Amazing stuff.” He was like, “If y’all want it, take it!” I went home and called Merce and them about it. They heard those beats and Dave was working the following week [laughs]. He produced two songs off of that album for us: “U Can Do (Life)” and “Copa (Cabanga).” Dave West was definitely a gift. He has not only just been a hired producer but became our fourth member when we recorded And the Anonymous Nobody… His vision, his talent and everything else has been important for us throughout the years.
Pos: The funny thing is that before Dave found out it was Dave West, he thought it was Dilla! “Pos! I was at Phife’s crib and I think Jay Dee gave some beats to them. Damn, I ain’t never heard no shit like this!” [Laughs.]
‘Trying People’ (2001)
Dave: “Trying People” was a moment. We actually recorded that song on the heels of the days of 9/11. We were in the city maybe a week later, recording. “Trying People” was the song that was up. Obviously the vibe was a solemn one. It was really sad, confused, and what have you. I think it gave confidence to the song we were working on: “Maybe the direction should be really looking at life and talking about where you are in life, and maybe a definition of who you are in life.” I think “Trying People” is people just trying to do the right thing, get along and make sure they can learn lessons in life and push forward. Pos and I even talked about the mood in which we rhymed. Like, “OK, be calmer. Be a little bit more subtle.” Definitely 9/11 pushed the whole vibe on it.
Dave: There are moments where magic takes place, and that was a magical moment. We sat down and talked about this concept of creating [And the Anonymous Nobody…] by way of sampling musicians who we had record live stuff. Dave West played that beat for us. I think he did it overnight one night while we were sleeping and woke up the next morning like, “I got one I wanna play for y’all.” As soon as he hit run on that machine, we were writing. We wrote that song right there. The motivation was not only the beat. The motivation of that song was Pos’s verse. Hearing that verse was like, “Holy fuck!”