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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 ca. January 1991

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

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.”

The hip-hop world has been waiting so long for this album that it’s easy to forget just how young the members of De La Soul are. At twenty-two, Trugoy is the oldest, but the trio has been together for almost six years. Kelvin Mercer (Posdnuos, 21), David Jolicoeur (Trugoy) and Vincent Mason Jr. (Maseo, 21, formerly Pase Master Mase) first met in high school in Amityville, a quiet suburb about an hour’s drive from Manhattan but one that has not been untouched by the city’s problems. After kicking around in assorted local groups, the three recorded a home demo of their own “Plug Tunin’,” which sampled Liberace and utilized large doses of their private, whacked-out slang.

Mase played the song for his neighbor, Prince Paul (Paul Houston) of Stetsasonic, who started circulating the tape among local DJs. Soon, De La Soul was the talk of the New York rap world and the subject of a bidding war. The trio signed with the rap-specialty label Tommy Boy Records in 1988. Mase was still in high school.

Prince Paul, who Pos calls “the fourth member of De La Soul,” produced 3 Feet High, an astonishing contrast to rap’s tired bass pumping and chest thumping. Soon, the press was running lengthy explanations of the group’s in jokes, expressions and names (Trugoy is yogurt, Jolicoeur’s favorite food, spelled backward; Posdnuos is an inversion of Sop Sound, Mercer’s old DJ tag). De La’s impact was even more visible on the street. Even as the three admonished listeners to stop wearing trendy clothing on “Take It Off” and preached nonconformity on the album’s first track (“Casually see but don’t do like the Soul/’Cause seeing and doing are actions for monkeys”), their bright, baggy shirts and short dreadlocks became the year’s most copied styles.

But late in 1989, De La Soul’s creative process came under fire; the group became the subject of the biggest antisampling lawsuit ever. “Transmitting Live From Mars” is a minute-long gag made up of a French-language instruction record played over an eerie organ loop. Flo and Eddie of the Turtles (and now New York radio DJs) recognized the snatch of keyboards from one of their old records and, alleging that they had never been approached for permission to use it, filed a $1.7 million suit. (The parties settled out of court last August for an undisclosed amount.)

The implications of the lawsuit, more than anything else, slowed the release of De La Soul Is Dead. The album was essentially completed last fall, but it has taken almost four months to process the paperwork necessary to clear all of the samples. “Now everybody is looking for De La Soul to sample them,” says Mase. And indeed, just before the album was mastered, Herb Alpert refused permission to use the Dating Game theme on a new comic bit, which had to be pulled.

This time, though, there are virtually no samples as instantly recognizable as the Hall and Oates or Parliament-Funkadelic riffs on the debut. “Before, I just sampled things that I grew up on and loved, the music our parents listened to,” says Mase. “I still do that, but now I’ll sample anything I’ll sample knocking on the wall, I’ll sample Tony! Toni! Tone! – anything that sounds good.”

Such wildly imaginative sampling, a refreshing departure from the usual, overfamiliar James Brown breaks, has extended De La Soul’s appeal far beyond traditional hip-hop fans, most notably to white college kids. But will that crowd be able to follow the twists and turns of De La Soul Is Dead? Dove says: “It’s not the same feeling as 3 Feet, where as soon as you put the needle on the record, you jumped to it. But I think people will have faith in us and say, ‘Let’s listen to it for a little while, let’s see what’s really happening.”’ Mase says: “We see this album as directed more to our peers, but it also gives our alternative audience a chance to hear what our peers listen to. Really, instead of being a step ahead, it’s a step back to where our roots are.”

Some of the subject matter, though, is a decisive step forward. “My Brother’s a Basehead,” a bonus cut on the CD, is the most hard-hitting rap the group has recorded yet. Posdnuos says the song’s powerful story is no accident and no joke; he wrote it from personal experience. “One of my older brothers was fucked up on crack,” he says. “I wrote that song basically straight from the anger that I had inside.” Happily, one detail is changed from real life: Unlike the song’s subject, Pos’s brother is currently in rehab.

Similarly, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” an almost surreal and technically breathtaking rap about a friendly social worker who sexually abuses his daughter, is based on a story related to Posdnuos by a friend. “Whatever we see,” says Pos, “whether it’s from within us or what we learn or see in the streets, that’s what we write about.” Mase says that the new album is “more self-explanatory” than 3 Feet High: “It’s like looking into a mirror. We even wanted to have a mirror as the inner sleeve. Because looking to the album, you see yourself.”

The members of De La Soul are trying  to do something no rap group has ever really done: They’re trying to grow up. It would have been easy to return to the D.A.I.S.Y. path; 3 Feet High, Part 2 probably would have flown off the shelves. “The record company was very into the ingredients that went into the first album,” says Posdnuos, “but we told them we were gonna try something new, and it could either fail or work. If it fails, we don’t feel like it’s gonna kill our careers.” Dove says: “The whole D.A.I.S.Y. Age thing worked, so we went along with it. We wanted to take that ladder, and then when we got to the top, we could do our own thing from that point on.”

De La Soul cultivated one of the strongest, freshest and most identifiable images in hip-hop, but having to stay in character outside the studio very quickly proved too limiting for these bright, shy rappers. “Every minute you’re on guard,” Pos says. “I can’t put the Posdnuos thing down for a second.” He cites an unlikely star as inspiration: “If you look at David Bowie and compare how he changed all through the years, that’s how De La Soul would like to come across.”

Some things, of course, don’t change overnight. The members of De La Soul are still three Long Island kids, the kind who drink Hawaiian Punch and who still joke that their real ambition is to open a doughnut shop. But Posdnuos says: “People ask, ‘Has success changed you?’ Obviously, it has – it changes everything from eating habits to thinking habits. It’s hectic, I’m losing hair, but it’s cool.” And do people still ask if the guys in De La Soul are hippies? “When we go to photo shoots, everyone wants to mess with flowers,” says Posdnuos, “but all that is starting to be cleared up. Now everyone wants us to be with caskets.”

De La Soul is dead. Long live De La Soul.

This story is from the April 18th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.

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