De La Soul made hip-hop weird—now a whole new generation gets to hear them
For too many years, De La Soul’s legacy was obscured by exasperating legal battles and circumstances that made their early music constrained to physical media only. Today, a whole new generation gets to meet the alt hip-hop group, as their entire catalog is available on streaming services for the first time ever.
But to understand their gravity, it’s essential to rewind a little. In 1989, De La Soul helped to usher in alternative hip-hop with their debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising, which was more in line with Jungle Brothers’ imaginative jazz-rap than N.W.A’s West Coast menace. Perhaps most importantly, the trio made hip-hop profoundly weird. Like Beastie Boys sampling bong rips and Woodstock speeches on Paul’s Boutique, out that same year, De La Soul ventured even further out by mining Kraftwerk, Steely Dan, Hall & Oates and even a radio clip of NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the comics in the 1940s. The record was made all the more outlandish by their concepts, including absurdist skits that mimic a game show, and levity (on “Can U Keep a Secret,” the members trade off confessions in hushed voices: “Paul has dandruff/Posdnuos has a lot of dandruff/Mase has big fat dandruff”).
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The Long Island-based trio also didn’t focus on guns or money, unlike many rappers at the time. Rather, they set out to be a brighter influence. Consider the cover of 3 Feet High and Rising, which explodes with color and warmth — the type of vibrancy that’d catch your eye immediately in a record shop — when other album art from the same year was more routine, like the hedonism of Big Daddy Kane’s It’s A Big Daddy Thing or the simple pose of Gang Starr’s No More Mr. Nice Guy.
In the ensuing years, they dialed up the oddity by killing themselves metaphorically on their second album, De La Soul Is Dead, and turning their bright sound several shades darker (“Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” for one, is about child abuse) while still adding eccentric flourishes, like a kazoo imitating a Jackson 5 melody on “Bitties in the BK Lounge.” 1996’s Stakes Is High kept pace with that mood, offering sharp commentary on the state of rap. But in the video for the title track, the members are seen doing menial tasks like laundry, raking leaves, and drying dishes while rapping about the grave decline of hip-hop. Meanwhile, Buhloone Mindstate pulled in unpredictable collabs with Japanese rappers SDP and Takagi Kan that no one saw coming.
But for years, their catalog hasn’t been available on streaming services, the most popular way that people listen to music currently, relegated to a hellish limbo due to the sample-heavy nature of their early classics that made them tough to license. (The Turtles famously sued the band for $2.5 million in 1991 because they looped one of their songs on the interlude skit “Transmitting Live From Mars.”)
Even after clearing most of the samples, Posdnuos told BBC that their contracts for their early albums only specified vinyl and cassette, saying, “The wording wasn’t vague enough to lend itself to [new] music technology.” Therefore, new deals had to be struck. Rather than sit on their hands, though, the hip-hop pioneers found other ways to get their music heard. On Valentine’s Day in 2014, they gave fans the ultimate gift by making their catalog free to download for 25 hours in celebration of the 25th anniversary of 3 Feet. To cap it all off, Tommy Boy Records helmed their catalog for years, even offering the trio a horrid 90/10 profit split a few years ago. That changed in 2021, however, when Reservoir secured De La Soul’s back catalog by acquiring Tommy Boy and working closely with the band to preserve their legacy.
Despite the circumstances, De La Soul still maintained a presence in alternative culture. There’s the band’s mind-bending blitz on Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” in 2005 (Pos even joined Billie Eilish and Damon Albarn for its rendition at last year’s Coachella), as well as the cartoonish “Superfast Jellyfish” off Plastic Beach in 2010. Descendants like Deltron 3030 (Del the Funky Homosapien, Kid Koala, and Dan the Automator) sampled the group on “Positive Contact,” from their dystopian 2000 self-titled debut album. And, of course, plenty have been influenced by their artistry over the past three decades. Leftfield rappers like OutKast, MF DOOM, and Tyler, The Creator (whose 2017 Flower Boy album art feels like an heir of 3 Feet) are indebted to their refusal to follow the culture.
Thirty-five years on from their formation, the love for their music isn’t just ’90s ephemera. There’s a resilience, a staying power, to the group that still blows minds wide open — and now a different audience gets to experience their electrifying, oddball brilliance like it’s brand new.