De La Soul: Stakes is Still High

January 09th, 1997 | Category: Essays, Interviews

In the mid-to-late 80s, I wasn’t much for Run-DMC or L.L. Hip-hop existed to me mostly through records by Public Enemy, Ice T, and Boogie Down Productions. I liked their stuff because it was about something. Rap thus far had been mostly about itself.

In 1989 when BDP’s Ghetto Music came out, my man Thomas (my main source for what was solid as far as Hip-hop was concerned) said he would tape it for me. What he failed to mention was that he was putting something else on the B-side… That tape changed the way I viewed the entire genre of Hip-hop. The songs on the flip of KRS-One’s usual positive raps were from De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989) . This was the first record that spoke freely about the ills of Hip-hop so far. It was the first anti-rap rap record, if you will. I wasn’t the only one geeked either: Kids who’d never thought twice about rap were all over De La. It was enough to make them denounce everything they’d established with Three Feet… on their next release, De La Soul Is Dead (Tommy Boy, 1991).

But Posdnous a.k.a. Wonder Why (Plug One), Trugoy the Dove a.k.a. Dr. Ama (Plug Two), and P. A. Mase a.k.a. Baby Huey (Plug Three) didn’t stagnate there. They’ve taken themselves and the whole genre with them (four records strong) to new heights with every release. Hip-hop is a genre that constantly rotates and changes. It’s nearly impossible to maintain any sort of popularity without selling your soul every time you come out (anyone remember when Ice Cube happily recorded his first solo joint in New York?). Longevity coupled with integrity in Hip-hop is truly reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.

De La Soul is from the soul.

I thought hard about the prospect of talking to De La Soul. Not only was I nervous and excited, but I felt like I already knew so much about them. De La Soul speaks from the soul. This fact cannot be denied. Their records reveal so much about what’s going on in their personal lives, there’s almost nothing to ask.

“We as people outside of the industry are alway trying to learn more,” Posdnous explains. “And whatever we take in, we try our best to convey it on wax. So beyond trying to find the best beats and the best music, we try to convey the best we can the evolution of the group. And not justtrying to have th emost positive message, because it could be in a negative light or us being upset or us not finding peace and tranquility… We try to balance it correctly because sometimes, regardless of how you feel, the best tracks may be focused on negative things. We try to have a balance of positive and negative on an album because there’s a balance to what a the human being is. All we try to do is just stay true to who we are as people. We can’t just focus on doing what we wanna do and let it be on wax. We separate ourselves as rappers and realize we are just people, and we just try to do the best we can as people. And that just naturally shows in our music. I’m just happy people have stuck behind us.”

Where every aspect is vivid, these niggas no longer talk shit — these niggas live it.

Just two days after I talked to Pos, Biggie Smalls was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Biggie was only twenty-four years old and is the second well-known emcee to be killed by gunfire in six months. Events like this are adored by all forms of media because the drama makes good copy, but in the process it gives rap music a bad name. The whole damn genre needs rehab. Just like the kids debating in the first scene of Spike’s movie Clockers, heads claim you’re not hard if you don’t kill people. Doing the things you talk about on record is considered by many “keeping it real,” but the grammatical first person in a rap song doesn’t necessarily mean the rapper.

“Even on an entertainment level,” Pos says addressing the issue, “back in the day, even when there was beef, it was more lyrically focused. Whereas now it’s on more of a physical level.” Theatrics used to play a huge role in lyrical storytelling, but nowadays one is expected to be that person — theatrics or not. This clash of lyrical-character versus man-on-the-street is like walls closing in. And those walls are already closed for Tupac Shakur and Chris Wallace.

See but don’t do like the Soul, because seeing and doing are actions for monkeys.

“There’s a lot of groups trying to do positive things,” states Pos, “from Cool J to the Fugees trying to organize fund-raisers, Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys doing the Tibetan Freedom Concert every year… There’s a host of others trying to do positive things.” The most important thing out here is creativity. Like KRS-One says, “You can be a pimp, hustler, or player, but make sure on stage you are a dope rhyme sayer.” Hip-hop is still a young culture and genre, so creativity is a must if it is to expand as an art form and even to simply maintain its existence. De La Soul is easily one of the major benchmarks of innovation in the short history of Hip-hop, even though other groups have reached a larger audience by borrowing their style.

“I definitely feel we had some type of influence,” says Pos, “but sometimes I don’t even credit it to an influence, but just a reassurance of what we were already doing. I don’t like to think that a lot of groups were rapping one way and then when they heard us they started focusing on how we do things. There’s a lot of groups out there who had the same ideas, the same views, and the same energy, but we were just lucky enough to get on first so that helped a lot of record companies pay attention to the groups who were out there like that. When we were trying to put out unit together, there were a lot of rapers out before us that assured us that what we’re doing could be done.” Given, De La begs, borrows, and ganks from the old school, but they blend so much of their own lives into the stew that it can’t help but come out innovative.

Is it my De La clothes, or is it because we hate this song?

As irrelevant as it might seem to their true fans, De La’s record sales have dropped off since Three Feet High and Rising‘s surprise hit “Me, Myself, and I,” but that’s just not what De La Soul is about. “Obviously record sales have dropped because to us it’s not about trying to have this one radio hit that’s not really saying nothing at the end of the day — a year from now, or even a month from now and it’s not even remembered,” Pos says seriously. “We can make those easily. I’m not saying that ‘Me, Myself, and I’ is something that was necessarily forgotten, but we can make those for days. It was just never about making that. A lot fo people do focus on that and at the end of the day for them, it’s about money. A lot of people want to get a lot out of Hip-hop and don’t put anything into it. Forget it. This is a dying art form and I wast to put something back into it.”

[originally published in frontwheeldrive #47]

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