Sunday Music: De La Soul Listening Guide

All the official De La Soul albums are streaming now. FINALLY. Do you know how many years I’ve only been able to listen in my car to the CDs (where my only CD player lives) ever since my last iPod bricked?! It’s been way too long.

I want you to join me. I also realize not everybody grew up on this group and a release of a catalog of this size may be intimidating. So let me try to help.

Start at the beginning, and here’s what you should know:

WAIT! First – let me give you an analogy.

NWA were contemporaries to De La Soul in the same way the Sex Pistols were contemporaries to The Clash. The former are aggressive within the boundaries of their genre, the latter are transgressive across the boundaries of their presumed genres.

Got it? Let’s go.

3 Feet High and Rising: this is what happens when a group of supremely smart and creative teenagers get together and make music. They’re laughing together, sampling for the sake of blowing each other’s minds, and focused on being themselves. 

Footnote to the first album: the label and marketing took over. The daisy theme, the hip-hop hippie stuff, and even the hit single “Me Myself and I” were pushed to an extreme by the label positioning De La as anti-hardcore. 

The group felt that. They were trying to be themselves, but marketing defined them as “not those other guys,” which left the group to come off as… soft. Enter –

De La Soul is Dead: Soft, eh? How about an album cover with a tipped over flower pot full of dead daisies on the cover? Subtle? No. Instead of letting the critics speak FOR them, the skits and even transitions across the album feature De La front-running their critics. They were also fighting them (literally) on tour, but that’s a story for another day.

Pair 3 Feet with Dead and listen back to back with all this in mind.

Buhloone Mindstate: When it’s time to grow, it’s time to grow. The trick is to grow up, but not go pop. While still primarily relying on samples, Buhloone leaned into adding live musicians to the mix too. You can feel the group almost falling apart on this album as they figure out where they go next creatively. The album flopped – despite now being regarded as a masterpiece – and Prince Paul left the group after the album’s release. The remaining members went all in on…

Stakes Is High: Not only did the Buhloone experiment not commercially work, but the group was reduced to a trio while the broader music industry was going through a consolidation phase of its own. The stakes really were high. If this album didn’t work, they might need to go get day jobs.

The thread on this album is reflecting on the commercialization of hip-hop. They use collaged-interviews with friends asking where they were when they first heard Criminal Minded? The “stakes” are bigger than just their careers, they were admin what society would do with this culture and what is it becoming?

Plus – this is the album when the world basically met J Dilla and the mighty Mos Def. History was made. Again.

Stakes sold well enough to keep the group around.

I hear Buhloone and Stakes as a pair like the first two albums are a pair. Buhloone picks up their internal struggles about self and ego, sort of where Dead left off, and then addresses the world externally – with many of the same Buhloone thoughts and messages now reflected outwardly for Stakes.

Intermittent touring and renewed label drama kept them quiet until 2000. 

Interlude: or a quick recap at least, because I think this is an important split in the catalog – we started with kids having fun, morphed into young adults answering critics, then feeling the rejection of artistic expansion, only to push back on what hip-hop culture even meant, and ask where it was really going? And that gets us up to – 

Art Official Intelligence: If Stakes was De La becoming men, AOI is what happens when they came back with a chip on their shoulder and took the gloves off. People suck, and they address them. Directly. But other people get you through life, and they address them too. Or at least feature them on tracks alongside the trio.

Bionix: Which is basically AOI part 2, takes the shoulder chip and smooths it out to a well-chiseled aesthetic. The album has its moments but isn’t one of my favorites. I appreciate where they were in life though, and that’s probably why the needed to cool off until…

The Grind Date: The title track says it all, but this is “the mature men making music for (mostly mature) friends who still care” album. There’s no cynicism here (well, except for Dave, but he just kept getting more cynical if you listen closely since the first album) and we – as fans – get to appreciate the cooler self-confidence on display. 40-something me appreciates this album WAY more than 20-something me.

The next several years were spotty. There are mixtapes, features, and special releases all worth seeking out. But, this is also when streaming was starting to takeover and De La was notably absent. Those sample clearances and their label issues were haunting them (and their fans, AND their would-be fans).

It wasn’t until 2015 when they picked their heads up, went to Kickstarter and crowd-funded what would become their last album,

And The Anonymous Nobody: It makes sense is the the end of the road. They were in a different place in life and you can feel it. I wonder if I’ll listen to this in 10 years and feel like how I do about The Grind Date now. It’s a fitting end. The comradery, the art, the connection with the fans who helped brave this album into the world – kind of like 3 Feet High – is beautiful.

Ashes to ashes kind of beautiful.

Play the arc. Play the albums straight through. They are MAGIC. And they’re also really important. We’ve got future generations to catch up to speed on De La.

Spread the words.

Ps. The last lines of the last track on the last album make you want to start it all over again. It’s perfect and where I want to end this note (h/t Ryan M. for making me listen extra closely to this):

We are the present, the past and still the future. Bound by friendship, fueled and inspired by what’s at stake. Saviors, heroes? Nah. Just common contributors hopin’ that what we created inspires you to selflessly challenge and contribute. Sincerely, anonymously, nobody.

footnote #1

I pulled these autographed Grind Date pieces out of a box when I heard Dave passed. My girlfriend took one look at them and asked, “Why aren’t these framed?” Now the question is, “Where do I hang these?”

footnote #2

the NYT Popcast (podcast) episode, “Celebrating De La Soul, With Questlove” is outstanding. This quote from near the end is perfect,

De La’s success frames Tribe’s success, even though Tribe was going to come out anyway. It allows Leaders of the New School, which gives us Busta Rhymes, it allows KMD, it allows Brand Nubian, it allows groups in different cities to come out. You don’t get Arrested Development without De La, you don’t get MF DOOM without KMD. Stones Throw, Madlib, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and Rakwus Records, and all that – is a byproduct of Le La. So just to bring it full circle, when Dave Chapelle says, “De La Soul was the Big Bang,” in a lot of ways – he’s right. Both for listeners, for labels, and other artists.

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