A Guide To Getting Into De La Soul
This De La Soul albums guide will help you explore the group's classic catalog and beyond ahead of their music finally hitting streaming in March.
In a clip titled “De La Speaks” that was uploaded to Youtube in 2019 by Black film archivist ReelBlack, an MTV camera crew reports from the album release party for the now-classic De La Soul debut, 1989's 3 Feet High And Rising. Hosted at The Ukrainian National Home on Second Avenue in New York City, the scene inside the packed party is energetic as dancers fill the floor and hip-hop royalty like DMC, Daddy O of Stetsasonic, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, and DJ Red Alert all stop to sing the up-and-coming group’s praises. Vernon Reid, guitar legend and member of pioneering hard rock quartet Living Colour, also takes a second to share his thoughts on De La, offering a brief but profound statement that foreshadowed the group’s influence: "I think De La Soul is like some of the freshest music I've heard in a long time and it's gonna change the world as we know it."
When 3 Feet High And Rising was released in the winter of 1989, the album established the trio of Posdnous, Trugoy, and Maseo — with their mentor Prince Paul — as a completely distinct voice in rap music. As MCs, Pos and Trugoy’s approach was different from their peers as the duo experimented with abstract wordplay and oddly-structured rhyme patterns. Musically, De La rocked over a colorful melange of sample-based beats, and with their African medallions, flowers and high-top fades, the group’s personal style came right from the cutting-edge of late ‘80s Black bohemia. All of these elements came to form a total aesthetic that opened up new possibilities in rap music and, since their arrival on the scene, De La Soul has built one of the most celebrated discographies in the genre’s history.
Back in 2019, De La’s former label Tommy Boy Records announced plans to make the group’s back catalog available on streaming platforms. They spoke out publicly in response to this move, arguing that they would only receive a meager percentage of streaming profits, while the majority of the earnings went to the label. In the wake of a great public outcry, talks between De La Soul and Tommy Boy broke down, and those classic albums that the group made for the label over the years remained unavailable for streaming. In June 2021, Tommy Boy was acquired for $100 million dollars by Reservoir Media, a music publishing and media rights company. Shortly after this acquisition, it was announced that Reservoir and De La Soul had reached an agreement to bring the group’s catalog to streaming services. Now, at the top of 2023, an official date has been shared for the catalog's release — March 3. Finally, a generation of music lovers that grew up on those early De La albums, as well as those too young to have purchased them in the first place, will have access to one of the most important legacies in hip-hop history. So, in honor of the group’s music making its debut on streaming, here’s a primer on how to get into De La Soul — from their classic three-album run debut to their most recent release.
The Early Years/Classic Three-Album Run: 3 Feet High And Rising, De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate
When 3 Feet High And Rising was released in 1989, it was clear that De La Soul was nothing like their peers. Dropping us right into a quirky and bizarre world of their own design, the album opens with a skit in which studio engineer Al Watts plays a television game show host as the group shows up as a cast of goofy (and in Paul’s case, incredibly creepy) contestants. The skit’s strangeness is ramped up as Watts peppers the contestants with a barrage of increasingly batshit questions like, “How many feathers are on a Perdue chicken?” and “How many times did the batmobile catch a flat?” A recurring motif throughout the album, 3 Feet High And Rising’s skits not only provide the album with comedic relief, they help to create a thematic unity that makes the album a truly immersive listening experience. Listening back to 3 Feet High And Rising three decades after its release, the quality of the songs is striking. A funky and anthemic song about self-acceptance, “Me, Myself & I” was a hit when it came out and it remains an enduring classic. “Eye Know” is a sweet and idealistic love song, while “Buddy” is a loose and fun posse cut starring some of the Native Tongues crew (the full collective appeared on the more popular "Buddy" remix that came out after the album's release). There's also "The Magic Number," which became something of a TikTok hit at the end of 2021 going into 2022 after it soundtracked the ending credits to Spider-Man: No Way Home. Responding to industry bullshit and the press’ attempts at labeling them “hip-hop’s hippies” amid the success of 3 Feet High And Rising, De La would make the first great stylistic shift of their career, embracing a harder, more complex edge with their next album, De La Soul Is Dead.
Released in 1991, De La Soul Is Dead still stands as one of the best sophomore albums in rap history. Taking their bugged out humor to new and outrageous heights, the album is “narrated” by a series of skits where a group of bullies (played by De La) jack a cassette tape of the album from a kid on the playground. The bullies then “play” through the album, hilariously complaining and roasting each song. It’s a bizarre and meta choice that only De La could’ve pulled off. Classics like “A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays,'” “Ring Ring Ring (Hey Hey Hey),” and “Let Let Me In” are as catchy and ear-pleasing as anything on 3 Feet. But De La Soul Is Dead also contained tunes that revealed the group’s willingness and ability to deal with darker themes. “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” finds Pos and Trugoy telling a harrowing story about a young classmate who is being sexually assaulted by her father Dylan, a school counselor and a volunteer santa at their local Macy’s. As Pos and Trugoy trade verses they reveal more layers to the story, offering up more and more revelations about the frightening nature of Millie’s father’s abuse, and the physical and emotional toll that it takes on her. Echoing the experiences of many sexual abuse survivors, somewhere near the song's midway point, Trugoy dismisses Millie’s claims, ultimately siding with her abuser because he is liked and respected in the community: “Child, you got the best pops anyone could have. Dylan’s cool. Super hip. You should be glad.”
As the song comes to its frightening climax, Millie gets a gun and makes her way to the department store. Pos then picks up the story, describing the scene vividly as Millie “floats in like a zombie,” ready to confront her abuser once and for all. Amid the chaos and confusion, Dylan pleads for his life before Millie shoots him, and Pos wraps things up by unceremoniously stating that “with the quickness it was over,” at which point the beat drops out and the song cuts off. As listeners we are left with mixed emotions. There is vindication in the fact that Millie got her revenge, but by ending things so abruptly we’re left hanging in the wind, never knowing what became of Millie or if she was ever punished for killing her father. More than anything that De La Soul had done up to that point, “Millie” displayed the group’s growing ability to conjure and manage complex emotions. This skill would serve them well for their next album, Buhloone Mindstate, which would find De La Soul wrestling with cynicism, self-reflection, and vulnerability.
When Buhloone Mindstate was released in 1993, hip-hop’s landscape was fundamentally different than it was back in the days of 3 Feet High And Rising. No matter where you turned, hip-hop in 1993 was rougher — and in some cases cartoonishly hardcore — and De La Soul responded with an album that was musically layered and complex, yet lyrically mature and understated. In many ways, Buhloone Mindstate marked the beginning of the trio stepping out from under the close tutelage of Prince Paul. In an interview on Open Mike Eagle’s What Had Happened Was podcast, Prince Paul explained that De La exercised more creative autonomy and took control over the recording process during the creation of Buhloone Mindstate.
“The first album, 3 Feet High And Rising, I was super duper hands on, because my whole intention for making any of these records was for me to start them off, and then from that point on, they just do all the other albums themselves,” Paul said. “So, with that being said, as the albums went on, I was more hands off.”
The result is a collection of rich, jazz-infused songs that combine adept sample flips (the slick interplay between Motown alumni Michael Jackson and Smokey Robinson on “Breakadawn”) and live instrumentation (“Patti Dooke”). By the time De La was making Buhloone Mindstate, hip-hop had largely moved on from its near-obsessive mining of James Brown’s extensive catalog. But the group attempted to capture Brown’s sound in a way that most of their peers wouldn’t have thought of, enlisting his drummer, Melvin Parker, and horn section — Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis — to play on the album. Blending samples and live instrumentation seamlessly is not easy, but De La does it fluidly throughout Buhloone Mindstate.
Lyrically, Posdnous and Trugoy refined the rhyme style that they pioneered on 3 Feet High And Rising. The way they play with language throughout Buhloone Mindstate is abstract and insular with occasional bursts of crystal clarity. The duo’s willingness to revel in this abstraction can be best heard on “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)” featuring Shortie No Mass. Over a hypnotic flip of Al Hirt’s “Harlem Hendoo,” Pos appears to be taking stock of — and airing his frustrations with — his place in the record industry. This all comes in the form of a vivid, stream of consciousness verse, ending it with a direct threat aimed at those who fail to take him seriously.
But the heart and spiritual center of Buhloone Mindstate is “I Am I Be.” Throughout their verses, Pos and Trugoy tackle family history, poverty, fatherhood, strife in the Native Tongues crew, self-actualization and more. With its lush horn arrangement and bittersweet main piano loop, the music perfectly matches the intimacy of the lyrics, and the song gives listeners a look at the rich emotionality that the group would explore with future releases. It’s also important to note that, prior to the release of Buhloone Mindstate, De La shared a six-song promo EP titled Clear Lake Auditorium, that included four songs from Buhloone (“I Am I Be,” “In The Woods,” “Patti Dooke,” and “I Be Blowin’”) and two non-album tracks (“Sh.Fe.Mcs” featuring A Tribe Called Quest, and “Stix & Stonz” featuring LA Sunshine of the Treacherous Three, Superstar, Grandmaster Caz, Tito of the Fearless Four and Prince Whipper Whip). The EP is considered one of the most rare releases from De La to date, with the group only pressing 500 copies of the project.
Stakes Is High
By the summer of 1996, rap music’s landscape had changed dramatically since Buhloone Mindstate was released. As mainstream rap continued to ascend commercially, a loud and passionate minority of hip-hop heads rejected the glossy, pop-informed aesthetic of popular rap acts. In many ways, the schism that was created in this era still impacts the culture today, and De La would take all of their frustrations with the state of hip-hop and pour it into Stakes Is High, an album that is now recognized as a highpoint in the group’s career. Despite being the first album that De La Soul made without Prince Paul, Stakes Is High takes a page out of their mentor’s playbook and opens with a skit to set the tone for the record. The first 30 seconds of Stakes Is High’s “Intro” is an audio collage of individuals sharing the story of the first time they heard Boogie Down Productions’ “Criminal Minded.” Over a dreamy instrumental, we hear about a dude first hearing the song at a party, another while drinking a 40 with his niggas on the Lower East Side, and a little girl doing the wop with her friend in front of a church. The purpose of starting Stakes Is High in this way is manyfold. Not only does this reminisce on the classic KRS-One anthem, it speaks to the feeling of nostalgia that many of the group’s peers felt for the rap music that they grew up on. By opening their latest album with a meditation on a highlight from the genre’s past, De La Soul rejected the fly by night tendencies of '90s pop-rap, and reminded listeners that they were a part of a respected cultural continuum that Stakes Is High would work hard to uphold.
As a group, De La Soul has been critical of the record industry since the days of 3 Feet High And Rising, and Stakes Is High is no different. In its title track, Trugoy took direct aim at commercial rap, firing a significant shot in a culture war for the genre’s soul. With J Dilla’s triumphant flip of the brass section of Ahmad Jamal’s “Swahililand” and a slick vocal sample from James Brown’s “Mind Power," Trugoy airs his frustrations with the state of the rap game:
I'm sick of bitches shaking asses
I'm sick of talking 'bout blunts, sick of Versace glasses
Sick of slang, sick of half-ass awards shows
Sick of name-brand clothes
Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks
Cocaine and crack, which brings sickness to Blacks
Sick of swole' head rappers with their sickening raps
Clappers of gats, making the whole sick world collapse
For De La Soul, the culture of violence and the material excess that is celebrated in the music is a reflection of the poisonous culture that exists in the fabric of American society itself. Both are addressed in the song because both are interrelated. When listening to “Stakes Is High” today, the song comes off curmudgeonly, especially following 25 years of rap purists making the exact same arguments with continually diminishing artistic returns. But at the time, the song was a vital critique of mainstream rap. Thematically, Stakes Is High addresses ideas of fame, materialism, legacy and nostalgia, while making room for some disarming and thrilling moments of introspection. Such is the case on “The Brakes,” where Pos and Trugoy craft vivid rhymes about growing up in a violent environment and the transcendent power of rap music. Like “Dinninit,” “Long Island Degrees,” and the album’s title track, “The Brakes” strikes a powerful and curious balance that reflects the overall tone of Stakes Is High. At times the album feels celebratory, but there is a palpable anger and frustration that informs its critiques.
Art Official Intelligence:Mosaic Thump & Bionix
As part of a proposed trilogy of albums, De La Soul’s Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump and Bionix were initially released in 2000 and 2001. Both albums speak to the group’s growing skill as producers capable of knocking out dope beats and marshalling the talents of producers and vocalists around them. Mosaic Thump alone features everyone from Chaka Khan and Busta Rhymes to Redman and Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys, while Dilla, Supa Dave West, Rockwilder, and Mr. Khaliyl provide production. The beats are modern and soulful with a rhythmic bounce indicative of the underground rap sound that was prevalent at the turn of the millennium. Bionix continues in this style with concise, catchy songs, and soulful production from Kev Brown, Dave West and more. Throughout Bionix, the group’s humor remains (“Ghost Weed”), and musically, the album is packed with rich sample-based productions like “Simply,” Dave West’s mind-melting flip of the synths from Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Wonderful Christmas Time.” In a way, both Mosaic Thump and Bionix represent the end of an era. Bionix would be De La’s final studio album on Tommy Boy, marking the beginning of the group’s journey as independent artists. At different points in their career, De La Soul has been rap music’s most bugged out, boundary-pushing group, and it made perfect sense for them to take the reins and step outside of the confines of the record label machine.
The Grind Date, "Feel Good Inc.," and De La Soul’s Independence
The Grind Date (2004) would be De La Soul’s first post-Tommy Boy album. Featuring production from Dilla, Jake One, Madlib, 9th Wonder, and Dave West, The Grind Date’s beats are stellar, while Pos and Trugoy sound sharp and self-assured on the mic. The album opens with “The Future,” a bouncy track with chopped vocal samples singing the song’s utopian message. Pos enters the fold for the first verse, highlighting his own skills while reminding us that as elder statesmen of the genre, De La Soul stands apart from anyone else in rap, so much so that they can rap alongside a great like the late MF DOOM, who appears on album ender “Rock Co.Kane Flow.”
With songs like “Much More,” “Days Of Our Lives,” and its title track, The Grind Date sounds upbeat and celebratory. By 2004, the group had long outlasted most of their peers, and their music reflected the confidence and mature outlook that their veteran status had earned them. That veteran status surely played a part in one of the biggest looks the group has received to this day — their feature on the Grammy Award-winning Gorillaz song “Feel Good Inc.,” which came out a year later. It's also worth noting that in 2014, the group self-released a project called Smell the D.A.I.S.Y., which featured reworked lyrics from across their catalog paired with unreleased Dilla beats. But for their next proper album release, And the Anonymous Nobody, De La Soul would turn to their fan base with a campaign to crowd-source the necessary funds to finance the project. The 2016 release was culled from over 200 hours worth of music played by live musicians, which was then sampled to create new beats for the group to rhyme over. Musically, And the Anonymous Nobody is lush, colorful and ambitious.
“Genesis” drops us into a sweeping orchestral suite, with Jill Scott delivering a talk about passion, love and what it means to hold onto or lose both. It’s a fitting opener for an album that was created as a labor of love shared between the group, their collaborators, and fans without the interference of a label. Guest performances from 2 Chainz, Usher, David Byrne, Roc Marciano, Little Dragon, Snoop Dogg, Estelle and more meld beautifully with the album’s rich, dynamic production, making And The Anonymous Nobody one of the most musically satisfying contemporary releases we’ve received from a golden-era rap act.
John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.