De La Soul’s Dave “Trugoy” Jolicoeur was an Example of the Boundless Potential of Hip-Hop
David “Trugoy” Jolicoeur died on Sunday. As one third of the iconic hip-hop group De La Soul, Dave taught hip-hop fans what being free sounded like.
Throughout the Summer of 1996, a weekly PBS, and BBC-produced docuseries called Rock & Roll aired in the US.
With its broad and malleable definition of “rock & roll,” the series gave viewers a slick, digestible recap of the great pop music revolution that defined the latter half of the 20th Century. Over the course of the series 10 episode run, we’re taken on a whirlwind tour through nearly 50 years of youth pop culture with pit stops at garage rock, psychedelia, and punk. By the final episode, “The Perfect Beat,” Rock & Roll’s narrative approach moves from retrospective to predictive. “The Perfect Beat” spends most of its running time dealing with the cultural origins and commercial spread of hip-hop, while positioning the genre alongside electronic dance music as the sound of the future. After highlighting the sonic innovations of DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa and the rise of Def Jam and West Coast gangsta rap, Rock & Roll briefly trains the focus of its final chapter on Amityville, Long Island rap trio De La Soul.
Mirroring the original marketing angle devised by De La’s record label, Tommy Boy, the Rock & Roll doc seemed hell-bent on presenting De La as some sort of softer, more palatable alternative to their peers. Like much of the early documentation and media coverage of De La, the group’s Long Island upbringing was framed as a key factor separating them from rappers from “tougher” New York boroughs like The Bronx or Brooklyn. This perception of De La Soul was undoubtedly fueled by the group’s colorful music videos, abstract wordplay, and Black-boho clothing style. This tension between how De La Soul was perceived by the industry and how the trio saw themselves came to a head following the now-infamous July 31st, 1989 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in which Hall would refer to the group as “the hippies of hip-hop.”
While Kelvin “Posdonus” Mercer, David “Trugoy” Jolicoeur, and Vincent “Maseo” Mason certainly carved a unique path for themselves, the trio was a product of hip-hop and Black Gen X culture during a period of wildly unfettered growth evolution. To put it simply, during the ’80s, the rapid spread of hip-hop music and culture opened up new avenues of creative space for young people to play around in. By the end of the decade, hip-hoppers everywhere had fallen in love with a brilliant rogue’s gallery of unique rap personalities. In the ’80s, rap’s boundaries were consistently being stretched and the genre could logically contain everyone from Slick Rick to N.W.A.
From the time we first met them back in 89’ De La Soul embarked on a mission to expand hip hop’s sonic and aesthetic possibilities. Despite, bristling at the labels placed on them by their company and the press, De La Soul’s first commercial hit was an ode to individuality, with a video that cast the group as outcasts. Over a propulsive loop of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” the group argues that their music and clothes were merely the result of their own personal expression, not some kind of ’60s, “flower-power” revivalism. In addition to becoming a hit on radio and in stores, “Me, Myself & I” was something of an anthem for a whole generation of Black Gen Xers whose journey to young adulthood dovetailed beautifully with hip-hop’s adolescence.
The song opens with a punchy, 8-bar verse from Jolicoeur, a first-generation Haitian American with a complicated haircut and a rap name that was yogurt spelled backwards. The first half of Jolicoeur is probing and introspective. He knows that the world takes issue with him, but why?
“Mirror mirror on the wall
Tell me mirror, what is wrong?
Can it be my De La Clothes
Or is it just my De La Soul?”
In the years to come, rap music’s long-standing and complicated relationship with the concept of “realness” will only intensify. Jolicoeur asserts his own claim to realness, presenting it as an effortless and authentic state of being.
“What I do ain’t make-believe
People say I sit and try”
But when it comes to being De La
It’s just me ,myself and I”
David Jolicoeur left us on Sunday at age 54. Coming at the end of De La Soul’s years-long struggle to retain control of much of their back catalog, Jolicoeur’s death is tied up in an unbelievably cruel irony. In less than a month from now, De La Soul’s first six albums will arrive on streaming services for the first time ever. For older fans who know and grew up with De La’s music, the announcement that De La’s music was coming was met with universal excitement. Not only were we excited for ourselves, but for our children, younger siblings our students, and a whole generation of young people who will undoubtedly relate to De La’s wit, boundless musical experimentation, and earnestness. On the other side of the coin, we were excited for Dave, Pos, and Mase to receive their much-deserved flowers. By including them in the series, the writers of Rock & Roll recognized De La as significant figures in pop music’s prestigious historical cannon. As participants in and appreciators of hip-hop culture, we know De La’s importance, but appreciation should be an abundant and inexhaustible resource for our legends and pioneers.
There is no such thing as giving too many props to our greats and we can never show them too much love. De La Soul is ours and it’s been that way since we first met them. The music industry and folks outside our culture may not have recognized it at first, allowing the colorful clothes, genre-crossing beats, and daisies to cloud their perception of what De La Soul really was; a living example of the boundless potential of hip-hop and Black expression. In the days and weeks to come, the tributes will pour in and acknowledgments will be made. These things will comfort us, but none of them will fill the hole left by the passing of one of our best. Much love and the deepest condolences possible to Pos, Maseo, Prince Paul, Dave’s family, friends, and everywhere. Rest In Peace and safe travels, Dave the dove. We love you for who you are and we appreciate you for teaching us what being free looks and sounds like.
John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.