Groove Music For Gray Hairs 

De La Soul proves hip hop can grow up without blowing up.

For much of the mainstream media and most listeners who came of musical age prior to its late-'70s emergence, hip hop still carries the shock of the new. But for most everyone else hip hop is an inevitability, such an obvious cultural foundation that acknowledging it as such is like acknowledging the air you breathe.

It's been more than 25 years now since founding fathers DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa first rocked New York block parties, so it's only natural that this revolutionary music should begin to show a little paunch. Hip hop in 2002 resembles rock-and-roll at a similar stage of development. This one-time counterculture is now a corporate-controlled dominant culture, inspiring the same sort of alternative scenes that challenged rock complacency in the mid- '70s. The music's audience is fragmenting (at a much slower pace than rock's, granted) into niches, and what was once a youth-oriented cult of the new is now making room for elder statesmen.

First- and second-generation hip hoppers didn't age well. From Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Kool Moe Dee through to Run-D.M.C. and Big Daddy Kane, hip-hop careers that have attempted to survive past a half-dozen years or a half-dozen records have fallen flat. But that's starting to change, and the best case study is De La Soul. One-time insurgents, De La Soul seemed to have predictably lost it with 1996's schoolmarmish dud Stakes is High, but in 2000 they made an unexpected comeback with Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, the first of a planned three- album set. The second volume, AOI: Bionix, was released late last year, and it's even better.

Three middle-class kids from Long Island, De La Soul emerged 13 years ago with the ground-breaking debut 3 Feet High and Rising, spearheading a hip-hop movement known as the Native Tongues, a loose affiliation (or, in Tongues parlance, a tribe) of artists united by a philosophy of "Afrohumanism" and a playful sense of sonic exploration. The Native Tongues offered both a suburban alternative to an urban form and a gentle, fun-loving alternative within a genre then divided by the political militance of Public Enemy on the East Coast and the gangsterism of N.W.A. on the West Coast.

Re-released last fall with a second disc of outtakes, b-sides, and uncollected singles, 3 Feet High and Rising still sounds like a hip-hop landmark. The winner of the 1989 Village Voice "Pazz and Jop" national critics poll, it introduced the world to ground-breaking producer Prince Paul, inaugurated -- for better or worse -- the now-standard hip-hop practice of littering records with recurring skits, and was the most radically brilliant commercial example of sampling anyone had heard (topped later the same year by the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique). As much as indie-rock kings-in-waiting Pavement, who emerged soon after, these were privileged suburban bohemians turning their surfeit of leisure time and their overactive intellects into something familiar yet totally new, an undeniable sonic breakthrough that was also private, cryptic, inscrutable.

With its "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" rhetoric (which stood for "Da Inner Sound, Y'all" -- don't laugh), Day-Glo color schemes, unlikely sample sources (Steely Dan and Hall and Oates!), title lifted from a Johnny Cash song, and concept-record vibe, 3 Feet High and Rising was a hip- hop Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Rock critics and middle- class kids loved it. A lot of hip hop's "keep it real" core derided the group as hippies.

Thirteen years later, 3 Feet High and Rising may sound a little slight for a Great Record, but it also sounds more playful and more definitive than anything else to come out of the Native Tongues crew --a sprawling 24- track invitation to an unknown world, filled with in-group solidarity ("The Magic Number," "Me Myself and I"), social commentary ("Ghetto Thang," "Say No Go"), inspired DJ cut-and-paste ("Cool Breeze on the Rocks"), Aesop-like fables ("Tread Water"), and total weirdness ("Transmitting Live From Mars" -- 66 seconds of a scratchy, French, spoken-word record over a Turtles sample). It's an album that contained both hip hop's first convincing love song with "Eye Know" (and before you start to campaign for LL Cool J's "I Need Love," don't bother -- he just wanted to get in your pants) and its most righteous paean to sex with the deliriously invigorating posse cut "Buddy."

If 3 Feet High and Rising is all personality and experimentation, De La's new music is less identifiable. But what they've lost in youthful verve they've made up for with a deeper, more consistently rewarding musical vision. Rather than the Prince Paul-organized bricolage and jokiness of 3 Feet High and Rising, here is hip hop as the ultimate adult R&B, without the confrontational assault or showy party vibe of today's mainstream hip hop or the spare beats of the underground. Rather, De La's Art Official Intelligence records luxuriate in the sturdy, comfortable, and soulful -- groove music for stay-at-homes. This music doesn't grab you but it deepens over time and holds you. With its relaxed but invigorating domestic vibe, these are about the only hip-hop records I can think of that I'll listen to for their calming and renewing properties, the way I use The Indestructible Beat of Soweto or The Harder They Come.

And with AOI: Bionix, the group has united verbal concept with the music's grasp for the eternal. This is an album about growing up without giving out. Its most compelling moment comes on the concluding "Trying People," one of the first pop music acknowledgements of 9/11 outside of tribute-song rush jobs. The song is directed at hip hop's younger generation, with one of the De La MCs (and after all these years I still have a hard time distinguishing between rappers Dave and Posdnuos) rapping, "You see, young minds are now made of armor/I'm trying to pop a hole in your Yankee cap/Absorb me/The skies over your head ain't safe no more/And hip hop ain't your home." These days, De La Soul offer a different list of priorities: "Got fans around the world/But my girl's not one of them/And my relationship's a big question/'Cause my career's a clear hindrance to her progression/Says she needs a man and her kids need a father/And I'm not at all ready to hear her say don't bother."

This central conceit is explored all over the record. The opening scene- setter, "Bionix," features lyrics such as "I don't ball too much, ya dig/I got a ball and chain at the crib who want my ass at home." The charming lead single, "Baby Phat," is the middle-aged answer to Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back": "Your shape's not what I dig/It's you/My crew don't mind it thick/Every woman ain't a video chick, a runway model, or anorexic/I love what I can grab and hold on/So if you burning off, keep the flab on/We gonna stay gettin' our collab on." But they take it further with a bit of telling empathy: "You ain't in this alone/I got a tummy too/Just let me watch your weight/Don't let it trouble you." On "Simply," they search for a place to have fun without young "thugs" ruining everything, and on "Watch Out" they make romance by proposing a joint account.

The record's decorum breaks down toward the end with the sexed-up "Pawn Star" (which should surprise no one who remembers 3 Feet High and Rising's "De La Orgie") and the funny marijuana meditation "Peer Pressure" (with Cypress Hill's B-Real). But that confirmation that adulthood doesn't have to equal stodgy, along with the music itself, is what separates this latest chapter in the De La Soul story from the worrywart vibe of Stakes is High.

The group's Native Tongues contemporaries are now gone (Tribe and the JBs broken up, Queen Latifah a talk-show host), but De La Soul is improving with age. They've become hip hop's Sonic Youth, one-time revolutionaries that now stand as their subculture's greatest example of artistic maturity.

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