Hip-hop has produced more momentous artists than De La Soul. Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, Notorious B.I.G., Outkast, and a few others have a greater claim to the genre's Mt. Rushmore. But in a culture so far short on longevity and mutability, I know of no other hip-hop artists whose peaks are more than a decade apart and who have had as much to say to the music's fans — once referred to as the hip-hop generation — about living a rewarding life.
As Long Island teenagers making their debut with the precocious epic 3 Feet High and Rising, this trio — Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer, Dave "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur, and Vincent "Mase" Mason — bravely tested hip-hop's cultural boundaries, burrowing deeply into their own idiosyncratic personalities. Later, as thirtysomething fathers on the deep and subtle AOI: Bionix, they crafted the most convincing argument yet for what hip-hop as stable grown folks' music might sound like.
"Sony Walkmans keep us moving/De La Soul can help us breathe."
— "Tread Water," 3 Feet High and Rising
Released in 1989, 3 Feet High and Rising spearheaded a hip-hop movement known as the Native Tongues, a loose affiliation (or, in Tongues parlance, a tribe) of artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, and Queen Latifah united by a philosophy of "Afrohumanism" and a playful sense of sonic exploration. The Native Tongues offered both a middle-class alternative to a form born in the New York City streets and housing projects and a gentler alternative within a genre then divided by the political militance of Public Enemy on the East Coast and the gangsta aesthetic of N.W.A. on the West Coast.
De La's debut was a commercial hit and a relative critical smash, winning 1989's Village Voice "Pazz and Jop" national critics poll, becoming the first teen winner and first debut-album winner since the Sex Pistols. But even then some found it too slight to be a Great Album, its full-fledged songs interrupted by recurring skits (a practice it launched, for better or worse), esoteric jokes, and other aural experiments, and its perspective too unreadable and navel-gazing.
Fans dubbed it "the hip-hop Sgt. Pepper's," but in retrospect "the hip-hop White Album" is probably a more apt Beatles comparison. More audacious and more definitive than anything else to come out of the Native Tongues crew, it's 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 contains both hip-hop's first convincing love song with "Eye Know" (right, LL Cool J's "I Need Love" came first, but he just wanted to get in your pants) and still the genre's healthiest sex song with the posse cut "Buddy." And despite its teen-oriented self-absorption, it has a fierce spirit. The first rapped verse on the record, courtesy of 19-year-old Posdnuos: "Difficult preaching is Posdnuos' pleasure/Pleasure and preaching starts in the heart."
With its "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" rhetoric (which stands for "Da Inner Sound, Y'all" — don't laugh), Day-Glo color schemes, private lingo, unexpected references (stray lyrics about Fred Astaire and Waiting for Godot), and inscrutable in-jokes ("Posdnuos has a lot of dandruff"), 3 Feet High and Rising was the sound of creative teenagers energized by their own brains. As much as indie-rock kings-in-waiting Pavement, who emerged soon after, these were modestly privileged suburban bohemians turning their surfeit of leisure time and their overactive intellects into something familiar yet totally new, its verbal imagination actually topped by its sonic imagination.
Two years earlier, fellow Long Islander Rakim — as culturally conservative as De La Soul were radical — had made a claim for the genre: "Even if it's jazz or the quiet storm/I hook a beat up/Convert it into hip-hop form." It's a classic lyric, one that announced the genre's voracious musical appetite. But Rakim couldn't think past mainstream African-American forms. De La, inspired by George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic and partnered with sampling genius Prince Paul, took Rakim's manifesto and added to the list Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Johnny Cash, Schoolhouse Rock, and a French-language instructional record, just for starters.
Underground mix-masters like Double Dee & Steinksi were earlier to the game, and the Beastie Boys would double-down on De La's achievement later the same year with Paul's Boutique, but more than anything else, 3 Feet High and Rising expanded hip-hop's sonic vocabulary.
As insistent as the trio had been initially to confront hip-hop's cultural boundaries (perhaps captured best in the comically put-upon "Me, Myself, and I" video), they did succumb to peer pressure, recording the fed-up defense to a stupid recurring description, "Ain't Hip To Be Labeled a Hippie," and then following up 3 Feet with the self-conscious and self-negating De La Soul Is Dead.
But 3 Feet's influence won out. The sonic message was that absolutely anything could be turned into hip-hop. But the personal message was that hip-hop could be anyone's vehicle for self-expression, a message later embraced by white trailer-park residents (Eminem), mixed-race Midwesterners (Atmosphere), nice middle-class white girls (Northern State), Third World survivors (M.I.A., K' Naan), and lots of other people with something to say and a beat to say it over.
"No need to spit a cipher to show you I'm a lifer in rap/I cultivate moves larger than that."
— "Bionix," AOI: Bionix
3 Feet High and Rising's sonic fragmentation is generational but also partly a production of youth. Feeling creakier on the wrong side of 30, the band pursued a steadier groove on their Art Official Intelligence (AOI) records: 2000's Mosaic Thump and 2001's better Bionix (the latter getting my vote as the past decade's most overlooked hip-hop album). Where 3 Feet was bumpy, the AOI records are smooth. Where 3 Feet was clever and cryptic, the AOI records are smarter and more plainspoken.
What the trio lost in youthful verve they made up for with a consistently rewarding musical vision on their second career peak. 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 most contemporary mainstream hip-hop or the spare beats of the underground. Rather, De La's AOI 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 it's no accident that the more limited sources but more consistent groove connects more fully to the African-American musical tradition. After flying their freak-flag as kids, this later music embodied the black middle-class experience they were living. Even the skits on Bionix ("Rev. Do Good") tap into an African-American iconography that might have felt limiting as teenagers.
With AOI: Bionix, the group united verbal concept with the music's grasp for the eternal. This was 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 Dave (long since dropping his old "Trugoy" moniker) 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."
Once obsessed with making music in their bedrooms, the group was now focused on a different set of priorities: "Got fans around the world/But my girl's not one of them," Posdnous raps on the same song. "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 ... 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, conflicted marijuana meditation "Peer Pressure" (with Cypress Hill's B-Real). But this detour is needed confirmation that adulthood doesn't have to equal stodgy.
Hip-hop hasn't yet proven to be a form with the personal longevity of blues, country, or even rock. But after saying more about both teendom and responsible adulthood than anyone in the so-called hip-hop nation, one hopes De La Soul can stay interested long enough to pull hip-hop into the uncharted territory of middle age.