The influential Long Island trio of Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, and Vincent “DJ Maseo” Mason first officially came together under the collective name of De La Soul in 1987, but the high school friends had already become immersed in the hip hop culture well before that. They had begun to mess around a bit as a unit, but, as Maseo tells it, nobody outside of the 3 of them was even aware that Mercer and Dave rapped at all, at the time. Both of the future emcees were in a group together, where they wrote verses for the rest of the members, but Posdnuos was handling DJ duties, while Jolicoeur had been operating as a very capable human beat box. As for Maseo, he had actually Deejayed his first block party at the age of 12 and had now graduated to constructing his own beats with the aid of a basic Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard and a 4-track recorder.
Eventually, Maseo connected with master producer Prince Paul — who had already begun making somewhat of a name for himself as part of pioneering live hip hop outfit, Stetsasonic — after the 2 were both hired to work on a project that neither of them were even remotely fond of. De La had started putting together some demos, by that point, and, when Paul invited them to come over to his place, he was impressed. He responding by letting them check out some material of his own that was being rejected by his own group. Apparently, these kids were taking music in the direction that Paul had been envisioning, yet had never been unable to explore with Stetsasonic. Offering to clean up their material and work together, he went on to work with De La Soul, producing their breakout 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, as well as their next 2 follow ups. Prince Paul would go on to be considered one of the greatest hip hop producers of all time, while De La has become one of the most influential groups, in their own right. Together, they would go on to redefine the genre forever.
Inspired by acts like Kool Keith‘s Ultramagnetic MCs, the trio gained an increased confidence in their decision to remain uniquely themselves, embracing a left-field style, both in their music, as well as aesthetically. When 3 Feet High dropped, with it’s sample-heavy tracks, jazzy beats, Afrocentrism, and positive uplifting perspectives, it took the world by storm. This was something that stood apart from the majority of everything else out at the time, but, by some miraculous fortune, the crew managed to find themselves stumbling into a brotherhood of surprisingly like-minded individuals. Not long after becoming acquainted with The Jungle Brothers by performing on the same bill, they organically found themselves in a studio together, during a De La recording session. This resulted in Jungle Bros member, Afrika Baby Bam dialing up Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, informing him that he’d found people “just like” their two groups, and that he had to meet them. This resulted in the formation of the Native Tongues collective, which included all 3 groups. That initial studio meetup, also resulted in the posse cut, “Buddy” that appeared on 3 Feet High and included fellow members, Queen Latifah and Monie Love. But it was the track, “Me Myself and I,” that really catapulted the group into the public eye, although it wasn’t all smooth sailing — due to a sample that was never cleared, 60s rock band, The Turtles tried to sue the group for a million dollars; eventually settling out of court for 50 grand.
Whether anyone wanted to refer to this new genre of hip hop as “backpack rap” or anything else, it was both refreshing and revolutionary. Those who are only aware of the often contrived, patronizing, ham-fisted bullshit categorized as “conscious rap” that’s been delivered over the last decade-and-a -half should do themselves a service and look back into the originators that were able to deliver some brilliant, forward thinking music that had the ability to make you both think and move, without the need to pat yourself on the back, or sound like an patronizing, sheltered, misguided, elitist asshole.
Many a lazy, unoriginal critic referred to De La Soul as “hippies” at the time, so, their 1991 follow up, Del La Soul Is Dead, was an attempt to distance themselves from such labels that they didn’t identify with and would work to pigeon-hole them. This time around, they employed a denser, more mature sound — not unlike the shift later taken by Digable Planets from their first release to the next — with thick, slow grooves and a less poppy/cartoonish feel to it.
That sophomore release is considered by many to be the best album in their catalog, but just as valid of an argument could be made for their next effort, Buhloone Mindstate (1993), which saw them lyrically addressing such topics as dealing with success, while continuing to experiment with jazz — it even featured jazz/funk horn legends and James Brown band members, Fred Wesley (P-Funk), Maceo Parker (Bootsy Collins, Prince), and Pee Wee Ellis (Van Morrison).
1996‘s Stakes Is High would be the first time that the group would work without Prince Paul, with the title track being produced by the the late great J Dilla. Stakes features a great cameo by Common, along with “Big Brother Beat,” a song that put Mos Def on a number of folks’ radar for the very first time. It always felt like Stakes might have been slept on, compared to the earlier releases, but I love its subtle accents; smooth, deliberate grooves; and understated, blankets of sound. I’ve listened to it as much as anything else that they’ve released and, to this day, it really doesn’t sound like anything else.
From 2001 – ’04, De La put out 3 more well received albums, with their last official release being The Grind Date, which featured a lot more production by J Dilla, as well as from Madlib and Jake one. But, after that, they haven’t offered up a single official full-length studio release since.
Now, In recognition of next month’s 25th anniversary of the release of 3 Feet High And Rising, the rap game innovators are offering a FREE DOWNLOAD OF THEIR ENTIRE CATALOG for a 25 hour period, starting tomorrow Friday, February 14th (Valentines Day) at 11am EST and running until noon on Saturday. Whether you haven’t had a chance to check out their more recent material, don’t have any history with their work at all, simply wore out the copies that you did have, or lent them to people that never returned them, this is a great opportunity to grab everything up right now with absolutely NO CHARGE.
It’s been said a million times before, but in today’s current musical climate wrought with sampling laws, no one would ever be able to get away with making an album like 3 Feet High or the Beastie Boys’ groundbreaking Paul’s Boutique. That being said, a digital, internet-centric music industry has proven that anyone can make a sample-heavy release without concerning themselves with copyright clearance, but only as long as they plan to just give it away for free. According to Rolling Stone, such issues regarding sample clearance are exactly what has prevented De La from getting their music included on various digital music platforms, prompting them to offer their catalog for free. For them, this is a chance to reward their fanbase by providing access to music that they believe has been difficult for many to obtain otherwise, because of such restrictions.
Here’s what Posdnuos says about it:
“It’s been a trying journey,” “We’ve been blessed to be in the Library of Congress, but we can’t even have our music on iTunes. We’ve been working very hard to get that solved.”
The emcee is also addressing the delays regarding You’re Welcome — a new release originally scheduled for last year — by taking credit for the trio being overly critical of their own work. Apparently, the group is sitting on a ton of recordings, but stepping back and revisiting some of the material seems to have now benefit the process. The finished album should be ready before Summer. Additionally, they are already working on another completely different release, as well as planning a visit to Detroit to work on one of a plethora of still unreleased/unheard beats by Dilla. Next month, look for the release of their 6-song EP, Preemium Soul on the Rocks, which splits production down the middle between powerhouses, DJ Premier and Pete Rock.
If all goes according to plan, the Strong Island pioneers won’t just be returning to the spotlight, they’ll be returning in full force. Now is the perfect time to purge the past and move forward, but it’s also a great time to refresh yourself with their catalog. And for those of you that may have only heard the name De La Soul, but have never had any real reference for what they do, it’s also the perfect time to get familiar.