Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art.
The taxonomy of New York hip-hop was set out by KRS-One on “The Bridge Is Over” back in March 1987: Manhattan kept on making it, Brooklyn kept on taking it, the Bronx kept creating it and Queens kept on faking it. But what about Long Island? The home of EPMD and Rakim wasn’t even worth mentioning at the time, devoid of a cultural identity.
Island-dwelling Public Enemy had burst onto the scene with their uncompromising Def Jam debut Yo! Bumrush the Show just a month before, setting the stage for 1988’s “Plug Tunin’,” the first single by a group of three friends who went on to firmly stamp Long Island as hip-hop’s home of the outsider: De La Soul.
From their playful first transmission, the group outlined their “new style of speak” with Trugoy the Dove promising to “dive beneath the depth of a never-ending verse, gasping and swallowing every last letter.” The remix of “Plug Tunin’” appends “(Last Chance to Comprehend)” to the title, a good-natured warning of pleasurable confusion to come.
Peering in from their vantage point along the periphery of established hip-hop culture, De La Soul parodied and satirized the rap game across their entire discography. “Do As De La Does” mocks the banality of call and response (“If you like to drink some soda, let me hear you say Coca-Cola!”). “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)” and “Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum)” are hyper-referential, over the top parodies of typical hip-hop braggadocio.
De La Soul (“from the soul” in Franglais) luxuriated in the subversive potential of language. With each new track came a new way for the group to flow, a previously untested style to plant the De La flag into.
Even their monikers were designed to obfuscate: reverse the names of both emcees and you'll learn that Posdnuos declares himself to be a “Soundsop" and Trugoy is simply named after his favourite food. To each other, they were Plug One and Plug Two.
Derwin, Stickabush, Itzsoweezee, Dan Stuckie, Dante is a scrub, Buddy: the group developed their own cryptophasia, a personal glossary of inside jokes to define themselves in opposition to a harsh hip-hop world that was destined to misunderstand their methods. De La Soul’s private humour exploded outside of the boundaries of their songs with their early adoption and popularization of hip-hop album skits.
Wearing colourful dress shirts, rocking leather Africa medallions and rapping about flowers, De La Soul were seen as hip-hop hippies, an image immediately rejected by the group in “Me, Myself and I,” the lead single from their groundbreaking 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising. The video for “Me, Myself and I” has the squad attending Rapper School alongside lookalikes of the acceptable emcee archetypes of the day. Here’s a partial list of what De La Soul implored the listening public to remove in their song “Take It Off”: those shell toes, that do-rag, those fat laces, that bomber, those Converse, that Kangol, that Afro, that Jheri curl. They defined themselves by what they weren’t.
Posdnuos was the erudite moral leader, Maseo was the clownish DJ and the late Trugoy was the Everyman, so normal that he eventually changed his rap name from Trugoy the Dove to just Dave. In the video for “Stakes Is High,” a song whose lyrics became the urtext for the conscious rap movement, Trugoy is pictured doing laundry, raking leaves and washing dishes.
A celebration of the mundane, Dave demonstrated to untold aspiring rappers that being yourself was more than enough. His normalcy was belied by an occasional propensity for abstract wordplay and lyricism, such as on the Stakes Is High intro where he intentionally avoids rhyming or Buhloone Mindstate’s “En Focus,” a funky meditation on fame dripping in what feels like generations of slang. His passing in February, just weeks before De La’s entire music catalogue would finally be made available on streaming for the first time, feels particularly cruel.
Trugoy took center stage on De La Soul’s closest brush with the mainstream, their Grammy-winning guest spot on the upbeat “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz. The only member of the group to actually rap on the song, his uncharacteristically frenetic verse features a memorably odd turn of phrase, urging “Don’t stop, get it, get it, until you’re cheddar-headed.” At a time when rap music often promoted one dimensional characters, Dave had the emotional range to joke around with a Burger King employee on “Bitties in the BK Lounge” and then play a local hood gaslighting a young woman being abused by her father on the unprecedented single “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” all on the same album (De La Soul is Dead).
De La Soul almost single-handedly legitimized sampling as an art form on their debut. Four months later, Beastie Boys dropped their sampledelic masterpiece Paul's Boutique, choosing samples with the Dust Brothers that presented themselves as Easy Rider outlaws with a reverence for the routines and sounds of early hip-hop. Conversely, De La rejected the hip-hop canon before it had even been settled on, hellbent on redefining and widening the conversation of what rap music could be.
Before De La Soul, sampling was usually about instant gratification. Recognize this drum break? Remember this funk song that we grew up with? That familiarity can occasionally be present in their music as well but De La’s primary producer Prince Paul mainly reveled in mining funk from unexpected sources: yodeling, kazoos, nursery rhymes, records for learning how to speak French.
Anything was fair game . . . well, maybe not. De La Soul’s verve for unconventional sampling made them an early target for lawsuits and is partly why their music hadn’t been properly reissued or released digitally for so long. Now, after over twenty years, hundreds of contracts and months of rerecording elements that couldn’t be cleared, the world will finally be reintroduced to one of the most significant groups in the history of music. It’s a shame that Trugoy isn’t here to see this moment. But what he created is finally free to be cherished by generations to come.