When De La Soul first came to public attention I was a child and had
the open mind of a child. As such, nothing about them seemed
subversive or particularly innovative. They sounded to me then like
they do when I review their early work now: like a bunch of great
friends messing around and having fun. I've come to
recognise this as a characteristic of many of the truly great
Eye Know has a tinny hi-hat quite high up in the mix that I remember
being distracted by, listening to 3 Feet High and Rising on
headphones in the dark in my childhood bedroom. There are lots of
silly jokes on that record about people they know being smelly or
having dandruff. I've never been able to confirm the theory but
I'm convinced that the name “De La Soul” was chosen to allow DJs to
scratch on the word “asshole”. At times they were
socially-conscious. The use of samples such as Fiorello H. LaGuardia
asking, “what does it all mean?” infected my brain with their
influences and the early hip hop ecosystem.
They're not that much older than me. Less than ten years.
I think it's because of this that I felt able to access them in a
way that made them feel more like big brothers than other artists I
found in the record shops. They talked about things familiar to me
like getting bad service in Burger King or talking to girls in the
park. I can still recite all of those songs. I remember getting
bullied by heavy metal enthusiasts about liking that stuff. A
Rollerskating Jam Named Saturdays was the soundtrack to the summer
of my 1991.
I grew up during the Golden Age of hip hop and it was right at the
end of that most productive period that they released Stakes is
High. This was the time that they first showed their capacity for
the discipline in production that came to be synonymous with their
name and was a serious, jam-packed record with talented
collaborators and an evolved, more precise, rhyming style. As I had
grown into a young man, now big enough to get into hip hop clubs I
saw that they had grown along with me.
They came to my town sometime at the end of the nineties and I had
to go along. In a small venue, Maseo warmed-up the crowd with a DJ
set. I remember the whole place blowing up when he dropped Redman's
Tonight's Da Night. Posdunous wore wire-framed glasses and stood
at the side, rubbing his chin as if evaluating the crowd. I went
over and said hi, of course. He wasn't interested in me. They
played a fun set that was well-received. I remember them replacing
the words to the refrain of Me Myself and I with “we hate this
fucking song”. They must have been playing that one out for nearly
a decade by then.
The songs kept coming. I was amazed when they did a track with
Chaka Khan. As I approached my thirties they kept their sense of
fun but started talking about what it felt like to be parents and
complex feelings of estrangement from their earlier days, reflecting
on the loss of old friends and lovers, particularly on the album
Bionix. My first daughter was born in the same year that they
released The Grind Date.
Being a parent makes you put on weight unless you're blessed with an
instinctive discipline. They must have had the same problem because
in the year I ran my first marathon they released Are You In? in
collaboration with Nike sportswear, a mixtape of original material
for runners that will just about get you through a 10k.
They toured in my town again after the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted.
I insisted on taking all three of my kids to see them. Reluctant at
first, they reported a great time. De La Soul obviously knew their
audience perfectly, modifying their call-and-response material to,
“if you're over forty-five say 'yo'” and, later, “if you're here
with your dad say 'oh no'”.
Songwriter and vocalist with the group Trugoy the Dove died in
February this year, just a few weeks before their music was finally
cleared for streaming services. He was 54. The term, “end of an
era” is rarely applied this literally. When I heard the news I
thought about that last show they put on where, apparently having
come to terms with their biggest hit having been Me, Myself and I
they delivered a version of that song that slowed down towards the
end, stripping out first the Funkadelic sample and then the drumbeat
until all that was left was the guys, unaccompanied, enunciating the
words, “me, myself, and I” under a spotlight until that, too, was
cut, leaving the stage in darkness.