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De La Soul's early catalog finally hits streaming platforms

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It was the summer of 1988 when the world first got a taste of De La Soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLUG TUNIN'")

DE LA SOUL: The first time around, you didn't quite understand our new style of speak.

SHAPIRO: The song was called "Plug Tunin'," built from old funk and Motown samples, the first single from a trio of teenagers from Amityville, Long Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLUG TUNIN'")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Answering any other service, prerogative praised positively. I'm acquitted.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In March of the following year, they released their debut album, "3 Feet High And Rising." In an era when gangster rap was on the rise, it was an irreverent and eccentric sound. On the album cover, their faces were ringed by cartoon daisies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE KNOW")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Greetings, girl, and welcome to my world of phrase. I'm right up to bat. It's a daisy age, and you're about to walk top stage, so wipe your Lottos on the mat.

SHAPIRO: De La Soul would go on to be one of the most influential hip-hop acts of all time, but that first album and the next five after that have been unavailable to most listeners for years. Legal disputes with their label and difficulties getting the rights to samples within their songs prevented the early albums from being released in digital form until now.

CHANG: Last week, the first six albums from De La Soul were finally released on streaming platforms. The timing was bittersweet. One of the members, David Jolicoeur, known as Trugoy the Dove, died last month. This week, Sheldon Pearce from NPR Music sat down with writers Oliver Wang and Matthew Ritchie to talk about De La Soul's early catalog and to listen to the music with fresh ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREAD WATER")

DE LA SOUL: Tread water, tread water.

SHELDON PEARCE, BYLINE: Matthew, I'm curious. Diving into these songs, can you talk through sort of, like, hearing "3 Feet High" in its entirety?

MATTHEW RITCHIE: Yeah. So I think the first time I was able to actually hear it, it was like, oh, I'm now getting, you know, a step-by-step look inside, like, these three rappers' minds. And it sort of just felt like three high schoolers being like, all right, this is my life. This is how it is, but in a way that, you know, wasn't corny. It didn't feel like they were posturing in any way. It sort of just felt like a retelling of their own personalities.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREAD WATER")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) As I walked along my journey, I thought, what have I just learned? In a flash, I saw commotion. There was movement in these ferns.

RITCHIE: It just feels authentically them. It never felt like they were trying to put on a persona. And doing this in your first album sort of is unbeatable in my eyes.

PEARCE: Yeah, I think - we rap better than you - that's inherent to so much of rap history. It feels like that's bravado at the heart of literally every emcee's mission, right? Like, I'm spitting harder than you. And they do have that, and it does seem like they are rapping in opposition to the gangster rap stuff in a lot of the early stuff. But to me, what is interesting is that stuff is coming from a place of self, of, like, deeply knowing who you are. It's more about performing from a genuine place than it is about existing in opposition to something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POTHOLES IN MY LAWN")

DE LA SOUL: Yo, something's wrong here. No, not again. Get the daisies for the potholes in my lawn.

PEARCE: I'm curious what you guys say to folks who sort of make light of their debut. There are some goofball moments on this record - "Tread Water," "Potholes." To me, that stuff is endearing. I love that stuff, too. For some, that's a drawback, but I'm curious to hear how you guys feel about it.

OLIVER WANG: Wait, are there people dissing "Tread Water" and "Potholes"?

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Did I miss out on this part of the discourse here? What's going on?

PEARCE: I didn't want to single out any songs in particular, but there is this idea that "3 Feet High," in particular, there's sort of, like, a goofball energy to it that that puts some people off.

WANG: I mean, it is - I think that's accurate. It is a goofball energy, right? I mean, they were, I think, very, you know, consciously trying to figure out, like, what are the limits to how eccentric or eclectic that we can be and throwing a lot of stuff at the wall. I mean, those first two albums in particular, these are long albums in the sense that they're both temporally long, but there's many, many different tracks and skits and all these things in it.

PEARCE: Yeah.

WANG: And it does feel like there's just a lot of - we're just going to toss a lot of stuff out there just to see what sticks. But I think from a creative point of view, that goofiness is merely a reflection of just an attempt at breaking out of whatever confines they think might have existed then, to see - let's just push the limits and see what we can come up with. And I love that kind of - I mean, that whole creative goofiness is exactly why the group was so influential. If you had stripped off all of the humor out of those albums, you would have been left with some very good songs, but the group would never have made the same impact...

PEARCE: Right.

WANG: ...If not for that level of creativity and humor and the willingness to be seen as goofy both at the time and I suppose now, you know, with the benefit of, I don't know, 30 years of hindsight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POTHOLES IN MY LAWN")

DE LA SOUL: (Yodeling).

PEARCE: It feels like a good place to talk about the interplay of De La's two rappers, Posdnuos and Trugoy the Dove. I'm curious what you two find great about the rapping across these records.

RITCHIE: Everyone loves a good pairing, and I think, yes, they need to have their similarities but a great foil in terms of their mindset and sort of their approach to their mindset. So with Pos, you get this relatively more abrasive style that is like, I want to announce where I am and where I'm at. Where you get Trugoy is like, all right, well, I know where I stand and I know - and I want to put ourselves in that pantheon, but I'm not stressing about it as much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS A RECORDING 4 LIVING IN A FULLTIME ERA")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Living in every day is something. Something every day like this is our living. Giving something sheer for the crowd is our major. Major to the crowd is to hear what we're giving.

RITCHIE: You get two amazing emcees at the same time, delivering in - not opposite styles, but they're running sort of parallel to each other towards the same goal.

PEARCE: It's interesting that you say that because I feel for a long time, the discourse was that Pos, everybody knew - one of the best ever, like, sort of - if you knew, you knew he had the bars. But I think especially in the wake of losing Dave, we are getting a true appreciation for what he brings to a lot of these tracks, just an effortless sort of lighthearted energy. I think people will really come to appreciate those verses after losing him. It's sad that he won't be able to see that response. Oliver, I'm curious to get your take on these two great emcees.

WANG: There are some groups in which the contrast between emcees is really stark, and De La is more to me - maybe because Trugoy and Pos' voices are kind of in a similar timbre, you don't necessarily differentiate between the two quite as easily as you might with other groups.

PEARCE: Right.

WANG: And yet, they're offering you these two different kinds of lyrical approaches and thematic approaches, but they're not making it so obvious that here's Pos' turn, and then here's Trugoy's turn, and we're going back and forth A and B'ing (ph) it. I think this is part of what makes De La so powerful as, like, a collective unit, as a group, because you're not necessarily always thinking about the differences between the emcees. You're thinking about how do this - how does this pair come together to deliver me something that I'm going to enjoy listening to?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAGIC NUMBER")

DE LA SOUL: (Singing) Got to have soul. Three - that's a magic number. Yes, it is. It's the magic number.

SHAPIRO: That was writers Oliver Wang and Matthew Ritchie talking with Sheldon Pearce from NPR Music about the early music of the hip-hop group De La Soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAGIC NUMBER")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Difficult preaching is Posdneus' pleasure. Pleasure and preaching starts in the heart, something that stimulates the music and the measure. Measure in the music breaks in three parts. Casually see, but don't do like the Soul, because seeing and doing are actions for monkeys. Doing hip-hop hustle, no rock-'n-roll, unless your name's Brewster because Brewster's a punk. Parents let go because there's magic in the air... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sheldon Pearce