De La Soul’s streaming arrival signal need to straighten our priorities

Although it took years of heated label disputes for the group’s back catalog to arrive on streaming, the timing of De La Soul’s reintroduction couldn’t be better. Though their debut album, “3 Feet High and Rising,” paved the way for other alternative hip-hop artists to follow, the exposure allows new listeners to learn why the issues De La Soul touched on still sadly resonate 34 years later.

Nineteen days before their first six albums could hit streaming services, founding member Trugoy the Dove passed away. Coincidentally, the three, including rapper Posdnuos and b-boy Maseo, were around 19 when they decided to give up on college and make a rap album without guaranteed success.

It paid off, but a conflict between them and their label, Tommy Boy Records, would grow out of frustration that they would only receive 10% of the revenue if put on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

When the group was promoting their Grammy-nominated 2016 album “…and the Anonymous Nobody,” Trugoy told the New York Times how frustrating it was that their music wasn’t available for everyone to hear.

“This music has to be addressed and released,” Trugoy said. “It has to. When? We’ll see. But somewhere it’s going to happen.”

Back in 1989, when the gangsta rap of N.W.A. and politically-charged rhymes of Public Enemy dominated airwaves, De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” provided an alternative pathway pronounced by positive outlooks and a platform for outsiders.

Produced by Prince Paul, who should be recognized as the unofficial fourth member of De La Soul for his contributions to their sound early on, the album marked an expansion of what hip-hop music could sound like with the help of technology like the SP-1200 drum machine. Their sound didn’t revolutionize how hip-hop music was made, but it did help the group stand out in the crowd of music that, in hindsight, hasn’t aged as well as their unique brand of jazz rap.

Notably impressive because of the usage of samples from their parents’ records around their houses, “3 Feet” redefined what it meant to create an album. Of the 23 tracks, about half of them are skits. They range from award shows where contestants shout out “yo mama!” as answers on “D.A.I.S.Y Age” to “De La Orgee,” which leaves little to the imagination for what it’s about.

But that juvenile humor serves as a reminder of just how young these three were when recording the album. To think Tommy Boy Records would give them $13,000 to produce any kind of music they desired to create is equally astounding and baffling.

Luckily, it paid off.

What resulted was a colorful kaleidoscope of kooky comedy breaks and calls for more generosity worldwide. Very few people could argue against that, especially today, where their level of positivity is needed more than ever in an increasingly pessimistic zeitgeist.

Nowadays, the totality of an album is not as important as landing a hit on TikTok or overpricing concert tickets. Compared to the 80s, rappers don’t make the same amount of money off their own music as they do off tour dates and merchandise.

De La Soul themselves were never the biggest rappers of their time. Their debut did better than expected, but it didn’t translate to the level of success that warranted further spending on the group.

It’s one of the many reasons there was little to no urgency to put the group on streaming services. The Atlantic addressed this in 2010 when hip-hop historian Jeff Chang bluntly challenged the double standard against Black artists.

“Major labels would never let a Jackson Browne album or an obscure new wave band with primarily local appeal, like Translator, go out of print,” said Chang. “That’s not to diss Jackson Browne or Translator, both of whom I’ve liked; it’s to make the provocative argument that major labels place a low value on Black music not currently on the pop charts.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t any success between then and now. De La Soul was among the most frequent and exciting collaborators of virtual band Gorillaz, who made their number one hit “Feel Good Inc.” a career highlight for both groups. In 2021, their song “The Magic Number” appeared in the end credits of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and quickly went viral online, sparking more demand for their music to come to streaming.

Part of their appeal is how, even today, few artists balance lighthearted fun and pressing issues that resonate decades later.

They were well aware of their differences from other rap artists of the time. The music video for their sole charting single “Me Myself and I” parodied their style by depicting the three plugs returning to high school surrounded by rappers dressed similarly to Eric B., Rakim, Kool G. Rap, and Run-DMC. Due to their differences, they get bullied for wearing prescribed glasses and Africa medallions instead of sunglasses and gold chains.

Their follow-up, “De La Soul is Dead,” challenged those labeling them as hippies and nerds, all while holding onto their levity and substance. Rather than complaining about the lack of success, they pridefully embrace their identities and those around them.

What the three spoke out on was wildly different from the competitive and misogynistic demeanor of other rappers that came before and followed. “Eye Know” is an innocently sweet love song that refrained from the hip-hop trappings of disrespecting women or ignorantly using demeaning vulgarity to boost egos.

De La Soul wasn’t the sole exception in hip-hop. The three quickly became members of the larger Native Tongues, a collective tied to the Universal Zulu Nation that included the Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. “Buddy” features all the members on a song that’s more like listening in on a tight-knit group of friends trading inside jokes than an unnecessarily braggadocious rap cypher. Though most of the “inside jokes” are pretty obviously sexual innuendos, with the track’s namesake being a term for a hot body.

Not everything was sunshine and daisies for the group’s subject matter. “Ghetto Thang” and “Say No Go” spoke on the ongoing plights of poverty and low-income living brought about by the crack epidemic.

It’s important to note that De La Soul themselves grew up in a Long Island suburb. Yet rather than criticizing or talking down on those who witnessed firsthand what such issues did to a community, they questioned what “ghetto” actually represents in one of the most nuanced commentaries on the subject.

“If ghetto thang can have its way in ghetto range, then there must be some ghetto love and ghetto change,” spits Trugoy in the second verse of “Ghetto Thang.”

Whether or not De La Soul had a broad impact on hip-hop mattered less than the matters they rightfully felt were important to focus on in their music. It’s genuinely disheartening when the problems addressed on every critical track still ring true for the present day.

Maybe it’s time people take a number from the leaders of the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” and love a little more.

“I got a good thing and in full swing. I show this in gifts, words, or letters,” raps Pos on “Eye Know.” “But even without those three, I know you’ll be close to me ’cause (I know I love you better).”

David Sosa
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