Early this month, when hip hop legends De La Soul’s entire catalogue of albums finally made it to various streaming platforms, it was a landmark event. De La Soul, a trio from New York’s Long Island, emerged on the scene in the late 1980s, quickly winning fame and popularity owing to their singular sound and innovative approach to sampling. Those were the early days of East Coast rap and the group, comprising Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, David “Dave” Jude Jolicoeur, also known as Trugoy, and Vincent “Maseo” Mason, stood out amidst rap’s prevailing vibe of anger, aggression, misogyny and hedonistic nihilism.
In contrast to the violent vibe rap was already gravitating towards, De La Soul’s oeuvre was surprisingly gentle, fun and full of playful, clever wit. What stands out in their work more than anything else, however, is their way of sampling other pieces of song, music or recorded words. Sampling is the process of taking small segments of existing recordings and working them into new compositions. De La Soul were known for their ability to skilfully blend samples from a wide range of genres: country, rockabilly, funk, jazz, classical…you name it.
They had a profound impact on the genre and are among the most influential rap acts in its history. What sets them apart is their eclectic appreciation of all kinds of music and the ability to incorporate those diverse styles into their own creations. But their work had been inaccessible on streaming platforms owing to permission/copyright issues.
For, their penchant for sampling was recklessly prolific. A single song could have multiple samples from an array of older recordings by artists and bands—often without proper clearance or permission from the original copyright holders.
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These were early days as far as copyright and permissions were concerned, and, although De La Soul did face legal battles—famously by the 1960s pop group The Turtles—it never really was a big problem in the early brick and mortar era of popular music. In fact, many artists whose music was sampled by the rappers cast a benign, even approving eye on the practice.
The problem emerged when digital streaming became the predominant music distribution channel. By the time iTunes, Spotify and other platforms became the giants of the music industry, copyright and royalty stipulations had become stricter and in order to be streamed, music labels had to get samples on songs cleared by the original copyright owners. For a band that had thousands of samples interwoven into their songs, this was a daunting task, made even tougher by De La Soul’s disagreements over financial arrangements with their record label.
To cut a very long story short, it took the group years, decades really, before things got sorted, samples got cleared, and their music could finally make it to the streaming platforms. Sadly, the timing coincided with the death of Trugoy, who died of long-standing heart problems in February, just weeks before De La Soul’s masterpieces were streamed. Trugoy was just 54.
Now the band is down to Posdnuos, 53, and Maseo, 52. But for several younger fans of hip hop, the ability to stream De La Soul’s music is a historic development. Hip hop is easily the most popular genre in contemporary music but for much of the younger generation of fans, bred on streaming platforms, De La Soul’s discography of nine studio albums, especially the early ones, has been inaccessible till now.
Their music, even if you listen to their debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, can sound refreshingly new, with unexpected twists and turns, using samples that range from jazz standards to nursery rhyme ditties, and lyrics that are playful, humorous and enjoyable.
De La Soul were part of a hip hop subgroup known as Native Tongues, a group of acts that were (in sharp contrast to current-era rap) positive in their outlook and gentle in nature, with themes centred on African-American heritage and cultures. And, of course, they were known for their inclination to sample music and words from a vast range of recordings.
While Native Tongues acts included groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul were unique—their style of sampling, their fashion statements (tweaked retro outfits such as, for instance, plaid trousers worn high, or dashikis and strange haircuts) and their ability to pen lyrics and rhymes without resorting to profanity or crudity, set them apart.
The satire and wit is all there—but there’s a welcome sense of lightness. Against a backdrop of complex and densely textured music, those lyrics beg to be heard over and over again. The track Me Myself And I from 3 Feet High And Rising has loops sampled from a song by the famous funk rock band Funkadelic, accompanied by an instantly addictive beat and lyrics (Mirror mirror on the wall/ Tell mirror, what is wrong?/ Can it be my De La Clothes/ Or is it just my De La Soul?). Or, listen to the lyrics of Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa from what is perhaps their best crafted album, De La Soul Is Dead (1991): If you will suck my soul/ I will lick your funky emotions)/ This is the stylin’ for a title that sounds silly/ But nothin’ silly about the triflin’ times of Millie. It is hard not to be infected by De La Soul’s upbeat, adventurous energy and playfulness.
At the root of the group’s compositions is their fine sampling skills. If you are a hard-core fan of contemporary hip hop, De La Soul are an essential listen to understand how it all began. Even if you aren’t that big on hip hop but are a music enthusiast, this is a group you just can’t ignore.
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