After years of label limbo and silenced songs, get a quick history on the hip-hop heroes who’ve been everywhere but online.
You know De La Soul even if you don’t know De La Soul.
Since forming in Amityville, Long Island roughly 35 years ago, the Native Tongues trio has remained beloved by hip-hop purists while constantly floating in and out of the global pop culture orbit.
Still, their most acclaimed music has remained invisible in the age of streaming.
Due to label issues, the trio’s favored first albums have appeared absent in the online space where music now makes the most noise. In turn, this has deprived a decade of new listeners the chance to fully dive into their best work.
Additionally, it’s kept De La from getting many of their flowers — and their dollars.
“3 Feet High and Rising is very much in danger of being the classic tree that fell in the forest,” Questlove told The New York Times in 2016 of the trio’s 1989 studio album. “That was once given high praise and now is just a stump.”
But, why is that?
For years, fans have quite literally been stumped when it comes to hearing 5-Mic favorites from De La Soul – at least on their own time.
Scoring FIFA but not appearing on Apple Music, praised by Pitchfork but Spotify silent, De La Soul has lived on through film, fashion, and video games for the last three decades.
Finally this Spring, De La’s esteemed first six albums will make their streaming debuts. As of March 3, 2023, the world will finally have each De La Soul album at their fingertips, in-stores, and on their phones. Moreover, physical reissues of the trio’s acclaimed album will return to record stores, as reported by Pitchfork.
This means much when a used copy of De La Soul is Dead on vinyl currently fetches $130 on Amazon. For the math majors at home, that’s roughly a year of a streaming subscription.
Making the most of the moment, the redemption rollout will begin on Jan. 13th with “The Magic Number” being streamed and sold as the launch single in both digital and physical form. Merchandise plays celebrating the songs and albums are also on the way to the delight of all involved.
Against the Grain
When De La Soul formed in 1988, Kelvin “Posdnous” Mercer, Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, and Vincent “Pasemaster Mase” Mason were learning what it would take for the world to hear their music.
At the same time, the world was witnessing the strength of street knowledge.
Two-thousand miles away from the South Shore of Long Island, N.W.A erupted with the release of Straight Outta Compton, putting the rap game on tilt and Raider hats on hip-hop heads. Closer to home, Public Enemy proved louder than a bomb by their second album, putting politicians and censors in check.
No matter the coast, rap was getting more aggressive and confrontational. An ensemble of artists, De La chose to zag. Enter the D.A.I.S.Y. Age.
Providing a slightly suburban perspective to hip-hop in the height of gangster rap, the trio offered another lens on what rap music could sound like and speak to. Balancing humor and humility in an era defined by hostility, De La switched sonics by sampling slews of sounds from the past.
Branded by flowery album art and positive pantones in an era of black and silver, De La shamelessly set themselves apart with the release of 1989’s 3 Feet High & Rising. Likened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in experimentation, the psychedelic sample-driven album was an oddity that inspired homage amongst peers.
Lyrically, they challenged tropes of what it meant to be African-American in identity, aesthetic, and imagination. Crafted creatively with love, they embraced an array of audiences and ideas, unaligned with the gatekeeping or alienating often associated with protected genres.
Always honest, incredibly unique, they honored their hip-hop forefathers while paving a lane for the likes of Odd Future and others by drawing outside the lines of labels.
“De La Soul were the quiet kids lingering at the edge of the cipher,” Pitchfork’s Jeff Chang wrote when giving their debut a perfect rating. “Withdrawn and a little mysterious, conversing in coded language meant to distance themselves from all the big personalities jockeying for position around them.”
Having much admiration for Chuck D and Ice Cube but much different in punctuation and presentation, it wasn’t all love when De La arrived. Produced by Prince Paul and yielding seven singles, their 1989 debut album initially went over the head of some music critics at the time but soon became a cult classic. At the time, outlets didn’t know what do with De La Soul – or even what to call them.
Unfairly labeled as ‘hippie rap’ upon arrival, De La switched sounds on 1991’s De La Soul is Dead. Much like Outkast or the heyday of Ye, De La was continuously evolving and adapting on each project and their sophomore album demonstrated the maturity of their music, all while tackling tropes of the times while still having fun.
Throughout a decade, the trio remained relevant through the changing times of the ’90s without selling out or chasing trends. This ranged from flipping Michael Jackson throwbacks to introducing the world to Mos Def. Their first three albums, including Buhloone Mindstate (1993), went on to receive perfect or near perfect scores since debuting on vinyl, CD, or cassette.
When music moved to digital downloads and rap became commercialized, De La continued to appear on various platforms from MTV to Limewire. Whether hip-hop was being showcased on countdown shows or stolen online, songs like “Oooh” and “Baby Phat” connected with the masses while cuts like “Rock Co.Kane Flow” exploded on the underground.
Over the course of the 2000s, everyone from Nike to Spike Lee wanted to work with De La — and they did. The group’s strong sense of self allowed them to play in every arena and collaborate with all types of entities. This proves impressive for a plethora of reasons:
- Rap is historically a young man’s game where career peaks last less than five years
- Corporate collaborations or crossover features were long considered the kiss of death for purist pioneers
- Splitting the pie multiple ways is typically the demise of most groups, especially in hip-hop
As expected, De La proved the outlier to any assumptions presumed by the industry or trends.
The new millennium introduced De La to new audiences from Chaka Khan features to skateboarding sneakers.
Transitioning from over a decade at Tommy Boy to forming their own imprint, A.O.I. Records, the group grew with The Grind Date, a self-released spectacle that brought J Dilla, Madlib, and even Carl Thomas into the fold. All the while, they performed in parallel with a virtual band from across the pond.
Appearing on the 2005 hit “Feel Good, Inc.” by Gorillaz, the trio from Long Island won a long-deserved Grammy while extending their universal appeal as the song reached RIAA Platinum status in Italy, Australia, and United Kingdom. In essence, their music spoke to all demographics domestically and abroad without forcing it on fans.
Always nimble, De La Soul spent the new millennium entering new markets while playing with new sounds. This included touring with The Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse; cutting tracks with 2 Chainz and Ghostface; and curating a crowdfunded album.
As always, experimentation proved good for De La Soul as they exceeded their goal of $110,000 on Kickstarter in only ten hours in 2015. That album, And the Anonymous Nobody…, featured the likes of Usher, Roc Marciano, and David Byrne. Range, reach, and self-sufficiency were all at a premium.
For the 2010s and beyond, De La was everywhere — except for streaming.
“We’re in the Library of Congress,” Posdnous told The New York Times in 2016. “But we’re not on iTunes.”
Me, Myself & Spotify
The digital age of music has been a win for almost everybody.
No longer do fans have to fork over $14 for an album they’re unsure about. Even better? Artists can bypass the gatekeepers of radio to reach listeners from France to Tahoma with the push of a button.
While all these Ws create compounding interests for listeners and creators alike, it’s far from perfect. Consider this: can you imagine paying for Apple Music and not being able to hear Dark Side of the Moon? Could you fathom turning on TIDAL and there being no results for Thriller?
Such has been the case for De La Soul fans devoid of 3 Feet Hight & Rising when searching Spotify for the last decade.
Due to disputes, De La missed out majorly on the entire download era of the iTunes Store. In recent years, they’ve lost out on much of the earnings and exposure that come from streaming. For over two decades, the trio has been at odds with their former label, Tommy Boy, surrounding the realities of signing a record deal right after they graduated from high school.
Some of this likely stems from sample issues scares pronounced in the past. Back in 1991, ’60s rock band The Turtles slowed down celebrations of 3 Feet High & Rising by suing De La Soul for $2.5 million.
Though the dispute was settled out of court for over $1 million, the array of samples artistically distributed over their debut can come off like a field of legal landmines when considering the fears of a label and strengths of estates tied to Steely Dan, Liberace, James Brown, and more.
Still, fans fought for De La and De La fought for fans. After two false starts in recent years, three proves the magic number as De La Soul’s entire catalog is coming to streaming.
Thanks to Reservoir acquiring Tommy Boy in 2021 – in what FADER reports as a $100 million USD deal – A.O.I. Records worked out a deal where the world can have access to every album through digital devices. This means much for modern listeners, but equally as much for day-one collectors.
For those keeping track at home, the six albums are 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate, Stakes Is High, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, and AOI: Bionix.
It’s justice served for the creative kids out of Long Island who signed their first contracts as teenagers. More importantly, it’s music to the ears of emerging fans who’ve long heard their songs in passing, but never had the chance to deep-dive.
Though much of De La’s early work came from rearranging sounds of the past, some could say that their ethos align in spirt and sonics with Gen-Z ears even more than those who lived through the ’80s and ’90s.
No longer will the sound of silence follow the band where streaming, CDs, sales, and exposure are concerned.
Finally, De La Soul is getting their flowers.