Aug 022007

The Great 48 has submitted the following Critical Upgrade. I’ve never heard this album, only knowing their popular debut, which a friend burned me years ago and which I enjoy but wish was less silly. The Great One’s description of the band’s overlooked follow up makes me want to check it out. Let us know what you think and whether the Critical Upgrade filing is in order.

Critical Upgrade submitted

De La Soul, “Pease Porridge”

De La Soul, “My Brother’s a Basehead”

First, some set-up is in order: De La Soul was formed in 1987 by Kelvin Mercer (Posdnuos), David Jolicoeur (Dove), and Vincent Mason (Mase), three teenagers from Amityville, Long Island. That last part is important: De La Soul were the first important New York rap group not from the five boroughs, but from a middle-class suburb. Under the guidance of Paul Hudson (Prince Paul), a slightly older hip-hop producer who was also a member of the mid-80s group Stetsasonic, De La Soul got a deal with Tommy Boy Records and released their first single, “Potholes In My Lawn”, in 1988. This song, the chorus of which featured a jews harp and a yodeler, sounded basically like nothing that had ever come before in hip-hop, and when their debut album, Three Feet High and Rising, came out in the spring of 1989, De La Soul were immediately the hottest thing on the scene.

Some historical placement: although Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and some other acts were already expanding the sonic parameters of hip-hop, most hip-hop singles in ’88 and ’89 were still fairly simple, bare-bones affairs along the lines of Run-DMC’s hits. Three Feet High and Rising was worlds apart from that: the songs were still largely sample-based, but although Mase was nominally the trio’s DJ, their sound was created in-studio by Prince Paul and the group out of loops, samples, sequencers, live instruments and found-sound tapes, which made their music far more complex than anything else that was going on at the time. Listen to Three Feet High and Rising today, and unlike just about any other hip-hop record from 1989, it doesn’t sound dated. And it attracted a different sort of white audience than any previous hip-hop album: I can state for myself that although I was mildly interested in hip-hop and buying singles and occasional albums starting with the early run of classic Grandmaster Flash sides on Sugar Hill (other than Blondie’s “Rapture,” my first hip-hop purchase was Flash’s “It’s Nasty,” a great 1982 single based on the riff from Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”), there was always a vaguely sociological angle, if you get what I’m saying. I barely had any personal connection to Run-DMC’s lyrics, much less Public Enemy.

But once you get past the proliferation of in-jokes, goofiness, and random nonsense on Three Feet High and Rising, the songs are about television, junk food, being slightly scared of girls even when you’re getting off with them (“Jenifa Taught Me”), moral equivocation on the topic of drugs (“Say No Go”), and personal identity versus conformity (“Me Myself and I”), topics that any suburban teenager of any race could get behind. Plus there were the samples. Along with the usual James Brown and George Clinton samples (that last song is built on Funkadelic’s “Not Just Knee Deep”), there were samples from Hall and Oates (“Say No Go”), the Turtles (“Transmitting Live From Mars”), Steely Dan (“Eye Know”), and of course the Johnny Cash sample at the end of “The Magic Number” that gave the album its name. This was music that a teenaged white boy from the ‘burbs recognized.

But then there was also the Look and the hype. The album has a day-glo pink cover festooned with cartoon daisies and peace signs. The trio didn’t dress how rappers were “supposed” to dress. They immediately got slapped with the tag the hippies of hip-hop (remember, Summer of Love nostalgia was very big in ’89 — remember how acid house was supposed to be plunging all of England into a paisley groove?), which wasn’t quite right: the flowers were a representation of the band’s slogan The DAISY Age, which as the hit single “Me Myself and I” pointed out stood for “Da Inner Sound, Y’all,” as in “Follow your bliss.” So to a fairly large subset of the hip-hop audience, De La were soft.

So they were big in the marketplace, they had a huge new crossover audience that had never really paid much attention to hip-hop albums before — to this day, white rock critics almost with a single voice proclaim Three Feet High and Rising to be the best hip-hop album of all time, and I include myself in that group — and on the other hand, they had zero street cred. One would think that De La Soul would take stock of that situation, pick one of the two possible audiences and pursue it at the expense of the other. Instead, with their second album, De La Soul said, “You know what? Fuck ALL y’all!”

Three Feet High and Rising was almost immediately dubbed (possibly by Christgau, I forget) the “Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop.” If that is the case, and I think you could make that argument, then I propose that 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead is the Never Mind the Bollocks of hip-hop. This is a canonical example of what I’ve elsewhere termed the fuck you album, a release that’s purposely designed to alienate one segment of a band’s audience. But the sourness and cynicism of De La Soul Is Dead is so pervasive that there is no element of the hip-hop scene circa 1991 that’s doesn’t get mocked. Even such a relatively harmless subgenre as the dance-pop hybrid hip-house (think Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam”) gets skewered in the merciless stylistic parody “Kicked Out the House”, as does the still-tired practice of the stars’ utterly fake-sounding local radio promo shout-outs on “Rap de Rap Show”.

De La Soul, “Who Do U Worship”

But the majority of the album’s bile is reserved for the then-emergent gangsta subgenre. It didn’t really hit the pop mainstream until Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, but by 1991, gangsta rap was clearly the next big thing, and De La Soul wanted nothing more to do with it than the gangstas wanted to do with De La Soul. The skits that break up the album are one meta example: the storyline is that a kid named Jeff (previously introduced in some of the b-sides to the singles from the
album before) finds the new De La Soul tape in the garbage but has it stolen from him by three local thugs before he can listen to it: each skit has the gangstas dissing the album as it plays. Elsewhere, “Afro Connections at a Hi-5” and “Who Do U Worship” are even more overt: “Who Do U Worship” in particular is vicious enough a parody of both NWA and Ice-T’s Body Count that the De La dudes are just lucky that the east-west shit hadn’t turned violent yet. Even the relatively lighthearted “Pease Porridge” (based on a loop of an old-fashioned spoons player) contains a digression about a purported fistfight between the De La posse and some goons who called them hippies to their faces.

De La Soul, “Bitties in the BK Lounge”

But De La Soul isn’t much interested in their crossover audience, either. If both the album title and the arresting cover image of a broken pot filled with dead daisies aren’t enough of a clue, the album’s comparative lack of goofy pop culture jokes was probably a dealbreaker. Only the friggin’ hysterical “Bitties in the BK Lounge”, which recasts Otis and Carla’s battle of the sexes tunes into dialogues from both sides of the counter at the local Burger King, is as silly as the first album. (It also has the album’s funniest line, when the BK countergirl recognizes Dove as that guy from De La Soul and he claims instead to be Tracy Chapman…let’s just say there’s a resemblance.) And instead of anthems of personal strength and vignettes of teenage suburban life, there’s songs like “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” (a plainspoken tale of incest and violence) and “My Brother’s a Basehead”, an autobiographical story about Pos’ crackhead brother. At least there was still the clever use of samples: “My Brother’s a Basehead” makes unexpectedly excellent use of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders‘ “Game of Love” and The Doors‘ “Touch Me.” Tom Waits’ “Diamonds on My Windshield” and a pair of Serge Gainsbourg instrumentals appear elsewhere on the album.

There are indeed a few songs on De La Soul Is Dead that echo the novel grooves and clever rhymes of the debut, like “Oodles of Os” and the first single, “A Roller Skating Jam Called ‘Saturdays,'” based on a brilliant fake sample of what sounds like an obscure ’70s pop-soul tune about rollerskating that’s a dead ringer for something off the Car Wash soundtrack but is in fact entirely new. (Kitschy bits of Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park” and Frankie Valli’s “Grease” amplify the ’70s vibe.) But even the closest thing to a hit single on this album, the smooth and jazzy “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey),” is a 5-minute rant about fans constantly pressing demo tapes on them.

So basically, what we have here is an album that goes out of its way to mock not only the artist’s detractors but their fans as well: it’s a ballsy move for a group’s second album, and it’s therefore unsurprising that this album not only didn’t sell even half of its predecessor’s numbers, it was fairly uniformly poorly reviewed by most. However, as De La Soul has progressed over the years — they are the only major hip-hop artist of the late ’80s still making artistically viable records today (see their contributions to the best single of 2005, Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.”) — De La Soul Is Dead feels like a necessary, cathartic spew of an album in much the same way as Never Mind the Bollocks. That level of bile could never be maintained, of course, but the trio’s albums since wouldn’t have been possible without first having De La Soul Is Dead to clear the air.


  2 Responses to “Critical Upgrade: De La Soul Is Dead

  1. hrrundivbakshi

    Great, and informative, review, G48. Not sure it makes me want to rush out and buy the thing, but you’ve satisfied some curiosity, and I thank you.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    Great work, The Great 48. Although I don’t know enough to see the connection you make to the Sex Pistols’ great F-U album, I do love the concept and was intrigued enough to grab a copy of the entire album. So far, I like it better than their first one. There’s a lot less of that cutesy, goofy stuff that white folks dug. You know I’m all about street cred, even street cred that I sorely lack:)

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