Throwback Classic: 'De La Soul Is Dead'

Hip-hop has a history of turning the microscope on itself. For instance, when Common sensed that the culture he loves was moving away from its essence, he invoked the parable "I Used to Love H.E.R." Troubled by the infiltration of impostors, INI challenged "Fakin' Jax" to drop the act and be authentic. When they noticed the nascent mainstreaming of rap, De La Soul gave listeners an edgy alternative.

But De La Soul had to look inward to reach outward. The trio (Vincent Mason aka P.A. Pasemaster Mase aka Maseo aka Plug Three, David Jude Jolicoeur aka Trugoy the Dove aka Dave aka Plug Two and Kevin Mercer aka Posdnuos aka Mercenary aka Plug Wonder Why aka Plug One) scored an immediate success with 1989's 3 Feet High & Rising, an album that colored outside the hardcore lines of its day. There they were on the album cover: three New York teenagers surrounded by flowers, peering nerdily at the camera.

Then there was the music—an exuberant extension of the artwork, with its cheery positivity and Day-Glo tunes. "Three, that's a magic number," they sang. They coined a nickname for their style: D.A.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Sound Y’all). It was a nod to camaraderie and eclectic expression. De La hypnotized anyone who came in contact with their music. You wanted to yank out your soul and hand it to De La on a floral platter.

They became critical darlings.

Unfortunately, the declaratic nature of De La’s stellar debut had one glaring byproduct: it drew significant attention to the playful side of the group’s sound. Critics pigeonholed them as the safe antidote to gangsta rap, ignoring their rough edges. It endeared the group to listeners who clamored for Something Different, as well as those who fetishized hip-hop but deemed gangsta rap too abrasive.

This was the last thing De La Soul wanted: to be positioned as the gentle alternative to the big, bad gangsta rappers.

See also: The 10 Greatest Sophomore Rap Albums

What De La Soul did on their sophomore album, 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead, surprised everyone. They walked away from their own blueprint, re-invented their sound and discovered a new way to challenge rap standards. When the marketplace urged more of 3 Feet's freewheeling tunes, De La dimmed the lights. In fact, they grew more cynical.

Once more, the album cover tells he story: this time, the petals have been replaced by a cracked pot of daisies, knocked over and left to wilt. This was De La pushing the D.A.I.S.Y. age off the cliff. De La giveth and De La taketh away.

Dante Ross, who originally signed the group, told NPR that he always thought of De La Soul as "the first sardonic group in hip-hop." Says Ross: "You know, cynical, without malice. They saw the ridiculousness in the culture of rap music."

It's easy to see where Ross is coming from. De La Soul Is Dead opens with the skit version of a sideye: a group of kids raving about Vanilla Ice, noting his dancing skills. As the cynical skit continues, a teen named Jeff finds a De La Soul cassette tape in the trash can.

Bullies show up and urge Jeff to play the music. When he declines, they beat him up and rob him of the tape. The album sports several other skits featuring various characters, including the bullies who take turn dissing the songs on the album. Want to guess who the bullies represent?

See also: De La Soul and Nas Still "God It"

By design or coincidence, De La Soul Is Dead was a more defensive album than 3 Feet High. It railed against the "monkey see, monkey do" nature of the music industry. It challenged label A&Rs, record executives and rappers who clamored for the “dumbing down of rap” in the 1990s.

By the end of the album, the bullies had tossed the tape back in the trash, declaring: "De La Soul is dead."

But De La Soul was very much alive. They were alive to the pulse of hip-hop. And they were alive to the pulse of popular culture.

One of the most memorable pop culture references on De La Soul Is Dead is the group's jab at Arsenio Hall. "Arsenio dissed us but the crowd kept clapping,” goes the line on "Pass the Plugs." This is a wink at the group’s 1989 performance on The Arsenio Hall Show, a short-lived but modestly influential platform at the time. While introducing the trio, Hall unintentionally put them down when he giddily declared: "I like to call them the hippies of hip-hop." The group then proceeded to perform “Me, Myself & I.” De La was trying to distance itself from this label, "hippies of hip-hop." In fact, “Me, Myself & I”—the very song Arsenio invited the trio to perform contains the following line:

You say Plug One and Two are hippies
No, we're NOT, that's pure Plug bull

It was as if they had, by some divine premonition, conceived and pre-programmed a rebuttal to a future insult. They dropped the beat on that couplet for maximum impact.

It’s worth pointing out that the skits on this album are world-class on every level. Unlike modern rap skits, these don’t wear thin easily. Everything, from the ding that signals new chapters to the dramatic interludes, shows that a lot of thought went into the making of this album. The skit king Prince Paul has his fingerprints all over this thing. There’s a very simple test to determine if you should put skits on your album or not. Basically, if you’re a rapper and you’re thinking about putting skits on your album and you haven’t reached out to Prince Paul to inquire about his availability, don’t do skits.

Also, if you’re a rapper and you’ve called Prince Paul and emailed him several times and stalked his Facebook and Twitter and he’s not available, don’t do skits. This is the rule on skits. And if everyone followed it, the world will not be a better place but it wouldn’t be a worse place, either.

Despite the dark comedy, De La Soul Is Dead is not a dark album. It's a thoroughly entertaining album that retains a vestige of 3 Feet High's transparent texture, as on the infectious "Pass the Plug." Not less or more worthy than 3 Feet High. It's reaching out, simultaneously pushing buttons and envelopes. It's De La defending home turf. Older, wiser and bolder, De La Soul was born anew.