This week has been a bittersweet victory for De La Soul fans. The groundbreaking trio’s first six albums are finally available on streaming services but only after generations had to wait for the music to be digitally available due to rights issues around sampling. The group were finally able to “clear” that hurdle after working with copyright guru Deborah Mannis-Gardner aka “The Queen of Music Clearance.” Even with her help, longtime fans will notice a slight difference in the streaming service versions as a handful of samples were still unusable.
Dan Charnas (Co-creator of VH1 TV series The Breaks, author of Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm and The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop) was able to shed some light on why it took so long for De La Soul to go digital.
“The way that hip hop makes music via sonic collage, has never been protected under law,” Charnas says. “We have ways of protecting our ability to do remakes of other people’s songs. There’s something called a compulsory license that basically says, ‘If I write a song and perform it first, anybody can perform that song and rerecord that song again as long as they pay me.’ But there is no such compulsory license for a part of a song or a part of a recording. What that’s done essentially is it made the way that we make music in hip hop vulnerable to somebody saying, ‘No, I don’t want you to sample my work.’ That has been a real, I got to say, cultural crime.”
“It goes without saying that nobody would dare make an album like 3 Feet High and Rising in this day and age,” Charnas states. “The reason it took so long to get this stuff out is who’s going to pay for it? That was the main question, I suppose, the record company, Tommy Boy, was saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to pay for this’. And the artist was saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to pay for it.’ It took a third party coming in to make it worth it to get it all done.”
De La Soul was invited to perform at the 2023 Grammy Awards as the show honored 50 years of hip hop. Unfortunately, both Vincent “Maseo” Mason and David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur couldn’t make the show due to health problems. Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer would represent the group performing his part on their standout track “Buddy.”
A week after the Grammys, Jolicoeur passed away at the age of 54. A death that struck the hip hop community to its core.
“It’s a really bittersweet moment and a passage for our generation,” Charnas says. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘I’m really taking this hard because I’m realizing we’re never going to hear A Tribe Called Quest perform again. Now we’re never going to hear De La Soul perform again. Just like we’ll never hear Run-D.M.C. perform again.’ It’s as meaningful to our generation, as the passing of a Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix was to previous generations. De La Soul changed the way that we think about hip hop composition.”
“Shout out to De La Soul for finally getting your original record, the one that started it all to streaming,” Nashville-based singer Alanna Royale said. “Shout out to Prince Paul, one of my favorite producers of all time. I think De La Soul are really the beginning of the pioneering and the architecture within the sort of neo hip hop game where we weren’t necessarily just talking drugs, violence, or gangs. We were in this sort of like what they referred to as like an elevated lyrical concept.”
The full catalog hit streaming services on March 3, 2023, the 34th anniversary of their groundbreaking debut 3 Feet High and Rising. This gives opportunities for the group to not only be celebrated by a new wave of listeners but also longtime fans ready to reminisce on some of their favorite projects. WNXP spoke with several hardcore De La heads eager to share.
3 Feet High and Rising
“My first hip hop album was 3 Feet High and Rising,” Brooklyn Bowl national booking director Kirk Peterson revealed. “I just listened to it over and over again in the boombox in my room. Just the skits, the nicknames, Prince Paul’s incredible samples. I discovered Cymande, Steely Dan (through samples). That hippie esthetic was just so counter to what had come out in hip hop up to that point. It was almost like a Sgt. Peppers album. That opened up my eyes to the whole Native Tongue crew, led me to The Tribe Called Quest and really sunk my teeth into that crew for the next decade.”
“Their whole catalog is great, but 3 Feet High and Rising, like many, is what kicked it off for me,” Matthew Maglione AKA DJ Brer Sunshine said. “When I was a kid, I was generally pretty happy. But I’d get the seasonal depression like most do. 3 Feet High and Rising encapsulated that sunshine, spring, summertime that I thrived off of and that feeling. They were able to capture that in sound.”
“There was a childlike innocence to it all. The flowers, the vibrant colors, the skits,” Maglione continues. “They have like a minute and a half of them talking about how they all need a haircut and how everybody has dandruff. For a kind of a goofy kid like me, it let me think like, ‘Oh, this is okay.’ This can be entertaining, cinematic, and silly at the same time but still be funky as hell and still speak truth to power through some songs like ‘Say No Go.’ The vibe of it really gave me something that I could resonate with.”
“I love the quirkiness of Plugs 1, 2 and 3,” WPLN’s Keri Pagetta said. “They were positive, inviting, and really spoke to me at that time. On ‘Buddy,’ they invite the lyrical stylings of my favorite Q-Tip and bringing in Phife Dog on the extended version. Also you got Queen Latifah, Monie Love and the Jungle Brothers. It made for a sexy, fun and great groove to dance to.”
“When I was just out of college, I was working at a record store in Donelson and 3 Feet High and Rising came out and there was a promo cassette that nobody had grabbed,” Jai Sanders of Nashville recalled. “My only experience with hip hop up to that point was Public Enemy and Beastie Boys, neither of which attracted me and I did not gravitate towards either one of them at that point. I was a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix and the whole Woodstock hippie thing and 3 Feet High and Rising made me realize that it was okay to be a hippie and black. They were contemporaries who exuded that vibe. They did it with intelligence, creativity, humor, and it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me as a person and musically.”
“So it’s the Spring 1989,” Khalil Ekulona, Host of WPLN’s daily show This is Nashville recalled. “My oldest sister is home from spring break from college. She comes into my room unannounced and says, ‘Hey, dummy, I’ve got this for you.’ She throws the De La Soul cassette of 3 Feet High and Rising on my bed next to me. I’m looking at her like, ‘Whatever thanks.’ I’m looking at it like, ‘Oh, those are those dudes with that cool new song.'”
“These guys were funky and the song was different,” Ekulona continues. “I remember I used to videotape Yo MTV Raps and it was a way to get these songs before I was able to actually buy the cassette. I would rewind it over and over again to be like, ‘What are these guys talking about? What does this mean?'”
“Listening to ‘Potholes in My Lawn,’ like, ‘Wow, this is really cool and unique.’ Me growing up as a kid in the suburbs of Baltimore made me feel like it was a place I could really fit in,” Ekulona shared. “Because even with my friends at the time, I didn’t feel like they could connect. I knew they loved De La and we loved music, but there was a whole different world I would go to when I listened to De La Soul.”
SAMPLES = DISCOVERY
“The first music you hear on this album is Schoolhouse Rock. And that’s the stuff that our generation grew up listening to,” Charnas said. “One of the things I notice beyond that Schoolhouse Rock sample, was a few tracks later I’m listening to excerpts from the Scott Foresman French reader that I used in high school. That’s crazy to me. All of that stuff was indicative of something completely new. This was new material, new ways of putting things together, new ways of speaking.”
“I got into De La Soul back in high school,” Chris Morgan of Nashville said. “Most of my friends back then were listening to either punk rock, metal or gangster rap, and I was also listening to those. But the dudes I knew that I thought had really good taste in hip hop all listened to Black Sheep, KRS- One and De La Soul. I developed a huge respect for De La Soul because of listening to the introspective and insightful to the lyrics and marvel at how I could focus on either the grooves or the flow, or the comedy skits or the samples.”
“The samples are big to me because I discovered so much music because of them,” Morgan continued. “I knew a lot of the samples they were using early on, the Turtles, Steely Dan, But I discovered a ton of music through those samples too, and I always appreciated that. Even today, I’m impressed by how they take all those elements and created a very distinctive sound of their own.”
“The sounds that they brought on 3 Feet High and Rising, that much more laid back, it’s the funky stuff, but it’s not the hard, funky stuff,” Steve Haruch, senior producer for WPLN’s daily show This is Nashville said. “It’s not ‘Funky Drummer’ necessarily, it’s like Parliament/Funkadelic, that cosmic funky sound, which for me creates the blueprint for so much of the music that I get into in the coming years.”
PRINCE PAUL’S PRODUCTION
“This record was an entry point to Prince Paul for me,” Royale said. “He went on to do some of my favorite work that I’ve ever listened to in my life. When we get into sampling, not just music or old records, crate digging and all that, but also taking people’s recordings from old commercials, TV shows, from favorite flicks and shoving all that in there and having it help create a narrative in a song and help to reinforce lyrical ideas. To me, that opened up a gateway that has affected me forever and led me down a crazy trip hop. From the Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, all these different artists that have really dug deep into the art of sampling and the art of arranging a song to include samples. I just want to say thank you to Prince Paul and De La Soul for being such massive inspirations to me.”
“This album was like Prince Paul handing you a paintbrush, saying this is how you can make collage through sound,” DJ Brer Sunshine said. “It really opened everything up for me. Like most DJs and producers, we find the samples for all these tracks and we just go down this rabbit hole, which leads to so many different avenues and its part of the growth through music. So it really kicked off a lifelong search.”
When we talk about hip hop producers, we talk a lot about technique,” Charnas said. “My discussion about J Dilla is all about his many techniques for doing things. We talk about DJ Premier, we talk about his technique. With Paul, his greatest technique was his openness and his sense of humor. When you meet Paul, when you’re in his presence, you really understand you’re in the grips of somebody who looks at the world with a humorous side eye. But also is super open hearted, and I can’t say that about a lot of people in any business. Prince Paul really did use his sense of humor and his openness to new things as the perfect foil and encouragement for De La Soul to do their work. Could not have happened with anyone else. And that is Paul’s secret weapon.”
Me Myself and I
“Like a lot of kids in the eighties, the first time that I heard of artists was often the first time that I saw an artist was because of music videos,” Nashville music fan James Peach said. “The first time I saw and heard De La Soul, I was in a daycare in somebody’s basement feeling weird about myself like I usually did.”
“The ‘Me, Myself, and I’ video came on and that video really spoke to me. Its these guys their whole style of rapping, style of dressing was completely different from what was really hitting at the time. The entire video was about how people did not think De La Soul was cool in that moment and that really spoke to me. I feel like for the rest of their career, they were constantly dealing with the pluses and minuses of coming out that way. But I don’t feel like they ever really stepped too far away from that. They were always doing their own thing.”
“By 1989, most of the hip hop that it really made it through to the mainstream, or at least was on my radar was Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys,” Haruch said. “Really bombastic music that honestly was kind of like jock jams, like the football players at my high school listen to that stuff. I like that stuff too, but at the same time, I have always gravitated to the music of outsiders. In high school, I sat at the table in the cafeteria with all the punks and the skaters, the new wavers and the weirdos. We were the table where guys would come over and threaten to beat us up every day.”
“So the video for ‘Me, Myself and I’ with De La Soul as like the misfit kids, the outcast kids of the hip hop world, even that the teacher was like this B-Boy who was just telling them that they are weird, that they’re hippies, that they’re freaks, that really connected for me,” Haruch continued. “Just that tiny little cameo from Q-Tip, who I don’t even know who that is at that point, but that album kind of starts to break this whole other world of creativity open for me as a music fan around hip hop especially. “A Tribe Called Quest just becomes one of the most important groups to me after that alongside De La Soul. I just remember at every opportunity, friends of mine would say ‘Shovel chestnuts in my path’ just such a random feeling lyric, but like so evocative, fun, and weird all at the same time. I will forever love this song.”
“3 Feet High and Rising totally changed my life and gave me a new perspective,” Ekulona said. “We were already introduced to one part of the Native Tongues collective the Jungle Brothers who came out with Down by the Forces of Nature the year before. And then De La Soul comes in 1989. And then in 1990, A Tribe Called Quest hits us with their debut record. It was just a wonderful time to be a young person. A middle teenager as you’re really coming into yourself and discovering the world. It painted the world full of daisies, not daisies necessarily in the flower, but daisies as the inner sounds. Which meant that my imagination and my will can take me anywhere, and that this world is for quirky, weird, imaginative people like me. It was truly a wonderful time in life.”