De La Soul ~ De La Soul is Dead (1991)

Posted on July 14, 2013


In 1989, when De La Soul first stepped onto rap’s main stage, the Long Island trio immediately distinguished themselves from their peers, during Hip Hop’s most competitive time period. Under the tutelage of their mentor-producer Prince Paul, MC’s Posdnous (Plug 1) and Trugoy the Dove (Plug 2), along with DJ Pasemaster Mase (Plug 3) melded off-kilter humor, melodious beats, and higher-plane concepts to amass a large cult following in a relatively short time. De La Soul’s distinctive template proved commercially rewarding for both the group and their label Tommy Boy Records, as evidenced by De La’s full-length debut 3 Feet High and Rising, which sold over a million copies in the U.S., and made De La the fiscal frontliners of Tommy Boy’s roster. By 1990, a palpable backlash had begun to brew against De La; stirred partly by the trio’s commercial success, but mostly by their perceived flower child sensibility, which contrasted sharply to the rugged-and-raw aesthete governing rap in the early 90’s. Besides their detractors, De La also dealt with pressures from Tommy Boy, who saw huge revenue streams from the group’s debut, and hoped De La would remain in the same artistic zone, and simply repeat the formula used on 3 Feet High and Rising. In the fall of ’90, De La Soul and Prince Paul returned to Calliope Studios, the Manhattan soundlab that bore 3 Feet High and Rising, with the intent to answer their critics, and assert their creative rights before their label execs. In the spring of 1991, De La hushed every voice in the peanut gallery with a masterly release; their sophomore set De La Soul is Dead.

Like its predecessor 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul is Dead is a daring collage of lyrical and musical ideas; dispensed via 27 songs and skits, and built around a central theme that runs through the album. While 3 Feet High and Rising utilized a game show theme, with De La Soul as the show’s contestants, De La Soul is Dead employs a children’s Read-Along story template; with characters that react to the music featured on this album. From the start, it’s clear that De La Soul takes umbrage to the “Hip Hop Hippies” stigma attached to them after 3 Feet High and Rising; and on De La Soul is Dead, they deftly balance a more acerbic stance with their trademark creativity. On the album’s “Intro”, Prince Paul and De La lay the album’s outline; unveiling a Read-Along tale called De La Soul is Dead, and advising kids to turn the book’s pages when an audible ding is heard. The story begins with a kid names Jeff, voiced by Bronx teen phenom Chi-Ali, finding a cassette copy of De La Soul is Dead in the trash, and getting beaten and robbed for the tape by a trio of bullies. After stealing Jeff’s tape, the three bullies, two of them voiced by Mista Lawnge (of Black Sheep) and De La’s own Pasemaster Mase, pop the tape in the boom box. Once the bullies press play, the first song “Oodles Of O’s” begins; a stream-of-consciousness banger set to a molasses-drip melody and the drums from Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s “Hihache”, where Posdnous and Trugoy the Dove drop meandering parables, all ending with the syllable “Oh”. The next selection – “Talkin’ Bout Hey Love” – is a Love Jones number; driven by hard drum tumbles, a vibrant horn loop, and a sweet sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Hey Love”. This song begins with vocalist Ann Roberts singing like a nightingale with Pos repeating her lines, and it ends with Pos and his girl (played by Tesha Sills) arguing about their relationship. “Pease Porridge” has a whimsical premise one might expect of De La Soul, with tongue-click drums and a childlike read-along chorus. But this song has a gully subject line; one that references De La’s soft image, and the physical confrontations they routinely got into on tour. For those that see De La as easy marks, Pos, Trugoy, and Mase disabuse such notions; and serve jaw-taps and beatdowns to anyone that steps to them.

“Skit 1” marks the album’s first intermission, and finds Lawnge and Mase stopping the tape to criticize the album; and to mistreat the third bully, who appreciates its content. “Johnny’s Dead AKA Vincent Mason”, Trugoy and Prince Paul inject a little dark humor into the mix; performing a wry elegy for a murdered man, where Paul stabs at the piano keys like Little Richard, and the Dove croons like a lounger singer, and mocks the subject’s last moments alive. On “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays”, De La makes listeners get up and get down; blending Tower of Power drums and melodic morsels from the Mighty Ryeders and Young-Holt Unlimited, and crafting a block party thumper for the ages, with the capable assistance of Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest), who spits the first verse, and long-tenured session singer Vinia Mojica, who sings the chorus. De La pauses for station identification on “WRMS’ Dedication To The Bitty”; and they allow a smooth-talking disc jock to take calls, from faithful listeners of the female persuasion. And the radio interlude gives way to “Bitties In The BK Lounge”, a diatribe on ornery girls encountered at Burger King. This cut is separated into three-thirds; each with a different beat, and each featuring Trugoy, Pos, and Mase going for dolo. Trugoy is up first, dealing with a rude cashier who refuses to take his order; followed by Pos, who plays a BK manager trading barbs with a high-post customer, over a loop of Lou Donaldson’s “It’s Your Thing”; and Mase, who bops across a Jimmy Spicer groove, and politics on BK bitties tampering with his food.

The mid-portion of De La Soul is Dead starts with the album’s second intermission track – “Skit 2” – where the lead bully (Mista Lawnge) and his ace-boon (Pasemaster Mase) opine on the album thus far; with Mase grudgingly giving dap for the “Bitties In The BK Lounge”, Lawnge continuing to lambaste the album, and the third bully acknowledging his admiration for the album, which warrants a bitch slap from Lawnge. The next cut (“My Brother’s A Basehead”) is a sardonic tale of woe, with Posdnous reflecting on his drug-addled sibling (played by Trugoy the Dove), who handles various drugs with ease, until he meets crack, an opponent that ultimately destroys him. “Let Let Me In” uses the bluesy gigolo swing of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp” as its base, and finds De La chasing skirts to pass the time, and all Three Plugs partake in man’s favorite hobby; using not-so-subtle euphemisms to score like Wilt Chamberlain. “Afro Connections At A Hi 5 (In The Eyes Of A Hoodlum)” is a gasoline dousing, aimed at “hardcore” rap acts and their gully pretensions, and this cut plays like an addendum to “Pease Porridge”; informing fans and rivals that daisy prints won’t preclude De La from responding when tested. WRMS-FM is back in effect on “Rap De Rap Show”, a comical promo with WRMS radio personality Dew Doo Man (a.k.a. Prince Paul); and one featuring Q-Tip, the Jungle Brothers, Stetsasonic drummer Bobby Simmons, and Rhyme Syndicate toaster Divine Styler giving shout-outs to Paul’s alter ego. “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” is a chilling but sublime cautionary tale; propelled by a Melvin Bliss drum line (from “Synthetic Substitution”) and a Funkadelic melody (from “I’ll Stay”); and peering at an abusive father, whose daughter shoots him during his Kris Kringle gig at Macy’s. “Who Do U Worship” may be one of the most dichotomous songs in Hip Hop history; alternating between dewy meadow guitars; slick, sociopathic vocals; and a mass hysteria track spattered with grating scratches. On “Skit 3”, Mista Lawnge feigns vomiting over his disgust with this album, and proceeds to smack his whipping boy, the third bully, just for general principle. And “Kicked Out The House” is one of most enjoyable insult tracks in rap history; a pillorying of Hip-House, the Hip Hop and house music conflation that reigned in rap’s Golden Era, and a track that’s still danceable, despite its attempts at being dismissive.

The last third of De La Soul is Dead closes the album in grand fashion. “Pass The Plugs” knocks beautifully, by way of a babbling brook groove and the drums from Eric B and Rakim’s “Eric B Is President”. This cut features Plug 1 (Posdnous) and Plug 2 (Trugoy) rocking assuredly; addressing everything from a less-than-memorable appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, to Tommy Boy Records’ insistence that they make a carbon copy of their first album. Plug 3, Pasemaster Mase, holds the track together like glue with his mix play on the turntables, and Prince Paul even joins his disciples as Plug 4, and spits a verse to end the song. “Not Over Till The Fat Lady Plays The Demo” is one of the most engaging interlude songs ever made; a pseudo-nightmare set to music, with an obese woman stalking a terrified Trugoy; chasing him in the streets, harassing him at Burger King, and appearing in his shower, all to force her demo tape on him. “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)”, the album’s biggest hit, continues with this sycophant schema; offering commentary on aspiring artists with dubious talents, who harangue the Three Plugs at every turn with inferior demos. As Pos, Mase and the Dove commiserate on industry wannabes, a marvelous marriage of rhythm and melody unfolds behind them; with the cobbled drums from The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President” adjoining the midnight marauder groove from The Whatnauts’ “Help Is On The Way”.

On “WRMS (Cat’s In Control)”, a new personality takes over the radio dial: Cat Jackson, a sultry-voiced female jock, whose voice drips over an interpolating of Joe Sample’s “In All My Wildest Dreams”. Cat Jackson is followed by another cameo from the three bullies; the latter two of which attempt to calm Mista Lawnge on “Skit 4”, when this album’s “wackness” drives him to hysterics. If you’re looking to test your speaker system, “Shwingalokate” is right up your alley. This number could rock streets from Louisville to Lisbon; with its thundering drum kit, animated Stetsasonic vocal break, and perfectly filtered One Way (“Mr. Groove”) and Parliament (“Flashlight”) loops. Pos and Trugoy move in lock step with the track on “Shwingalokate”; gaining vigor from the beat thump; and rocking like park jam emcees as they turn the party out. “Fanatic Of The B Word” brings the Jungle Brothers back into the vocal booth, for a true-school block rattler inspired by a dance called the Baseball – the “B” word referenced in the title – and set to the rollicking drums from Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out Of My Life Woman”. De La Soul is Dead unofficially ends divinely, with “Keepin’ The Faith”, a jubilant mid-summer type burner; that finds Pos and Trugoy floating over an immaculate track; one that melds the drums from Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”, the translucent bass strums of Slave’s “Just A Touch Of Love”, and intermittent whistle effects from Bob James’ “Sign Of The Times”. Once the last song fades, the bullies give their final thoughts on “Skit 5”; and, not surprisingly, Lawnge and Co. declare the album “garbage”, and toss it in the trash, the same place it was found in the “Intro”.

With the release of De La Soul is Dead in May of 1991, its authors had a list of goals they were determined to achieve. For starters, De La Soul intended to stay true to their artistry, and refused to adhere to their label’s desire for staid musical formulas. Secondly, De La refused to be inhibited by the “happy hippy” stereotype assigned to them by some in the entertainment media. Lastly, both De La Soul and Prince Paul strove to match the high quality standard of De La’s debut 3 Feet High and Rising, while simultaneously giving this album a separate identity from its predecessor. With De La Soul is Dead, De La Soul succeeded resoundingly, on all counts. While the album didn’t move a million units as 3 Feet High and Rising did, De La Soul is Dead sold more than 500,000 copies, and was certified gold within two months of its release. The album was also lauded as a near-perfect sequel to De La’s debut, with The Source magazine awarding the album its coveted (and then-rare) five-mic award, for releases deemed to be classics. Among Hip Hop’s cognoscenti, this album cemented De La Soul’s reputation as artistic renegades; and in the years that followed, De La continued to deliver releases that were both well-crafted and adventurous. It’s been more than 20 years since this album dropped, but De La Soul is Dead is as spellbinding as it was back in ’91, and it’s a must-have in any true rap fan’s collection. De La Soul may be considered “dead” by its creators, but nothing could be further from truth. With timeless works like this, De La Soul may outlive us all.

To listen to De La Soul is Dead, click here.

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