De La Soul's 1991 album, De La Soul Is Dead, does three things that have become a lost art in hip hop: takes a stand, tells stories, and has fun. It is remarkable that this album was born out of De La Soul's bold step to define themselves for themselves. In my opinion, mainstream media always attempts to describe other cultures through a lens they understand, rather than taking the time to understand what they're observing and report it as is. When De La Soul's legendary debut album 3 Feet High and Rising dropped in 1989 with its iconic day-glo cover and hand drawn daisies surrounding black and white pictures of the band, "Ah ha!" mainstream media said, "they're hippies, that's how we'll characterize them!" Meanwhile, De La and the rest of the hip hop community decided it was time to slip the script. Thus, De La Soul Is Dead was created, with a broken flower pot of wilted daisies lying on its side.
With the first single from DLSID, "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)," De La makes it crystal clear they will never sell out or be manipulated. It is a narrative many of us can relate to, where once a certain level of success or status is achieved, people who never called before are suddenly blowing up our phone. There's no explanation needed for Trugoy's opening verse where he subtly says that you never wanted to speak to me before I got famous, so I'm letting you talk to voicemail, not me. Back in the day, a lot of people I knew had the chorus as their outgoing answering machine message.
Showing that they are master storytellers, De La's "Bitties in the BK Lounge" is unique because they tell the story of encounters in the eponymous fast food joint by turning the mirror on themselves as well as the young ladies they encounter. Fortunately or not, it is a timeless tale. All you have to do is envision this exchange between Trugoy and the female cashier as the dynamic of being used from "Ring Ring Ring" is repeated here. Young ladies don't pay them any attention until they take their hats off, their locs fall out, and they're recognized, then the tables turn. DLSID was produced by the highly underrated Prince Paul, and his construction of songs and sample choices are richly complex and shift tone at precisely the right time as he did here with samples Taana Gardner's "No Frills" and the blues guitar of Lou Donaldson's "Its Your Thing."
Despite its frivolous title, "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa Claus" is a serious song, and timeless given recent current events. It relates the story of a girl who is being molested by her father, who's also the storyteller's beloved social worker. Ironically, the "Santa" in this case is another role Millie's father plays at Christmas time. She ends up getting a pistol and taking matters into her own hands when the storyteller cannot believe what Millie tells him is happening behind closed doors. The melody and samples here feel almost like a funeral dirge -- slow, mournful, and plodding.
"A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays" instantly transports you to carefree younger days -- long before you had a mortgage or taxes. This track is more about a feeling and a memory than the lyrics. If not for Q-Tip's opening guest spot, you could've made this an instrumental and it would've been just as masterful. Prince Paul's production and tempos capture the essence of a blissful Saturday at the skating rink, where your biggest worry was if the boy you had a crush on would hold your hand during couples skate or not. He sprinkles it with songs that relate to skating, from Chicago's "Saturday in the Park" to "Grease" to "Good Times" and leaves you basking in a disco ball of nostalgia.
De La Soul has never been too grand to poke fun at their genre or, in this case, the fellow members of their Native Tongues collective. Their parody record about hip house music, "Kicked Out of the House," is remarkable, since two Native Tongues acts had scored massive hip house hits by this time. -- "Girl I'll House You" by the Jungle Brothers and "Come Into My House" by Queen Latifah. You can feel the good-natured snark coming when they make this opening PSA: "In no way are we trying to disrespect any type of house or club music. We're just glad we're not doing it.. But if we did, here's how it would sound." They launch into a litany of stereotypical elements from the average house song at that time, an interpretation of the bass line to "Come Into My House," followed by a dead-on imitation of the JB's ultra-nasally mumbled cadence on "Girl I'll House You," random sentences in shouted a British accent, and then the male baritone vocal a la the late Darryl Pandy.
De La Soul Is Dead embodies everything hip hop should be: uncompromising, humble, timeless, authentic, and fun. Just because it didn't have the commercial success and attention of 3 Feet does not mean it should be glossed over. I encourage you to listen to it as a body of work, and in contrast to what is being produced today. Hopefully it will broaden your perspective.
De La Soul De La Soul Is Dead [Amazon]