Set to headline Thursday's Blaxplosion event in Tel Aviv, Long Island's De La Soul is best known for bringing new energies to rap music at a time when the genre was in transition. With lyrics focusing on peace and love and sounds sampled from jazz, reggae and psychedelic rock, the group's 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising introduced elements that had never been heard before in the hip-hop context. While the industry around De La Soul has certainly evolved, the impact of the group's innovations is undeniable - developments that can be traced by looking back at the band's discography.
De La Soul is comprised of Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer, Dave "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur and Vincent "Pasemaster Mase" Mason, and the trio was formed while in high school in the late Eighties. After catching the attention of producer Paul "Prince Paul" Huston with a demo tape of "Plug Tunin," the group began working on its debut album.
Prior to the release of 3 Feet High and Rising, most hip-hop groups had used samples largely from old-school rap, funk and soul, but De La Soul expanded the scope. Along with a few other like-minded groups at the time, notably fellow New Yorkers A Tribe Called Quest, the band injected traces of jazz, reggae and even psychedelia, earning the attention of critics and fans alike - spawning sub-genre terminology like "alternative rap" and "jazz rap."
The samples, combined with their relaxed, quirky and humorous lyrics, presented audiences with a new sound which would gain considerable audiences, but which would eventually be overshadowed in the mainstream by the harder "gangsta-rap" of the mid-Nineties.
With Prince Paul producing, 3 Feet High and Rising was released in the spring of 1989. Many labeled the band members "hippies" because of their positive message, a rarity at the time. Whether or not the description is accurate, the album's sound was a rich alternative to the edgy, militant hip-hop of groups like Public Enemy. Rising was embraced by fans and the press. The single, "Me Myself and I" became a US top-40 hit, while the album reached number 24 on (the other) Billboard's best-selling chart and went gold (eventually reaching #1 on the R&B charts). Rising also topped many best-of-the-year lists.
Dead thanks to thugs
De La Soul's highly anticipated second album, De La Soul is Dead, was released in the spring of 1991. The album received mixed reviews. Perhaps because the band was uncomfortable with the "hippie" label, its sophomore disc featured noticeably darker lyrics. Once again produced by Prince Paul, the lyrics were praised for their intelligence and seamless infusion with almost endless references to pop culture. But perhaps because the band's follow-up was so edgy, the album peaked at number 26 on the pop charts.
External factors helped color Dead's lackluster showing. The increasing popularity of gangsta-rap in albums such as Dr. Dre's The Chronic in 1992, Snoop Doggy Dog's Doggystyle in 1993 and the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die in 1994 overtook the sounds of De La Soul in mainstream hip-hop in the early to mid-90s. Featuring lyrics focusing on the lives of inner-city thugs and appealing to widespread audiences because of its themes of racism and life on the street, gangsta-rap dominated the airwaves as well as the media, with musical and personal rivalries leading to the murder of well-known artists Tupac Shakur and Notorius B.I.G.
A High return to jazzy Mindstate
De La Soul's third album, Buhloone Mindstate, was released in the fall of 1993. The last Soul album produced by Prince Paul, Mindstate returned to the more upbeat lyrics of the band's debut, though it was less inventive. Focusing on jazz sounds, the addition of a horn section, including saxophone legend and James Brown band alumni Maceo Parker, was a welcome addition. However, the trio seemed a bit hidden at times by the additional musicians.
Stakes is High came the following year. Still one of the more unpredictable groups in rap, the band once again sampled from past jazz (Milt Jackson and Lou Donaldson) and classic soul (Commodores and Sly & the Family Stone). Maintaining a devoted following among diehards in the acid jazz and alternative rap circles, the mainstream hip-hop fanbase seemed disinterested in De La Soul's sound, and more interested in gangsta-rap.
Hiatus ends with Art Official Intelligence
After a four-year break, the band returned with Mosaic Thump, an album it promised would be the first in a three-part series called Art Official Intelligence. The band produced the album themselves, but reviewers saw many of the songs as flat and uninspiring. The album proved, though, that De La Soul still had a following, as even after a four-year wait and a decade out of blockbuster popularity, Thump debuted in the top 10.
Bionix followed in December 2001, receiving some of the best critical acceptance since 3 Feet High and Rising. Featuring the tunes "Baby Phat," a tribute to an idyllic black woman, and "Simply," sampling from the Wings' "Wonderful Christmas Tree," producer Dave West breathed new life into De La Soul.
Into the indie Grind
De La Soul's current tour is to promote its latest album, The Grind Date, released last October. The band having been dropped from its long-time label Tommy Boy Records, Date appears on the independent label Maseo. Though not as focused as Bionix, the wide-ranging sounds still show that after a decade and a half together - an eternity in hip-hop - the band is still very much forward-thinking.
With current greats Outkast and the Black Eyed Peas attributing their sound largely to pioneers such as De La Soul, that group's legacy and influence are firmly entrenched. When the band stops by in Israel as part of its latest tour, it will prove that ambition and originality can go a long way while maintaining a danceable, enjoyable sound.
De La Soul performs with Mad Professor and Lee "Scratch" Perry as part of Blaxplosion, Thursday night at 9:30 p.m., at Hanger 11 at the Tel Aviv Port.