If you don’t listen to rap, you’ve heard the same questions over and over in response to that confession. One of the most common is “But have you heard De La Soul?” — which in recent years was easier said than done, at least on streaming platforms. “What kept De La’s tunes out of rotation was a frustrating morass of outdated contracts and record label parsimony,” writes Oliver Wang at NPR. One complication had to do with sampling, a standard hip hop practice conducted in such a far-reaching, freewheeling, and elaborate manner by De La Soul that the prospect of renegotiating each and every sonic snippet they’d cleared in the CD-and-tape era inspired untold corporate intransigence.
But as of this month, “all this has finally been rectified. The group’s most important recordings are now legally available on the internet.” None of them is more important than their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, originally released in 1989 and added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2010.
As Wang writes, the album “reshaped the public imagination of what hip-hop could be. The core trio — Posdnuos, Trugoy and DJ Pasemaster Mase — assisted by mentor/producer Prince Paul all came straight outta the wilds of suburban Long Island, rapping about advice-spouting crocodiles, Martian transmissions, and an artistic meta-concept they dubbed The D.A.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Soul, Y’all) Age.”
Clearly, De La Soul had a set of artistic priorities all their own. “Sample-hungry rap producers had spent the previous few years mining the James Brown and P-Funk catalogs and though De La sampled from both on their debut, they were more likely to create memorable musical moments from children’s television songs (‘The Magic Number’), obscure doo-wop singles (‘Plug Tunin”) and classic ’80s pop hits (‘Say No Go’),” to say nothing of a learn-at-home French record. The first time I remember hearing De La Soul was when an early-morning college-radio DJ put on the 3 Feet High track “Eye Know,” which samples Steely Dan — as well as the Mad Lads, Lee Dorsey, and Otis Redding.
As if 3 Feet High and Rising weren’t enough of a cavalcade of wonders, it comes as only one of six De La Soul albums newly available to stream. On the group’s official Youtube channel and other streaming platforms, you can also hear De La Soul Is Dead (1991), Buhloone Mindstate (1993), Stakes Is High (1996), and the Art Official Intelligence pair Thump and Bionix (2001), each of which marks an expansion of the group’s already considerable ambitions. They all join the already-streamable albums released over the twenty years up to the death of founding member David “Trugoy” Jolicoeur last month, an event that may put end to De La Soul as a recording entity. But if you do listen through their expansive and inventive body of work, be prepared for another question: have you heard A Tribe Called Quest?
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.