"Whatever we see, whether it’s from within us or what we learn or see in the streets, that’s what we write about," De La Soul's Posdnous told Rolling Stone in 1991 for a feature about the trio's new album, De La Soul Is Dead. This one was darker and more terse than their game-changing 1989 LP, 3 Feet High and Rising, and they wanted the world to fully understand the change. They weren't the hippies that they'd been painted as. Before settling on a drawing of a fallen, cracked flower pot as the cover, they even wanted ...Is Dead to come fronted with a mirror. No more psychedelia now. "When we go to photo shoots, everyone wants to mess with flowers," Posdnuos said. "But all that is starting to be cleared up. Now everyone wants us to be with caskets."
Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo sowed their discontent across the record, not least on "Pass The Plugs," where they hit back at Arsenio Hall, who had called them "the hippies of hip-hop" when they appeared on his show. But, above all, it was De La Soul's desire and ability to wrestle with terrifying subject matter that pushed them into new territory. And no story was more terrifying than the one they told on "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa."
The song was unsparing, a story about sexual abuse, incest, and murderous retaliation. Over a warped sample of Funkadelic's nosediving "I'll Stay" and a drum track cut from Melvin Bliss's "Synthetic Substitution," they lay the story out. Pos introduces Dillon, Millie's father, a social worker and a respected member of the community, the type of person nobody would mistake for a violent abuser. The thing doesn't unwind slowly; Pos is up-front from the first verse: "At the time no one knew but it was a shame / That Millie became a victim of the touchy-touchy game."
From there, the track is chilling. Trugoy addresses his verse to Millie, imploring her not to look so upset when her father's around: "He hooked up a trip to bring us all the Lacey / He volunteered to play old Santa Claus at Macy's / Child, ya got the best pops anyone could have / Dillon's cool, super hip, you should be glad." Pos comes back in to narrate what was happening behind the scenes, the way that Dillon would throw Millie down on her bed, beat her, give "her bruises time to heal" before sending her back to school. It makes Trugoy's next verse difficult. Mille asks him for a pistol with which she can shoot her father, the man who's been raping her; Trugoy's character doesn't believe a word of it. "I don't care if you kick five fits," he raps. "There's no way that you can prove to me that Dill's flip / He might breathe a blunt but ya jeans he wouldn't rip / You're just mad he's your overseer at school."
Millie doesn't care. She gets herself a gun and walks into that Macy's, where her father has volunteered to play Santa Claus. "Dillon pleaded mercy, said he didn't mean to / Do all the things that her mind could do nothing but cling to." Millie pulls the trigger.
"We always deal with things that apply to our own lives," Pos told Steven Daly at SPIN in another interview from '91, "and I know a young friend who was going through that problem, her father was abusing her. I was really upset about that and just applied it to wax—that's all it was." He's underplaying it. "Millie…" isn't just a story about grotesque abuse and revenge. In his SPIN piece, Daly compares the track to Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun," and obviously he's right to an extent—both deal with the same type of abuse, both end with a bullet. But De La Soul's song isn't so simple. Pos has already broken the fourth wall and told the listener about what was really happening behind closed doors, but Trugoy's verses are still full of doubt. "You shouldn't flip on him 'cuz Dill is really cool," he raps. "Matter of fact, the coolest elder in the school." No matter what Millie says—even when she's again suspiciously absent from school—Trugoy's character won't believe her. Dillon's reputation is more important than her testimony.
Maybe Millie would have walked into Macy's and shot her father in front of a group of children either way; maybe that was her only choice. But Trugoy's refusal to believe her suggests that things might have been different had she not been ignored. Christmas is supposed to be about family, homeliness, all the values they use to sell cars in December commercials. But sometimes it's just a cover for more cruelty and viciousness. Trugoy doesn't want to suspect Dillon, a seemingly upstanding man, of such a heinous crime; he certainly wouldn't suspect him at Christmas, when Dillon's volunteering, doling out gifts, supposedly embodying everything wholesome about the season. "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa" is shocking for precisely that reason. It sends a bullet through universal Christmas joy and the lie of the happy family.
Follow Alex Robert Ross on Twitter.