De La Soul is one of the greatest rap groups in the history of the music. That's not hyperbole. In a world where there are few rap groups left standing, De La's been together, performing, recording for almost 30 years now, a feat matched only by Public Enemy. And they are not just a relic from the past. Last year, they released their own crowd-sourced classic and the Anonymous Nobody..., perhaps the only album ever to feature both David Byrne and 2 Chainz. Even more recently they've been grabbing headlines for their scene-stealing appearance on Gorillaz's acclaimed new album Humanz , and this summer sees the trio poised for yet another year as a summer music festival staple at events like Osheaga and Sónar.
De La Soul, from the soul, consists of: Posdnous, Trugoy (Dave), and the DJ Mase, all hailing from Amityville, Long Island—30 miles from Manhattan but a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. They burst on the scene at a time when dookie gold chains were getting dookier, James Brown sampling was en vogue, and ghettos throughout the US were being littered with the hubris from crack cocaine.
De La and the collective that they belonged to, The Native Tongues, influenced a generation of rap, and their presence is still felt in present day music. They wore leather medallions and dashikis, and they had "strange" haircuts. De La Soul were the second group from the collective to emphasize love, peace, unity, and having fun. They repped an acronym, Da. Inner. Sound. Ya'll, which the media loved, taking that D.AI.S.Y. designation and dubbing De La hippies. That image was the source of their early popularity, but De La Soul has often been pigeonholed by their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising and their sophomore album De La Soul is Dead. It's as if their catalog dies there for most people. There's also a catch-22 because, given the group's sample-heavy approach, only their most recent albums are available through digital streaming services, which means that newcomers might not check out those classic works, either.
Well, it doesn't have to be like that.
We're here to give you a smooth transition into Long Island's finest where you will leave feeling not only appreciative of the group, but you will understand the context from which they emerged. We'll ease you into the process, giving you something that is familiar to your present palate and after you get a taste for the group, give you a full course meal.
Are you ready?
So you want to get into: Entry Level De La?
Entry Level De La is just the right recipe for someone who has never listened to De La Soul before. Listening to these songs one can see why people speak so highly of Posdnous. He's definitely one of the nicest, most underrated MCs. When Pos boasts that every line of his should be a Hip-Hop Quotable, a prestigious placement in the Source (when it was the Bible of hip-hop), I agree with him. It's not just clever wordplay, it's his cadence, how he organizes his words around the bar, and his ability to incorporate classic rap lines in with his verses in unexpected ways. Here's a great example from "Future":
Yo and we won't stop rocking 'til we retire
Since the economy is such in them dire straits
That isn't an option, our theme is to be currency kings
Thoroughbred, NYC borough bred
We barrel through dirt and cracked open cement
These lines with pen, while I was semi-bent
And Dave is no slouch either. This is the beauty of groups. The back and forth between different voices and styles break up the monotony of hearing the same person song after song. Where Pos is more direct and often personal, Dave is abstract and poetic. Check his verse in the same song:
This rap career ain't work, it's the life in-between
Bedtime 'til the next said time and date
Know the name and salute them dudes
Put the nutrient in rap when they cook them foods
Gotta be like eighteen million heads served
Shit, imagine if there wasn't no us huh?
Even though we've mostly moved beyond the typical beats and rhymes that people call boom-bap, it's still the most familiar form of rap, and if you're listening to De La for the first time, neither their lyrics or the beats in this playlist will be off-putting. Inevitably, this version of De La includes songs from their first four records, but so as not to sound even remotely dated, this Entry Level De La selection leans toward music released since 2000 alongside their early classics.
Playlist: "Me, Myself, & I" / "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'" / "Breakadawn" / "Stakes is High" / "Future" / "Bionix" / "Forever" / "Watch Out" / "View" / "4 More" / "Go Out & Get It"
So you want to get into: Dilla De La?
De La was one of the first groups to introduce J Dilla to the world. Unlike now, there wasn't always this universal cry that Dilla was one of the best producers to ever do it. He was more like your favorite producer's favorite producer. I even recall writing an article in 2004 with a title like "Jay D, the Best Producer That You've Never Heard Of."
Now, with the cult around Dilla since his passing, people devour anything that he produced. So here's a good way to tie De La into the context of the time: Pos, Dave, and Mase were clamoring for Dilla beats like everyone else. There's a classic discussion on how they landed the "Stakes is High" beat for the album of the same name. Questlove said that you had to "Jedi mind trick" Q-Tip for him not to take a beat and that's exactly what Pos did, pretending that he didn't like the filtering on the track as he and Tip listened to a Dilla beat tape.
"I was doing everything in my mind to keep from looking like, 'This is incredible,'" Pos recalled in a June 2006 J Dilla feature in Wax Poetics.
De La won the battle, but ultimately Q-Tip won the war, collaborating with Dilla to the point where he and Tip formed the Ummah (which many believe led to the break up of Tribe—but that's another story for another article). Nonetheless, De La still had some classic Dilla joints, included some of his tracks on an unreleased song album, and they even reworked some of their lyrics over Dilla beats on Smell the D.A.I.S.Y.
Playlist: "Stakes is High"/ "Peer Pressure"/ "Shoomp"/ "Taking the Train"/ "Much More"/ "Leave Your Cares Behind"/ "Verbal Clap"/ "Goes with the Word"/ "Relax"
So you want to get into: Zany De La?
Zany De La is what won over a generation of listeners. Although the music wasn't as violent as it is now, the times were.
This is why that era of De La resonated with many Gen Xers. It wasn't just counterprogramming for the sake of counterprogramming. One could listen to De La and recognize that they were being themselves. Of even greater significance, many of us who were growing up in that era felt empowered by De La. To be into rap music in the late 80s meant you dressed a certain way, talked a certain way, acted a certain way. But De La busted all of that up.
It was the way they dressed—devoid of gold chains and expensive name brand clothes. It was the skits—these guys were having fun and unafraid of putting their inside jokes and zaniness and wax. It was their samples—most people were strictly sampling James Brown and funk, while De La sampled everything from The Doves to a French lesson record. It was all of that.
De La was accepted in the toughest environments like the legendary Latin Quarters because of all the aforementioned things—and most importantly because they were good. Sadly, the media painted the group into an alternative rap group box, a stigma that still remains with them and that is partially why I would never start off a new De La listener with Zany De La.
But make no mistakes, the experimentation that De La did, the atmosphere they created on their first two albums ushered in an entire new way of making rap music.
Playlist: "Magic Number"/ "Pass the Plugs"/ "Eye Know"/ "Pease Porridge"/ "Potholes in My Lawn"/ "Dave's Home Mix"/ "D.A.I.S.Y. Age"
So you want to get into: Ladies Love De La?
While there is a mix of zany De La in this list, songs dedicated to the opposite sex are almost always relatable. Besides, if we've reeled you into the De La boat, you might as well flop around a bit and check out how the pros do it. Here's Dave on "Betta Listen":
Gigglin, figurin' I had jokes for her humor
Then she broke out with the words
About knowin all the rumors
"See, all you niggas rappin be like pedigree dogs
Thinkin' you can have me leashed
Around your microphone cords"
Somethin' 'bout her lit me up like July
And with them onions in the pants
I couldn't help but cry
It's not your typical male/female rap. But it's totally relatable, and that's what we're after here. The pursuit of love is to music what peas are to rice. And we've included a good mix between old and more recent. Listening, you can see one of De La's greatest strengths: making music that's honest to themselves and where they are in life.
Playlist: "Shopping Bags"/ "Betta Listen"/ "Jenifa Taught Me"/ "Special"/ "3 Days Later"/ "Buddy"
So you want to get into: Social Commentary De La?
When De La first started out, they were pretty overt in their social commentary. The times called for it. Crack was an epidemic of our time, ravaging whole communities, changing the values of a people, and infusing remarkable amounts of money into impoverished neighborhoods. De La dealt with the life of the junkie and the effects that it had on family in abstract fashion like Pos does in "Say No Go":
Now let's get right on down to the skit
A baby is brought into a world of pits
And if it could've talked that soon
In the delivery room
It would've asked the nurse for a hit
But Pos would even talk about drug abuse in a less abstract way. He wrote a song about his own brother's drug abuse in the aptly titled, "My Brother's a Basehead."
I would be willing to bet the proverbial farm that De La Soul were the first (if not only) rap group to talk about sexual abuse leading to murder like they did in "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa." Again, those early songs are more overt. By the time that you get to "Greyhounds," things are handled differently. Check this verse from Dave:
Fresh from a Bible belt town
That's what she's givin' up
Not really livin', just flesh comin' off a Greyhound
That's what he think of her
Right at a blink of an eye he provides her with charm
Hides that he is a shark
There's so much that lies buried between the lines. Five songs and 20 minutes are all you really need to see the power and strength of rap when it's in the hand of skilled practitioners. De La got them skills.
Playlist: "Say No Go"/ "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa"/ "Ghetto Thang"/ "My Brother's a Basehead"/ "Greyhounds"
So you want to get into: Livin' Live De La?
Live band De La shows you the breath and vision of the group.
De La's first two albums were smash hits. 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul is Dead were on everyone's top ten albums when they were released; they had fans young and old and across all races. Their singles were hits. They were bright. They were fun and zany. Everyone loved De La. But then they released Buhloone Mindstate. Gone was the brightness. The album was darker than the their first two. There were no skits, no pseudo game shows—and to top it all off, three of the songs were made with a live band. Sure, it was the JBs, but it was still a live band, and one of the songs didn't even have any rapping on it.
From this we learned that De La were true artists not answering to what was expected of them to make what is perceived as a hit record. They further confirmed this impression with their latest, and the Anonymous Nobody...., an album made strictly with music from the Rhythm Roots All Stars. That was recorded, looped, and made into beats. Some people were taken aback by this approach, but for many of us, it wasn't a far stretch from Buhloone Mindstate… they even got 2 Chainz on this jawn.
Playlist: "Patti Dooke"/ "I Am I Be"/ "Royalty Capes"/ "Memory of…"/ "Whoodeeni"/ "Drawn"
So you want to get into: Delicatessen De La?
De La are some serious B-Boys. They love the Culture. And we're not talking about the modern usage of the word. We're talking about that breakbeat loving, getting busy with freestyles, trading verses, while the dancers respond to the call. That culture.
While the Slick Rick reference might be easy to catch on "Set The Mood," straight up, you have to really know hip-hop to know the origins of stuff like: "We are here to tell the world / just who we are / shocking females" on "Sh.Fe.Mcs." That's De La's M.O. They have classic routines, breaks, and references in so many songs that the average listener will just accept as De La. But the true hip-hop head will hear the same thing and appreciate the music that much more.
It's that special touch along with all the stuff above that makes De La Soul one of my favorite groups. And if you follow this guide, they may become yours as well.
Playlist: "Roadrunner (demo)"/ "The People"/ "God It"/ "You Got It"/ "Lovely How I Let My Mind Float"/ "Sh.Fe.Mcs"/ "Squat"/ "Just Havin' a Ball"/ "Set the Mood"
Efi Chalikopoulou is a freelance artist and illustrator. Check out her website here.
sdq is director, editor, and hip-hop investigator for over 30 years. Find more of his work on Medium.