De La Soul, 20 Years On


De La Soul is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of "3 Feet High and Rising" on Tommy Records, an album that changed alot about hip-hop production and challenged narrative conventions of the time. With their manner of speech and dress, they didn't exactly fit in the super-black power militancy of the day. But they were bold enough to go where no rap group had gone before, style and substance-wise. How much of that was marketing is anyone's guess, but those guys were kind of the beta brothers of their time, for both good and bad. If you listen to "3 Feet" today, I'd challenge you to tell me what it's about.

In a Post-Rodney King America where race realtions are strained and a generation of post-civil rights Cosby Kids are struggling to craft a narrative with rap music providing the backdrop, we get lyrics like this:

Mirror mirror on the wall

Tell me mirror what is wrong?

Can it be my De La Clothes

Or is it just my De La Soul

What I do ain't make believe

People say I sit and try

But when it comes to being De La

It's just me myself and I

In a time that saw the rise of Public Enemy, Paris, and NWA, it makes you wonder how De La Soul sold any records at all. I think they provided a release valve for all the radics of the day, as well as an entry point for white hipsters not rebellious enough yet to get down with PE, Ice Cube, or the other prophets of rage. Still they came off as Afrocentric-Lite, and it was kind of weird. You knew going in that groups like Digital Underground had no political agenda. As entertaining as they may have been, De La Soul couldn't decide if they want to rap or be relevant, and ultimately took an "L" because of that.


The fact that even all these years later De La Soul haven't really been able to refine or define thier image has played a part in why we don't hear much from them. We have some idea that A Tribe Called Quest were on a mission to explore new aural tapestries, but in a genre of music that depends so heavily on your ability to synthesize your message and tell your story, I'd argue that De La Soul remains a mystery. They had some vague message about the empowerment of individuality, but you can't build an entire career on that schmaltz. That kind of navel-gazing loses its relevancy pretty quick.

I can't really tell you what De La Soul were rapping about, or why they were rapping at all. They had a point of view, but damn if I could articulate it. The most noteworthy thing about thier contribution to rap, to me, is their producer Prince Paul.

Peep this video and tell me: what did De La Soul bring to rap music? What is their legacy?

Single Father, Author, Screenwriter, Award-Winning Journalist, NPR Moderator, Lecturer and College Professor. Habitual Line-Stepper