Damn, De La Soul Is Dead is already 20 years old? F—, I feel old.
John Book goes in on discussing the album and I don’t have much to say except for this:
De La was the reason I got into hip-hop and by extension, was the reason I got into music in any kind of impassioned, obsessive way. For that reason, 3 Ft. High and Rising will always have a special place in my heart. But the De La album that I return to the most is De La Soul Is Dead and to me, it’s the one that’s aged the best for any number of reasons, including just the general quality of songs on here, but especially because it was such a damn smart and interesting album where you can see the group wrestling with ideas and arguments about their own identity as artists and pushing back with songs that speak to those insecurities and anxieties.
I was still only 18 in May of 1991, at the end of my freshman year and best believe I was full of uncertainties and anxieties and the desire to shape a sense of self but unclear as to what that should be or where I’d be headed. So De La Soul Is Dead – more than I was probably even aware at the time – was something I could resonate with. It’s underlying sense of struggle and contradiction was a soundtrack for my own life.
Jay-Z and Eminem are often credited for their “soul baring” introspection, a style that Kanye West has almost turned into caricature at times, but what I appreciate about what De La did on this album was how imperfectly they wore their neuroses, which is to say, it didn’t feel like a calculated pose (and in 1991, when superman rapping was still a dominant form, being vulnerable was a risk and rarity) and they weren’t above contradiction.
Nelson George once wrote that the transition between their first and second album suggested that De La was turned from Afrocentricity to ghettocentricity as a way to shore up their manhood. To this day, I think George was partially right but his critique never completely sat right with me (and I’d be curious what he thinks now, 20 years later too) since the De La on this album didn’t seem like a bunch of dick-swinging boasters but rather a bunch of young guys tired of being labeled hippies and trying to find a way to reclaim their own narrative and identity.
As I said, that they do this imperfectly speaks to their artistic humanity. I like seeing these kinds of cracks in the armor (so long as the music’s still good) because it tells me that forging a path in the music world is hard, that shaping public perception isn’t easy and that, even if you’re a quartet of brilliant dudes from L.I., with one gold album and a ton of goodwill at your back, the way forward is still uneasy and unsure. In an odd way, that was deeply reassuring, giving me a sense of hope and comfort in an uncertain time.
I still feel the same way today.
If I have any beef with the album, it’s that I wish different singles that been chosen. The obvious exception is “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'”, one of the most satisfying songs in the group’s history and 20 years later, still a surefire hit on the dancefloor. Here’s the version I play out the most since it mixes well, originally released in the UK:
De La Soul: A Roller Skating Jam Named “Saturdays” (Disco Fever Mix)
From 12″ (Big Life, 1991)
This other version is from the U.S. 12″ version and while it certainly sounds “of its era,” it’s long been a personal favorite, especially since I used to spin it out in my early DJing days as a way to play house without having to actually play house. David Morales, holler.
De La Soul: A Roller Skating Jam Named “Saturdays” (6:00 AM Mix)
From 12″ (Tommy Boy, 1991)
However, this single aside, the rest of the 12″s from the album are a mixed bag. “Ring Ring Ring” was fine but has “album track” stamped on it. On the flip side, as the lead single before the album dropped, it did offer “Afro Connections At a Hi 5” which (at the time) sounded harder than anything the group has dropped previous. Partly that was a way to make fun of how other rappers wanted to sound hard but the single tries to have it both ways and in my opinion, they pull it off.
De La Soul: Afro Connections At A Hi 5 (In The Eyes Of The Hoodlum)
Originally on the B-Side of “Ring Ring Ring”. Also on De La Soul Is Dead. (Tommy Boy, 1991)
For real, I never really liked “Keepin’ The Faith” and rumor is, the group didn’t either. I can’t even find a mix that I’d really want to share but I suppose I hate the “Straight Pass” version the least. And that leaves what has to be one of the strangest choices for a rap single ever: “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa Claus,” a song about sexual abuse, incest and murder. What, no CJ Mackintosh remix for this?
Had it been up to me, I would have preferred to see something like “Oodles of Os” or “Shwingalokate” as an A-side and you could have put “Fanatic of the B Word,” “The Rap De Rap Show” or “Talkin’ Bout Hey Love” as B-side (with requisite remixes).