Heartbreak is part of being a hip-hop fan.
After decades of legal battles and copyright issues, De La Soul’s entire catalogue is just weeks away from finally appearing on streaming services for the first time.
Dave died Sunday, just as new generations are about to discover his body of work.
Fans like me — the ones that know the Long Island trio is much, much more than the group’s popular single “Me, Myself and I” and the hippie image that the record company used to market them — have been waiting.
I’m in that middle generation, sandwiched between the golden-era hip-hop heads who were old enough to catch a De La show when they first exploded on the scene and the younger millennials and Gen-Zers whose musical life has largely been defined by streaming — an ecosystem depressingly mostly devoid of De La.
I was a kid collecting De La’s “Yo! MTV Raps” trading cards (yes, there used to be rapper trading cards) from their “3 Feet High and Rising” days and listening to cassettes on my older brother’s boombox at home. With college came Napster, record-store visits and early-era MP3 players that allowed me to retroactively discover “Stakes is High.” (I did end up buying the physical album, promise!).
From there, I could easily track De La’s influence on my contemporary hip-hop world. By the time 2004′s “The Grind Date” dropped — featuring MF Doom, Ghostface Killah and 9th Wonder — I was ready. I plopped myself dead center in front of the stage during the group’s Baltimore tour stop, reveling in the energy they brought after years of performing, mouthing along the words to my favorite tracks.
Their music was as essential to my hip-hop education as anything their contemporaries and fellow Native Tongues members Tribe Called Quest produced. The group’s debut album “3 Feet High and Rising” — cheekily named after a Johnny Cash song Trugoy discovered when he came across one of his dad’s old records — profoundly impacted the genre’s direction. Commercially, it helped put hip-hop on the international map in a way no predecessor had.
The album was a collaboration between De La members Trugoy, Posdnuos, Maseo and producer Prince Paul, which began when member Maseo handed Paul an original version of “Plug Tunin’,” back in the 1980s. “It was so raw,” Paul said in a 2020 podcast interview. “It was funky and I had never heard anything like it.”
The irreverent record would present new cadences to rapping. They invented the concept of the rap skit, injecting a clever, new kind of playfulness and comedy into hip-hop. (Playfulness was in Trugoy’s bones — his rap moniker is “yogurt” backward, simply because he enjoyed the snack.) And, of course, there were the abstract loops and innovative sampling (some 60 samples!) beyond the typical James Brown-fare common to the era, heard on songs by Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One and Rakim. Would we have had Kanye West’s “College Dropout” in 2004 if there had been no “3 Feet High and Rising” in 1989?
Sampling to this degree was still relatively new at the time, and it was this innovation that would become the source of both legal troubles — including an early copyright lawsuit — and one of the main reasons, through complicated copyright issues and backdoor record label deals, that prevented much of their music from hitting streaming services.
De La always evolved with the genre. They killed off the flower-power image that ushered in their success by naming their 1991 sophomore album “De La Soul is Dead,” putting a picture of a broken flower pot on the cover and mostly ditching the sunnier vibes with songs touching on the dark side of fame and addiction. What other new artists would dare do such a thing? The album received mixed reviews, but is beloved by fans and would go one to become one of a handful to ever receive the Source’s coveted “5 Mics” rating, alongside Nas’s “Illmatic” and Jay-Z’s “Blueprint.”
Even with all the industry drama, the group managed to stay together when so many others fell apart. And throughout it all, there was Trugoy, or Dave, his voice both playful and critical of industry conventions that attempted to box him in.
On that first demo, “Plug Tunin’,” he rapped:
Different individuals are dazzled with the showbiz
Auditions are gathered, but the Soul would just rather
Hold a count at three and in the end leave it as it is
On “The Bizness,” he rapped:
I have to send respects to real moneymakers
Do not connect us with those champagne-sippin’ money fakers
He even rapped with irony about his age on “Rock Co. Kane Flow,” closing out the banger with:
The birthdate’s September 2-1, 1-9, 6-8
Too old to rhyme, too bad, too late.
Ugh. I wish I could link to those songs for you so you could hear these words as he delivered them. But streaming became king, and De La’s music wasn’t in the kingdom. Complicated sample clearances and contract negotiations over master tapes ownership — the now defunct Tommy Boy was their original label — prevented many of their albums from appearing on platforms like Spotify and Apple’s iTunes. De La tried before to bring their music to the internet masses, even giving it away all away free for on Valentine’s Day 2014, a sign of love for their fans who couldn’t find their music.
“We love doing what we do with each other, and we all equally love our history, our legacy and what we can see for ourselves for the future,” Pos told The Post last month, as he prepared for the release of the group’s catalogue on March 3, the outcome of a new deal between Maseo’s label and Reservoir Media, which had acquired Tommy Boy.
While I can’t wait for more people to fall in love with De La’s music beyond the snippets they may have heard from “3 Feet High and Rising” — their song “The Magic Number” appeared in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” — the artistry of that debut album is still worth marveling at. “3 Feet” represents one of those rare, lightning-in-a-bottle moments when the right people come together at just the right moment.
“If there was ever a sign of the existence of God, De La Soul would be that proof to me,” Prince Paul said in a 2007 book interview. “I’ve never had such a perfect fit in any other production situation. We had a mutual respect for each other, and after we’d finish tracks, we’d just look at each other in awe.”
In just a couple of weeks, I will text links to Spotify tracks to friends who’ve never heard these songs. Longtime fans will be able to instantly pull up the soundtracks to their teenage years. Or maybe some kid will discover a De La song, make a TikTok with it or just listen with astonishment at what was made by kids like him some three decades back.
And it’s just so sad that Dave won’t be here to witness all of that awe, found anew.