Where To Start With... De La Soul
Emerging from the New York rap scene in the late 1980s, the groups that comprised the Native Tongues collective were at the forefront of a new style of rap that was sometimes referred to as 'alternative hip-hop' or 'concious rap', eschewing the confrontational style of West coast groups like N.W.A. in favour of more positive lyrics and uplifting vibes, increasingly utilising samples from jazz and funk records, creating a more party-orientated sound than some of their predecessors and using their lyrics to promote the values of peace, harmony and cultural awareness as laid down by the Zulu Nation, to whom they were closely linked.
Co-founded by The Jungle Brothers and Kool DJ Red Alert, the collective would eventually expand to include the likes of Monie Love, Black Sheep and Queen Latifah, but arguably the two most famous groups to emerge from the Native Tongues posse were A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
Formed by three high school friends in Amityville, New York in the mid 1980s, Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo caught the attention of Prince Paul, the producer and erstwhile member of influential rap group Stetsasonic, who signed on to produced their era-defining debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising. Released in 1989, the album catapulted De La Soul into the public eye and set the blueprint for much of the early 90s alternative scene, becoming a cult classic that is still considered one of he most important hip-hop records of its era.
Two more Prince Paul-produced albums followed – 1991's De La Soul is Dead and 1993's Buhloone Mindstate - before the largely self-produced Stakes is High arrived in 1996, which also featured some production work from J Dilla and vocal contributions from two up-and-coming rappers at the time, Mos Def and Common. Although none of their subsequent albums achieved the same commercial success as their debut, their work continued to progress and was well-received by critics, fans and their peers alike.
The early part of the next decade saw De La Soul release three more albums – two in their Art Official Intelligence series, 2001's Mosaic Thump and its 2003 sequel Bionix – and 2004's The Grind Date, but although the trio have continued to appear as guests on albums by a range of artists from Gorillaz to Etienne de Crecy, their new album out this week represents their first full-length release under the De La Soul name in 11 years.
...and The Anonymous Nobody arrives in stores today (you can preview and purchase it at the top-right of this page) and was funded, at least in part, by a Kickstarter campaign launched by the group last year. Although they had invested their own money in the album's creation, when it came to pressing, distributing and marketing the record the group decided to take a different path this time around.
As Pos recently explained in an interview with The Guardian: “We knew different labels – Interscope, Atlantic – wanted to hear it. But we felt they would immediately jump into their music business mind and say “Woah, you have this great song with Little Dragon, but there’s no chorus”, or “You have this song with Damon Albarn, but he doesn’t even start singing until two minutes towards the end.” So that’s why we decided to crowdfund, so we didn’t have deal with a label.”
The trio launched their Kickstarter with a target of $110,000, a total that was met within nine hours and eventually rose to $600,000. The result is a brand new album featuring 17 new tracks and a laundry list of guests that includes the aforementioned Damon Albarn and Little Dragon, as well as David Byrne, Jill Scott, Usher, Roc Marciano, Estelle, Pete Rock, 2 Chainz, Snoop Dogg and, perhaps most unusually, The Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins.
If their multitude of collaborations over the last decade have anything to teach us, it's that De La Soul have always been one of the most open-minded hip-hop groups around, never afraid to apply their brand of humorous and intelligent rap to a variety of styles and genres. On their new album, they've applied this stylistic variety to great effect and even though it's been a decade since De La Soul released a new album, everything here sounds fresh. Tracks like 'Pain' and 'Royalty Capes' sound like an updated version of their trademark, mellow brand of hip-hop, while 'Action!' is an uptempo number squarely aimed at the dancefloor. 'Drawn' is another stylistic leap and one of the album's more unusual highlights, making use of those extra Kickstarter funds by employing an orchestra to add a layer of richness underneath Yukimi Nagano's dreamy vocals.
Other highlights include the R&B slow-jam 'Greyhounds', featuring a guest vocal by Usher, and the laid-back groove of 'Trainwreck', while elsewhere tracks like 'Schoolyard Studio' and 'The Devil Likes Candy' exhibit the same sort of playful vibe present on their early albums. All in all, this a triumphant and long overdue return for one of hip-hop's most important groups, who've clearly lost none of their touch.
You can listen to 'Pain' below, beneath that we've picked five of De La Soul's all-time best tracks as a guide for those unfamiliar with their back catalogue. Enjoy...
'Me, Myself and I'
Taken from their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising, 'Me, Myself and I' was their third single and their breakout moment, hitting the Number One spot on the US R&B, Rap and Dance charts, as well as landing in the Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic. This was a hip-hop sound that was brand new, fun and totally different to anything that had gone before. You can find the original video below and if you look closely you'll see a faceless character hanging at the back of the classroom. That'd be Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, lurking in the background...
'The Magic Number'
Another cut from their debut album, 'The Magic Number' remains one of the group's most enduring tracks. There are two versions, the one that features on the album and a remixed version that was put out as a single. Truth be told, we kind of prefer the album version, but there's not a huge difference between the two and they only made a video for the single version, which you can find below...
'Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)'
Although there were a couple of standout tracks on their sophomore album De La Soul is Dead, this was by far the most commercially successful and once again put De La Soul back in the charts both in the US and the UK. The lyric was reportedly based on the fact that the group were being pestered by hopeful rappers wanting to get their demo tapes in front of the group and their record label, this was their response...
One of the highlights of the first of the Art Official Intelligence albums, Mosaic Thump, this track features a hook performed by Chaka Khan and once again addresses those in the rap community that wanted to take advantage of De La Soul's success for their own ends, but it also demonstrates that even after more than a decade in the business, they were still consistently delivering great tunes.
'Rock Co.Kane Flow'
Our final pick is taken from their most recent album, 2004's The Grind Date, and features a guest appearance from MF Doom, rapping along with Pos and Dave over a beat that shift and stutters its tempo throughout.