If you don’t listen to rap, you’ve heard the same questions over and over again in response to this confession. One of the most common is “But have you heard De La Soul?” — which has been easier said than done in recent years, at least on streaming platforms. “What kept De Lao’s tunes out of rotation was a frustrating quagmire of outdated contracts and record label parsimony,” writes NPR’s Oliver Wang. One complication had to do with sampling, a standard hip-hop practice pioneered by De La Soul in such a far-reaching, free-flowing and elaborate manner that the prospect of revisiting every sound snippet they’d erased from the CD-and-tape era inspired unspeakable corporate intransigence.
But as of this month, “all that has finally been rectified. The group’s most important recordings are now legally available on the Internet.” None more important than their debut, 3 feet high and Risingoriginally released in 1989 and added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2010.
As Wang writes, the album “reshaped the public’s imagination of what hip-hop could be. The core trio—Posdnuos, Trugoy, and DJ Pasemaster Mase—assisted by mentor/producer Prince Paul, all straight from the wilds of suburban Long Island, rapped about advice-spewing crocodiles, Martian transmissions, and an artistic meta-concept they dubbed The DAISY. (Da Inner Soul, Y’all) Age.”
Clearly, De La Soul had a number of artistic priorities of their own. “Rap’s sample-hungry producers had spent the previous few years mining the catalogs of James Brown and P-Funk, and while De La sampled from both on his debut, they were more likely to create memorable musical moments from children’s TV songs (‘The Magic Number’), obscure doo-wop singles (‘Plug Tunin’) and classic ’80s pop hits (‘Say No Go’),” not to mention the French record he’s learning at home. The first time I remember hearing De La Soul was when a college radio DJ played it early in the morning 3 feet tall “Eye Know,” which samples Steely Dan — as well as the Mad Lads, Lee Dorsey and Otis Redding.
As if 3 Legs high and rising wasn’t enough of a cavalcade of miracles, it comes as just one of six new De La Soul albums available for streaming. You can also hear it on the band’s official YouTube channel and other streaming platforms De La Soul is dead (1991), Buhloone Mindstate (1993), The stakes are high (1996) and Art Official Intelligence few Boom and Bionix (2001), each of which represents an expansion of the group’s already considerable ambitions. They all join already-streamable albums released over the twenty years leading up to the death of founding member David “Trugoy” Jolicoeur last month, an event that may end De La Soul as a recording entity. But if you listen to their vast and inventive body of work, be prepared for another question: have you heard A Tribe Called Quest?
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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.