Michael Azerrad – “De La Soul’s Hippie-Hop” (1989)

May 4, 2014 at 7:40 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

25 years ago today, this article appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. Written by Michael Azerrad, this comes from the Rolling Stone archives site…

Psychedelic Rappers Introduce the D.A.I.S.Y. Age 

“Hello, you’ve reached Mars. What can I do for you?” Trugoy the Dove is on the telephone in the tidy basement of his parents’ house in suburban Amityville, Long Island, waiting for the other two members of De La Soul to arrive.

The group’s highly-acclaimed debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, is a dense psychedelic pastiche of recombinant R&B, ingeniously incorporating countless odd snippets of everything from Sly Stone to Johnny Cash (whose sampled voice supplies the album title), layered over laid-back, languid dance beats. The record’s twenty-three tracks include the requisite tales of sexual conquest (“Jenifa Taught Me”) and low adolescent humor (“A Little Bit of Soap”), but they are also peppered with almost dadaist sonic collages (“Transmitting Live from Mars”), ecological fables (“Tread Water”) and cryptic imagery (“Potholes in My Lawn”).

The members of De La Soul, who love wordplay, made up their stage names (they won’t divulge their real ones). The bearded and bespectacled Posdnuos got his name by reversing Sop Sound, his old DJ tag. P.A. Pasemaster Mase says that Mase is an acronym for making a soul effort; actually, it’s also short for Mason, his family name. Trugoy the Dove got his name by spelling yogurt his favorite food backward; Dove is a nickname his mother gave him because he was a peaceful child. He also owns a dove named Perdue and sports an angled haircut that he refers to as a Gumby. At twenty, Trugoy is the oldest member of De La Soul.

The odd names initially led to the misapprehension that the three rappers were members of a tiny Muslim sect called the Five Percenters, who take names based on the significance of certain letters of the alphabet. Dove says that Posdnuos is by coincidence a “really righteous” Five Percenter name.

In concert, De La Soul’s two dancers, China and Jette, throw flowers from the stage, which is festooned with peace signs and Day-Glo colors. So is De La Soul a hippie band? “No,” the three say patiently, in unison. They’ve heard that one before the group even has a song about it, “Ain’t Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie.” Still, there’s no denying the flower power of a concept like the D.A.I.S.Y. Age, which pops up all over 3 Feet High and Rising. “D.A.I.S.Y. stands for da inner sound y’all,” Dove says. “This is the age that we’re bringing up, the sound where everything comes from within. It’s not a false look or a copy or a mimic of any sort, it’s just what’s coming from inside of us.”

Many see De La Soul as the savior of a rap scene in danger of descending into self-parody. Resolute non-conformists, especially in the cookie-cutter world of rap music, the members of De La Soul have their own “new style of speak” (heralded in their first single, the trippy manifesto “Plug Tunin'”), and their dress tends to be baggy jeans and hiking boots, not Adidas. Songs like “Do as De La Does” and “Brainwashed Follower” spoof the herd mentality, as does “Take It Off,” which urges hip-hoppers to cast off their Cazal glasses, Kangol hats and Jordache jeans. “I don’t want no fads,” says Dove, who has a plastic monster with a peace sign on it dangling from his neck.

Though a lot of thought goes into De La Soul’s lyrics, the group members say most of their music is discovered by accident. They get records from their parents’ collections (everything from Yma Sumac to Haitian jazz) or obscure record stores, then look for interesting sounds to sample or loop. For the song “Eye Know,” they constructed a catchy obbligato out of a seven-note bite of Otis Redding’s whistling on “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and also used a fragment of Steely Dan’s “Peg” for the chorus.

Besides their voices, an occasional drum machine and jingled coins, everything on the record originated from a sample. Although sampling is a highly controversial practice, the group is confident that their music is art, not theft. “I consider it a crime if you’re not going to make it sound better or different than it originally was,” says Posdnuos. “A lot of new R&B music consists of old ideas from other singers anyway, so you could say that was also stealing. Sampling is borrowing ideas, too it’s just easier to see where they’re coming from.”

All three band members were born in New York City and moved to Amityville when they were kids. After bouncing around various groups, Pos, Dove and Mase did a homemade version of “Plug Tunin’,” using an old record Pos’ father had. Mase played the tape for his neighbor, Prince Paul Huston of the rap group Stetsasonic, who loved the quirky tune. Within months, De La Soul was signed to the New York hip-hop label Tommy Boy, with Prince Paul producing.

The group’s post-modern hippie-hop isn’t merely an exercise in nostalgia. “We are going back to the Sixties,” says Pos, “but also to the Seventies, the Fifties, the Eighties and on into the future.” Pos must be optimistic about that future he just bought an outsize button that reads “almost famous.”

Michael Azerrad

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