[Editor’s Note: Summer SOULstice is a new nostalgia-fueled soulhead column that revisits the memorable songs that have defined the summers of our past. We hope you enjoy these sonic strolls down memory lane, and stay tuned for more classic tracks to be celebrated throughout the summer.]
With good reason, De La Soul is one of the most universally beloved hip-hop groups of all-time. In fact, a compelling case can be made that they are one of the most revered musical acts of all-time, regardless of genre classification. As evidenced by the recent outpouring of fan support for their Kickstarter campaign designed to fund their forthcoming LP And the Anonymous Nobody, the love that people possess for De La Soul runs deep. For more than a quarter-century, the charismatic Long Island-bred trio of Posdnuos, Mase, and Dave have blessed the world with undeniably addictive music, infused with a distinctive, Native Tongues-flavored mix of wry wit, unabashed humor, beautiful beats, and of course, plenty of soul. So when I discovered their crowdfunding initiative earlier this year, my contribution to the effort was less a conscious decision than it was an automatic reflex, activated by my undying gratitude for all of the wonderful music De La Soul has delivered throughout their storied career.
While most fans and critics alike cite the group’s 1989 debut LP 3 Feet High and Rising as the strongest album of their prolific catalog, I’ve always considered De La Soul is Dead their greatest achievement to date. In fact, I’d say it qualifies as one of my five favorite albums of all time, perhaps even cracking my top three. Released in the spring of 1991, De La Soul’s sophomore effort was a mainstay on my 5-disc CD changer and discman for the entire summer that followed. A grand repudiation of the misguided “hip-hop hippie” label that was bestowed upon the group after 3 Feet High and Rising’s breakout success, De La Soul is Dead showcases the group’s versatility and vitality, both sonically and lyrically, to a greater extent than its precursor does.
The Prince Paul produced LP as a whole represents a master-class in how to construct a cohesive, thoroughly entertaining song suite, though its first two singles warrant particular praise. Released roughly three months apart in the spring of 1991, “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” and “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” formed one of the most enthralling back-to-back single punches in the history of hip-hop and both tunes reverberated loudly throughout my summer. When I listen to each track, I’m instantly transported back to that more innocent and carefree period of my youth – just thirteen years old at the time), when few and far between were my responsibilities beyond kickin’ it with my friends and basking in the joie de vivre afforded by long hot summer days.
A glorious disco-tinged celebration of the respite and escapism we universally indulge in when the weekend arrives at long last, the euphoric “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” may very well be my favorite song EVER. No jive, no joke. To my ears, it sounds like sunshine on wax. Pure bliss. From Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons’ playful intro to Q-Tip’s evocative first verse to Posdnuos’ wistful admonishment to “slip your butt to the fix of this mix” to Dave’s invitation to “wet me for one, Mr. Sprinkler” to Vinia Mojica’s joyous chorus, this is the sound of a group that knows more than a thing or two about the simple pleasures in life. Sonically supported by the magnificent mélange of samples that includes The Mighty Ryeders‘ “Evil Vibrations,” Young Holt Unlimited’s “Light My Fire,” Frankie Valli‘s “Grease,” and Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park,” De La Soul is Dead’s lead single is the quintessential feel-good anthem of summer, or any season for that matter.
Eleven weeks after “Saturdays” surfaced and two weeks after the LP’s release, the threesome dropped another gem in the form of the cleverly conceived “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey).” It’s an unequivocally irresistible track driven by astute commentary, unabashed sarcasm, and the rousingly rhythmic groove propelled by the prominent sample of The Whatnauts’ “Help Is on the Way.” Playing upon our then-rampant dependence on answering machines—admittedly now considered an obsolete relic of yesteryear in our current smartphone-obsessed age—the song explores the group’s efforts in evading their sycophantic fans, the “rap bandits” masquerading as aspiring yet uninspired emcees who force their “wick-wick-wack” demo tapes upon the group. The memorable chorus chant (“Hey, how ya doin’ / sorry you can’t get through / why don’t you leave your name and your number / and I’ll get back to you”) actually draws direct inspiration from the now-obscure 1989 single “Name and Number” from the British pop quartet Curiosity Killed the Cat. Further testament to De La Soul and Prince Paul’s uncanny penchant for merging obscure samples with more recognizable fare (e.g., “Pass the Peas” by The J.B.’s) to create instantly unforgettable tunes that stick with you.
In the nearly twenty-five years since De La Soul is Dead’s arrival, the group has consistently released top-notch songs, albums, and mixtapes alike. Indeed, few hip-hop artists even remotely approach the quality and durability of De La Soul’s recorded catalog to date. And while I personally revisit and rejoice in their entire discography on a regular basis, “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” and “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” will forever remain the most immovable fixtures within my mental and actual De La Soul playlists.