De La Soul: Still Fly, Still Fresh
By Michael A. Gonzales
A few months back, I got into a minor Facebook tiff with an editor at MTV.ard
om simply because I criticized an article she’d assigned to writer David Turner that clowned De La Soul’s brilliant debut 3 Feet High and Rising. Having no history acknowledgement or sense of how 3 Feet High and Rising singularly helped paved the way for Black nerds like him to not get punched on the daily, Turner ranted about the “obvious samples,” declared that “De La Soul is no Major Lazer” and gave us a play-by-play of his bagel consumption and yoga moves. Born in ’92, Turner admits that he can’t really cope with much music that wasn’t made in his short lifetime, but then one must ask, why did he bother? Some have speculated that his attack on the Long Island-based b-boys was satire, but personally, I think the boy was serious as a heart attack.
3 Feet High Press Kit
Of course, folks have a right to express whatever opinion they want, but it was Turner’s self-indulgent, condescending tone that made me start waving my cane while demanding that he get off of my lawn. As music critic Ron Hart wrote in his NY Observer piece “Buffoon Mind State,” for which he also interviewed the De La men (who were more amused than angered by junior’s asshattery), “The stuff this guy was blathering on about in between complaints about a bagel—the collagist aspect of the sampling, the flows, the skits—is not just a knock on Posdnuos, Trugoy and Maseo, but the entire Golden Age of hip-hop in general.” Hitting the nail exactly, Hart summed up my feelings of Turner’s article in that one sentence.
As a card-carrying member of that 1989 “golden age,” I can still remember seeing De La Soul perform at Hotel Amazon and The World; I can still remember interviewing Stetasonic member Daddy-O, whose production partner Prince Paul was the sonic scientist behind De La, who told me, “You’re going to love this group.” I can still remember walking to the record shop after work to buy the album that I played continuously for days — I even taped it so I could roll with my Walkman — and I remember the thrill of reading “Yabba Dabba Doo-Wop,” Village Voice music critic Greg Tate’s review of the record.
Potholes in my Lawn
Years before people thought of themselves as “hip-hop writers,” Tate was part of a small posse of culture writers in the ‘80s (along with Nelson George, Lisa Jones, Barry Michael Cooper and Carol Cooper) at the New York alternative weekly, where all of them started, who were given carte blanche to be their intelligent Black selves in long-form essays, their own columns and music reviews. While most of his peers at the paper each had their own cool styles, Tate was a wild man, the record reviewer who had a million bugged ideas in his head.
“The way that he puts words and language together I’m clear has made Zora (Neale Hurston, and Jimmy (Baldwin) and Amiri Baraka proud,” says filmmaker Syreeta Gates, who is currently making Word is Bond, a film about old-school hip-hop writers. “Tate is without a doubt one of the greatest MCs of our time.” Dropping more science than Craig G., Tate’s pieces entertained and educated the readers while also having the perceptive detail of someone standing on the frontlines witnessing the cultural change firsthand. In “Yabba Dabba Doo-Wop,” which was later reprinted his 1992 collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk (1992), Tate was overjoyed about that “hip-hop vanguard” trio taking the genre from the street to the surreal, the gritty to the giddy.
Greg Tate/What is Hip-Hop
“We are consistently reminded of the album’s playful nature,” Gates says, “and how, in regards to the other rappers of the Island, (Public Enemy, EPMD) balances out the work. Tate has looked at the work, compared it, contrasted it, created his own opinion and then shared it in such a way that you trust his judgment. It’s not about him; it’s about Da La and the complexities that allow one to … as he wrote, ‘Being an off shade of black does not mean you got to be afraid of the funk.’”
In addition, De La Soul’s debut was just the beginning of their recorded brilliance, with the band having created more than a few amazing albums, including their first post-Prince Paul album Stakes is High (1996) and the slept-on greatness of AOI: Bionix (2001). Essayist and Catapult editor Mensah Demary says, “I occasionally revisit their older albums, particularly De La Soul is Dead (their 1991 sophomore album) for some reason. It’s an album I still find myself unpacking and reconsidering. As for De La’s longevity, I think it’s because they grew up with their fan base; their music changed as they changed, and their music always has a freshness to it. Few acts in hip hop, perhaps music in general, can make the same claim.”
A Rolling Skating Jam Called Saturday’s
Ring Ring Ring
Twenty-seven year after De La’s debut and Tate’s memorable “Yabba Dabba Doo-Wop” review, it’s almost mojo scary that both have projects dropping this month, proving that old school is still swinging and bringing the boogie to their chosen cultural specialties. For brother Tate, it’s Flyboy 2 (I love how the title reminds me of a B-movie shown in some 1980s Time Square theater), the wonderful follow-up to his ’92 collection of essays, while De La Soul is dropping the much anticipated and the Anonymous Nobody, their first album in 12 years.
After getting mad cash from a successful Kickstarter campaign, De La put their money where their considerable ambitions were and decided that instead of sampling songs in hip-hop’s traditional sense, they would conduct jam sessions with their touring band, Rhythm Roots Allstars, which producer/drummer Supa Dave West later sliced and diced to provide the project’s musical foundation. West, who has produced (along with the group) De La’s projects since 2000s Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, was first discovered by A Tribe Called Quest’s own Q-Tip and has been chillin’ with De La since their Stakes is High sessions, hanging tough with J. Dilla, Common, Mos Def and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from ATCQ.
“This album was more of an exploration for a certain sonic sensibility,” West says. “We took the material from those sessions and built a big archive of our own that we pieced and built from. As producers, we’re always listening for those musical moments that stand alone outside of what others are doing.”
While De La Soul can obviously hold their own on the microphone, and the Anonymous Nobody features some of the best guest spots I’ve heard in years, including the Pete Rock/Estelle weeper “Memory Of…,” the standout 2 Chainz rhymes on “Whoodeeni” and the odd David Byrne cut, “Snoopies.” One of the tracks De La Soul released in advance of the album includes the dreamy, potent Little Dragon collab “Drawn,” which is simply gorgeous. “That’s the perfect word to describe it,” Supa Dave says. “The mood of it, the beauty of it. It’s just a magical moment.”
As for Byrne’s contribution, Pos says, “Byrne was one of the first to participate in the album. We reached out to his management company, and he immediately got in touch with us. We began emailing each other back and forth, and he was really into creating something fresh. We’ve been fans of the Talking Heads and everything else he has been a part of for years, so having his involvement was an amazing moment for us.”
“I think the track that surprised me the most was the one with 2 Chainz,” I tell Pos. “I didn’t think I would like it as much as I did.” He laughs. “You know, when we reached out to 2 Chainz, we just wanted him to do the chorus, but he was like, ‘Naw, I want to do a rhyme.’ We were cool with that.”
De La and Rhythm Roots Allstars recorded at the legendary Vox Studios (formerly Electro Vox), where Nat King Cole, Henry Mancini and Charlie Parker immortalized their music. “That was an amazing studio, with that old equipment that gives you that feeling. It was a great place to work,” says Pos. “Recording there with the band jamming made me realize how those old school funk groups must’ve felt when they were in the studio jamming until they got a record.”
Old-school funk bands are something Tate obviously knows a lot about, but they certainly aren’t the only thing. Reading through his Flyboy 2 while headphone rockin’ to the advance of and the Anonymous Nobody, which provided the perfect soundtrack to Tate’s hot-like-fire/cold-as-an-iceberg provocative prose style that digs deep into an unrestrained world of Blackness that encompasses Richard Pryor and Kara Walker, Ice Cube and Toni Morrison, lesbians (“Born to Dyke” is one of my favorite pieces) and Afro-Futurism.
Tate, who long ago broke the chains of simply being “a hip-hop writer,” is the most hip-hop of Black cultural critics, with a daring, rich writing style that samples from the vastness of the planet and gives back textual treasures that have as much in common with the Bomb Squad or Prince Paul as they do with Albert Murray or Ralph Ellison. “Tate’s work is a constant reminder that there was something that came before you,” Gates asserts. “He always has one foot in and one foot out: one foot in the culture and the other that bridges generations to come together and talk about hip-hop.”
With their respective dope-as-hell projects, De La Soul and Greg Tate both prove that old school doesn’t mean old-fashioned; these are two great tastes that go great together.
Left of Blackness
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.