Arts, Column

Stitzel: De La Soul Isn’t Dead 

Stuck in a music rut? Ready to delete Spotify after your New Music Friday playlist lets you down for the third week in a row? 

Your favorite new music release might be 30 years old. 

Last month, hip-hop trio De La Soul, formed in Long Island, N.Y., finally released its first six albums to streaming services. The band has been producing music since 1988 to profound success in the hip-hop world, so why are listeners just now hearing about it?

I first heard De La Soul’s 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising on a CD. My dad bought it from a Target in Poway, Calif. when he was a teenager. It made its way to my parents’ CD binder and now resides permanently in my car’s CD player. Until last month, this was the only way I—or anyone else—could listen to it.

When De La Soul’s albums became available digitally, my dad was able to listen in a way his CD had never allowed. He texted me entire paragraphs analyzing the lyrics and watched YouTube videos explaining the production process. Learning the samples and ideas behind the catchy rhythms became addictive for him. 

“Set aside a legal substance to feed ‘em / For now, get ‘em high off this dialect drug,” De La Soul sings in “The Magic Number,” the first track of its first album.

“Dialect drug” is the perfect self-description of De La Soul’s music. Its early albums incorporated some of the catchiest samples across hip-hop and soul into its songs, from James Brown to Run-D.M.C. This creative production style, however, was its downfall.

De La Soul has been taking advantage of the digital music revolution since its infancy, using digital sound production and mixing techniques to enhance its rap with samples from across musical genres. The band helped popularize sampling, and much of the remix-style hip-hop released today wouldn’t exist without its inspiration. But the digital revolution also took advantage of De La Soul.

Digital music streaming’s explosion began in the late ’90s and early 2000s, first with Napster in 1999, then with more regulated platforms like iTunes in 2001 and Pandora in 2005. 2001 also happened to be the year De La Soul released AOI: Bionix, its sixth studio album. The album, and all five previous ones, never made it to this new form of media.

Because digital streaming platforms are heavily regulated by copyright laws, seeking permission before putting an artist’s music on a monetized site is a legal matter not taken lightly. De La Soul was so early to the sampling trend that, unlike current artists, it didn’t have to seek permission for its samples.

When the band wanted to release the music digitally, this became a problem. Its first album alone contains around 60 samples from various artists, movies, and even political figures. It is what makes the album great. Clever verses and humorous themes are supplemented by musical history’s greatest beats and riffs, plus some lesser-known samples that only add to the sound.

In order to clear the albums for release, the band first had to regain ownership of their music. Most artists don’t own the copyrights to their own songs—those belong to the production or distribution label. De La Soul has a history of dispute with labels, and it has sung about lack of control over their music and label pressure as early as its second album.

“Head full of dreads / But knowledge inside / Singin’ on records, makin’ it hectic / Wishin’ it all would fall and die,” the trio sings on “Pass the Plugs,” from its second album De La Soul Is Dead. 

Even early in the band’s career, the members expressed frustration with the records they were expected to create and the stereotypes they felt their label created of them. Finally, in 2021, Reservoir Media acquired De La Soul’s old label, Tommy Boy Music, and allowed the hip-hop trio to recover the rights to its songs. 

The final step to releasing De La Soul’s music was going through every single sample in every song, identifying it, and clearing it for digital use. Written when the members were just 17 years old, “The Magic Number” samples artists from Johnny Cash to Eddie Murphy to former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The manual tracking process the band went through to clear these samples is something many modern artists could never imagine doing.

Painstakingly produced, the track is just one example of how De La Soul’s music speaks to listeners of all genres and generations. Its lyrics feel as relevant today as they did in 1989.

“Common are speakers who honor the scroll / Scrolls written daily creates a new sound,” raps member Vincent Mason, better known by his stage name Maseo. 

Creating a new sound is exactly what De La Soul did. Released from the confines of car radios and record players, the trio’s music feels fresh to a whole new generation. Next time you’re wandering on Spotify, check them out. You’ll realize why De La Soul went through all of this trouble 30 years later.

April 19, 2023