‘De La Soul Is Dead’ Made Us Nostalgic For Skits And Samples
11:45 AM EDT on May 5, 2023
Welcome to Defector Music Club, where a number of our writers will get together to dish about an album and share our favorite new music. This month, Israel Daramola, Lauren Theisen, and David Roth get together to discuss De La Soul Is Dead, the infamous 1991 followup to De La Soul's massive first album 3 Feet High and Rising.
Defector Listens To An Album: De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead
Israel Daramola: Right off the bat, what is your prior relationship to this album or De La in general?
Lauren Theisen: “Feel Good Inc.” would have been my intro to them, just hearing that on the radio when I was 10. And I specifically remember picking up their greatest hits CD when I was visiting Pittsburgh in 2012, but I don’t know exactly what connected those two threads, except maybe that I caught a couple of their early tracks in basketball video games. Before this week, though, I was mostly focused on 3 Feet High And Rising, which I got really into in my late teens because it was basically a pop record and the sample collage aspect really excited me.
I had an idea of this album as very misanthropic, because of the cover and title and because the few songs I knew—"Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa" and "Ring Ring Ring"—were purposely very unsettling and a middle finger to the hangers-on that fame attracts, respectively. But I ended up surprised because, for the most part, the record as a whole is way more playful than what most rap stars today are doing. (Imagine Post Malone trying his hand at “Oodles of O’s.”) If it weren’t for the marketing campaign, which tried with all its might to position this as a darker turn from De La’s “hippie” image, Dead would feel like a very natural second-album evolution.
ID: De La is one of those groups I feel like I’ve always known about before actually listening to. They were the other important New York rap group after Tribe. I probably consumed the 3 Feet High singles first, but I distinctly remember De La is Dead as the first album I listened to, specifically because of its reputation as their “angry” record. My initial take was that it wasn’t all that angry or even dark. But it was pretty funny, and they seemed to be having a lot of fun taking aim at all their critics and the industry.
David Roth: It’s probably as close to a lifelong relationship as I have with any music. I can tell you where I was when I heard De La Soul Is Dead and who I was with; when I listened to it again for this, I took the CD out of one of those Case Logic binders to do so. I had 3 Feet High And Rising on cassette. It is a tribute to modern medicine and my own clean living that I am somehow not typing these sentences from beyond the grave.
What I remember being struck by, first, was how funny the record is, and how many strange in-jokes are threaded through it. My memory of listening to it the first time is basically a memory of sitting around a portable CD player on the floor of my friend Mike’s house and he and our friend Luis and me just laughing at the weird noises and samples and voices they were doing and (sorry) the skits. I would have been in seventh grade, I guess.
LT: Just the presence of skits in general has been a jarring aspect of De La’s arrival on Spotfy, for me. I used to cut any album’s skits from my iPod, because I didn’t like them coming up on shuffle, and obviously no one does them today. I’m mixed about rehearing them here. On this record the spoken-word stuff is central to the overall experience, and some line deliveries did genuinely make me chuckle. (“What do you know about music, hamster-penis?”) But in other cases, like on 3 Feet, I just want to go from “Plug Tunin’” to “Buddy” without hearing a minute of sex noises. It can get old.
DR: One thing that people listening to this on streaming will miss is that the CD/record booklet contains a literal rap-along storybook. There’s a visual representation of that weird gag threaded through the album. It’s not the way I’d recommend listening to the record, but you can absolutely follow the action from the skits through their cartoon renderings in there.
LT: Goddamn, I’m actually upset to have missed out on that.
ID: I must confess I kinda like the skits. They’re nostalgic more than anything. There’s certainly too many of them for sure, but on Dead, the radio skits using Joe Sample’s “In All My Wildest Dreams,” are a good vibe setter (you might most recognize it as the sample used for 2pac’s “Dear Mama”). I agree about the 3 Feet High interludes being a bit obnoxious though.
DR: The skits are not the best part of the record—it would be very bad if the skits were the best part of any record—but I think the amount of work that went into the sequencing and weird overall narrative of the record is part of what makes it work. Also what makes it frustrating and strange. I think part of what connected for me when I first heard the record was the way it felt like smart, strange young guys trying to speak their piece and crack each other up in about equal measure. I couldn’t really relate to, like, the pressures and pitfalls of fame and rap radio airplay or whatever. But it felt like something I could understand.
LT: It’s not exactly a skit, but I do want to highlight “Kicked Out The House'' as one of my favorite moments on this album. It starts with a very cocky Trugoy the Dove intro about how De La’s stuff is better than house music, and then it’s 30 seconds of a pretty dang catchy dance beat that devolves into self-sabotage and ends in under two minutes. It’s such a flex, and outside of the big singles, it’s a great example of how this group was just overflowing with goofy creativity at this time.
DR: Classic Prince Paul stuff there. I love him the most, and I think this is one of the apexes of his whole weird thing. He puts so much more effort into everything than is necessary; all the gags are both piled-high and like very obviously crafted much more than is strictly necessary.
ID: I chose De La Soul Is Dead for this because of all their albums, it’s the one that most closely acts like a statement of purpose for their career. It combines their in-jokes and zany insanity with also their skills as absolute rhyme marksmen. But what was the album you were most excited to finally have on streaming?
DR: /extremely has all the records on CD voice “Well, as a 71-year-old man,”
LT: Oh it was 100 percent 3 Feet, just because of the number of times I get little pieces of that record stuck in my head—“Three is the magic number,” the Otis Redding whistles on “Eye Know”—and how I wanted more convenient access to those songs. But in general, even if it’s still incomplete—some samples had to be tweaked, the “Buddy” remix isn’t around—it’s just nice to have a group this singular and important not be disappeared from hip-hop because of some dumb lawyer issues. Legalize sampling!
DR: My favorite record of theirs is Buhloone Mindstate. It’s one of my favorite records period. But because of the way the music business is now, which broadly speaking is “bad, and scared” I really thought that these albums would never be available. There are so many samples, and I just figured there wasn’t the appetite to jump through the hoops that those presented. I’ll confess I don’t know exactly what the deal was with Tommy Boy Records where all this was concerned, but it just had that feeling of a lot of the cultural link rot we see in this moment—no one with any leverage or will really seemed to care about keeping this work where people could see or hear it.
ID: If I had to guess, just by the fact that there are still a few Tommy albums not streaming anywhere, they were probably apathetic. It didn’t seem like they always loved fighting for the samples while the guys were making the album in the first place, and there are still a few samples missing here and there (maybe old man Roth can fill us in). We will need a whole other highly reported blog about whether or not the Turtles are the most consequential group in all of music for their lawsuit.
DR: Oh wow, I was just listening to my dumb CD. I am going to check on Spotify and see what sounds different.
ID: What are your favorite songs on Dead? Least Favorite? I go "Oodles of Os," "Millie Pulled A Pistol," "Ring Ring Ring," and quietly "Talkin Bout Hey Love" as the ones I return to most. I gotta be perfectly honest, I’ve never totally seen it for “A Roller Skating Jam,” and the group’s hatred of that record feels like a sort of vindication.
LT: I must admit to loving the pop songs: “Saturdays” and “Ring Ring Ring” in particular. And if the album ended after “Ring Ring Ring,” frankly, I wouldn’t be all that bummed. This is a marathon listen.
DR: I’ll interrupt my forensic Spotify re-listen to second that “Saturdays” and “Ring Ring Ring” especially—the “Help Is On The Way” sample in the second was maybe the first true ear-worm experience of my life—but even the stuff that’s somewhat dated is dated in the same way that I am. There’s a kind of stabbing guitar chord sample in (the very goofy horniness anthem) “Let Let Me In” that would show up in a Muggs beat for Cypress Hill a few years later. It’s just Proust madeleines all the way down for me.
That said, I’m not so in the tank for it that I can’t admit Lauren’s right. There’s a lot of shtick in here, within songs and between songs, and you do start to feel it by the end of the 27 (!) tracks.
ID: One thing I don’t miss about '90s rap records is the length. All those albums are incredibly bloated and this is before we get to the double album era. An album should be under 45 minutes I’ve always said!
LT: So particularly because the climate around sampling became so much more strict, and also because of the move away from 75-minute records, I’ve been wondering what De La would be if their members were born in, say, the late ‘90s. Would they be meme rappers? Mash-up DJs? 100 gecs collaborators? More specifically, does De La Soul Is Dead feel like a curiosity from its era or something that can fit in with what’s happening now, whether that’s hyperpop or hip-hop or any other genre.
ID: I can’t decide if this is an insult (and to whom) but they’d probably be JPEGMAFIA. Much darker, just as referential but expressed much differently, without 5,000 samples per song, unfortunately. They’d probably save a lot of their jokes for Twitter also.
I think Dead is still the first De La album I’d recommend to someone, but it’s absolutely a product of a time. If you wanted something closer to fitting in today, I’d tell someone to listen to Stakes Is High. Underground rap still feels very indebted to that one in a way that all the stylistic offspring to 3 Feet High and Dead have long pushed past it musically.
DR: I will say that while so much about this album especially scans as antique to me—”Ring Ring Ring” is about thirsty aspiring rappers playing their demos onto an answering machine that no one listens to, and almost everything except thirstiness there barely exists anymore as a concept or technology—it also sounded kind of lush and textured in a way that also feels kind of antique. There’s just a lot of work that went into it, and a lot of obvious thought, even and especially where it’s silly or self-satirizing. I don’t necessarily know what that would translate into, but it has a real density and real lightness about it that I think is unique. I don’t know if Lauren’s doing a spoof/goof with the 100 Gecs shout there but it makes a weird sort of sense to me just in terms of the work-rate and the ornate layers of in-joke. That’s a compliment.
LT: “I hold my crotch cause I'm top-notch. I run 'em up like Sasquatch, and I like to eat live crab. I've got five beepers, you scab” would be a good tweet.
Defector's Favorite Jams Right Now
Tony Shhnow - Love Streak
On the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, a lot of time is being spent evaluating the state of rap music and whether things are worse, or way worse, than they used to be. I can't pretend that there aren't issues, particularly as algorithmic streaming services and corporate brands dictate what becomes popular and turns music into math, but outside the biggest records in the country, rap is still as weird and inventive as ever. This year alone there have been cool, nostalgia-friendly (but not encompassing) records by great rapper-producer combos (Larry June & Alchemist, Curren$y & Jermaine Dupri), there have been exciting, genre-mashing offbeat, experimental projects (Danny Brown/JPEGMAFIA, bktherula) and there have been some dope new trap-heavy projects (Luh Tyler, Young Nudy).
NBA Youngboy might be the biggest rapper in music, strictly from a numbers perspective, but you wouldn't know it based on how little he's covered by the mainstream press. He's perfected his generation's version of what Pimp C would call "country rap tunes," appealing to the flyover parts of America as opposed to the coastal tastemakers, similarly to how artists like Gucci Mane and Boosie Badazz once did. But my favorite rap album of the year so far might be the one that just came out over the last weekend. Tony Shhnow's Love Streak is his version of a romance record just in time for the summer.
Following right after a similarly themed (and named) Don Toliver project, Shhnow attempts to share his own vulnerabilities and toxic behaviors over a number of R&B-inflected production. He's one of the more exciting and interesting rappers of the past couple years and each project improves upon the last as he further grows into his own.
Steely Dan - Greatest Hits, Side 4
I'm sure Steely Dan has a bunch of compilations that were targeted for the Best Buy checkout aisle and are now just redundantly sitting with the rest of their discography, but I'm specifically talking about the record that came out in 1978. It is perhaps the only greatest hits album in history to end as strong as it begins, owing to the fact that puts the previously unreleased song on side three, moves chronologically otherwise, and came out right after the funky masterpiece Aja.
The final two tracks here, off that album, are "Peg" and "Josie," which I can scientifically prove are among the best songs ever to play on a sunny afternoon when it's hit 70 degrees for the first time all year. But also don't sleep on "The Fez," which is a deeper cut from The Royal Scam and directly precedes these two certified smashes. Apparently it's about safe sex, which is a noble cause, but I'm mostly here for that slinky keyboard riff.