It has to be tough to be De La Soul. The group’s 1989 debut ’3 Feet High and Rising’ was enough of a statement for NME to call it the album of the year way back when rap wasn’t nearly as mainstream as it is today. The natural reaction to the critical and commercial success that came with their first LP was for the three New Yorkers to keep doing what they did best. Now eight albums into a career that spans 25 years, they’ve never touched the dizzying heights of 1989 in the interim and, barring some fortuitous coming together of the aging rap stars, it’s unlikely that they’ll get there again. Aside from appearing on a Grammy-winning collaboration with Gorillaz back in 2005 for ‘Feel Good Inc‘ (a track I believed, at the time, was the best pop song ever written), there’s little chance you’ve really heard of them recently. The trio occupied the same buzzing space as A Tribe Called Quest back in the late 80s, helped launch Mos Def and have been cited as key influencers for the (pre-Fergie era) Black Eyed Peas and yet they’ve now been consigned to the dustbin of history and the occasional, sensational guest spot, helping out old mate Damon Albarn.
All of this might well be the reason that I’ve become vaguely invested in the group over the last few years. In the way that everyone does, I like to appreciate bands and artists before it is cool to appreciate them. Where countless young’uns can be seen strutting the streets in Eazy-E & Ren & Dre & Ice Cube or Q-Tip & Phife Dawg & Ali Shaheed tees (I have actually seen the latter), the prospect of seeing such a kid sporting a Posdnuos & Dave & Maseo V-neck gets slimmer by the day. Much of early era hip-hop doesn’t make for easy listening. The contextual clash means that we are so used to hyper-produced 808s, lyrics geared towards our commercial/relational pursuits and vocals perfectly executed that the notion of a trip down memory lane is only for those with strong stomachs. That contrast is particularly harsh when it comes to De La Soul – not because their early material is too different production-wise from much of what was released at the time, but because thematically, the guys are total oddballs. I’m safe in my burgeoning respect for the crew, I think, because their older tunes smack of strange rather than blissful nostalgia.
‘All Good’, from the group’s turn of the millenium fifth studio album ‘Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump’ is no exception to the rule. If there is one hangover, eleven years after the release of ’3 Feet High and Rising’ on this fifth outing, it’s that the lads obviously know how to use samples to full effect. With tight guitar riffs and a warm bass line forming the core of the beat, De La invited soul legend Chaka Khan to play into the funkiness of the whole enterprise. But while this strong musicality is what hooked me a couple of weeks ago when I re-heard the track in a bar and ostensibly keeps De La Soul relevant in such noisy environs, it masks the true weirdness of lyricism which alternatively takes in haters, highly ambiguous references to sexual activity and pizza metaphors. ‘All Good’ is typically strange from the group that brought us answering-machine-message-as-song but equally, strangely addictive. This is an instance when the legacy doesn’t match the talent. The Source magazine put it best when including their debut in their best 100 hip-hop albums of all time; De La Soul’s “true genius is rarely understood.”
De La Soul – All Good Ft. Chaka Kahn