De La Soul
De La Soul are the first artist to feature twice in our Classic Album section; in February, I took a look at their classic début, Three Feet High and Rising. Now I am turning my attention to the third of their opening trilogy of stone cold classic albums, Buhloone Mindstate, from 1993. De La had exploded onto the scene in 1989 with Three Feet, and then immediately felt the need to distance themselves from the D.A.I.S.Y. Age and their image as peace-loving hippies. Their second album, 1991’s De La Soul is Dead could not have made that any clearer, beginning with the album cover, which was of daisies in a pot tipped over to kill them. It was met with universal acclaim, The Source gave it five mics, one of the first albums to be so lauded. So, to borrow from their 1996 album title, states was high as De La began to conceptualise Buhloone Mindstate.
This was the third and last album where De La worked with Prince Paul, the groundbreaking producer who brought his magic to both Three Feet and Dead. This also marked a stylistic and conceptual shift away from their earlier sounds, it was more jazzy, bass-heavy and Pos and Dove sounded pissed off on much of the album. They were pissed about the state of hip hop, of commercial sellouts, of what they saw as the fake promise of the Native Tongues movement, with Pos declaring in ‘In the Woods,’ Yo that native shit is dead.’
The results are glorious. De La will always be seen in the light of the Native Tongues movement, along with Tribe, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and a few others, and 1993 was a good year for the movement. The J-Beez had dropped J Beez wit the Remedy in June. In mid-November, the Queen dropped Black Reign on our heads, a couple of weeks after Tribe released their classic Midnight Marauders, which itself came about 6 weeks after Buhloone Mindstate.
It wasn’t until spring 1994 that I got my hands on both Midnight Marauders and Buhloone Mindstate, not long after I got my first CD player. Me and my friend, Tanya, had gone to Zulu Records on West 4th Ave in Vancouver and scooped up a whole bunch of stuff. These two hip hop albums were the best of my haul and they became steady presences in my rotation, and have remained to today.
‘Buhloone’ is a phonetic spelling of the word ‘ballon’ and the band’s thesis is laid down on the very first track, ‘Intro,’ as we get the sound of a ballon being filled up whilst the lads chant ‘It might blow up, but it won’t go pop’ until, predictably, the balloon bursts. This was a manifesto for the album, which addressed African Americans crossing over, and how they’d historically been made to seem ‘less threatening’ for white consumption.
By 1993, De La Soul were amongst the heavyweights of hip hop, and they brought in former P-Funk hornmen, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, as well as Pee Wee Ellis. Guru of the mighty Gang Starr dropped by for a guest appearance. Biz Markie, who seemed ubiquitous in those days, drops by, as does Dres of Black Sheep. Shortie No Mass, a rapper and singer from Philly, appears on several tracks, as do the Japanese rappers Scha Dara Parr and Tagaki Kan.
I remember the first time I dropped this album into my discman for the ride out to the University of British Columbia. By then, I had relocated from a very skuzzy punk rock home, The Motordome, we called it, to a more sedate basement flat on West 20th with my Main Man Mike. The ride to school, though, seemed to take just as long, despite moving some 6km closer to UBC than I had been. The long and short is that whilst the number 25 bus made its way along West King Edward to Dunbar St, and then down to West 16th to the University Endowment Lands and UBC, I had a lot of time to listen to music, whilst staring out the window at the endless rain.
I pressed play on the discman as I stepped out the door and put my umbrella up. It was a soggy walk five blocks south to catch the 25, and by the time the bus came, I was into track 6, ‘Long Island Wildin’,’ which features DSP and Takagi Kan in what was then one of the most mind-blowing hip hop tracks I had ever heard. The album was over by the time we had turned down Dunbar, and I pressed play again, and getting to track 7, ‘Ego Trippin’ (Part 2)’ before I got off the bus and made my way into the Student Union Building (SUB) to get some tea before going off to class. I can’t remember what class it was. But I do remember getting to class, and this guy I sat with asking me what I had picked up at Zulu, we’d been talking about my impending trip the last class. I told him all about the De La. He left after class to get his own copy.
Anyway. After the Intro, ‘Eye Patch’ kicks into this sweet groove. Dove (now known as Dave) and Podnous always trade verses on De La songs, they don’t go for the one guy does one song, the other does the next bit. And Pos dropped a rhyme about knocking up his girlfriend and the birth of his daughter, Ayana Monet. That rides into ‘En Focus,’ where Shortie No Mass makes her first appearance, as Dove and Pos rap about the fame and money (well, not so much of that) that had come their way since 1989. Meanwhile, Shortie plays a clubber who runs into Dres from Black Sheep. She’s all excited to meet him, asks who he’s with. He says he’s with his man Pos, to which she responds, clearly in an uninterested voice, ‘Oh yeah, Positive Play, oh, I like his music.’ De La have had a lot of fun poking fun at themselves for their fame and fortune, perhaps never greater than their appearance on the Judgement Night soundtrack (a forgettable film with a soundtrack pairing hip hop artists with rockers) with Teenage Fanclub, ‘Fallin’.’ And the continue this theme in ‘Ego Trippin’ (Part Two).’
‘Patti Dooke’ gets its name from an 80s dance craze, somehow based on the real life Patty Duke, a child actor who resurfaced in the 80s with a talk show (apparently, I have no recollection of this). But the song itself is about the misappropriation of black culture, starting in no uncertain terms with a sample from the 1991 film The Five Heartbeats:
‘Patti Dooke’ lays itself out in blunt, no uncertain terms, with an opening sample from the film, The Five Heartbeats (1991), with one of the characters saying: ‘Why do we have to cross over? Why are niggas always crossing over, huh? I mean, what’s the matter, huh? They can accept our music as long as they can’t see our faces?’ The track itself is a bouncy, jazzy beat, and Guru provides the chorus, his monotonal voice standing in contrast to the flowing voices of Dove and Pos. Pos’ verses are blunt:
I’m known as the farmer
Cultivatin’ mate without mendin’
Bendin’, comprimising any of my styles to gain a smile
Listen while you hear it
There’s no pink in my slip
I reckon that the rhythm and the blues in the rap got me red
While the boys from Tommy plant bridge crossin’ to a larger community.
Funk to the fame against hoods
Bridges saggin’ to woods down under
They can’t be raised with the feminine praise
In conjunction with no chocolate in the mix
White boy Roy cannot feel it
But the first to try and steal it
Dilute it, pollute it, kill it
I see him infiltratin’ to the masses
And when the leechin’ I mo shoot ’em all in they asses.
In between, another sample from The Five Heartbeats continues the argument, as a pretty stereotypically white voice says, ‘We decided to change the cover a little bit, because we see the big picture: negroes and white folks buying this album.’ And then another voice says ‘Everybody’s gonna know who this group is, we just felt that the picture wasn’t as important as it was that we succeed in crossing over.’ This is followed by one of the singers, angry, ‘Cross over ain’t nothin’ but a double cross. Once we lose our audience, we’re never gonna get them back. He may even try to change our sound.’
For me, the peak of the album comes with four tracks on the backside: ‘Area,’ ‘I Am I Be,’ and ‘In The Woods,’ and ‘Breakadawn,’ tracks 10 to 13. ‘Area’ sees De La touring around the country, referring to the cities they’ve visited and all the fun they’d had by area codes, including a shoutout to one of my favourite cities, Chattanooga, TN.
‘I Am I Be’ begins with Pos dropping one of the angriest, most bitter rhymes of his career:
I am Posdnous
I be the new generation of slaves
Here to make papes to buy a record exec rakes
The pile of revenue I create
But I guess I don’t get a cut cuz my rent’s a month late
Product of a North Carolina cat
Who scratched the back of a pretty woman named Hattie
Who departed life just a little too soon
And didn’t see me grab the Plug Tune fame
As we go a little somethin’ like this
Look ma, no protection
Now I got a daughter named Ayana Monet
And I can play the cowboy to rustle in the dough
So the scenery is healthy where her eyes lay
I am an early bird but the feathers are black
So the apples that I catch are usually all worms.
And he wasn’t wrong, of course. De La never did see a lot of money, largely through their record deal with Tommy Boy. ‘I Am I Be’ also includes some comedy, as Pos, Dove, Shortie, Busta Rhymes and a few others state their names and we get the legendary Bob Power saying, ‘I am Bob and I be really, really tired of this.’
Dove brings the party on in ‘In the Woods’ and drops one of the best rhymes of his long career (with Shortie playing the response to his call):
Hey yo you feel that shit? (Yeah, it feels good)
Well, it’s that thumpin shit (Well, I’m soakin too)
I’ll introduce the split (I’ll be the go) I’ll be the get
Fixin’ with the ins for the outs we set
Hey Shortie (yeah mister) Make no mistake
I challenge the bang for a bigger rhyme bouquet
(You be buggin’) Well I bugs like roaches on rugs
Speaker of the bone like the speaks in my loans
Give me the night baby and I’ll be good in the woods
Ya freakin my mind, ya freakin my mind
I told the Maceo bout the days that go (He know!)
I know he know cuz he’s out to get the gold
The Chattanooga cruisin’ with the Malibu shit
The bigger of the isa (Cuz he is the shit)
I’m like hickory (dickory, n*****!)
I make you feel lost like high school history
Creator of the rhymin dominoes
Watchin ’em drop it’s the joint see
So hit me with the Zsa Zsa (indeed darling)
The coolest fool, be the coolest fool
I know the watch be in the air but I kick a new bucket
Sippin it with Shortie so check the way we cuff it
It’s that Indonesian funk up in your trunk
Makin’ ya bob bob makin’ ya bob.
I was a History major in undergrad, though, and I took exception to Dove saying History was boring. I am a History professor now, and I agree with him. Man, I spend soooo much time teaching against high school history curricula. Not that I am blaming high school history teachers, but those who create the curriculum and its bases in facts, dates, names, and rote memorization, even now, in 2020.
Pos, for his part, continues to drop science:
Punch that O for operator baby its a love solid
I been stylin’ abstract since loose leafs was the shit
Catch me breathin’ on planes where the gangsta’s outdated
Fuck being hard, Posdnuos is complicated
As my pants play the sagatogah I can order sniffs of
Cuz I freak MCs with the rhythm rock live
(Man I’d rather point a pistol at ya head and try to burst it)
No jive in the matter so n***** start runnin’
Yo that native shit is dead so the stickabush is comin’
(Stickabush) it’s comin’ (Stickabush) (it’s here)
Fuck the five count it only takes three to bring it near
So let me move ya won better as the salad is tossed
And get a taste of the Mase that you thought was lost.
And then we get some wicked, blistering cuts and scratches from Maseo, the third member of De La Soul, the DJ.
And then, ‘Breakadawn.’ Damn, if this isn’t one of the greatest songs, let alone hip hop songs, of all time. Beginning with a pleasant jazz opening, the drums kick in and then the beat takes over. And then Dove and Pos prove their skills. Dove has since reinvented his style of rapping, but in the day, he was fluid, versatile, and form-shifting. Pos here brings back the Native Tongues (turns out he wasn’t as bitter as he sounded in ‘In The Woods,’ but, as he noted, he was complicated:
Pass the task to ask me bout the Native Tongue again my friend
I tell you Jungle Brothers On the Run (ah one two, ah one two)
I’m shakin hands with many devils in the industry
Believe the Genesis like Phil with stills mean that I’m def
So like the autographs you sign until the…
De La’s album sales for their first three albums declined from the Platinum Three Feet to the Gold Dead to Buhloone, which, whilst it charted, failed to sell like its predecessors. This was a crying shame, as this is a masterpiece of an album, proven by the glowing reviews it got in 1993 and how it has been viewed in the years since. For me, this is the high point of De La’s career. Gone was the playful nature of their first two albums, gone were the skits (which they pretty much invented) and in was the hardness of the beats, the freaky flow of Pos and Dove, and Pos’ growing anger and politicization.
This was also, of course, their swan song with Prince Paul, who encouraged them to work with other producers, and beginning with 1996’s Stakes is High, they did so. Mid-career De La, which stretches from then through 2004’s Grind Date (which also marked their creative nadir) saw them reinvent their sound, tricked out with bigger and harder beats, and a more focused look on both the African American experience in the US, the state of hip hop, as well as a good party. It seemed they were a spent force after Grind Date, though. And then, out of nowhere, Pos and Dave, in 2012, collaborated with French DJs Chokolate and Khalid. I have no idea where Mase was in all of this. But this seemed to revive the rappers, especially Dave, who had re-jigged his flow and sounded fresh, young and vital. Eventually, the three of them got back together and crowd funded their most recent album, De La Soul and the Anonymous Nobody, a stunning return to form, in 2016. Incidentally, that was their first #1 album on the R&B charts since Three Feet High and Rising.