De La’s Soul

by Cassie Haas

Occasionally media outlets will do these interviews where they ask folks what the objects they can’t live without are. Be that personal items, fancy jewelry, or in the case of Danny Pudi, socks and a good cup of coffee. I generally stay away from these as the lives of celebrities and those with amounts of money I’ll never even be in proximity to within my lifetime don’t interest me. That being said, I often wonder what those items are for me. I come back to a few each time: my Nikon D3500 camera, my blanket made from shirts I grew up with I received as a graduation gift from my Mom(thank you Mom), and my CD copy of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. Now this last one is interesting, because I don’t own a CD player. Well, I did when I inherited my Dad’s old desktop he made in the early 2000’s. And there was a brief period of driving a 2005 Toyota Prius named Francis that housed both a CD and a cassette tape player. Vintage! But now, nothing. The CD sits on the lower shelf of my bookcase next to my vinyl records in the warm company of The Fugees and Jim Croce. Haven’t used it in years. Besides, I can listen to it at any point I want from wherever I want due to the modern age of streaming. And yet, it remains there still.

When De La dropped 3 Feet in 1989, they were at the forefront of a new wave of hip hop coming out of New York. By no means the first group that experimented with jazz rap, they were among a group of likeminded creatives in the newly formed Native Tongues collective. While somewhat short lived(by only 4 years later Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest is quoted saying “that native shit is dead”), by the release of High and Rising the collective had already grown to include De La, ATCQ, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, and Monie Love. They were a group dedicated to their Afrocentric roots, calling back to the past with samples of music created by those who came before them to address the life and beauty of the modern age amidst an era of gangster rap that emphasized being hardcore and individualized from others.

Where ATCQ and the like tended to take some pride in sampling the deep cuts, spending hours in the record store looking for what would work just right, De La grasped for what sounded good. Of course this isn’t to say Tribe didn’t sound good—they have my favorite three album run ever—but it’s undeniable that De La went for the heavy hitters. Steely Dan, The Turtles, Hall and Oates, Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, The Isley Brothers, and those were just some of the names on their first album. They continued this trend through their next few albums, sampling the big names and turning them into something new and beautiful entirely in its own unique way. I hesitate to call them unlucky as their peers were already avoiding the trap they would soon fall into, but these works came at a new age in music legality. Groups started to get somewhat peeved at De La’s usage of their music on De La’s own releases. In 1991, The Turtles filed a lawsuit against De La Soul for a whopping $2.5 million dollars with Mark Volman of The Turtles somewhat famously claiming that “sampling is just a longer term for theft”. Other groups would come forward and air their grievances as time went on, but repercussions would not truly show themselves until the streaming era. For years and years none of De La’s 80s or 90s releases were available anywhere digitally due to legality reasons. The only way to access them were through the CD or the vinyls that were pressed. 

I grew up in Columbus, my Mom in Youngstown, and that’s as far back as I know. Grandma Cookie was alive just long enough to see me into this world and then was lost to the home my Mom and my uncle grew up in as it engulfed her in flames. Willa Crawford was her given name, and my mother knew Willa’s mother, but Lord help me if I could tell you a thing about her. I think of our generations as being compact; Mom was only 22 when I was born, and it wasn’t far off in distance from her own Mom. Each of us knows nothing. Lord, the remaining family recently attended a military funeral for Cookie in Northeast Ohio. It was the whole shebang, so to speak. Three rifle volleys, a folded flag, a speech. Only me, Mom, my step-dad, my uncles and my uncle’s wife were there to see it. We had always known she was in the Navy(hence this ceremony taking place at all, especially 18 years after she passed), but it wasn’t until arriving at her plot in the cemetery that any of us learned she used to be a drill sergeant. A drill sergeant! We laughed, of course. There was a mutual understanding that there was so little we did know that finding this out couldn’t even be classified as a surprise. This is all to say that the history of my family is dwindling, and will continue to do so.

So when I say that De La Soul is and was reaching back into the past through the music, I mean it. It’s the only way I’m able to reach into my family’s history myself. I’ll never know exactly whether this is what Pos, or Mase, or Trugoy intended when they joined forces together—after all, they were just high schoolers looking to have fun. I’ll never know my grandparents, or their parents, or their history, and especially not the music they listened to. Oftentimes though, I think of the samples they used as a place to sit alongside them. I’m not radically spiritual, but to think of it as a front porch in the summer, sipping iced tea alongside them—it helps. Trugoy the Dove passed at 54 on February 12th of this year. Just a few weeks after that, on March 3, 2023, the albums made their way to streaming services for a new generation of listeners to experience. Legal issues were finally cleared up after years of fighting between De La Soul, labels(including their own), and other artists. Less than three weeks between his death and their release. It seems sometimes that the world is against preservation. His music will finally now have a chance to live on, but it took until his passing to do so.

The story goes that Me Myself and I was originally created in just a day, whipped up as a final addition to the album as a joke by the group. Their label had been requesting a song that would be a hit, something that would make it to the radio. De La laughed them off and created something entirely their own, their interpretation of a radio hit. Their joke was successful, of course, and is how many know the group today. But it did start as just that: a joke. In that moment, a group of friends, freshly graduated from high school, playing with samples from Funkadelic, the Ohio Players, Edwin Birdsong and more in Mase’s mother’s basement, created a time machine. A time machine I enter as often as I need, less than I need if I’m being honest with myself, to quietly sit on the porch on a sunny day with that family I’ll never know, and will never know me.

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