De La Soul – “The Magic Number”

Okay, so after hearing out their new Kickstarter campaign to finance their next record (and chipping in a few bucks too) I felt compelled to write about  De La Soul, but you know what? I already put down the final word back on my old blog, so I decided to repost it. Without further ado…

I swear, it’s starting become some sort of demented withholding game in how long I can go without posting my absolute favorite groups.

And De La Soul? They are absolutely one of my most favorite groups… of all time. And when I say “all time,” I mean a Kanye-esque allll time. There are very few groups, both in and out of hip-hop music, which have come close to De La’s spontaneity, intelligence, humor, willingness to take risks, and consistency, and 20+ years in the game they’re still dedicated to making quality music.

Kelvin Mercer, A.K.A. Posdnous (backwards for “Soundsop”) or Plug One, David Jolicoeur A.K.A. Trugoy (backwards for yogurt, his fave snack) the Dove, Plug Two, and Vincent Mason A.K.A. P.A Pasemaster Mase, Maseo, or Plug Three, as well as super producer Prince Paul arrived on the scene in the late ’80s, and they brought with them a pop music revolution. As friends of the Jungle Brothers, and members of the Native Tongues, the group came to embody the Tongue’s dedication to create music which expressed themselves to the fullest. As educated teenagers from the suburbs (Amityville, Long Island to be exact), De La were unconcerned with the typical rap tropes of the day, and instead rapped about typical, tangible, everyday things which appealed to them. They simply did it in a manner unlike anything you had ever heard.

Enter Prince Paul.

A local deejay and producer, Paul Huston was the big man on De La’s block, as he was a member of a legit and prominent local rap group known as Stetsasonic (whom I gotta write about soon [2015 edit: ditto]). Paul had big dreams when it came to making music, but was frequently sidelined as a member of the Stet. When Pos, Dave, and Mase came to him with an offer to produce music for their debut, Paul jumped at the chance…and you should be damn happy that he did.

Paul and De La together were truly the stuff that dreams were made of. The group’s lack of experience, penchant for odd humor, and the fact that they were all on the same wavelength made for inspired music making. Their debut took shape as Transmitting Live From Mars, a record featuring De La as Plugs One, Two, and Three, coming at ya live from space. The concept didn’t last too long, and the record was eventually retooled as a game show with the members of the group as contestants searching for answers to some peculiar questions, scattered throughout the record. It is here where Paul began to really shine, employing small interstitial skits…the earliest rap skits. He also took to utilizing samples heavily, taking a page out of Public Enemy‘s sonic collages, but spinning it into a unique melange of records from all over the spectrum. Sure, there was the typical funk and R&B fare that rap at the time was all over, but Paul wasn’t afraid to borrow from country music (such as Johnny Cash), showtunes (Liberace. Yeah.), pop (Hall & Oates?), and hell, even children’s records. The Mickey Mouse Club couldn’t escape him. The debut began sounding more kaleidoscopic, freewheeling, and unique than than anything that had come before it, and when it hit in early 1989, 3 Feet High and Rising (the line from a Johnny Cash song), pretty much turned the scene on its head. De La won critical acclaim and attention from all over the spectrum and huge sales, many calling them the future of hip-hop and a shot in the arm to popular music. It also brought them some praise that they weren’t exactly fond of, but that’s a story for when I get to their next album.

3 Feet High and Rising is a terrific work. While not my favorite record from the group, it’s still a brilliant one, packed with spontaneity, jokes, and oddity. It was music by normal people. Normal, odd, people, and De La tackled peace, love, and unity, and urged you to just be yourself. It stood out amongst the typical “get money, get respect, cold chillin’” raps of the day, and influenced numerous artists for generations to come. Really, pretty much any rapper who isn’t afraid to be himself on the mic, no matter how anti-hard it may be, owes something to De La.

The one joint I always come back to (but then again, there are a lot of tracks from 3 Feet High which I come back to) is “The Magic Number,” a fan-freaking-tastic introduction to the group. Pos and Trugoy put on a hell of a performance, sharing their message of positivity and doing your own thing over a smashing beat which is the cross between a kids show (LOVE that sample from “Schoolhouse Rock!”) and an awesome drum break. Pushing the track into some “Good gravy, this is INCREDIBLE“-territory is a sample collage at the end where Paul goes wild, mixing in samples from all over the map (Eddie Murphy? Johnny Cash? Cybotron? Got-DAMN) to finish off strong. This is excellence right here.

Originally posted on my old Tumblr blog, Emaciated Wildebeest, on April 18, 2011.

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