If you go around a room of hip-hop fans and ask them what the greatest rap album of all time is, there are a handful of albums that will inevitably get mentioned. Someone will bring up A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. Nas’s Illmatic will certainly crop up in the discussion. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back might get a mention or two, as might Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. So long as no one mentions Tha Carter III, at which point I might be forced into violence.
If you ask me what the greatest hip-hop album of all time is, well, I probably won’t answer simply because my mind will just change five minutes later. However, I’d say more often than not, De La Soul Is Dead ranks in my top two or three. I’d probably also make the case for De La Soul’s sophomore effort being the second part of one of hip-hop’s all-time greatest creative runs — a run that continues to this day.
Hey, remember when you didn’t have to be a thug to be a rapper? In the late Eighties and early Nineties, before it became uncool to smile in hip-hop, fans (like the teenage me) occasionally dressed in colorful shirts, often with polka-dot or paisley designs. Sometimes they were worn with bright as hell Cross Colours jeans, in colors like red and yellow. Parts of De La Soul Is Dead are as colorful and whimsical as that getup was. The two emcees, Posdnous and Trugoy, along with DJ/part time rapper Maseo and unofficial fourth member/producer/nutcase Prince Paul (accompanied by a handful of guests including musical brothers Q-Tip and Dres of Black Sheep) provide you with as many gags and guffaws as they do slammin’ beats.
However, that brightly colored gear was often accessorized with a leather African medallion or red-black-and green beads or, if you were a throwback hippie (more on that word later), a peace sign around your neck. De La Soul Is Dead reflects that, too — with moments of seriousness and sobriety in between the jokes.
The fact that De La Soul was able to straddle those disparate-sounding (in today’s hip-hop world, anyway) elements is part of what makes De La Soul Is Dead a classic. Clocking in at well over an hour and skittering back and forth between songs, skits, comical asides and a loose story that ran itself out through the album, Dead is certainly a lot to digest. It’s a wacky, wild and extremely musical collage of beats, rhymes and skits that would probably get a lot more props if not for the fact that it followed the group’s masterful debut, 1988’s 3 Feet High & Rising. That album would prove to be an albatross for the group, not only creatively, but aesthetically — it brought them a fair amount of backlash from hip-hop conservatives who looked at their colorful gear, unkempt hairstyles, and peace signs,and promptly labeled them as “hippies” — or, even worse, “pussies.”
The group’s response to the backlash is represented as soon as you look at the album cover. The overturned pot of daisies, is as obvious a case of symbolism as there ever was, considering De La had termed their “3 Feet” style the “D.A.I.S.Y.” Age. Despite the group being a little bristly about their image, De La Soul is Dead doesn’t find them turning their backs on the sound they made famous. It’s got its head in the clouds almost as much as its predecessor did — peppered with De La speak, in-jokes, a storybook theme (reflected in between-song skits and the liner notes) and oh yeah…a gang of memorable songs.
The lighthearted “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'” has a disco groove that makes it the perfect song for…um, roller-skating on Saturdays (or any other day, really). Considering how much the art of creative sampling disappeared shortly after this album’s release (after a bunch of singers got lawsuit happy), it’s also worth noting this song (and album)’s virtual barrage of samples — from Chicago to Frankie Valli to Stevie Wonder to Bob Marley. The extended narrative “Bitties In The BK Lounge” is another winner, an almost cinematic retelling of a regrettable incident in a Burger King lobby that still has me howling with laughter every time I hear it.
Other songs strike more of a balance between the outrageously silly and the stone serious. “Pease Porridge” mixes a beat that sounds like a woodpecker pecking in time to the boom-bap with lyrics addressing folks who find them soft. “Ring Ring Ring” is about the perennial hip-hopper’s lament: getting attacked by strangers waving demo tapes at you, and also wound up being the album’s closest thing to a hit single.
Despite the wealth of highlights on this album and in De La Soul’s catalog overall, very few songs hold a candle to the stunning “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa.” You can call it the hip-hop version of Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun.” The title character is one of De La’s schoolmates, and her dad is a teacher at their school, beloved by everyone; he even plays a department store Santa during the holidays. As the song progresses, Millie winds up shooting her father dead in the middle of Macy’s while he’s playing Santa. Turns out that Millie was sexually abused. No words I can say can possibly do justice to one of the most eye-poppingly surreal hip-hop songs ever recorded. It’s a startling moment of sobriety in a more or less lighthearted album.
I could go on and on about De La Soul is Dead — but I don’t know what more can be said to make you a believer, except this: even the damn SKITS are good, and as much as I love my hip-hop, nothing makes me hit the “skip” button more than a skit.
The thing I miss most about hip-hop’s “golden age” is the sense of adventure and risk-taking a lot of artists had. De La Soul Is Dead sounds like nothing that came before it (except maybe De La’s previous work), and nothing that came after it, either. Equal parts juvenile comedy and clear-eyed adulthood, and always funky (can someone please give Prince Paul props for his production work?), this is the high-water mark in a career that’s more or less been one long high-water mark anyway.