In the suburbs, summers are characterized by a few things: the lukewarm tang of rum and cokes poured into plastic bottles; the smell of the grass in the empty soccer fields near your house and the insistent thud of hip-hop from your friend's dad's Jeep. And for many summers, there were only three groups that mattered: A Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys and De La Soul.
Our older brothers liked NWA and the Wu-Tang Clan---music that seemed specifically designed to terrify moms. De La Soul's relaxed flow and happy, goofy vibes were better suited to aimless wandering and hot afternoons chasing Freezies. The MCs had funny names---Trugoy the Dove, Pos and Pacemaster Mase---and the beats were good. And that was all that mattered---or so we thought.
De La Soul's 20-plus year career was too complex for our teenage pea 00brains. The group's innate sense of fun and creativity was part of an entire collective mindset that opposed the aggro posturing championed by the likes of NWA. Their first album, Three Feet High and Rising, brought goofy little skits and Prince Paul's schizophrenic sampling---you'll hear everything from Funkadelic to snippets of Steely Dan---and a feeling of fuzzy optimism throughout. It was subversive. Arsenio Hall went as far as to call them "the hippies of hip-hop."
Two years later, they released a follow-up titled De La Soul is Dead, maintaining the frenetic samples and a deceptively upbeat vibe, while their lyrics discussed child abuse, brothers with crack addictions and a little rolling skating jam called Saturday. It was critically maligned, confused everyone, and remains one of the best hip-hop albums ever made.
After De La Soul is Dead, the group, though still beloved, began to recede. Their influence corralled albums appearances from Mos Def and MF Doom before either of them broke, but the group still watched their overall sales dip. A guest appearance on the Gorillaz' "Feel Good Inc." won them a Grammy in 2005 and led to a resurgence of interest in the trio.
But really, they were never in the shadows---their influence, however chameleonic, bleeds deep into any song that has even a hint of ebullience or creativity. As Pos says on "Ro. Co. Cane Flow" from 2004's The Grind Date, "We De La to the death/or at least until we break up." Hippies and heroes, now and forever.