"Here's the daisy, watching it die, see?"
When De La Soul released 3 Feet High and Rising in 1989, a lot of people liked it, but then a lot of others didn't. What was this - rap music without guns, without drugs? Who were these punks, bringing Hall and Oates samples into hip hop - and what was with all the daisies? What a bunch of hippies.
Unfortunately for their critics, however, De La Soul were not hippies, or pussies, and their party was not one you could just break up like that. Conceived explicitly as a response to the negative hype from their first album, De La Soul Is Dead was angry, sardonic, and biting, and showed not just that the Soul were stronger than their detractors had reckoned, but also that they were a very good group.
Like its predecessor, De La Soul Is Dead begins with an "Intro" that tells you a little about what the album is going to be like. At first it seems like it might almost be funny. "Hello boys and girls, welcome to your De La Soul readalong storybook. When you hear this sound - ding! - that means turn the page. And now we begin our exciting adventure of... De La Soul Is Dead."
For the rest of the track, the band (and their accomplices) play out a scene in which a bunch of Hammer-worshipping kids have the new De La Soul tape taken from them by some older cats (Mase, Mista Lawnge and DJ Aub). They play the tape, and then throughout the album we hear their negative responses to the music. (This is a bit like the quiz show in 3 Feet High and Rising, except this time the critics - who, of course, are again parodic figures - get their own tracks, "Skits" 1-5.) That's right - instead of waiting for the album to be dissed on its release, De La Soul actually record scenes in which a bunch of idiots criticise them inanely ("They're starting to sound like MC Shans"), put it on the record, and the idiocy of the criticism leaves the band's subsequent real-life critics without ammunition. (And yes, the album's sleeve really does contain a picture storybook which you can follow when you hear the sound.)
Thus a large part of De La Soul Is Dead is given up to bitter, parodic attacks - not just on their critics, but on others in the rap world and beyond. Indeed a second central concept, running parallel to the "Skits", is a fictional radio station WRMS, which plays a mixture of unbearably smooth, slow muzak (on "Dedication to the Bitty" and "Cat's in Control") and inane, commercial rap (on "Rap de Rap Show"). Commercial rap is one thing, but by 1991 the gangsta rap scene was in full swing and De La Soul are brutal in their hilarious parodic diss, "Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum)" - "I get spliffed, get a stiff / Then I go hump a stunt / Like a pimp pro / (Nah man, a super ho) / That's cool 'cause I'm still an Afro bro." Elsewhere the band vent their feelings on hip-house ("Kicked out the House"), women they don't like ("Bitties in the BK Lounge") and, on "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)", hangers-on who try to capitalise on the band's success.
Other songs show a less directed, more general frustration at the aftermath of 3 Feet High and Rising. "Pease Porridge", with its bizarre impersonations and samples of nursery rhymes, is a statement of how the band can be peaceful and tough at the same time - "Why do people think just because we speak peace we can't blow no joints?" Meanwhile "Pass the Plugs", with a sample of a gentle Edna Wright guitar refrain, comes across as a surprisingly mellow, almost melancholic reflection on the band's position - "Fame we don't lust / God we do trust / Arsenio dissed us / But the crowd kept clapping."
But although the most obvious aspect of the album is the band's anger and frustration at being misinterpreted, there's actually a surprisingly large amount of music on the album which has no direct connection to this issue, and this include some of the best tracks. "Talkin' 'bout Hey Love", which samples the original Stevie Wonder, is transformed into an argument between Pos and Tesha Stills about Pos "becoming fully dedicated" - "It's not like I'm Paul, I don't have two kids in every state..." In "My Brother's a Basehead", Pos documents the decline of his brother through crack addiction, "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa" (perhaps the album's highlight) is a dark tale of sexual abuse, while the live track "Johnny's Dead" is a totally unexpected (in the context of hip hop), raucous piano ballad about, well, the death of Johnny.
Perhaps most surprising of all is "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'", a joyous, funkafied jam featuring old buddy Q-Tip as well as the soulful voice of Vinia Mojica. Indeed you could take away all of the explicitly "angry" tracks and still be left with an excellent, musically diverse array of tunes.
But it's the frustration felt by the band after the debut album that provides the unifying concept throughout the album's 75 minutes of nasty parody, bizarre samples and unexpected diversions. De La Soul Is Dead is a lot more complex and difficult than 3 Feet High and Rising, and not surprisingly, a lot of people still didn't get what De La were on about. The band knew this would happen, and the album ends on the depressing note of "Skit 5", in which the critics make their final decision.
"That's it? That's all? Van Damme! What happened to the pimps? What happened to the guns? What happened to the curse words?! That's what rap music's all about, right? That little bastard Jeff, he found this in the right place. GARBAGE! De La Soul is dead." "Word, let's go play Hammer."
Tracklisting (run-time 1:13:57 hours)
- Intro (2:15)
- Oodles of O's (3:32)
- Talkin' 'bout Hey Love (2:27)
- Pease Porridge (5:01)
- Skit 1 (0:25)
- Johnny's Dead aka Vincent Mason (Live from the BK Lounge) (1:56)
- A Roller Skating Jam Named "Saturdays" (4:02)
- WRMS' Dedication to the Bitty (0:45)
- Bitties in the BK Lounge (5:39)
- Skit 2 (0:30)
- My Brother's a Basehead (4:20)
- Let, Let Me In (3:25)
- Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum) (4:03)
- Rap de Rap Show (2:19)
- Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa (4:09)
- Who Do U Worship? (1:59)
- Skit 3 (0:32)
- Kicked out the House (1:55)
- Pass the Plugs (3:29)
- Not Over Till the Fat Lady Plays the Demo (1:29)
- Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey) (5:05)
- WRMS: Cat's in Control (0:33)
- Skit 4 (0:12)
- Shwingalokate (4:13)
- Fanatic of the B Word (4:09)
- Keepin' the Faith (4:44)
- Skit 5 (0:34)