“We was just three spaced kids who felt like we was doing something special,” Trugoy the Dove (Dave Jolicoeur), one-third of pioneering Long Island rap trio De La Soul, told Apple Music in 2018. “It felt good to stand out, but we were immersed in what hip-hop was at that time—the culture, the music, everything.” The fact that Trugoy passed away in February 2023, mere weeks before De La Soul’s catalog finally became available on streaming, dampened what should have been a celebration decades in the making.
Transmitting live from Mars—or, more specifically, the Long Island suburbs—De La Soul emerged fully formed and casually bugged-out in 1988 with “Plug Tunin’,” a 12-inch of “naughty noise” that mixed off-the-wall wordplay (“Answering any other service/Prerogative praised positively I’m acquitted”) with a kitschy arsenal of the most off-kilter samples hip-hop has ever seen. On their subsequent debut album, 1989’s 3 Feet High and Rising, the group—Trugoy, Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer), and DJ P.A. Pasemaster Mase (Vincent Mason)—and deliriously twisted producer Prince Paul laid out a 63-minute blueprint for rap’s odd future, a playful, quirky masterwork that popped the balloon of hip-hop formalism. They were outcasts before Outkast, the roots of The Roots, the big brothers to Little Brother. De La were alternative-nation thought-leaders doing for hip-hop what contemporary weirdos like Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies were doing for rock. What started as a trio of rap misfits making leftfield funk ultimately evolved into the most consistently great catalog in New York hip-hop history.
Afrika Bambaataa famously combed the corners of Planet Rock looking for the perfect beat, but De La’s genre-agnostic outlook to crate-digging imbued hip-hop with alien moods and new textures. Their tools weren’t just blips of James Brown and Funkadelic (though the latter’s rubbery melody would drive “Me Myself and I,” the band’s lone moment in the Top 40). De La Soul and Prince Paul’s playground included Schoolhouse Rock!, Steely Dan, learn-to-speak-French records, the Parliament song with the yodeling, Eddie Murphy, Johnny Cash, a Liberace cassette they found in the studio, loads of ’60s soul, and psychedelia-adjacent rock groups like The Turtles. (The latter group sued the trio that year, the first major sampling lawsuit, a historic moment for a historic album. The necessary work to clear all the samples from a career of creative copyright infringement helped keep the bulk of De La Soul’s catalog off streaming services for years.) “Everything we did on 3 Feet High and Rising was based off ideas we had been putting together since we were 15, 16,” said Posdnuos.
Lighthearted skits and interludes filled the album with wacky accents, inside jokes (“What does, ‘Tuhs eht lleh pu’ mean?”), and whispered silliness. “Stand by Me” is looped for a 56-second song about body odor. Loopy slang words (either invented or inherited from fellow members of the Native Tongues crew) create an insular universe where sex songs are about “buddy” and “jenny,” something good is “strictly Dan Stuckie,” and your MCs for the evening are “Plug One” and “Plug Two.” Their freewheeling poetry—what they called a “Change in Speak”—broke sentences apart into expressionist clouds that ranged from pure poetry to inspired nonsense: “When that negative number fills up the cavity/Maybe you can subtract it/You can call it your lucky partner/Maybe you can call it your adjective.”
Proudly eccentric and preaching their message of self-expression while dressed in African medallions instead of fat gold ropes, they became the bohemian model for years of alternative-minded rappers. “We was trying to take it to the next place, letting people know there’s individuality here,” Trugoy said. “Not all of us have to wear Adidas; you could wear Le Coq Sportif. There’s so many other things we could do.” You can hear, and see, their influence in the spiritual verses of Arrested Development and P.M. Dawn, underground lyricists like Common and Mos Def, and even pop polyglots like Gorillaz, Black Eyed Peas, and Beck.