25/03/2009

Underrated: De La Soul Is Dead


When I started writing about underrated bands and albums last year, I really should have started here. In my opinion, this is the most underrated album in all popular music. It's big claim, and I'm sticking to it. I recall reading an article in Q a few years ago about the biggest mistakes in music, or something like that, and there at number one was De La Soul Is Dead, proof if proof be need be that everything printed in Q is wrong.

A little background. In 1989, De La Soul released Three Feet High and Rising, a record that changed rap music, and therefore popular music, for ever. It contained a unique mixture of goofy humour, anti-violence and hip-pop hits that crossed over to the mainstream in a way that few rap acts had managed at that time. It's main influence, however, was the phenomenal music, created entirely through sampling (hat's off to Prince Paul's production) that showed how using other peoples music could be just as creative as picking up your own instrument. They were hugely successful.

So how did they follow that? Two years later they released De La Soul Is Dead, and with the new album they rejected the image that had been partly foistered on them as the hippies of hip hop (the cover was a strong assertion that their flower power phase was over, as was the title). The other common assumption is that the music and lyrics took a much darker turn. This process of deliberately alienating their pop fans worked, and the album was nowhere near as successful as 3 Feet High.

But I never bought these arguments, and have never understood why the album has been so widely derided. Sure the album has darker moments (My Brother's A Basehead, Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa), but compared to most albums, it's a comedy fest. One track is based around an argument in a Burger King (Bitties In The BK Lounge), and there are scores of ridiculous samples and silly voices scattered throughout. Most incredibly, this may be one of the few hip hop albums where the comedy skits are actually funny (also true of the first De La album).

There are some irresistible pop hits too. Let, Let Me In, Pass The Plugs and Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey) are as good as anything on 3 Feet High. The best song, however, is A Rolling Skating Jam Named Saturdays, as good a party jam as I've ever heard. The production is fabulous, built around a smorgasbord of samples:
And the amazing disco / piano breakdown in the middle? Oh, it's something else...

It's the kind of song that should be a classic, instead of something that people might remember as a minor hit from the early nineties. In fact, this could be said for the whole album. I think this is one of the greatest albums ever made, and the fact that it's so under-appreciated and often derided gets my goat. So get the album, and help me restore it to it's rightful place in the pantheon, not just of rap, but of pop music.

De La Soul - A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturday's

5 comments:

Dave C said...

It's a great album. It always reminds me of third year camp and sharing a tent with William Hague.

jamesinseoul said...

That's an odd comment, please clarify.

Dave C said...

William Hague = Lee Hubbard

David N said...

I don't have it, have never heard it, was aware of its reputation. May give it a try now. Any record sampling Chicago is alright with me...

Good to see you actually writing again, rather than just posting mp3s.

jamesinseoul said...

Yeah, give it a go, I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

It's good to be writing again. I haven't had a spare minute for the last couple of months, but now I'm back to the life of leisure, so you can expect more top quality content. Well, I'll try anyway.