One of the the greatest cultural tragedies of the digital era is that De La Soul’s early music isn’t streaming. An early victim of the sample-clearance wars (over 70 on their masterful debut, 3 Feet High and Rising), De La’s cultural impact — and promise — has never been allowed to be fully realized. Not only has the streaming era proved to stifle De La’s early output, their contracts only covered physical media releases as no one anticipated that streaming would become the primary way we’d all experience media.
With new modes of delivery, new contracts have to be made for those previous albums. And De La has tried to do this in good faith, but Tommy Boy Records, the label De La was originally signed to, has refused to give them a mutually equitable deal. Tommy Boy would take the lion’s share of the profits, even though all of De La’s albums have recouped (made back initial production/investment costs).
Granted, the holder’s of the rights to the band’s first 3-4 releases have to engage in a cost/benefit analysis: Is going through the albums, again, to clear samples for streaming, worth it? Will we make back our investment, and then some?
The future cannot be predicted, but De La Soul has a rabid, international, and multi-generational fanbase. 3 Feet High and Rising dropped 32 years ago and to this day, nothing much sounds like it. De La and their producer, Prince Paul, crafted a sonicscape that was full of in-jokes, neologisms, and worldbuilding as detailed as any Dungeons and Dragons campaign. To this day, people are still discovering and falling in love with that album.
Prince Paul’s masterful use of left-of-field samples, his unparalleled ear for quirky melodies, and De La Soul’s intricate wordplay has made their first album a perennial. Their second album, De La Soul is Dead, understood by many to be a refutation of their first, while in fact it was a reification of it, felt like an important piece of art. Not in a pretentious sense, but in the way that artists, who know they’re good, deliver something while at the height of their introspective powers. While eschewing the light-hearted D.A.I.S.Y. (Da’ Inner Sound Y’all) Age playfulness of 3 Feet, Dead continued Paul’s masterful sample deployment, while De La delved into more serious subject matter, but never losing their #BlackBoyJoy and whimsy. Their third album, Buhlōōne Mindstate (Prince Paul’s last album with the group) was more sonically assured and lyrically mature, not old, but seasoned and professional. Worldly, without being world-weary.
It would be too easy to go on and on as De La Soul is my favorite group of all time. Not just in hip-hop, but in music. So when my daughter casually said, “Daddy. Your favorite group will be on Teen Titans Go!” I bugged out. Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go! has always had a little hip-hop flavor to it (despite some of it being a bit annoying and borderline stereotypical, but Silkie blacked out!) and the show-runners are pop-culture aficionados, but I was still a little hesitant. What could this cartoon possibly add to De La’s legacy?
As it turns out, everything. As somewhat of a (finally admitted) culture snob, I didn’t want De La and this cartoon to touch like my daughter didn’t want her wet and dry foods to touch when she was younger. But the De La/Titans combination was the thing I didn’t know I needed. It’s the combination we all needed.
In 12+ minutes, this episode, “Don’t Press Play,” gave us so many De La deep cuts, so much De La history it felt like I was back on the old Okayplayer message boards, nerding out on hip-hop minutiae.
While, as always, I don’t want to spoil it for you, I will give you the broad strokes: The Titans receive an emergency alert for something happening in Amityville, Long Island. When they arrive they see a monster (Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records, Warner Bros., or the music industry) devouring all of De La’s music. Before confronting the beast, the Titans introduce De La by providing us with some of their aliases. The Titans who introduced the member of De La were perfectly matched: Robin and Posdnous (Kelvin Mercer), Raven and Trugoy the Dove (David Jolicoeur and — the surname said with a French flourish), and Beast Boy and Cyborg with PA Mase (Vincent Mason). Starfire had no history of the group, but was equally as excited to meet them.
From this opening scene, the episode unfolds into a wonderful digest version of De La Soul’s history and cultural relevance. They found a way to make reference to De La’s albums from their debut to their latest, 2016’s and the Anonymous Nobody; include a mini-breakdown on how intellectual property works, and Easter egg after Easter egg.
I found it fitting that the music eating monster took De La’s music to the planet Mars, and then was Transmitting Live From Mars. Incidentally, this skit (not a song by any stretch of the imagination) was the first salvo in De La Soul’s copyright battle — a huge part of the reason why we cannot stream their music. Brilliant.
The Plugs (more aliases) were wonderfully resonant voice actors. Their charm, wit, playfulness, and diction came through — reminding us why we love them, why I continue to love them.
If De La Soul doesn’t get their own animated series after this, the world is indeed an uncaring, uncool place.
I’ll leave you with this: I find it interesting that the majority of this episode took place on Mars, the same week the Perseverance rover touched down. Coincidence? Or another example of De La Soul always being right on time?
Strictly Dan Stuckie.
This has been a De La Primer.