De La Forever

Aside from father and husband, there are few titles that mean more to me than, b-boy. Yes, I have just entered my 50s, but b-boy still resonates for me as an operational position. While I no longer believe hip hop can change the world — the culture did move some things around — I do believe that hip hop can change us, so we can better navigate the world.

Hip hop is at the core of everything I do. When I teach or give a public reading, it’s more emceeing than traditional lecture. I walk with a bop, with a quiet agility that could turn into an uprock at any moment. From her birth, until she was close to four, I beatboxed my daughter to sleep. I’ve kept “fresh,” “dope,” “def,” and “vic” alive in my vocabulary. The culture was my passport to the Black Otherthere, a place I retreated to when the regular world was too much, was too unsafe. I’m a proud citizen of the hip hop nation and, for me, De La Soul is the capital.

Wild and capricious, daring and sensitive, De La was the affirming head nod that allowed so many Black boys, caught at the intersection of street death and ‘I made it,’ to take non-traditional paths; paths that the Black boys and men before us weren’t allowed to travel. De La showed us not everything we did, saw, or said had to be steeped in Afro-nihilism. Their music, videos, the culture they created (yes, even De La Soul is Dead) was hopeful.

Not in the mirage that rose-colored glasses produced way, but in the way that bigged you up, invited you to see just how resilient you actually were, and encouraged you to move beyond the painful moment, because the shit was only temporary. Even though you may have to take a couple of shots to the chin. And when you took those shots, De La was there to let you know you could take them, without breaking.

My junior year of high school was rough. I was depressed, borderline suicidal, and had no idea how to heal. You didn’t talk about this stuff in West Indian households. You either kept it to yourself, or you prayed. My uncle, (Maurice Edward McConnell, R.I.P.), noticed that I was in a horrible place and in March of 1989, he gave me a cassette of De La Soul’s, 3 Feet High and Rising. What the hell was this? Day-Glo colors? Asymmetric haircuts? Flowers? Fucking flowers? Dark-skinned brother wore glasses. Not Cazals, but regular ass, functional glasses! Maurice said, “I know you’re going through it, and you like all kinds of weird shit, so I think this will mean something to you.”

I miss cassettes and CDs. I used my thumbnail to slice open the plastic. It took a couple of tries, but I finally got it. I still remember what it smelled like. I took out the J-card and it was as long as a CVS receipt, and there was a comic printed on it. This was some Grade A nerdiness, and I was intrigued. A few months prior, Kwame the Boy Genius dropped. And while I’ll never question someone’s nerd bonafides, Kwame always seemed to be a bit performative, while De La just seemed like the regular, awkward middle class Black kids that my poor nerdy self aspired to be.

I studied the J-card for close to an hour. Read and reread the comic. Then I reverently put the cassette into the SKR 700 boom box my uncle got me for my last birthday, pressed play, and was transformed. Tears fell. Heart swelled. Everything that I was teased and berated for was affirmed by 3 Feet. I wasn’t broken. I wasn’t too weird to be loved by my mom. Nothing was wrong with the way I spoke or dressed. I held the SKR to my chest like a most awfully uncomfortable stuffed animal, and fell asleep, still clutching the J-card.

It would be dishonest to say that one listen to the album cured me. However, repeated listens, while not curing me, gave me the motivation to work towards getting better. That tape was a like-minded companion when I needed it most.

Then came De La Soul is Dead. Loved it more than 3 Feet. Then Buhloone Mindstate. They left behind producer Prince Paul’s Afrowhimsidelical production and embraced the Dilla sound on Stakes is High. Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump and AOI: Bionix had De La dive into the Afrofuture. The Grind Date (arguably my favorite De La album, and their most daring) reignited my love for the group, and their ethos. Plug 1 & Plug 2 Present… First Serve continued their tradition of rocking with subknown creatives to produce something wholly unexpected. This album was a callback to the whimsical skits of their time with Prince Paul.

Then there’s their last full album, the Kickstarter funded (I dropped big dough on the campaign), grown-ass man rap, And the Anonymous Nobody. De La hired musicians to play, and then took those offerings, sampled some of the snippets, and made one of the most recklessly daring albums of their career. There are too many bootlegs, remixes, and guest appearances to list here, but I’m sure I have most, if not all of what’s floating out there. Like I said, De La Soul is the capital of my hip hop nation, and you always rep your city.

In February, 2021 — just under 32 years since the release of 3 Feet High and Rising — they were on an episode of the hyper-caffeinated cartoon, Teen Titans Go!, in the episode, “Don’t Press Play.” I was able to watch this episode with my daughter, and she was able to glean a tiny bit of why this group was so important to me. The episode deftly explained how their former label was holding their earlier work hostage, denying them digital revenues.

And just under two years to the day, Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur died. Just as De La won their battle to get the rights of their earlier work so it can be placed on streaming services — all the De La albums that were on Tommy Boy records were unavailable on any of the streaming services — Dave became an ancestor. He will never be able to see the fruit of their fight grow. He will never be able to experience the new generations that will discover his music.

He will never be able to ease into old age, knowing that he, Pos, and Maseo fundamentally changed how we viewed hip hop music, hip hop culture, and lasting relationships. De La were together for over 30 years. Their relationship lasted longer, and was healthier, than many marriages.

De La Soul will always be my group. No matter how old I get (hopefully really old, but with some of my health shit, who knows?) I will be a De La evangelist. There have been other pop culture artifacts that have had a profound influence on me, but De La saved my Soul.