De La Soul tends to get left out of the best-ever conversation — especially alongside their fellow Native Tongue members A Tribe Called Quest — despite having a comparable, if not superior, career.
De La Soul’s catalog is among the most coveted and consistent collections of albums in hip-hop history. And yet, the trio from Long Island is rarely put in the GOAT conversation. A huge part of this problem has been their absence from streaming platforms. Although De La has announced that their Tommy Boy Records-era albums — everything from their seminal debut 3 Feet High and Rising to AOI: Bionix — will now be available on music streaming services before the end of 2021, it’s been an arduous process to get to this point.
Other legacy groups like Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan — both of which embarked on a “Gods of Rap” tour with De La in 2019 — N.W.A. and, of course, fellow Native Tongue members A Tribe Called Quest, have had the luxury of being in the contemporary public consciousness, their music available on streaming services (and often appearing on streaming services’ respective popular curated old school hip-hop playlists) and appearing in everything from films and TV shows (with some of those films and TV shows based on those artists, as we’ve seen with N.W.A’s Oscar-nominated Straight Outta Compton and Wu-Tang’s An American Saga).
Now, De La will finally be able to bask in — and celebrate — all of their work up until this point. Longtime fans will be able to reminisce on the classics they grew up with, like the funky “Me Myself & I” and the inventive “Plug Tunin’,” while newcomers will see that the group is more than that hip-hop trio who appeared on the biggest Gorillaz song of all time. But, more importantly, this will also help solidify De La as another group worthy of being discussed alongside their fellow peers who are considered legacy acts, particularly A Tribe Called Quest.
Tribe is regarded as one of the very best rap groups of all time — if not the best — for good reason. Their dynamic as a collective was both esoteric and down to earth, grounded and uplifted by the dense musical palette of samples they rhymed over. They’re often compared to De La because of their similar musical sound, which has resulted in this timeless question among hip-hop fans: Who’s the better group?
Although most argue that it’s Tribe, it’s De La that’s better as a group. De La Soul’s musical output is, at the very least, equally comparable to that of Tribe. In fact, it is when you compare albums side-by-side, that it becomes clear how great De La really is. Let’s start with their debuts. Released a year apart, De La’s 3 Feet High & Rising (1989) and A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm (1990) were both unexpected juggernauts for hip-hop. Each possessed an inventive take on sampling, and a fresh, idiosyncratic view on self-awareness. However, 3 Feet High displayed a kindred chemistry and synergy of performance and dialect between Posdnuos and Trugoy that People’s Instinctive Travels did not, as Q-Tip was the lone MC on a majority of the tracks.
In fact, the two’s respective debuts foreshadowed a glaring distinction between the groups and how each gelled with their respective partners in rhyme. In the beginning, the polarity between Q-Tip and Phife’s rhying styles were perfect foils for each other. However, by the time Tribe got to The Love Movement, the synergy between Q-Tip and Phife was fractured and helped lead to their imminent breakup in 1998. Pos and Trugoy have retained their natural back and forth relationship on wax, having shown no signs of wavering dissension throughout their 33-year-old career (a notable feat considered how often inner turmoil in hip-hop groups are hashed out in the public eye).
But 3 Feet High also has the one-up over People’s Instinctive Travels for its innovation. From the sampling across genres — “Me Myself & I” sampling Funkadelic’s upbeat “(Not Just) Knee Deep” and “Eye Know” sampling Steely Dan’s groovy “Peg” — to basically introducing the hip-hop skit, 3 Feet High redefined the hip-hop album listening experience, foreshadowing what artists and groups like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Little Brother would do with skits in their own albums.
Following their debuts, De La and Tribe went on to drop four different albums that were released in the same year.
In 1991, both groups dropped their respective sophomore efforts — De La’s De La Soul Is Dead and Tribe’s The Low End Theory — and took decidedly drastic detours away from the bright, jovial tones of their debuts. Sonically, there’s actually little in common between The Low End Theory and De La Soul Is Dead. But each took a darker, more cynical tone in conception in response to dissolution from the record industry.
In 1993, Tribe solidified their place as rap elitists with Midnight Marauders. With unforgettable songs like “Electric Relaxation,” “Award Tour” and “Oh My God,” the album became an undeniable classic. Meanwhile, De La’s Buhloone Mindstate, at times, has been relegated to an afterthought in the Native Tongue canon. But upon further review, Buhloone was more of a stark progression from De La Soul Is Dead than Marauders was from Low End Theory, which feels more like a spiritual sequel. Many De La diehards feel that Buhloone is underrated and it’s understandable why: in its experimentation there’s some really ambitious choices that speak to De La’s creative trajectory. From the incorporation of The JB Horns — “I Be Blowin’” is a Maceo Parker-led instrumental — to “Long Island Wildin’” featuring Japanese rappers Scha Dara Parr and Takagi Kan, Buhloone highlighted De La’s want for creative authenticity over pop success, foreshadowing the group’s experimentation with live instrumentation and other left-of-center artists on future projects. But there’s also brilliant standouts like “Breakadawn” and “Ego Trippin’ Pt. 2,” which could easily hold their own against the standouts from Midnight Marauders.
Fast forward to 2016, and you have Tribe’s We Got It From Here… Thank You For Service, and De La’s And The Anonymous Nobody…. Prior to the unfortunate and unexpected passing of Phife to diabetes, Tribe was still able to reconvene after an 18 hiatus to deliver Thank You For Service. The album not only found Tip and Phife as hungry as their younger days (with Phife literally putting his all into the project), but Tip offering some of the most mature production of his career.
And The Anonymous Nobody… was yet another ambitious endeavor by De La. Featuring a number of guest artists including David Byrne, Little Dragon, Jill Scott, Roc Marciano, and Usher, the album had to be crowdfunded in order to be recorded. The end result was an eclectic rap release that showed De La were still one of hip-hop’s most genre-pushing acts, while also highlighting Pos and Trugoy’s continued growth as MCs, their deft lyricism as biting and nuanced as it’s ever been on And The Anonymous Nobody….
Now, the last year the two had shared releases on was 1996. To go out of chronology is important here, because it’s these two albums — Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes and Life and De La’s Stakes Is High — that gives De La the upper hand. In the three-year period between Marauders and Beats, Tribe had gone through a major overhaul. Phife had moved to Atlanta (adding to a rift between he and Q-Tip that was already compromising their chemistry), and J Dilla had entered the production fold as part of The Ummah. While Dilla’s beats were otherworldly and gave Tribe a newer and more ominous sound, the album was woefully sequenced and uneven. The poor reception of Beats, Rhymes and Life negatively impacted the public’s acceptance of its follow-up The Love Movement, which turned out to be a more cohesive project that’s aged better than its predecessor.
On the other hand, Stakes Is High is a magnum-opus of sorts for De La. It’s the first album that Prince Paul did not produce and yet, there’s little to no dropout when it comes to the elaborate textures of sampling handled by the group themselves. They dealt with similar subject matter like Beats, Rhymes & Life — diagnosing a hip-hop culture that was beginning to implode due to an influx of crossover homogenization — but De La proved far more effective in their indignation.
Compare “Supa Emcees” to “Phony Rappers,” for example. De La were able to cut down aspiring rappers who couldn’t hold their salt, and still sound appealing doing so. However, Tribe’s commentary on wannabes who were exposed after a brief battle comes across as limp and bitter. But there’s also the fact that Stakes Is High includes one of the best beats the late Dilla ever did, for the album’s title track. Infinitely remembered more deftly than anything Dilla did for Tribe as part of The Ummah, the beat for “Stakes Is High” came into De La’s possession after Pos heard the instrumental from a Dilla beat tape Tip had.
“Tip is playing this new beat for Pos from Dilla and, based on the history that those two have, anytime Pos gave a head nod to some shit, Q-Tip ended up keeping the beat and try to make something out of it,” Maseo recalled in a secret history on Stakes Is High. “So he tried to use reverse psychology on this particular one. ‘Stakes Is High’ came up on the beat, Pos kind of held back. [Q-Tip] was like, ‘What do you think of this beat?’ ‘Stakes Is High’ beat playing and Pos was like, ‘It’s all right. It’s OK.’ But then secretly goes off in the corner and calls Dave and was like, ‘Yo! This is the fucking beat. This is it right here. I’ve got to figure out how to get it but this is it.’”
“Stakes Is High” takes its place in Black music as one of the most prophetic songs of all time, alongside Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Public Enemy’s “Shut Em Down.”
A Tribe Called Quest earned the right to be considered among hip-hop’s elite, without question. However, when the conversation on who’s the best of the best, De La Soul needs to come up first. Considering their creative integrity, consistency and commitment to experiment and evolve, as well as the unwavering chemistry between Pos and Trugoy after 32 years, De La’s catalog is not only the best of the Native Tongue movement, but among the very best in hip-hop history.
Banner Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based TV producer, director and award-winning music journalist. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson, Robert Glasper and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music and Soulhead. You can read his latest work at theGrio. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.