Once upon a time in the mid-late '80s, a trio of Long Island high-school students and friends came together to make a record. The result was a loping, goofy lark of a song called "Plug Tunin'," which captured the sound of Kelvin Mercer (aka Posdnuos, Plug One), Dave Jolicoeur (Trugoy the Dove, Plug Two), and Vincent Mason (Maseo, Plug Three) becoming De La Soul. A demo of the record caught the attention of Paul Huston, a young producer soon to make a name for himself as Prince Paul, who became the de facto fourth member of De La Soul for the act's first five years.
On De La Soul's 1989 debut LP, 3 Feet High and Rising, "Plug Tunin'" would be introduced (via Liberace sample, no less) as "perhaps the most famous classic in all the world of music," a fittingly ostentatious boast on an album that revolutionized rap. With its ridiculously promiscuous approach to sampling, swiping everything from Schoolhouse Rock to Funkadelic to French-language instruction tapes, 3 Feet High led more than a few writers to hail the album as "the Sgt. Pepper's of hiphop." More fitting was Robert Christgau's positing of De La Soul as the "new wave to Public Enemy's punk," and the kaleidoscopic cartoonishness of the debut only deepened on the band's second LP, 1991's De La Soul Is Dead. Devoted to dismantling the would-be hippiedom foisted on the group after their positive-vibey debut, Dead boasts the densest, most ambitious beats the band would ever produce. Following a bumpy reception at the time of its release, De La Soul Is Dead has since earned a reputation as a classic even more fiercely beloved than the debut.
Then things got really interesting. For 1993's Buhloone Mindstate—the band's final production with Prince Paul—the fast-paced sampling was ditched for a deep, organic, jazz-tinged minimalism. With the ear-catching trickery out of the way, the band's musical chemistry was revealed in full, resulting in another classic of an entirely different species than its predecessors. After three distinct home runs, De La Soul were free to proceed however they wanted, and they did: 1996's Stakes Is High brought collaborations with conscious hiphop's next generation (Common, Mos Def) and explicit criticism of hiphop's gangsta-laden landscape. The elder-statesmen-with-something-to-say role suited them, and De La Soul's next two albums found the friends-for-life meeting the new millennium with hiphop that felt unprecedentedly adult. Both 2000's Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump and 2001's AOI: Bionix offered (gorgeous) music more in line with Sly Stone and Al Green than with Jay-Z and Wu-Tang. I'm still getting to know 2004's The Grind Date and haven't yet heard this year's Nike mix, but there's no rush. I will happily spend the rest of my life paying attention to the work of De La Soul, who in 20 years haven't produced a duff album (or, it should be noted, a solo album; always and forever, they are a group). Naming any one studio album De La Soul's "best" does a disservice to the music's amazing arc, so in advance of the band's headline spot at Bumbershoot, here's a five-track tour of De La Soul's glory.
The debut single, discussed above and bested by its follow-up ("Potholes in My Lawn"). Still, "Plug Tunin'" casually laid out themes that would define and obsess the band for half a decade. (Specifically, proclamations of spiritual positivity followed by threats of violence against those who would equate spiritual positivity with wussiness.)
I'll say it: "Eye Know" is a better use of Steely Dan's "Peg" melody than Steely Dan's "Peg." Adding three distinct verses of sweet, sexy lyrics and Otis Redding's dock-of-the-bay whistle, De La Soul created one of hiphop's most beautiful tracks.
"Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)"
The single that led the world into the sometimes-bitter-but-never-sour De La Soul Is Dead, armed with a beat that made the accomplishments of 3 Feet High and Rising sound like kid stuff.
"I Be Blowin'"
This largely instrumental track from Buhloone Mindstate boils down what makes the album extraordinary. A Maceo Parker quote, followed by a Parker riff, which is then allowed to roam off into four minutes of gorgeous wordless hiphop.
Cee-lo provides an Al Green–y vocal hook to the most gorgeous song on the gorgeous AOI: Bionix, while Posdnuos (the sharpest tongue in the group) succinctly blames a deadly tragedy on people who "were looking for God but found religion instead."