BOOK REVIEW: “Rap Tees” by DJ Ross One

Rap Tees photo RapTees_cover_zpstydq4wyk.jpg Rap Tees: A Collection of Hip-Hop T-Shirts 1980-1999 (powerHouse Books) is a book by DJ Ross One that honors the first era of hip-hop clothing that fans were able to buy not only as souvenirs but to show support for their favorite artists, just as rock fans have been able to for decades. Why is this significant? Because carrying a souvenir of your favorite music artist brings the fan closer to the artist, or at least sporting their logo on your chest makes it feel like a unique level of support even though that uniqueness is shared by anyone who buys a similar shirt.

DJ Ross One explores the many hip-hop T-shirts that have come over time. When it came to heavy metal T-shirts, its origins were rooted from the surfing and skateboarding communities, showing extra support by displaying their logo or a graphic design in reference to an album or logo. The rock T-shirt became a major part of the costume, especially for headbangers along with their denim fests and specific patches. Some of these traditions would be carried over into hip-hop, specifically when Def Jam became one of the first labels to make shirts for their artists and themselves. It seemed odd at first, for “why would anyone want to wear a T-shirt that said Public Enemy or the Beastie Boys? Why would anyone wear a logo in honor of a record company?” It’s the unusual dedication of “artist and record company pride” and once Def Jam’s clothing became a bit of promotion and hype when worn by other artists (Anthrax’s Scott Ian were Def Jam shirts religiously when he and the band went on tour in 1987 in support fo their Among The Living album), associated artists got involved before it began to open up to anyone in hip-hop willing to share their logo.

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DJ Ross One talks about the rise of a hip-hop shirt, whether it’s from through a company catalog or finding an offer in a cassette or 12″ single. Often times, snagging that T-shirt was a one-time thing not because they were thinking of creating limited editions, but because the budget was not big for hip-hop clothing, definitely not for a T-shirt. If you wanted a glow-in-the-dark De La Soul shirt, you had hoped you could get one or lose out. While many artists would have their own line of shirts in the early 90’s, the Wu-Tang Clan changed everything when they made a specfic line of clothing with their logos, originally just the yellow W over a black shirt. You had to hunt down those shirts when they weren’t widely available and once they obtained greater distribution, anyone who wanted to honor the power of the Wu could get one at the local mall. To be able to see T-shirts for everyone from Biggie to 2Pac, Digital Underground to Slick Rick, Queen Latifah to Nicki Minaj is interesting, for it also shows the progress of not only entrepreneurial success but the improvements of the designs themselves.

Rap Tees also touches on some of the bootleg T-shirts that were made not only in the late 80’s/early 90’s but in hip-hop for the last 25 years. If finding The Simpsons or Ren & Stimpy bootleg T-shirts became a trend, you may be able to find a bootleg shirt of your favorite artists at a swap meet, flea market, or corner store, even if the printing on the shirt might disappear after five washes.

Regardless, the hip-hop T-shirt managed to live in, not only for fans to buy but for ways to record labels, management, and the artists themselves to add to their means of promotion. Perhaps that means of promotion may have changed, for better or worse, with the rise of the internet and social media but fortunately if you need to find that specific shirt to sport, you may be able to find it on eBay, Etsy, or any other online merchant. Rap Tees shines the spotlight on believing in the hype from nothing more than a T-shirt and a silkscreen.

(NOTE: I was not able to get a hard copy of the book for review, I only received a digital edition. This review is based on that digital edition. You may order Rap Tees below from

DUST IT OFF: A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm”… 25 years later

A Tribe Called Quest photo ATCQPeoples_cover_zpsamd55uba.jpg
When A Tribe Called Quest released their debut album on March 13, 1990, it almost seemed like an odd duck at first. The group did release “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” the year before and “Bonita Applebum” a month before but for people outside of New York City, Q-Tip was nothing more than the guy who said “black is black” in De La Soul’s “Me Myself & I”, he had little to know credibility outside of that and ATCQ’s first two singles. But we were meant to be taught in order to learn. A Tribe Called Quest were a part of the Native Tongue along with Jungle Brothers, which is where some also first heard Q-Tip in a song called “Black Is Black”. Then things started to change and gel together. A Tribe Called Quest were doing this for themselves, for music, for the tribe vibe, and for hip-hop, thus why they called their album People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm. The album title could’ve came off of a rare obscure jazz/free jazz album, but those travels they were talking about were not only musical but very much instinctive, for it said it required the mind. Thus, Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Mohammad, and Jarobi were about to take us into a few mind games.

When I look back at the album, I consider it to be the best in their discography, which seems to be different from the mainstream consensus, and is there a reason? Perhaps. It was The Low End Theory that had bigger hits, you can’t take away the success of “Check The Rhime” and “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, and the format gave us phrases that many hip-hop heads know as sacred mantra. We all want to get to the boulevard of Linden to give thanks. It was Midnight Marauders that not only gave us music and more hits, but it gave a slogan, a mascot of not only the music but the album, with a cover that represented what hip-hop represented in 1993, before the new wind of the Wu (-Tang) was to dominate. It was the community of creatives, all gathered at the New Music Seminar in New York City where various people were told to gather and have their photos taken. Those photos were assembled for Midnight Marauders and history was made. So why does People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm get a small blip in comparison? For me, it doesn’t.

First, let’s look at the hits it did offer. We can never forget “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”, an incredibly funky story song that had Q-Tip telling everyone he lost his wallet, he had to get it and was willing to detail that voyage, a path of rhythm. He traveled from New York to California and back, almost like a then-modern version of “This Land is Your Land”, “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” is very much a folk tale, it was his way of saying “this land was made for you and me, I’ll wear my hair the way I want, I’ll speak like how I speak, I’ll get to know you, you can know me, let’s be together.” But first, he had to get his wallet, hoping that his money and Jimmy hat was still in there. For me, I immediately caught The Young Rascals sample that opened the song (“Sueno”) but I would later learn the primary sample in there was courtesy of THe Chambers Brothers’ and “Funky”.

The second single for the album was the great “Bonita Applebum”, the video of which began with Special Ed and Queen Latifah dancer Kika being romantic near any location they wanted: the supermarket, the subway, near a public phone, it didn’t matter. It was very much a love song but not like LL Cool J’s “I Need Love”, for this song was not a ballad. There was a bit of funk with the drum sample, and who didn’t enjoy Minnie Riperton’s voice that was heard in the Rotary Connection sample? The form of the song was unique, for it wasn’t just 16 bars and a chorus. It was 8-bars, but not spoken in the typical hip-hop way, it was almost as if Q-Tip had written a message and wanted to pass it along to someone. Let’s also not forget that for the single and video version, the word “prophylactics” had to be reversed for fear that it may be offensive to some listeners. It was still a few years away from someone like Ludacris rapping about licking women from their head to their toes, but that’s the state of radio in 1990.

The third single was for “Can I Kick It”, which arrived in the form of a remix that I felt was better than the album version due to a funkier groove courtesy of added samples. The video featured Trugoy and Posdnuos of De La Soul showing the gathering of the tribe, but perhaps more importantly, it was also the first video to highlight the power of Phife Dawg, which would show that ATCQ had two core voices to pay attention to, that it was not just a Q-Tip venture. You may also see Juju of The Beatnuts in this video too.

Three solid singles was more than enough to make this album huge but perhaps people weren’t ready for Tribe just yet, or maybe they were overwhelmed. People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm began with the sound of a baby crying, the birth of Tribe, and “Push It Along” has Q-Tip and Phife getting into the boom, the bip, and then the boom bip as they define what they’re about and what they plan on doing. That leads to Jarobi the navigator getting us where we are in the album in order to understand the listening process.

When the album got to “After Hours” and I caught the Richard Pryor album, I knew I was going to fall in love with the album and this group. It may come off like an underground album on purpose, maybe because it sounds like it was recorded in a basement, just as it seemed like Prince Paul produced 3 Feet High And Rising in the shed where the lawnmower is. While “After Hours” generally represents what happens after a show or after a business closes, the song gets into the activities that one should do before the sun rises, as if they’re hanging out near a bakery, smelling bread as they’re talking about the basketball song they watched the night before as they’re listening for the frogs in the back alley. Organic? Perhaps. Then the sun comes up.

“Youthful Expression” is a song with zest despite the fact Q-Tip sounds like he just woke up, at least to me he did. But it’s a laid back voice placed over a funky jazz sample complete with a Hammond B-3 feel where Tip highlights the fact he’s a member of the Zulu Nation and wherever he goes, it is an eternal gestapo.

We then hear Prince Paul speak in the incredibly funky “Rhythm”, which I love from the distinct sound of the snare to the kiddie sample taking from a Funkadelic song, the whispering and a reference to the soul makossa. The song also has a hook which is simple: “I got the rhythm, you got the rhythm”, which means the rhythm they share is for one and all, feel free to share and celebrate it.

On vinyl, the album ends with “Ham’N’Eggs” but the cassette and CD ends with the amazing “Go Ahead In The Rain”, which I immediately got into because of the Jimi Hendrix Experience sample before it gets into a bit of the slide (Slave’s “Son Of Slide”) and excellent use of the applause from Maze featuring Frankie Beverly”s “Joy And Pain”, specifically the live version on Live In New Orleans)

Now if we want to get technical, the CD ends with what was A Tribe Called Quest’s first single, “Description Of A Fool”. Now, I caught the Sly & The Family Stone sample immediately and the slight reference to The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” but it sounded nothing like the rest of the album, or what preceded the music. It truly sounded like a jungle, or that I was about to get back to the parking lot or perhaps I was heading into the jungle for that quest and meet up with Maseo somewhere, I don’t know. I think what I liked more than anything about “Description Of A Fool” is that despite that it sounds out of place with the rest of the album (and on purpose), it was nice to hear a set of music where each song didn’t sound like what came before or what was to come after, which was part of the hip-hop norm back then.

There wasn’t a concept for People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, the listener meant to listen to it and kick back. We were listening to each path, trying to understand each venture and move forward, as we all do in everyday life. But what a venture it was, with much more adventures to come. For me, the album was solid from start to finish and sure, there were moments that seemed a bit too clumsy despite it being a way for them to deliver an important philosophy or two (i.e. “Ham’N’Eggs”) but the music was strong and we were in a city full of wonder. Look at the cartoon cover and one may be able to say it’s a continuation of the path of friends seen on the cover for War’s The World Is A Ghetto.
War photo WarTWIAG_cover_zpse6plpm10.jpg

We love our homes and neigborhoods, be it our apartment or house, and the people and characters surrounding it, but we all have to use our feet to get on the road and find new places to travel, and rhythm is often the way to broader and brighter discoveries. Occasionally, as Q-Tip said in “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”, there is no fear if we gotta go back.


AUDIO: De La Soul’s “Itzsoweezee (HOT) (Imperial Remix)”
You should already know one of the best songs by De La Soul, the icy “Itzsoweezee (HOT)” but in 2014, a new mix has been made by Imperial. You can check out not only a version with vocals, but the instrumental too, perfect for cruising or mixing in your own sound pieces.

FREE DL: Amy Lynn & The Gunshow’s “Can’t Put My Finger On It”

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A new track by Amy Lynn & The Gunshow is here to listen to and/or download (which will lead to repeat listens). The song was recorded live in one take with no additions placed into the final mix. It consists of Amy and her saxophonist/main man Alex Hamlin. Simple yet effective.

FREE MP3 DOWNLOAD: First Serve’s “The Goon Time Mixtape”

Here’s the deal: First Serve are a hip-hop duo consisting of Jacob “Pop” Life and Deen “D” Whitter. They were brought together by 2+4, better known in some circles as Chokolate and Khalid, and it was decided to try something new amongst themselves. What makes First Serve unique? For one, Pop and D are actually Dave and Pos of De La Soul, and they want to try to do something new away from the De la collective and are doing this in the form of an album due out in April, but they’ve made available a mix tape that you can listen to and/or download for free. Here is the track listing. As you’ll see, it’s a nice mixture of the familiar with a good chunk (read “good chunk”) of the unknown done up in mysterious ways. Cue Bono Vox:

1. First Serve – We Made It Interlude
2. First Serve vs Aloe Blacc – Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along
3. Notorious BIG vs De La Soul – Whatchu Want
4. Krs-ONE vs 2&4 –
5. Jay-Z – 99 Problems (Prodigy Remix)
6. First Serve vs Run DMC – The Work/Walk This Way
7. Run DMC vs Jason Nevins – It’s Like That
8. Theophilus London – Girls Money
9. 2&4 vs Akil (of Jurassic 5), Busta – Must B The Music (Remix)
10. First Serve vs Eminem – Move ‘Em In, Move ‘Em Out
11. Lupe Fiasco feat. MDMA – Coming Up
12. Cee-Lo – Bright Lights, Bigger City
13. rand Master Flash – The Message (2&4 Mash Up)
14. Mystikal -Bouncin’ Back
15. Jurassic 5 – The Influence (2&4 Mash Up)
16. Redman vs Dj Quick – Get Dirty (2&4 Remix)
17. IAM – La Saga (2&4 Mash Up)
18. First Serve – Must B The Music
19. The Beatles vs Joan Jett vs Cypress Hill vs House Of Pain vs RATM – Mash Up
20. BB King – Boom Boom Boom (Remix)
21. De La Soul – Say No Saturday
22. Nas – Made You Look (Remix)
23. Ini Kamoze vs Naughty By Nature – Here Comes The Hotstepper
24. First Serve – Move ‘Em In, Move ‘Em Out (Demo Version) First Serve – The Goon Time Mixtape by FIRST SERVE




My mom always told me that the first word I ever spelled was “Chevrolet”. C’mon, how many kids spell Chevrolet? This comes from having a dad who worshiped anything and everything Chevy, he was a car freak who fixed engines, went to junk yards for parts, went to auto stores just to be… there. He was not an auto mechanic by trade, but rather an engineer. His love of fixing things did not rub off on me at all, I fix shit and I prefer buying a new one. But what I did enjoy was his knowledge and admiration of the mechanics and dynamics of what made a car run, and why. If he fixed a certain car and didn’t have the right part, he knew all of the “alternate” parts. If something needed to be modified, he would do his best to dig through his boxes of magazines and do it himself, always did it himself. If he could do it cheaply but properly, he would take all morning, dad, and night. Maybe it was to get out of the house, but still, he wanted to be in that machine. I could relate to this, even though cars were and are not my thing. The kind of machine I wanted to be in looked like this:


  • I love math. I did quite well in school, but math was a subject I enjoyed because for me, it seemed like fun, even though it was a process of learning and remembering. For me, if it was reading or social studies, I would moan and groan like the rest of my classmates. Studying felt like a chore, and we wanted to be outside and play on the jungle gym. Math came fairly easy, and I enjoyed the simple 1+1, 2+2, 2×2, and 16÷4. Then one year, we started to learn fractions. As all of us remember, this was a big step up from mere addition and subtraction. We knew our numbers, but now we were going to learn about the numbers within the numbers, or how to divide things in ways we didn’t know about, but for some reason in mattered.

    We remember how it all began. 1 is not just one, it can be two halves: 1/2 and 2/2, with 2/2 representing both halves. Then things could be divided even more. You learn about the numerators and denominators, how 1/2 = 2/4 = 4/8, etc. I would remember these numbers and sequence of things, and as anyone into math will tell you, once you have a sense of how these number systems work, you eventually find shortcuts to get to the equation. That leads to percentages, not only of “one” or a “whole”, but of different numbers. That would lead to how to count your change when you gave the cashier at a dollar, you’d learn how much you would get back and why. All of these things I really enjoyed knowing and studying, because they were mental games. I loved puzzles, quizzes, anything that had to do with challenging the mind, and perhaps that’s why I got into “enrichment” class, for the nerdy/geeky kids. They saw me as someone who wanted to not challenge myself, but find more things to be challenged by.

  • While I remained “a drummer without a drum set”, I loved the power of the drums and rhythms in songs. I worshipped the guitar heroes too like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Frank Marino, but I wanted to be a drummer. I’d listen to my favorite music and play “air drums”, and I was damn good at it. Or at least as good as a kid could be in the privacy of my own bedroom and mind. I’d listen to a song like Ten Years After‘s “I’m Going Home”,and it was easy: all I had to do was play a consistent beat throughout the entire song. If I played something like Led Zeppelin‘s “When The Levee Breaks”, it was more than just “1… 2… 3… 4…”, there were a few intricate parts in that song. If I played Santana records, I’d love the sound and feel of the music but the rhythms were a bit more complex. Yet in my mind, there was always the core of the “1… 2… 3… 4…”. However, in the background there might be other things going on: the congas, the timbales, all playing in their own mindframe but still getting to where they needed to be after a sequence.
  • One thing I remember from school was seeing “fraction lines”. On one hand, it was a way to see how numbers were divided, so you could see how “1” could be divided in 2, 4, 8, or 16 equal parts. In some tasks, we would use a ruler and on this ruler we could see an inch, and in between that inch, a number of lines. We could figure out half an inch, 5/8 of an inch, or create a line that was of any length, as requested. It was possible to go back between inches and centimeters, so all of this was somehow interesting to me.

    Music has always been a part of me, or at least my surroundings. Some things come natural to me, in that if I hear a song, I would have a sense of its rhythmic patterns or time signatures. At least the basic stuff, such as the standard 4/4 time signature, or a 3/4 waltz rhythm. As I would read more about music and how it works, I’d discover that songs could be more than 4/4 or 3/4. Or if a song was 4/4, you could do a number of different things in that 4/4. If a song sounded complex, I’d wonder about its sequence and try to figure it out in my head, or clap it out. Eventually, I figured out that a lot of the music I was listening to was mathematical, which lead to those fraction lines.

    It was one of those “Bobby Brady fireworks in the head” moments. The music I loved also had games in them? Well, I know I didn’t say that, but I realized that music could be more than just the surface, that it might be filled with many layers. I am always curious about why certain sounds and songs work. Or if I heard a song like, let’s say, Blind Faith‘s “Do What You Like”, I’d want to know if the entire song is 5/4. It is, not unlike Lalo Schifrin‘s theme to Mission: Impossible.

    As I got into progressive rock and heard King Crimson‘s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, I enjoyed the mid-section of the song commonly known as “Mirrors”. When the song comes out of the driving first part and the tempo increases, the time signature turns to 3/4. For the longest time, I could not figure out the segment that switches over to something else at the 4:40 mark:

    I love this song and yet could not figure out that section. In my 30’s, after 20 years of hearing this song countless times, I realized when that fast section switches over, it moves from 3/4 to 4/4, and there are all of these intricate things going on before that sequence is played twice, wraps itself up, and heads back into the 3/4 for awhile before returning back into that slow grinding 4/4 groove. I remember when I discovered this, I thought “why didn’t I sense this when I was a teenager?” Keep in mind that I loved the different time signatures and bars of jazz and prog rock, which I’m a fan of, but sometimes things may not fully click until much later.

  • Somewhere before this, a number of bands were doing this and someone decided that these complex music equations was worthy of a name: “math rock”. This was nothing different from what bands have been doing for decades, but for those who loved to hear music **with** thought, this was perfect. If you’re into jazz, you discover the music of Don Ellis, who would play songs in 5/4, 7/4, 11/4, or whatever he felt like doing. When I got into Indian classical music, I discovered that their musical notation (tala) is completely different from Western notation, and each of their time signatures may have specific names. For example, our 4/4 rhythm is written out as 4 + 4 + 4 + 4, or what is known as teental/tintal. I discovered this while reading liner notes of albums by Ravi Shankar, which would always describe the feeling, emotion, or pathos of a song, before telling the reader/listener how to hear the song. Then you’d read about other songs, and how they are presented in Jhaptal, Ektal, and countless other names. I’d read up about this, and some of it was similar to Western time signatures, while others seemed a bit more… maybe “crazy” and “hectic” aren’t the proper words, but it wasn’t just simply clapping “1… 2… 3… 4…”, but any mathematical equation you wanted to play, you could do so in music. I remember reading Shankar’s autobiography where he spoke of writing a composition based on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence from England. He did it in a tala that was “3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3”. In other words, if you were to count that out, you would do it as:

    1… 2… 3…
    1… 2… 3… 4…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
    1… 2… 3… 4…
    1… 2… 3…

    Significance? The sum of 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 is 25. That numbered sequence is reversed, so 25+25 = 50, a reference to the 50th anniversary of India’s independence from England. When I read this, I thought “wow, you can do that with music?” That’s when I decided to do a song using that same sequence, but in my case, the 50 would represent where I’m from, Hawai’i, which is the 50th U.S. state. I don’t have the audience or appeal of Shankar, and while I did come up with great results, it could have been a lot better if I added more elements to the track. Nonetheless, it was still fun to do.

  • I don’t listen to all music with math in mind, but math is always in mind, especially with music. In other words, if it’s music where a 4/4 time signature is expected, I’ll listen to it for that. I’ll listen to a song for its music, its means to create emotion, all of the metaphors I use to simply listen. Yet if a song is different from an accepted norm, I can’t help but put my math hat on and start thinking, something that you pretty much have to do. If you are a drummer, you are looking at a diagram of numbers. You have to hit the hi-hat a certain way, you hit the snare at certain points, and if you want to do something different, it may help to create a new pattern. That “new pattern” may be described as a groove. There are some who will tell you that there are huge cultural and ethnic differences in music. James Brown, George Clinton, and Prince would honor the principal that the groove was always “on the one”, or on that initial beat. Even actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner would single this out in a classic episode of The Cosby Show, where when he, as Theo, was in a recording studio with his family and musician Stevie Wonder, he was told to say something into the microphone, and what did he say? “Jammin’ on the one“.

    You may not think “mathematical” when it comes to Paula Abdul, but in her video for “Forever Your Girl”, she was trying to teach a young girl how to dance in a certain sequence, and did so by trying to tell her where to do certain things in a sequence of 8 beats. The look on the girls’ face when Abdul says “you’re on” seems to be an expression that a lot of people have when you describe the time signature or pattern to them.

    A lot of people fell in love with Outkast‘s “Hey Ya”, leading to countless cover version in a number of different styles. Part of its appeal is that the time signature is 22/4, or 4 + 4 + 4 + 2 + 4 + 4:

    There’s also De La Soul‘s “Stakes Is High”, and outside of it being a Dilla production, what people like about it is because it is not the normal hip-hop 4/4 rhythm. In this case, it’s 12/4, or 4 + 4 + 4:

    You also have one of my favorite DJ Shadow songs, “Changeling”, which is 14/4, or 4 + 4 + 4 + 2:

  • For me, math is always in the music. Music and math are one. Of course, math doesn’t apply to just music. As I got into food as something create rather than rip out of a box and warm up, you have to understand and follow the rules of the recipe. If you put more than 1/4 cup of any ingredient, or less than 2 tbsp of something else, it will taste either bad or be deficient/lack flavor. Some of the best cooks/chefs are able to play with food by feeling, and can tweak it visually or by flavor, but that also comes from years of experience. Same with a musician, who may be part of a band or orchestra, and if you’re playing by the book or with a sense of improvisation, you know where to come in to fit in, or to compliment what is being played, along with moving out of range at appropriate times. Math is with you when you are driving somewhere, reading the sign that tells you how long you have to go to get to your destination. It’s with you when you are a construction worker, when you have to coordinate the dimensions of a room, carpet fabric, or anything that will make the room look right. When the room looks and feels right, you might say that everything is in “harmony” with one another, a musical metaphor but as a way to say that this is right, or as right/accurate as it can be.

    Music is the same way. Math is always a part of the equation, but you can have the freedom to bob and weave out of it if you follow the rules that are in play. Even with rules, you can still have fun with it. As a listener, or as a creator of sounds, math is important. It may not make people dance “on the on” at first, but with enough practice and dedication, you’ll get to the sum of that equation. Music should make us feel, and a lot of times it makes us happy, so if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.

    Clap, clap.

    One, two.

  • Music is limitless if you understand or know the rules and guidelines, which will lead you to color outside of the lines.
  • DUST IT OFF: A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” 20 years later

    A term that has been used in the last few years is “game changer” as a reference to something that “changed the game” forever. In other words, once it made its presence known, it would result in things influenced by its impact. A Tribe Called Quest‘s second album, The Low End Theory was released on September 24, 1991 and was never pushed as a game changer by any means. It wasn’t even that five years later, but the rise of hip-hop fans on the internet would bring up a generation who were immediate about their views, and the perception of the group and album being life-changing started. 20 years after its release, it is considered to be one of their best, if not THE best ATCQ album. That will lead to arguments in which you will not win, but it shows how devoted fans are to the album and Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Mohammad, and Phife. The recent release of the group’s documentary touches on what made that album the “it” album. It was make or break, it was one that ended up taking them around the world, but it was not an album that made them riches. Then again, they came from a generation that did not mind not having massive success because no one wanted to be ridiculous as MC Hammer. Everyone wanted that money, but not the silliness some had seen in him, yet despite the criticism towards him, you couldn’t help but admire his drive. If someone wanted something more organic, more rootsy, more traditional, you had the Native Tongues and you had its greatest success story, A Tribe Called Quest, and it was with The Low End Theory that they became a success.

    However, I did not take to the album as quickly as I did with People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm. To me, that album is perfect ATCQ. It was rough and rugged, a lot of it sounds like it was recorded onto Chrome cassette, and the sound quality at times is not consistent. But what it didn’t sound like was Jungle Brothers first album, Straight Out The Jungle, which sounds like a demo they didn’t bother wanting to improve on. People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm is a fantastic album and to this day I’ll rock it. Yet amongst hip-hop fans online, liking it is equal to admitting you like Method Man‘s Tical more than The GeniusLiquid Swords. You’re told you’re a fool and aren’t worthy of participating in any discussion.

    That’s not to say I didn’t like The Low End Theory, because I did, the entire album is great. It wasn’t the fact that Jarobi wasn’t on it, it was pretty much a non-issue. Everyone wondered where he was, but since he wasn’t on there, then people were happy that ATCQ were around and now a 3-piece crew. When the group came out with “Check The Rime”, it felt good to hear something that funky and powerful. Phife had been, for the first album, the “second dog” but with this album and this song he was equal in status of Q-Tip, and that would make people want to hear more of work, hoping he’d drop verses in other songs (cue up Fu Schnickens‘s “La Schmoove”), and maybe one day do a solo album. Fans honored the sanctity of the group unit, and thus wanted to hear all three of them as a group and nothing but.

    The Low End Theory was an album that made its greatest impact through its videos. Both MTV’s YO! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City were in existence when they released their first, and people loved the fact their videos were not just a simple “walk on stage, hold a microphone, walk back and forth, make goofy faces in the camera, fade to black”. The video for “Bonita Applebum” had Special Ed and Kika dancing randomly in different locations, a jazzy man on the Hammond organ, and a guy being an umpire in a friendly game of baseball (a reference that would pop up later when De La Soul released De La Soul Is Dead in May 1991.) The video for “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” had them in California looking like boho hippies, while the video for “Can I Kick It” brought in their De La friends and other close associates. But “Check The Rime” looked a bit more “rich”, as in “wow, these guys have a bigger budget to make a video, this looks cool”. It was also the first time fans got to see what the world of ATCQ was like, turning Linden Boulevard into a street as popular as The BeatlesAbbey Road, Booker T. & The MG’sMcLemore Avenue, and L.L. Cool J‘s Farmers Boulevard, which happened to intersect Linden near St. Alban’s, a place that Biz Markie celebrated a lot in his early music. Like a lot of hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s, it catered to localism while seeking to be worldy, so indirectly they were telling fans “this is home to us”.

    The video for “Jazz/Buggin’ Out” was like a much colder version of Journey‘s “Separate Ways (World’s Apart)”, but not as dorky. Then again, all of them bugged out at the end as Phife dropped his verse, and that stood out in a genre when you were often treated like dirt if you not only looked funny, but acted weird, even if it was of your own doing. You were an outcast. Then the Spike Lee-directed “Scenario” video helped to officially make this album a genuine classic, with cameos from all of the MC’s in the song plus Fab 5 Freddy, Redman, Posdnous, Kid Capri, Cut Monitor Milo and many others in a recipe that was true to modern vibe of the Native Tongue, but also futuristic, specifically how the video was programmed to look. There was a digital interfact at a time when most people had no idea what WAV files and digital synchronization was, plus the subtle in-jokes throughout: the “neg” (negative) option changing to “pos” (positive) when Posdnous’ face was shown in full, the Jimi Hendrix drum loop arranged to show each “stab” in visual form, and during Charlie Brown‘s verse, the map options switch as he mentions “New York, North Cacalaca (Carolina) & Compton”, and when you see the word Linden, you see the homes as originally shown in the “Check The Rime” video.

    That was it: three official singles and videos, but one album that fans embraced, absorbed, and stapled into the consciousness of hip-hop. Another thing to consider at the time was the make-believe feuds of the East and West Coast. A Tribe Called Quest represented the East but were much more than the guys who loved Linden. It would be with the next album that they’d wantto be on an “Award Tour”, but they had no issues with people from New York, North Cacalaca, or Compton. The Low End Theory was very much New York hip-hop personified, especially as an album and a group that came from the city where hip-hop started. Yet without having a territorial preference, the group were able to travel across the country, Europe, Japan, and Australia and gain fans, all of whom loved what the group shared in their videos but more importantly what they could deliver on an album. Singers are a major part of hip-hop’s history, but soon it was all about proving yourself in album form, and A Tribe Called Quest did not have a problem.

    It was because of this album that helped move ATCQ into the forefront for the Native Tongues, and when they released Midnight Marauders two years later, they were the leaders of their own school, even bringing on Busta Rhymes as an unofficial member when his group officially collapsed. If A Tribe Called Quest was a game changer in anything, it was the fact that not only were their videos showing a bit of forward thinking adventure, but it was also one of the first hip-hop albums to be partly recorded in digital. Digital had been a luxury for classical, rock, and pop music for years, but not with hip-hop. You may have recorded the music using modern equipment, but everything was still recorded on and mixed on analog. Engineer Bob Power helped to bring the sound of the group further into the future, and as everyone was highly impressed by its “future primitive” groove, everyone wanted to make an album that was as polished as The Low End Theory. That changed the way hip-hop was recorded from that point on, or at least allowed producers and engineers to record songs without the limitations placed on itself. In terms of recording studio technology and use of the studio as a “member” of the group, The Low End Theory was truly a game changer.)

    To say how much this album changed things for others would be repeating what everyone has said for years, so… just listen. As for what makes up the perfect A Tribe Called Quest triad of albums, maybe will say the first three with The Low End Theory being on top. Regardless of your personal best, it’s safe to say that The Low End Theory is in there, or at least should be.

    The music and culture of hip-hop has changed in the last 20 years. The Low End Theory was meant to represent what they called “the art of moving butts”, they made albums and music that would move the low end of women and men. In time, some will argue that “low end” meant low-class or old, and that all hip-hop after 1996 represented the “high end” aspirations of the music and its people, which felt like it was nothing more than a dividing line between the “old school” and “new school “mentality”, now that an era of “new school” was seen as “your father’s hip-hop”. That bitter feud is what continued to drive the music as a whole to do better, even as New York hip-hop started to fade out from mainstream acceptance. Yet when one puts on The Low End Theory, it very much goes back to when NYC was king, but when hip-hop felt like not just like the soundtrack to your life, but life itself. Or as ATCQ would announce a few years later, it was about Beats, Rhymes & Life: why bother with anything else? It’s a theory that the mainstream will claim is hanging out at grandma’s house, but even grandma knows how to get down to The Abstract.

    MOVIE REVIEW: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (documentary)

    My Polynesian people will understand what I’m about to say: this documentary film about A Tribe Called Quest is hip-hop’s version of Whale Rider.

    If you are a fan of hip-hop music, watch this. If you are a fan of A Tribe Called Quest, tell everyone to see it, bring friends to the theaters. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest is, in my opinion, what a hip-hop documentary should be. It represents the best in music documentaries, and Michael Rapaport did an excellent job in putting this together, and I’ll tell you why.

    For me, I was someone just out of high school when I knew that Public Enemy‘s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back would be a life changer. I had been a fan of rap music for nine years before the album dropped, my high school experience was complete shit, and what saved me was being in radio/TV production class and hip-hop. In radio/TV class, I got to be a radio DJ on a station whose format was hard rock/heavy metal. I grew up on hard rock, I’m a certified headbanger, and sadly the only way I could play hip-hop was on April Fool’s Day, as a joke. I did it, and I remember playing the then-new P.E. song “Prophets Of Rage” and getting a barrage of calls telling me “turn off that shit”. I was hooked. Almost a year later, I saw De La Soul‘s “Potholes In My Lawn” video and was immediately hooked, I had to know what it was. March 1989, I bought the 3 Feet High And Rising tape, played it endlessly. I then heard about Jungle Brothers, loved them. Then came A Tribe Called Quest.

    Rap music affected me in a big way, and A Tribe Called Quest were one of those groups that were on the top for me. Solid beats, solid rhymes, solid vibe. It was indeed a Tribe Vibe, and this tribe were the Native Tongues. I’m Hawaiian, so the word “native” is not used lightly. When you are a Native Hawaiian, you are a true Hawaiian, it’s deep, it’s to the bone, in the blood. To be a Native Tongue not only meant speaking a common language, but you were true to the spirit and the source of what you were doing. Some of these things are mentioned in this documentary which covers the origins of the group, what they did as kids as they made their way towards each other, and how through miscommunication and perhaps a few bruised egos tore up what mentally, and socially connected the tribe.

    One of the benefits of this documentary is that it is Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi without egos. They are themselves, understanding not so much their roles in hip-hop history, but their connections with each other as friends and associates through music. It’s also great to hear comments from Pharrell Williams, Large Professor, Mike D., Mike G., Afrika Baby Bam, Monie Love, and Chris Lighty. speak on how their music and work as a group affected them. Along the way, one can see how the bruised egos turned into open wounds, and in many ways its bittersweet.

    One thing that the movie reveals is something I’ve believed for a long time. There came a time when the music stopped feeling special, or at least that unique quality started to be branded and marketed. While that last statement is never said properly, it seems that what the music industry was becoming had a major factor in the group becoming less of a unit and more as co-workers who at times couldn’t stand each other.

    Beats, Rhymes & Life also hints at the changes of the music, how they’ve become elders, and how their audience has become older too, all while influencing those who truly wish to listen, learn and understand what A Tribe Called Quest were about. Just as they talk about a need for community, I think as a fan I seeked that too, especially in a town that lacked what I was looking for through the music, and perhaps in life. I found good friends, and I will never doubt those friends, but somehow hip-hop became the loudest chain for all of us. As kids, we all wanted to build up fantasies and myths about our favorite groups, to where we were honoring streets like Linden and Farmers without ever setting food in the city these streets are on. What this documentary does is pop the myth, or in truth allow us to see what we’ve always known: these guys have always been regular guys with a deep love for music, they just happened to have the right chemistry at the right time, and that’s what created that magic we heard and ideally shared. Yet as we see these men in their 40’s, and as some of us see ourselves there or getting there, we watch and go “what now? Is this where we all walk into the sunset and say goodbye?”

    We don’t want the good times to end, and yet we are perhaps waiting for that whale to take us deep into the abyss, to places unknown, with our without the community that we defined as being home. This film is very much about Beats, Rhymes & Life, journalists who archived their lives through music and made some of us put on backpacks, or have enough water to get us from here to there. With luck, this documentary will not only entertain those of us who still feel the connection to the Tribe Vibe, but also teach the current and next generation about one of the best hip-hop groups ever, of any and all eras. Also, for a music that is based on communication, don’t allow a breakdown in communication amongst friends break down to where you lose sight of who you are. I also liked the idea that fans should be able to show support to what each of them have done away from ATCQ, and while everyone wants to relive the magic that made them fans in the first place, you’re not less of a fan if you decide to explore elsewhere. Exploring elsewhere is what Tip, Phife, Ali, and Jarobi continue to do on their paths of rhythm, for even though they may be on their own separate journeys, something will always bring them back together, even if it means simply us putting the needle back on the turntable, popping the tape back into the deck, or cuing up the iPod to the playlist of choice.

    DUST IT OFF: De La Soul Is Dead… 20 years later

    In the June 1991 issue of The Source, there were full page ads for new albums by Terminator X, Young Black Teenagers, Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs, Cypress Hill, Success-N-Effect, KMC, Tony Dee, and Chubb Rock. Within its pages were articles covering people such as The Genius, Nia Peeples (then-host of The Party Machine), and Lifers Group. There were still regional scene reports, with people like Billy Jam covering the Bay Area, Geoffrey Watts covering Chicago, and DJ P looking into the music of L.A. Inside were reviews of music by Rodney O & Joe Cooley, Dream Warriors, 3rd Bass‘ new single “Pop Goes The Weasel”, Kid Capri, Busy Bee, and YZ. Of interest was an article by Scott Poulson-Bryant on the power of Fishbone, whose “alternativeness” (compared to the regulars in The Source) made them a potential crossover. There’s also an article by Chris Webber on police brutality. The magazine also had a section called Unsigned Hype, where young artists could submit a demo tape in the hopes of being recognized for potential signage. In this issue of The Source was the magazine’s first and only DJ to be honored in the column, an 18-year old music man from Davis, California who called himself Shadow. He made music with a Yamaha MT-100 4-track recorder, and impressed writer Matty C enough to put him in the magazine. We now know Shadow as DJ Shadow.

    However, the focus of any magazine is the cover story and for this issue it was De La Soul and the release of their long awaited second album, what was called De La Soul Is Dead. There was also an “anonymous” editorial at the beginning of the magazine which looked at what they felt was Rap Music’s Identity Crisis, so the idea that this music was having issues was very apt. I’ve often cited the idea that rap music was going through a moment of uncertainty in 1990. Rap music was grand and bold, but I had wondered if artists were wondering if this hip trend would be over with, that the “fad” would no longer be valid in the 1990’s. Yo-Yo may have been ready to stomp into the new decade, but were major labels ready? Little did we know how ready major labels, and corporate America, would be.

    As for De La, the group were still celebrating the popularity of 3 Feet High And Rising, which was not only an album with a good amount of singles (and videos to go with it), but was also cited for its use of unauthorized samples. Some were wondering of De La Soul could actually do a second album, since many felt 3 Feet High And Rising, produced by Stetsasonic DJ/producer Prince Paul, was too freaky, too weird, too “out there”, too… dare I say, “white”? It left many to call what De La did “alternative hip-hop”, since what they were doing was a complete 180 to what was being pushed in the mainstream media. Keep in mind The Source was still a rap magazine barely available in stores, and it’s safe to say very few understood (or wanted to understand) what Posdnous, Trugoy, P.A. Pasemaster Mase, and Prince Paul were trying to do or say. De La Soul spoke of the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age”, which they said on the first album meant “Da Inner Sound, Y’all”, but when everyone saw flowers, paisley clothes, and homemade Flowbee-type haircuts on these guys from Amityville, New York, people were like “damn, are these fuckers really from Mars?” They poked fun at themselves, but it seemed as if it was at the cost of people thinking they were legitimate, as if all they were was a bunch of day-glo nerds. Maybe they were, but their second album was a strategic move to kill the misconceptions, and arguably themselves.


    In popular music, people love a good “dead” story. People enjoy reading about musicians dying, how and why. Maybe the idea of calling the album De La Soul Is Dead was an attempt to poke fun at people who would see that and go “oh, if they’re dead, maybe there are clues to find”. It’s as if stating they were dead was like a Paul McCartney moment. People looked at the new De La logo the group were now using, and how when you turned the word “LA” upside down, the A could be the Roman numeral 5, and the L looked like the percent ( % ) symbol. Were they part of the 5% Nation Of Islam? The upsidedown L also looked like it could be the number 7, so were they dropping mathematics? Seeing the illustrated cover of a pot of daisies fallen to the ground was obvious: De La had to be doing something different. Combine all of these elements, and what you had on the surface was a brand new album with new music, new stories, new lyrics, and new puzzles to figure out. While the group had released “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” as the first single from the album, the group would make their new mission known when De La Soul Is Dead was released on May 13, 1991.

    The album did not have a proper concept, but rather it was done in the form of a read-along story book, complete with “dings” that would allow listeners to turn the page to a book that did not exist. You did that in your mind. What the group and Prince Paul did was arrange the songs in a way that had some level of narrative, but did it really? No. The narrative was done through Paul’s skits, allowing people to find out what would happen if you were a kid who found a De La cassette in the trash and be bullied because you did not listen to MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. To listen to De La meant you were different, even if you weren’t. But already, the group were already showing how fans were stigmatized for not listening to something that was “typically rap”. The group would jump on various examples of the stereotypes, on how you had to “hold my crotch ’cause I’m top notch”.

    At the same time, it was time to reflect about what hip-hop had become circa 1991, one of the threads of continuity on the album. In “Oodles Of O’s”, one of the first songs where the majority of the song rhymed in a continuous fashion, Dove basically said it was time to sell some O’s at the corner store. It was as if he was saying “for a moment, let’s go back to when we were kids, when the corner store meant everything to us and our friends.” The song briefly looked back, and then looked forward as the album would proceed. Prince Paul was already showing his audio continuity by reviving the “oh, shit” sample from 3rd Bass’ “The Gas Face. Then there’s “Talkin’ ‘Bout Hey Love”, and while it’s kind of toss-off/joke song where the female vocals repeat the same vocal melody over and over, it’s almost as if that influenced hip-hop hooks in the last decade. It’s almost as if someone focused on that part of the song and loved it, so it could be an influence. What may have also been an influence: the WRMS breaks heard throughout the album used Joe Sample‘s “In All My Wildest Dream”, slowed down slightly but still evident. Its slow tempo was very much unlike the hip-hop going on at the time, where people were either wanting to go hip-house or just being funky, there was no “laid back” vibe. A year later, DJ Shadow would take credit for creating the trip-hop movement, in that the sample used was slow enough to make people trip out, and yet Shadow himself might cite these De La interludes, The Beastie Boys “To All The Girls” (Shadow also sampled “Loren’s Dance” in his own “Shadow’s Legitimate Mix” he did for Zimbabwe Legit or Queen Mother Rage‘s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” as an inspiration, and yet Prince Paul was doing his thing to let people know that yes, slow and mellow samples work too. (2Pac would use the Joe Sample track again for his song “Dear Mama”.)

    Upon first listen to De La Soul Is Dead, it almost seems like a sensory overload, or that the group were trying to do everything to create something that didn’t quite happen, but to my ears that’s far from the truth. They saw the changes happening in hip-hop, how the music was turning into something where only “hardcore acts” were gaining respect, while being light was considered weak, as they talked about in “Afro Connections At A Hi 5 (In The Eyes Of The Hoodlum)”. They were not afraid to talk about the threat (perceived or otherwise) of gangsterism, and yet in “Pease Porridge”, Mase was not afraid to say he will not hesitate to pop someone in the face if need be. The group had been perceived as peace loving hippies, but as they said on one of their earlier B-sides, it wasn’t too hip to be labeled a hippie, especially when that was something created by their label, Tommy Boy Records. Here was a group making fun of themselves as being peace loving gentlemen, while also talking about how the music was becoming more business-like and corporate. In an interview they did with MTV that spring on Yo! MTV Raps, they told Fab 5 Freddy they were going to have De La Glow Nuts, a store that sold glow-in-the-dark doughnuts. There were glow-in-the-dark T-shirts made to promote 3 Feet High And Rising, so why not have their own store? (It would be awhile before groups would acknowledge the benefits of having their own store filled with merchandise, as with the Wu-Tang when they had their Wu-Wear stores and seeked to make Wu nail salons a national success.)


    My first exposure to the album was the cassette version, which lacked a number of tracks that were on the compact disc version, released about three months after the album hit the streets. Cassettes were still the format of choice in rap music, vinyl was (as it has always been) a DJ thing and only vinyl purists were looking for the actual record. (There was hesitation, since 3 Feet High And Rising‘s duration of 70 minutes was slapped on a single piece of vinyl, reducing the volume and audio quality on an album that was good as is. Tommy Boy solved this by releasing a promo-only double LP of De La Soul Is Dead but eliminating the interludes, although original stock copies had always been difficult to find.) For me, this is how the album was introduced to me:

    Side 1
    Oodles Of O’s
    Talkin’ ‘Bout Hey Love
    Pease Porridge
    Skit 1
    A Rollerskating Jam Named “Saturdays”
    WRMS’ Dedication To The Bitty
    Bitties In The BK Lounge
    Skit 2
    Let, Let Me In
    Afro Connections At A Hi 5 (In The Eyes Of The Hoodlum)

    Side 2
    Rap De Rap Show
    Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa
    Skit 3
    Pass The Plugs
    Not Over Till The Fat Lady Plays The Demo
    Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)
    WRMS: Cat’s In Control
    Skit 4
    Fanatic Of The B Word
    Keepin’ The Faith
    Skit 5

    If your exposure to the album has only been with the CD version or digital download (equal to that of the CD), you’ll see that a good amount of songs are missing:
    Johnny’s Dead AKA Vincent Mason (live in BK Lounge)
    My Brother’s A Basehead
    Who do u Worship?
    Kicked Out the House

    It may be a mere four songs, but for me, these songs were able to add a bit more continuity to the songs on the cassette version. For example, “Who Do U Worship?” sounds like a track that was almost out of place, although at a time when Afrocentricity and faith were minor issues in the music, and it was almost as if some were trying to have hip-hop be one thing or… nothing. In other words, you really couldn’t be “other”, or at least the only thing that existed was “hardcore rap” and “good rap”, and good rap for many meant wholesome and cuss free, such as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and Kid ‘N Play. De La Soul represented a completely different “other”, so maybe the group were as out of place as “Who Do U Worship?”, and yet people who heard them loved what they were hearing because it was different from what was becoming an accepted norm. At the beginning of “Skit 3”, Mase asks what in the world was that “Who Do U Worship” crap, the sign of the devil or something? On the cassette version, it seemed like a random part of the album’s conversation, as if he was talking about someone else (or heavy metal music, which in 1991 was all about the evil that was Guns N’ Roses). With the extra song, Mase’s conversation made much more sense, even though (IMHO) the song really doesn’t add anything to the trail of thought going on. “Kicked Out The House” was the group making fun of hip-house, a style of music that their fellow Native Tongue affiliates were having fun with (let’s not forget that the first Jungle Brothers hit was the now-classic “Girl I’ll House You”). At the end of “Kicked Out The House”, there’s a vocal sample that repeatedly goes “put it on vibrate” before ending with the Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick sample. With the next song, “Pass The Plugs”, it begins with someone saying “this time, put it in mellow”. While the connection may not be a major one, it was almost as if Paul was adding this little things to see if anyone would/could figure out his sense of continuity, or at least he was adding his own storyline to the album. In other words, the bumping house music was annoying to where someone is yelling “put it on vibrate”, and when the song is over, they’re asked to “put it in mellow”, and we get that. I still feel that at times, the cassette version worked a lot better without the extra songs that made it on the CD, although out of the four bonus tracks, “My Brother’s A Basehead” is the best one.

    The cassette version shows how the album is properly divided, so that the first half ends with “Afro Connection At A Hi-5” and the second half begins with “Rap De Rap Show”. The first half has the group hanging out at the corner store, having fun, being wise asses and showing who they are as individuals. The second half is a bit more serious in tone, with “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” covering child abuse that leads to a murder, “Ring Ring Ring” showing how the group’s successful status lead to people feeling they were the ones who could rescue new artists with a recording contract, when they felt it was nothing more than “demo abuse, getting raped and giving birth to a tape”. De La’s corner store raps were being threatened by the business of the business, and Dove casually says he “found it hard enough dealin’ with my own biz”. As worldly as the group may have sounded to fans and critics, they kept on establishing that they were down to Earth and wanted to remain that way. What success (or someone’s view of their success) lead to was people saying “here’s my tape, make me famous too”, which is why the song’s chorus has them reacting as if they were an answering machine, which was (back in 1991) also recorded on tape and added to the “piles and piles” of tapes that the group had to deal with.

    Initially, the last three songs on the album were hard for me to embrace at first. They were all good songs, but my original outlook was that they slowed down the pace of the album. It would take a number of repeat listens to make me rethink this, so today, “Shwingalokate”, “Fanatic Of The B Word”, “Keepin’ The Faith” are a perfect way to end an incredible sonic adventure. On this album, Mase found himself not only rapping in a few tracks but becoming a more vocal member of the group, figuratively and literally. You also had appearances from Q-Tip, Afrika Baby Bam, Mike G., and Dres, the group most certainly brought a party atmosphere into their music, or at least made it out that “the bigger the family, the better things will be”. We now know through interviews and articles at at times, the Native Tongues collective may have been too crammed at times to where even people who weren’t part of that musical family were trying to make a name for themselves by saying they were. In 1991, it was still about the music, and that these side controversies would never be a big issue as they might have been had the group started in 1999.

    (SIDENOTE: As an alternate way to hear De La Soul Is Dead, I tend to prefer the single mix of “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” as heard in the music video, and at times I also like the extra samples and vocal hook in the “Full Mix” of “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” (which Prince Paul would later use to good effect in “Mommy What’s A Gravedigga?”). The “Straight Pass” mix of “Keepin’ The Faith”, used in the video, is also a nice switch over the original, complete with a nice scratch of The Mohawks‘s “The Champ” heard throughout. I also highly recommend “What Yo Life Can Truly Be“, a nice reworking of “A Rollerskating Jam Named “Saturdays””, and “Who’s Skatin’ Promo“, a mock radio spot. Both of these mixes were released on the 12” single for “Saturdays”.)


    De La Soul were not only playing games with fans and themselves, but they were also doing it when they promoted the album. With an appearance on BET‘s Video Soul, Dove was credited as one “Rahlow”, and I know I had no idea what that meant. Rahlow was discovered to be “Cousin Rahlow”, the guy who sold blow in “Afro Connections At A Hi-5”. For a group who were more than willing to “kill themselves” in order to prove they should be worthy of being heard amongst everyone else, they were still not afraid to let people know that their lyrical twists and turns could also be explored in their promotional game, at a time when “promotional game” was not something everyone flirted with in 1991. Perhaps they were taking a few hints from the Beastie Boys, who once did a full week on MTV showing them traveling around the world, when they were doing nothing more than driving around Los Angeles.

  • Were De La Soul really dead? If not, what was dying? The original spirit of hip-hop? NYC hip-hop? The original community of what was hip-hop? The non-existent divisions of hip-hop? Or were they predicting hip-hop’s demise years before Nas came into the picture? Or none of the above? If the group were going out of their way to kill themselves, De La Soul Is Dead is one of the best examples of character assassination. The demise of someone else’s perception of their music and personalities helped them tremendously, for they were able to turn on more fans who may have felt 3 Feet High And Rising was a bit “too much”. But too much of what? Too white? Too left of center? Was it not rap music to people? 3 Feet High And Rising was released four months before the Beastie Boys’ second album Paul’s Boutique, a record that still gets credited as being an eccentric sample-based album, when 3 Feet High And Rising featured everything from a Turtles 45 played at 33, Wilson Pickett, and Hall & Oates. De La Soul Is Dead could have been destined to suffer the sophomore slump, it could have been the album that ended their career and if so, perfect, De La Soul had already (as the old saying goes) killed themselves on wax. Yet by letting everyone know that they were in this to win, and not just a group trying to cash in on trends they didn’t create (nor participate in), De La Soul wanted to prove that you can love or hate their approach to music, you can love or hate their made-up De La way of speak, but they were going to do it because they knew people were willing to think and love what they were hearing.

    The group’s fictitious death was arguably a rebirth, and the group would mature into their fictitious teen years with their follow up, Buhloone Mind State. When that album was released on September 24, 1993, rap music was not just rap music, it had become hip-hop, which in a way it had always been. But now, people wanted to use slogans and tags in order to define the music and to show how relevant they were by being a fan and creator of the music. In fact, some felt you could be proud enough to call yourself hip-hop. At the same time people started using that as a badge of honor, the music was selling more, started gaining more mainstream press (often times for reasons having nothing to do with the music itself), and along with MC’s becoming known for their verbal game, record label owners wanted some of that fame too. People saw the success of Tone Loc‘s “Wild Thing”, Young MC‘s “Bust A Move”, Vanilla Ice‘s “Ice Ice Baby”, MC Hammer‘s “U Can’t Touch This”, and Sir Mix-A-Lot‘s “Baby Got Back” and realized that wow, hip-hop could be bigger than what was called “ghetto gold”? People boasted about their road to the riches, but the true road to money and success was having #1 hit singles, and some of the characteristics of the music began to change too. Album sales were still strong, but you got noticed outside of hip-hop circles if you had the pop hit, it meant you truly blew up successfully. In the words of De La, “it might blow up but it won’t go pop”, which was their way of saying if your sole aim is to be a pop artist, once you blow up, it’ll be very difficult to go back to a status your fans loved you for. De La Soul exploited the lure in their music, even though they released a number of songs that showed they easily had the potential to “blow up”. Fortunately, they did not (although the success of Gorillaz‘ “Feels Good Inc.” showed that patience came to those willing to wait, and by then, it didn’t matter that Dove, who simply wanted to be Dave, did a line about the Care Bears.) A few months after the release of Buhloone Mind State, a group from Staten Island, New York called the Wu-Tang Clan would mark the end of the uncertain hip-hop era of the early 90’s and mark the start of another era. The common link? Prince Paul, who found himself not only heard during (what else) an interlude at the end of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), but found himself working with The RZA at the same time on what would become the Gravediggaz project. By then, Stetsasonic was pretty much over, Paul’s relationship with Tommy Boy Records was coming to an end and Buhloone Mind State would become the last full album Paul would do with De La. When the group followed that up with Stakes Is High, it was the group’s mission to let people know that they were a group with their own ideas and characteristics, a way to let fans know that they were much more than Prince Paul’s group. For awhile, Paul did become the group’s unofficial 4th member, he was very much a part of what the group were about on their first three albums. If 3 was truly the magic number, then those first three albums are truly magic. De La Soul no longer wanted to be mystical, but they weren’t about being fake gangsters, that was not their thing. Stakes Is High was the start of a new era for the group and the end of another, and regardless of what some fans or critics think, the group remain with us to this very day. Prince Paul ended up being a Gravedigga (and perhaps it was he who killed Tommy’s boy, so maybe Paul has been a gangsta all along), but a solo album on Wordsound would also mark his true independence from De La. It made him into the king of hip-hop interludes, and if you wanted a certain sound to your music, Paul was and remains the man to go to.

    In retrospect, maybe the music seemed much more simpler than it is now, maybe it seemed more refined and defined, when in truth, many artists weren’t following definition but creating new things on a regular basis. There were artists who did follow certain guidelines and rules, but those were ones regarded as those who wanted a #1 hit. Hip-hop success in 1991 meant you heard it a lot on the radio (when you could find it on the radio) or saw the video a lot on MTV and BET. Hip-hop success was not defined by major media campaigns, nor was it dictated by an assumption of what could be a hit. A hit was judged by fans and if it was good, a “hit” meant it was a good song to you. Liking a song for its chart status as if it was a baseball card statistic was not an issue for anyone but industry insiders who were looking to make another million, and was there a chance the music could make an unheard of billion? Def Jam Recordings was not the big giant it was in the mid to late 80’s in 1991, but a year or so later, jumping ship from Columbia/CBS to Polygram would not only mark a new era for the label, but for hip-hop as a new, young (perhaps naive) corporate entity. Jay-Z was still the quirky looking guy in The Jaz videos who seemed better than the person who made the actual record, but never finding a way to come out with his own music. That, of course, would change a few years later. As N.W.A would take over audience’s hearts with increased focus on rap music from the West Coast, it didn’t stop anyone to enjoy music from “the best coast”. There may have been egos tossed back and forth on who made the better music, but what was unspoken was a willingness to make good music, in the hopes of making and taking that money, all without (hopefully) sacrificing one’s integrity. De La Soul may have only thought about putting out a collection of songs that would follow up a very solid debut album, but what they ended up doing was creating a staple of the genre that many still look to as an example of how good music can be made. In 2011, there are many different staples and stitches on the fabric of hip-hop, but the quilt work created by De La Soul and Prince Paul showed that you could raise your freak flag high when people felt you were a freak or geek, but it was perfectly okay to be both and live life while fighting your way towards self-identity. It was KRS-One who once said that you had to have style and learn to be original, or everyone would want to dis you. De La Soul are true originals who became the target of everyone who wanted to throw hate because they looked and sounded different. They later did a song called “I Am I Be”, and that is exactly what they were and are. De La Soul killed themselves so that they could live, and by doing so, they revealed what they have been since “Plug Tunin'”: individuals who made music “from the soul”.