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Beats Per Millennium - Hip Hop Honors Week: De La Soul

Hip Hop Honors Week: De La Soul

I didn’t quite know what to expect from De La Soul’s headlining set at last summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. I guess I thought they would put on a pleasant little show, churning out all their hits in medley form while an army of hipsters, most of who were much more interested in bands like Deerhunter, stood by motionless and claimed apathy. In short, I expected not much more than a nostalgia show.

And I suppose it was a nostalgia show. But it wasn’t a dreary-eyed, county fair type of nostalgia show. At least for ninety minutes, Dave, Posdnuos, and Maseo ignored the fact that they were each pushing 40 and rocked the party like it was 1988. More significantly, they were somehow able to compel 20,000 hipsters to throw their hands up in the air and let their joyful emotions be known. Hell, I bet Bradford Cox was even getting down backstage somewhere.

Of everything the Long Island trio has accomplished, their longevity may be the most unpredictable. Hip hop fans can be counted on to honor their elders, but the respect given to legendary acts rarely translates into record sales or successful tours. Most of De La’s contemporaries – Jungle Brothers, Digable Planets, Brand Nubian, to name just a few – are mired in obscurity. They are heralded for who they are, but possess nothing close to resembling relevant rap careers.

The root of De La Soul’s longevity is their ability, and more importantly willingness, to adapt to the times. There is no doubt that 3 Feet High and Rising is a classic, considered one of the top album’s in the history of rap by many. Robert Christgau called it “unlike any rap album you or anybody else has ever heard.” And that’s spot on. Just listen to “Tread Water,” the track where the group spit verses about running into different animals in the jungle who proceed to teach them lessons about respecting the environment. That’s some trippy shit right there! 3 Feet pushed hip hop to new boundaries, both musically and lyrically.

And that’s where it ends for most rap legends. But De La Soul are not most legends. As groundbreaking and, well, delightful, as the hippy rap of 3 Feet High and Rising was, if the group had tried to repeat it over and over again they would be a foot note in most people’s record collection today. Knowing this, they reinvented themselves for the first time in 1991. And they did it right. Right down to the title, De La Soul is Dead, and the album art, which signifies the end of the D.A.I.S.Y. Age, the group leaves no doubt that they have no intentions to become stale.

And so it continued throughout De La Soul’s career. Each album found them branching off into new directions. Other artists are unfairly labeled “sell-outs” for doing the same thing, but few would disrespect De La with this moniker. There have been some misses along the way (that whole Art Official Intelligence thing was sort of a flop) but all in all the group’s adventurous musical vision has kept them far more relevant than the rest of their scene.

So yes. De La Soul’s performance at the Pitchfork Festival was a nostalgia show. But it was a nostalgia show with the livest bunch of hipsters I’ve ever seen in my life. And the most bananas that crowd got all night was for “Rock Co.Kane Flow,” a song off the group’s newest album. That’s something you don’t see at every nostalgia show.

Posted by Mike Denslow at Sep 30, 2008 10:47 PM