Pure plug … bliss?
In 1991, De La Soul cut themselves free from their paisley shirts, peace medallions, and cuddly day-glo aesthetic. Trugoy even chopped off all but a few of his trademark dreadlocks, looking nearly like a stranger in the “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey Hey)” video. While seemingly unimportant, this change in hair parallels a genre-wide shift towards more aggressive posturing, best exemplified by Queens-based group Onyx. I’ll get to that later.
De La’s early “D.A.I.S.Y.” image, whimsical haircuts included, represents a knowing departure from the uninspired dookie gold chain pageantry of the mid-’80s. Indistinct Kangol-clad crotch-grabbers blathering over James Brown breaks were the tired norm. De La’s early music intentionally reflects the contrariness of their fashion choices and vice versa. Under Prince Paul’s eccentric tutelage, they worked against the grain in a manner that was not always well-received by critics and fans accustomed to more blustery rap styles. If the lyrics to “Pease Porridge” are to be believed, than De La’s outward appearance inspired taunts that ballooned into altercations with local hard rocks while on tour.
Even if we choose to ignore two years of concert scuffles, the riskiness of De La’s aesthetic choices cannot be overstated. Three Feet High and Rising’s marriage of cryptic rhymes, oddball deliveries, bizarre skits, left-field samples, and a comportment devoid of chest-puffing bravado was a huge deal in ’89. Late ’80s icons like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and Eric B. and Rakim are universally hailed as innovators, but their swagger was decidedly more masculine. Even the highly idiosyncratic spaciness of the Ultramagnetic MCs packed more of an obvious punch.
This is not to say that De La were without precedent or peer. They clearly owe a great debt to the Jungle Brothers, Stetsasonic, and to a lesser extent, EPMD, for popularizing a more laid-back, funkier, but still decidedly East Coast approach to rhyming. Contemporaries like Kwame, UBC, and a few others came off in a similarly left-of-center fashion. But De La had far greater crossover appeal than any of these groups, and they climbed the charts even as they bemoaned the way that record execs and fans pigeonholed them as neo-hippies on their P-Funk sampling hit single “Me, Myself, & I.” The sonic and visual eclecticism of the D.A.I.S.Y. predictably invited scrutiny both positive and negative.
De La’s exuberance was surely influenced by a late ’70s and early ’80s hip hop culture, whose flamboyance and earnest goofiness was quickly supplanted by a Run DMC-helmed return to the streets. Just-Ice, Big Daddy Kane, T-La Rock, Ice-T, Schooly D or LL Cool J were probably in rotation in De La walkmans, but if we are to take Posdnous’ verses on “Ego Trippin’ Part III” as the gospel truth, those artists must have taken a back seat to the Treacherous Three, Fearless Four, and of course the pop ditty interpolating Cold Crush Brothers. This healthy respect for the garish weirdos of the musical past complemented their obsession with moving things forward. The abandonment of the played-out relics of the immediate past ushered in a future of free-flow and pastiche, where the slavish devotion to insistent repetition was bolstered by a cumulative development.
De La’s joie d’vivre was not burdened by naivete, and they knew when to call it quits on the flowers. The embrace of their sound and image, first by college radio and then by the mainstream media, led to a parade of imitators, mostly inferior. The few disciples who managed to craft respectable albums like KMD, The Future Sound, and The UMCs either languished in relative obscurity or found themselves caught up in a sea change from day-glo to Carhartt when 1993 rolled around.
Which bring us of course to Onyx. The Queens based crew were heavily influenced by the Native Tongue sound, but increasingly gravitated towards the grimier (and balder) side of things after hooking up with Jam Master Jay. Their ascension to the forefront of hip hop was enormously influential and put the nail in the coffin for all things colorful and cheery for many years. Mix shows once inundated with BDK, Rakim, and De La clones would soon be overrun by raspy voiced gunslingers and elaborate haircuts and parts quickly became passe, suggesting that hip hop in the 90s can be explained as a series of rapid reactions against the last style to be appropriated. For better or for worse, ’93 saw Onyx snatching wallets on record, proudly proclaiming “No, this ain’t El Segundo … just the four bad brothers from the ghetto” a far cry from the frivolity of their first, jazzy Tribe meets Southern Drawl-ish single “Ah And We Do It Like This.” And the beat went on.