De La Soul and The Specter Of Downward Mobility

To my ears, De La Soul’s fourth 1996 album Stakes Is High is largely disappointing; the  music is simply bland ((I can’t prove it without a shadow of a doubt, and nobody believes me, but I think the production style is a deliberate send-up of the kind found on Craig Mack’s Funk Da World. Their sampling of his “bass up the track a little bit…” ad-lib and their use of stripped down, off-kilter, plodding beats leads me to believe that they were either subverting or mocking the sound. Compare “The Bizness” and “Making Moves With Puff.” Or, maybe this is the sound that Long Island weirdos inevitably progress towards.)) compared to the group’s prior releases; the sense of humor that shined under Prince Paul’s tutelage is sorely missed; it is a chore to sit through it in its entirety. With that said, the aspect of the album that I find most fascinating —its treatment of the group member’s collective and individual anxieties over the prospect of downward mobility— is seldom brought up in reviews. Critics and opinionated listeners alike characterize Stakes as work that is singularly focused on criticizing ((Or “hating on” depending on where you stand.))  rap music industry trends, in particular the rise of rappers that glorify criminality and materialism at the expense of creativity and enlightenment. Though popular and damned near canonical, this interpretation is glib at best.

NYC metropolitan area rappers born circa 1970 who entered show business in the mid or late 80s are never simply rapping about industry trends or lyrical matters when criticizing the genre as a whole. This cohort of rappers tends to conflate the life of the individual with the progress of the collective. ((I have written about this conflation as it relates to nostalgic rap songs here.)) It is presumed that the relative health of the rap scene —whether or not the genre is artistically generative, socially conscious, and untainted by commerce— is a valid indicator of the viability of the individual’s artistic expression as well as the collective’s social, economic, and political ascension. ((Whether or not these notions are or were valid is debatable, but they are certainly present in the music.)) Rappers that hail from New York City’s “inner ring suburbs,” especially those from the “black belt” of Long Island are adamant in making these connections because for them, the stakes really are higher than the sky. These rappers are the children of parents who made the choice to emigrate from familiar if blighted NYC neighborhoods ((In doing so, they echoed the choices made by grandparents who fled the Deep South or the West Indies.)) in search of a better life for their children in Long Island but were steered into neighborhoods that quickly became segregated, underserved, and essentially ghettoized. ((I wrote more about the impact of white flight and residential and educational segregation on the development of Long Island rap here.)) In this context, the fragility of the American Dream could not be more apparent and the specter of downward mobility could not be more grim.

Certainly the rise of the mafioso-portraying, obvious sample flaunting, shiny suit wearing jet set was greeted with anxiety by De La Soul. On their first three albums they allude to being perceived as an increasingly problematic commercial liability in a competitive market. ((I may be guilty of taking the group’s self-mythologizing too literally, but I think it is safe to assume that their relationship with their label and the industry at large was frequently contentious.)) Their main concern on Stakes however, is not that they might be marginalized by mainstream trends, ((After all, by that point they had already seen a steady decline in their record sales.)) but that their attempts to sensibly sustain an upwardly mobile middle class lifestyle for the benefit of their children might be permanently undermined by the coarsening of society. They do not claim that there is a causal connection between the rise of greedy, violent, shallow rapping and social deterioration. ((Whether or not zealously anti-gangsta listeners are inspired to jump to such a thoughtless conclusion is none of my concern in this analysis.)) Rather, they express their frustration at their predicament as it relates to these seemingly parallel processes. In spite of their good intentions, they cannot magically outsell overfunded hacks any easier than they can reverse the gradual flow of drugs and crime into their once bucolic Strong Island surroundings. They are concerned for the health of their collective yet wish that their lives were not so inextricably tied to the collective’s shortcomings and historical misfortune; their art form once held promise as an escape route but now might be the cause of their undoing.

The proof is in the pudding. The once sublimated frustration of songs like “I Am I Be” and “Potholes In My Lawn” ((I have long viewed this song as a depiction of the struggles of blacks in the inner-ring suburbs.)) gives way to album-length lamentation. Every plausible angle of their discontent makes it into their rhymes; “Supa Emcees” and “The Bizness” see Posdnous and Dave wince at shallow aspirations and poor craftsmanship; “Wonce Again Long Island” registers disgust at the inversion of gender roles and the dissolution of the black family; “Dinninit” and “The Breaks” deplore the presence of drug use and violence in lyrics and at actual gatherings; ((I have to imagine that the group’s members were struck by the irony of a coarsened hip hop culture flowing into Long Island’s decaying black communities after the first wave of the culture’s dissemination came alongside promises of personal betterment for those eager to participate.)) “Long Island Degrees” and “Itzoweezee” skewer insipid drug lord dreams; the title track rebukes the gradual normalization of self-defeating behaviors. In the center of the album, “Dog Eat Dog” sees the group tie these themes together. Dave speaks of a friend whose world view pathetically mirrors rap’s shift in thematic focus from unbounded self-expression to gangsta posturing: “my mellow used to wear a/ name buckle now he chuckles ’cause he earn a dime quicker/ talking ’bout a burner, sipping on some malt liquor.” Posdnous slyly attacks the false allure of fame and material success, noting that the backyard and swingset he can provide his children by selling his art “ain’t that important when the park’s around the corner/ filled with life, causing death, breeding victims for the mourner.” He channels Slick Rick’s cautionary moralism, adding “It was the moment I feared”  to emphasize gravity of his epiphany. As an adult fending for himself in the modern market, he has no choice but to recognize that the competition for even a pothole-ridden piece of the pie will become increasingly cutthroat as society, neighborhoods, and attitudes continue to harden. Regression is not to be taken lightly.

This is a bind within a bind within a bind and De La Soul competently tackles the issue, which is incidentally quite a bit bigger than hip-hop.

Listen: De La Soul “Dog Eat Dog”

— Thun

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33 Responses to “De La Soul and The Specter Of Downward Mobility”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Thun Nation, Philaflava. Philaflava said: De La Soul and The Specter Of Downward Mobility http://goo.gl/fb/bRC9F […]

  2. Pooch says:

    Who is the author of this post? I didn’t see it listed.

    In a slightly off topic post, I completely disagree with you on the value of this album. The beats were great, and the fact that they shed some of the cryptic nature of their lyrics, made this album a lot easier to get into. Their lyrics being easier to grasp upon the first listen, made their conscious message much more accessable to the average listener.

    Before this album, De La would’ve been in the same boat as Ghostface, Camp Lo, and many others who focused on inuendo, slang, and subliminal messages. Both Ghost and Camp Lo have great flow and are classic, but sometimes it is too much work to figure out what the hell they are saying, and they lose the listeners. With this album, De La came out from that stigma and were a lot more understood with there message.

    This album is still my most played album in my collection. There are about 30 albums that I would put in my top 10, just like there are 30 emcees that deserve to be in the top 10, I swear I can’t do math for sh#$. But this album I can say does get the most play of all the albums that I have.

    (Thanks iTunes for providing the data in a qualified fashion, for better understanding and reflection)


    • Thun says:

      I wrote this piece. Forgot to sign it and put the author tag in, thanks for reminding me.

      I strongly disagree that their message was more understood beginning with Stakes is High. In fact, I’d say their message was mangled and mutilated by their new fanbase. That’s why I wrote this piece, to clear a few things up. If one takes the time to really analyze the lyrics, the “message” that many listeners and critics seem to think is so explicit, that “gangsta rap is wack, yo” is really a poor interpretation.

      As far as the beats – to each his own, but other than the title track and maybe Pony Ride, the beats are adequate at best, and ugly at worst. If you can handle that kind of change and appreciate it, more power to you. I just felt it was a let-down compared to their earlier efforts.

  3. Versive says:

    Great write-up, Thun, but I’ve gotta disagree with your response to Pooch’s comment. While I’d agree that these beats are not nearly as innovative as what appeared on their first 3 albums, there’s no way you can tell me the Dilla-produced jawn that is the title song is only “adequate.” Overall, I like the beats a lot here, but I’m also a Long Island weirdo, so blah…

    You did a good job of dissecting the themes of the album, and I hope that your article will inspire others to give another listen. This is in my top 3 albums of all time.

    • Versive says:

      I clearly skipped where you said “As far as the beats – to each his own, but other than the title track and maybe Pony Ride…” My fault.

      • Thun says:

        It’s all good; I definitely could have phrased that more clearly. And as a Long Islander, your input on these matters is welcomed; I find myself speculating about certain things based on my experiences here in NJ.

        For the record, “adequate” doesn’t mean wack. None of the beats are wack, though a few lack even more luster than you’d expect from an intentional back-to-basics approach (“Wonce Again Long Island” and “Long Island Degrees”) and a few are just uninspired (the r&b-ish joints just don’t work, imo). “Dog Eat Dog” is smugly, hilariously understated, so it works really well, and “Dinninit” is interesting in that they flipped the same sample as Large Pro’s “ijusswannachill” but to a completely different effect: their version sounds nervous, restrained, awkward, cold, etc. while his sounds inviting, confident, even triumphant.

        There’s a lot of reason to revisit the album, and a lot to appreciate, but in my opinion, and I know most don’t agree, there just aren’t a whole lot of “slammin’ joints.”

  4. Versive says:

    “sounds nervous, restrained, awkward, cold, etc.”

    I think that this could be used to describe both the overall soundscape of the album, and some of the pervading moods of LI’s working class, and that’s a big part of what appeals to me about the beats on this album. It might not be intentional here, and I could be reading way too far into the beat selection, but that sort of nervous restraint strikes me as the yang to yin that is Long Island’s laid back, coastal vibe.

    • Thun says:

      I think that is a valid read, all I’m saying is while I find that to be a fitting gesture and interesting to listen to, it doesn’t bump. In my ears, anyway.

  5. scjoha says:

    Interesting, even good discussion on “Why Stakes Is High is Detrimental to HipHop” here: http://www.cocaineblunts.com/blunts/?p=2503

    • Thun says:

      Yeah, that thread was interesting. Can’t say I care much for the unchallenged tautologies thrown around in there, or the dismissal of the idea that De La’s critiques were aimed outside of the music industry. Also, I’d like to see some evidence that it was Stakes In High that led to such horribly destructive things…

  6. digdug says:

    what is it with bloggers writing long ctitical analysis pieces about why an album sucks or why this MC fell off? I mean who are you? What rock did you crawl out from under, and who cares about your opinions?

    I’d love to see any of you do something remotely creative, but of course none of you actually rhyme, produce or DJ. like method man says – F a rap critic he talk about it while I live it…

    • Thun says:

      You could have saved this emotionally charged response for an article that was actually about “why an album sucks or why this MC fell off”, you know.

      • digdug says:

        I guess your skillful use of words magically rephrases that sentiment, or tones it down? disappointing, bland and glib are all positive things to say about it? I was under the impression that these were words one used to describe something that basically ‘sucks’, I guess glib, bland and disappointing are more friendly way to say it? Splitting hairs

        seriosuly what makes your opinion matter? Who are YOU? and who are you affiliated with? Do you in any way shape or form actually make music or write music? I’d really like to know….

        • Thun says:

          I used the word “glib” to describe an interpretation of the album itself. Perhaps you should consider splitting hairs before pressing “post comment.” A little discernment goes a long way.

          You’re right, my opinion doesn’t matter. It matters so little that I’m going to do you the favor of banning of your IP address. That way, you won’t be inconvenienced by unaffiliated opinions that don’t matter. Paz.

  7. Scribe says:

    I remember this album’s debut fairly well. A couple of tidbits to offer…the video for the title track is great, showing them doing the mundane stuff like washing dishes that rappers did in real life, back before the Internet (Twitter is an especially good example) destroyed many rappers’ mystique. In an interview in “Rap Pages” De La talked about how dope Biggie was– but they were sick of rappers beating the thug stuff into the ground. They also did magazine ads for wallet-friendly Paco Jeans while others did paid or unpaid pitch work for expensive labels (Tommy, Polo, etc).

    • Thun says:

      @Scribe – You know I forgot about the title track’s video. The laundromat and dishwashing scenes are pretty interesting. I feel like De La were genuinely anxious about their impending mainstream obsolescence precisely because … they never left the blue collar Long Island world they came from. Seeing it deteriorate in a manner that was eerily similar to the coarsening of rap that threatened their market viability was a trip for them, to say the least.

  8. Teddy C.D. says:

    Good stuff Thunny, enjoyed your analysis.
    However, what did you think of “De La Soul is Dead”? To me their third and first albums are the best, I wasn’t a fan of their sophomore output the first few times around–maybe I need a re-listen these days. I thought it was beyond long and I generally hate skits on albums. Thoughts?

  9. Thun says:

    “De La Soul Is Dead” is extremely long and its skits are borderline absurd. It’s definitely an acquired taste. With that said, I have always enjoyed it, it is very similar to the first album except much more somber in tone. Their sense of humor runs wild on that album, some of the songs are more like musical comedy theater than songs.

    My only real complaint about it is that save for “Pass The Peas” the music on this album really lacks a lot of ::ahem:: soul.

  10. Pooch says:

    No disrespect to Thun, or TROY, but directed at all blogs, I would really like to see write ups on the background of contributors to be a “requirement” for blogs, and make sure that they are readily available, as a link, at the end of an article. You don’t know how many times that I read blog entries and wonder, “who wrote that?”. Not because I necessarily disagree with their opinion, but that I would like to get some perspective of the whole picture that formed their opinion.

    Major points that I would love to see addressed in the bio:
    – The age of the writer
    – What artists that they came into hip hop on? I.E. Who was it that blew their mind and stuck with them, when they started REALLY buying hip hop.
    – What artist’s albums they are diggin’ right now.
    – What are their top 5 or 10 hip hop albums of all time.
    – Are they married, do they have kids. (Sounds like an odd one, but I generally find that those who are married and have kids to hold different opinions than those who are single)

    In this case, I know that Thun loves 3 Feet High and Rising, and Buhloone State of Mind. But I would love to find out if he grew up on those, or went back and listened to them and discovered them outside the era of their impact (when they were released).

    I am 34, hip hop exploded for me in ’92-’93, so I “lived” Buhloone and Stakes is High when those were both released. Those were my joints, and were extremely relevant on the days they came out. I have different perspectives and opinions of 3 Feet and De La is Dead, because I later went back to listen to them. Clearly, that impacts my perception of where those album stand in my heart.

    Do anyone else agree, or ever thought “What’s the history of the writer?”


    • Thun says:

      I’m 31 and I grew up in an urban area of Northern NJ, listening to Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, and Marley Marl. I “lived” all of their albums when they were released. I went back and relistened to all of them over the years.

      I’m pretty sure these facts are a) boring and b) impertinent, though.

      • Pooch says:

        I don’t believe that those are boring and impertinent. I believe they are extremely pertinent. That helps.

        If the case were say a 22 year old writing about and expressing their opinions on an album that came out when they were 8, it would be very helpful for my interpretation of their opinion. If a 20 year were trying to tell me what Biggie’s impact on hip hop was, I would know ahead of time how much validity that I should place on their arguement


        • Thun says:

          To each his own, but I’ve found that people tend to have extremely varying views on impact. I grew up in a middle-income apartment complex in the outer part of my city and De La Soul’s music was huge. I have a friend who lived in the projects downtown who tells me that NOBODY listened to De La over there, that they had literally no impact. I find that most people’s perceptions of impact are fictively inflected, that is to say, they kind of made it up based on their own expectations and biases, or just so overgeneralized as to be useless. Just my take.

          • Pooch says:

            That is why I wasn’t asking for socio-economic status that you grew up in, or where they grew up. If you look at the questions that I posed, they are mainly about the artists and the hip hop era that probably had the biggest impact.

            The anonimity of the blogosphere can be frustrating to the reader. I believe that if the reader understood more of the background/musical tastes of the writer, they could understand and relate to the words and perspectives a little quicker.


  11. Thun says:

    Okay, but the point I was trying to convey, and forgive me if I’m not making much sense today, is that my friend and I are both the same exact age, lived in the same city, attended the same high school, etc. but if asked the same question about impact will provide two completely different responses. I’m not sure how you can say that one set of characteristics is relevant and another isn’t – there’s a lot that informs perception. Generalizations are useless.

    I do agree that writers should display an understanding of context to the best of their ability, but I think that a part of doing that would be to approach generalizations about such things as impact and reception with knowing skepticism.

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