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On De La Soul's Trying People


By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


In some circles, it’s virtual sacrilege to say this, but I’m not a fan of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising. I’m not being revisionist about it either – I didn’t like it back in 1989.


It was too cute. Too playful. Too relentlessly silly. Of course, context is everything. As the Eighties drew to a close, Public Enemy and NWA were battling it out for the title of most popular rap group.


At first glance, Public Enemy’s pro-Black, pro-revolutionary polemics would seem to have little in common with N.W.A.’s FBI-baiting sex-and-violence. But let’s say you weren’t well-versed in English and couldn’t understand the subtleties of their grievances.


All of a sudden, the two groups would seem a lot more similar. They both were hard, abrasive and declamatory, not to mention almost always pissed off about something. Neither band liked the police or other authority figures. Both authored fantasies about breaking in or out of prison. So on and so on.


And when I’m watchin the news
And my daughter walks in
And chooses to ask,
"Why were all those people on the floor
“Sleeping, covered in red?"
I told her that they were looking for God
But found religion instead
—De La Soul’s Pos, from “Held Down”


The point is, De La Soul’s loopy, farcical debut album was intended as a counterpoint to the heaviness of the times. As such, 3 Feet High was an immediate and considerable success. Unusually for an independent release, it was certified platinum and surprisingly enough won admiration from none other than Public Enemy frontman, Chuck D himself who called De La Soul his favorite rap group in the world. As for me, I appreciated the intent, but didn’t like the execution.


[I] got fans around the world
But my girl’s not one of them
And my relationship’s a big question
Cause my career’s a clear
Hindrance to her progression
Said she needs a man
And our kids need a father
I’m not at all ready to
Hear her say ‘don’t bother’ and break
And this I know I can’t take
But uhh…
—De La Soul’s Pos
from “Trying People”


Almost twenty years later, De La Soul is still around. Ironically, so is Chuck D and Flava Flav of Public Enemy and Ice Cube and Dr. Dre of N.W.A. Of course, most of us wish Flav would just quit, but that’s another story for another time.


These days, De La Soul is anything but silly, cute or loopy. They are grown-ass men and, appropriately, they rap about grown-ass themes: the highs and lows of fatherhood, the perils of modern romance, the economic realities of the music business, the dubious rewards of fame.

I called De La Soul’s current subject matter ‘appropriate,’ but maybe I should’ve called it extraordinary.


Quiet as it’s kept, there are lots of rappers in their mid to late thirties and even older. Of course, you’d never know it if you listen to them. Most of these nearly middle-aged men spend their precious minutes in front of the studio mic trying mighty hard to sound like they’re still little boys, eighteen and stupid. Or even if they’re smarter than the average, smart enough to know the same old bullshit isn’t going to keep selling, they come up with new bullshit.


Something like the hook of Jay-Z’s “30 Something” where he informs us that “thirty’s the new twenty.” Witty enough, except that Jay-Z is actually going to be 39 this year. I can’t wait for his Xmas 2008 release. I guess 40 will be the new 25.


Years just blow by
My eyes stay fixed
But the picture’s kinda out of focus
I cry a lot but admit to it
Enjoying life now
But I’ve been through it
Sometimes I wish that I can go back
No bills, no kids
Just getting tore back
I want a wife, I love women
How could I front like
I don’t be in love with ‘em?
A lil’ man that I can teach
A lil’ sand, but not the beach
—De La Soul’s Dave
from “Trying People”


You can make this just about rap if you want, but that’d be a gross over-simplification. This modern culture of ours is relentlessly pre-occupied with youth and the appearance of youth. Plastic surgery, designer clothes and diet pills are all big, big business.


Everyone wants to be smooth-faced, stylishly dressed and fashionably skinny. In the music business, the obsession with youth boils down to economics. Kids buy records first and most. So when a thirty-something year-old rapper finds himself alone in the vocal booth, I guarantee you his thoughts are at least partially fixed on the bottom line. He should have nothing on his mind but flowing, but if he isn’t actually thinking about his five-figure Amex bill and his equally pricey mortgage note, I’d be mighty surprised.


If you got time to give
I got time to think
See, it could all change
In one eye blink
While you’re in the trouble water
I hope you don’t sink
—De La Soul,
from the chorus of DJ Honda’s “Trouble In The Water.”


Since 3 Feet High And Rising, De La Soul has bucked the trend, endearing themselves to aging hip-hop fans like me by aging right along with us – not always gracefully, but always realistically.


They rap about things I actually care about.


About things that are on my thirty-five year-old mind. Their records make me feel good because they consistently tell it like it really is for an average black man in is mid-thirties. It’s not all about fast cars, fast women and getting high. More likely than not, it’s about a nine-to-five, three small children and one good woman.


Thirty is not the new twenty. Thirty is thirty. Grow up, people!



If I wasn’t making songs
I wouldn’t be a thug selling drugs
But a man with a plan
And if I was a rug cleaner
Betcha Pos’d have the cleanest rugs. I am.
—De La Soul’s Pos from “
I Am I Be”


Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.


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