De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate 20 Years Later (Food For Thought)
There are some great “win-win” debates out there. For instance, which era of the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Lakers really was the best? Sean Connery or Roger Moore,…or Daniel Craig? Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint? One such debate that I’ve found to be recurring is “The De La Soul debate.”
The Long Island, New York trio (and admittedly, my favorite in-tact Hip-Hop group) entered the scene under the tutelage and “producerial essence” of Prince Paul. Presumably, it was Paul—the DJ in another great group, Stetsasonic, who brought Posdnous, Trugoy and Maseo to the attention of Tom Silverman and his Tommy Boy Records. There, with a nonchalance towards the impending copyright laws surrounding sampling, a colorful and uncontainable narrative style, and a humility not common to late-‘80s Hip-Hop, the quartet blew up, but never went pop.
The debate lies in the “with, or without” concerning Prince Paul. Sure, De La’s first two albums 3 Feet High And Rising and De La Soul Is Dead are hard not to love. My own elementary schoolteacher mother, now in her sixties, even likes these albums enough to borrow them from me in my teenage years. Prince Paul’s sonic ADHD slides into riffs ranging from Ben E. King and Otis Redding, to Thin Lizzy, Bob Marley and Chicago. You can’t always place it at first listen, but you know you’ve heard it before—and its familiarity feels good in the ears. Moreover, metaphor-wrapped, coded and disguised themes about avoiding drugs, surviving stress, and enjoying sex despite potentially having a celibate relationship are tangible to tons of people. In the Radio Raheem-era, De La Soul were the antithesis of threatening, and the guys even knew how to poke fun at that.
Post-1995, without Prince Paul in the studio swivel chair, De La Soul found just as much success. The trio became the elder statesmen, nodding along to emerging voices such as Common, Mos Def, J Dilla and Xzibit. These guys were introducing would-be household names on their albums, and at a time when everybody was chasing down Dr. Dre, DJ Premier and Pharrell for beats, were doing it (largely) in-house on a label they weren’t afraid to diss on record or in an interview. De La could still make MTV videos in the last wave of the music video channel era, and they had hits on the radio—like Seinfeld, about nothing and loved by all (see: “Ooooh”). Even stuck in label limbo, De La was able to bring life to other projects (Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School), score musical endorsement deals with brands like Nike, and present one of the best live-shows in any genre.
However, one album in their rock-solid catalog that is unlike the others is Buhloone Mindstate. Throughout 2012, I kept this album with me in the car. It’s much jazzier and concentrated than the first two LPs, and a bit brassier than the stuff to come. I’ve read and heard speculation that this album’s inability to really be a success, along with Maseo’s own skills as a producer emerging led the group to part from their producer. However, I think that in time, this has become one of the smartest Hip-Hop albums ever made, and at 20 years old this week, it’s most certainly one to grow on.
The truth is, I could write hundreds of pages on “I Be Blowin’” and “I Am I Be.” To me, with the possible exception of “Keepin’ The Faith,” these are the greatest De La Soul song(s) (I kind of view them as one) ever made.
“Product of a North Carolina cat
Who scratched the back of a pretty woman named Hattie
Who departed life just a little too soon
And didn’t see me grab the plug tune fame
As we go a little somethin’ like this
Look Ma, no protection
Now I got a daughter named Ayana Monay”
As a rule, I try not to do Top 5 lists. However, if you get a drink or two in me, I’ll concede and absolutely include Posdnous in my Top 5 MCs. This line landed it for me. Like C.L. Smooth in “T.R.O.Y.,” Pos’ scans three generations, touches on family pride and (arguably) shame, and owns it all beautifully. I love family, and often think one of the best things in Hip-Hop (then, now and always) is the oral tradition. The MC executes that masterfully.
“I’ve always walked the right side of the road
If I wasn’t making song 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.”
This is another invaluable set of bars to Hip-Hop. Immediately following Pos’ talking about environmentalism and stating that he’s never overstepped a woman’s boundaries, he kicks the ultimate Everyman line.
Much of “I Am I Be” deals with Black identity in the early ‘90s, something I could not relate to, but merely absorb and consider as a listener. However, having heard these bars as a teenager wondering which side of the road (in all things) was the right one, this verse changed my life. Moreover, having been raised on Maceo’s horn through other albums made in different genres, I think Paul’s ear here is so much more than just “a stack of records and funny skits.”
After a complementary verse from Dave, Pos re-enters the mic room to kick another sticker:
“So my occupation’s known
But not why I occupy
And that is to bring the peace.”
In 1993, “peace was not the word to play.” Locs and lowriders were dominating the mainstream representation of Rap (and much of it was classic, meaningful, thoughtful music), but De La Soul lived up to their name five years into a career that’s always proved that slow and steady wins the race.
Outside of those two benchmark tracks, Buhloone Mindstate has a ton of micro-movements that enhance its value in the afterlife of its release. The Guru-assisted “Patti Dooke” has always been curious to me. At a time when Gang Starr and Guru were not doing collaborations—five years before Moment Of Truth-these crews linked up for the only time (before Gang Starr’s hiatus) for a seamless, understated collaboration. True to Native Tongues form, the ensemble was used gently—most for the Jazzmatazz vocal tone on such a jazzy LP.
The commentary De La made on “Ego Trippin’ (Part II)”—a song with a synonymous video—is still relevant today. The track’s screamy opening is Tyler, The Creator pointed hijinx made when Tyler was two-and-half years old. When Dave kicked, “I’ve got the trees in my backyard, and it’s hard for them to tell a lie to me,” that line was so deep. He’s nodding to another L.I. icon in Billy Joel with the cadence, but also Boogie Down Production’s Hip-Hopping it on “Bridge Is Over.” The line is both environmental, but presumably an explanation of why De La steps out of the spotlight between albums. To me, this line embodies one of the group’s secrets to success. De La Soul has never over-saturated the market. If anything, through white labels, side projects and creative marketing, they’ve been a colorful group that’s always made fans come to them—a novel practice in the “Please Listen To My Demo” culture of Rap. The song, complete with its Ultramagnetic MC’s-inspired title and Kool Keith “smack my bitch up” reference, is a vocal complement to Paul’s production style. From B.D.P., to MC Ultra, to Cypress Hill, Run-DMC, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Snoop Doggy Dogg, all the vocal riffs are an award tour of great Hip-Hop. This song is everything I love about music.
Certain Hip-Hop albums feel made for LP—Whodini’s Escape and Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full come to mind. De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate always felt like a cassette-album. It’s non-stop attention to detail. Like Family Guy, there are so many references, riffs, and callbacks that it’s not something that can ever really be “chillin’ with the homies” music, something that 1993 was particularly good at (see: Doggstyle and Enter The Wu-Tang). However, this dense listen feels so misunderstood within the De La Soul discography. Often dismissed as a Jazz album, it has some of Prince Paul’s finest drum programming and biggest innovations in style and approach (see “Breakadawn”).
To me, 3 Feet High And Rising and De La Soul Is Dead are must-own, classic albums. Stakes Is High and Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump are great albums that don’t sound dated at all—game changers in their day that still have us vibin’. The tipping point in the De La Soul debate is Buhloone Mindstate. This 1993 gem is the album for De La, themselves. It took bold risks lyrically and musically, and ultimately served as their inflection point in the Golden-Era.