For every hip-hop listener in my generation, there’s a cinematic origin story. Ask him where he was when he first connected with Wu-Tang, Nas, Hiero, Redman etc. and you’ll get sprawling descriptions of cassette decks with foam headphones cranked up at the bus stop on cold, windy mornings. Our memories are rooted in the historical fabric of hip-hop; the signposts of old album-releases map out the differing phases of our formative years. Just glancing at the Stillmatic CD cover with Nas perched in that orange track-suit in front of the New York skyline, for example, transports me back to the futile days of being 14, when acne chased my face through every mirror and talking to girls was at best a speculative idea.
(You should have seen my glorious Jew fro, too.)
We can’t tell our story without beats, rhymes, music videos and radio beefs. It’s just what we know. But hip-hop has changed a lot in our lifespans, too. In 1987 the culture was still a newborn in the cradle, and I had just arrived on the scene in similar fashion. Rakim, Kool G. Rap, Ultramagnetic MCs. There was a youthful enthusiasm to the movement. Everything was fresh. The early and mid 90s saw hip-hop reach its adolescence and start to explore and experiment. It went the positive, Native Tongues route while at the same time pursuing harsh gangsta rap, weighing both against one another. The hustlers “crawled out every hole in the slum” to share their street narratives, and soon enough the starry-eyed teen was trading its youth in for corporate dollar signs.
The twin murders of Tupac & Biggie were hip-hop’s comeuppance–nothing was ever quite the same after that. Within this unfolding metaphor, that was the moment hip-hop’s innocence was vanquished once and for all. Since then, the genre has diversified itself and gone in many directions, spawning multiple sub-genres and endless regional varieties. The post-In My Lifetime era, however, was about the commercialization of rap, the pimpin’ of the art-form. We saw many sell-outs flash before our eyes, many hot singles followed by major album flops. Hip-hop was in its early 20s, staying out all night and saying ‘yes’ to every glass of Ciroc, every chemical substance pushed into its hand. Like any bad trip, parts of it were fun, but most of the time we were just waiting for it to end.
The beauty of the genre, however, lies in its perpetual schizophrenia. The ‘underground’ is hip-hop’s subconscious, constantly reminding its drunken host just who it’s supposed to be. Indeed, our favorite albums can be described as the ones where hip-hop seems to wake up to itself in a nanosecond of clarity amid the nightclub chaos. The best MCs and producers are the ones who have made a career of constantly shocking the art-form back into self-consciousness. (I’m tempted to put up a top-ten list here, but that’s a whole ‘nother post!) As the sons and daughters of the millennial generation, we’ve watched hip-hop rise and fall in the ruins of its own identity crisis.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the mainstream is even more dumbed-down; so dumbed-down that I actually find myself missing the days when Nelly and 50 Cent ruled the airwaves. Besides guys like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, it’s like the new icons don’t even rap anymore! Becoming more frank in its intentions, the industry is cranking out pill-poppin’ zombie music that can only be ‘understood’ under the influence of horse tranquilizers and lab-concocted intoxicants that Big Pharma sees fit to release out its back doors. Now that’s Big Pimpin’! Meanwhile, the true heads go elsewhere to keep their heads nodding, usually deep in the underground or back to the dusky annals of the 90s…
But then, amid all the noise, an anonymous nobody dropped. Only they aren’t anywhere close to being an anonymous nobody. They’re De La Soul, made up of Posdnous, Dave & Maseo, and anytime this crew has dropped anything over the last 30 years, people gather ’round like the homeless line up for a home-cooked meal on the holidays. De La Soul isn’t just a rap group–they’re hip-hop royalty! And on the first full track of and the Anonymous Nobody, the knighted trio isn’t shy to remind us in a way that is at once cartoonish and formidable; something only De La could ever pull off!
You see, I can’t talk about De La Soul without talking about hip-hop, and truthfully, no one can talk about hip-hop without talking about De La Soul. They released Three Feet High and Rising with Prince Paul when I was two years old and the art of sampling was still in its infancy. Their lustrous career as a group spans the origin, growth, maturation and corporatization of the entire genre. De La Soul is hip-hop. And what makes them so true to the original spirit is the same thing that’s allowed them to stay in the game for so long: they never stopped innovating, even about 10 years ago when they could have just mailed it in and leaned on their legacies. (What up Jigga!)
Let me take a minute to tell you why ANY student of rap absolutely geeks out when they listen to Pos, Dave & Maseo lay it down. There has never been a more unorthodox set of MCs in recorded history. The timing on their rhymes is always slightly different, slightly weird. When you’ve listened to thousands upon thousands of different MCs, your brain starts to have certain expectations when it comes to how a rhyme scheme is constructed. You can even start to predict the word placement of the most sophisticated rhyme-doctors, since in many ways MCing is a constant rehashing and re-interpolation of the same rhyme patterns. But not so with De La! Try to stay ahead of their verses and they’ll forever leave you brain-scrambled. Their sense of humor, too, is off-center, and rap critics rave about how ‘elusive’ they are.
In other words, attempting to guess what the Long Island trio will do next on wax will leave you about as frustrated as R&B fans waiting for the next Frank Ocean record to drop. Chill, young padwan: just soak it in.
As for the album itself, and the Anonymous Nobody is just as playful, spontaneous, eclectic and technically brilliant as any other De La Soul release. Running counter to hip-hop’s youth cult, these guys seem to get better with age. The album is almost defiantly energetic. Instead of rehashing old formulas and stubbornly sticking to jazzy breakbeats, Anonymous Nobody finds De La branching out in typically unexpected ways. They collaborate with Usher (yes, Usher) on “Greyhounds”, a song with top-40 replay value that nonetheless stays true to the group’s golden standard. Snoop Dogg pops up for a verse on the super funky “Pain”, further validating my personal theory that Snoop should be remembered as a funk artist above all else. Old friend Pete Rock shows up to weave “Memory Of…” with the usual luscious strings and keys, and 2 CHAINZ of all people cameos on “Whoodeeni” and spits possibly the best verse of his life (seriously).
Ultimately, though, this is about the crew’s “chariots moving at tortoise speeds” in one long, colorful procession down the central avenue of rap’s crowded cityscape, triumphantly linking the culture’s past with its present and future. In a weird way, it feels like hip-hop’s back-to-the-future moment—back to its alternate future, that is. Just like Sun Ra in the world of jazz, De La Soul will always be more futuristic than whatever happens next. They punctured those filmy membranes of musical spacetime when they ushered us into the D.A.I.S.Y. Age in ’89. Maybe everything else has just been a formality since.
Back when I was doing rap performances in Chiang Mai with my ex-pat crew, we linked up with some live jazz artists who were interested in performing classic hip-hop beats with us rapping over top. We jumped at the idea; there’s nothing like rapping over live, organic music! When we met with the guys in a local music studio, they made it clear that they had an open mind, but there was just one thing: De La Soul’s “Stakes is High” had to be central to the performance. “Stakes is high…you know the stakes is high, man…” The brooding chant of those opening horns is enough to put any lyricist in the zone. After our jazz show went down, that politically-charged refrain became a fixture in all of our performances. It somehow summed up the pervasive tension of our times so distinctly that we felt like those lyrics were our own.
See, hip-hop is for humans. It’s a human expression of individuality that has the power to speak for the whole, the only implicit rule being that your expression has to be you–not what you heard on TV or the radio, not what you heard those other guys kickin’ down the street. You. When you’ve found a way to channel that originality so that other people can relate to it and really feel it, that’s when you’ve reached the pinnacle of dopeness. Now you can flash your royalty capes! Posdnous, Dave & Maseo, nearly 50, have once again put a defibrillator to hip-hop’s chest right when its heart rate started to flat-line. Wake up…you’ve got more work to do!
“Two words: I’m mortal!
But the fans lift ’em together
And remove the apostrophe…”
You know what, Pos? Your fans might be right on this one. And what goes by the name of hip-hop is all the better for it in the long run.