Yesterday’s release of the De La Soul music catalog on streaming services unleashed a wave of Gen X nostalgia and poetic takes on the early 90s hip hop era. I was in college at the time and my own music interests were sampling from a buffet of 70s funk and R&B– thanks to my older brothers— ubiquitous 80s pop fueled by the uber-stardom of Prince and Michael Jackson, and the grunge-influenced rock music I was hearing and kind of liking at white frat boy parties. Here and there, I would also throw into my playlist mix classic jazz, the midwestern “house” music I was learning about from my Black college classmates, and a sub-genre of 80s and 90s pop a high school friend once called “Cool White Boy Music,” the R&B-tinged sound of the so-called “Second British Invasion.”
The golden age of hip hop was just gelling, with acts like Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, MC Lyte, LL, and NWA resuscitating rap from its late 80s nadir, when the genre seemed to be becoming a parody of itself (see: The Fat Boys, Vanilla Ice, and bunch of silly novelty songs that were getting airplay) . Even as these new acts came on the scene– with serious-minded postures and fresh creative takes on sampling and lyrical content– the hip hop milieu felt distant and unrelatable to me and, I will assert, many other Black teens who didn’t grow up in big cities and urban areas. It would turn out to be an odd collective of “left outs” who would eventually see our own cultures nurture the future of hip hop: Southern kids, rural kids, suburban “middle class” kids, Afrocentrics, Oreos, nerds and arty kids. Real hip hop heads can articulate the music tree and movements that grew out from the late 80s early 90s rebirth better than I could attempt to, but as one who lived through it, I would say De La Soul’s 1989 debut seemed pivotal.
I don’t recall a specific epiphanic moment or “the very first time” I heard a track from the album, but I am going to guess it was on WNUR, Northwestern’s student run radio station. The station had a show called “Street Beat”, i.e., the urban Black show. It had a casual underground vibe, like “we’re just having fun in the basement listening to records.” In fact, I believe the station’s studios were literally in a building basement in those days. Street Beat heavily focused on house music naturally, with Evanston being in earshot of house’s epicenter in Chicago, but during my freshman year, one of its DJs injected more east coast music into the mix, particularly from his native “Strong Island.” (That particular student DJ, Larry Myers was a really good guy and a bit of mentor for me and other younger students, as he was a counselor for the freshman Summer Academic Workshop program some of us participated in. Later in life, Larry gave up the DJ booth and pursued a less lucrative career option. : ) ) During the school year, I made tape recordings of Street Beat shows and took them home to listen to that following summer. Beyond a few big hits, hip hop was rarely heard on the radio in my hometown of Augusta in those days (we had one urban station, Foxy 103), so I felt like I was carrying contraband. I didn’t know much about the artists on the tapes I made but it was probably my first taste of an alternative view of what hip hop could be outside of what we saw on MTV and BET, what mainstream record companies were peddling, and the West Coast “gangsta rap” that captured the fearmongering media’s attention and felt to me like some far away cartoon, exaggerated to increase sales.
In the new music coming out of Long Island and environs, the artistry was in the beats, the cool esoteric samples, the wordplay, the chilled easy going flows of the MCs. Like, everything came together in a complex but accessible tapestry that was the output of some mysterious high level collaborative artistry, akin to a jazz combo. And, yes, there wasn’t a lot of cursing or references to violence. It was “fun” music, but not a minstrel show and not corny. It was and still is easy to over-intellectualize anything deemed alternative at one extreme or dismiss it as over-hyped at the other. After all these were just teenagers “having fun” right? But in a way it spoke to me about the potential of Black-like-me creativity, free from the confines of institutions like the one I myself opted to be in, free from the viewpoints on capitalistic success, and free from whatever the white gaze wanted to see and whatever the corporate sector wanted to market about Black life.
So I’m going to guess that I got my first taste of De La Soul’s debut album on Street Beat some time in the spring of 1989. DJ Larry had graduated, but I presume some other student took the baton and made sure East Coast hip hop was still being heard on Street Beat. Maybe it was “Me, Myself, and I”, the song that eventually became their biggest hit from the album and was their most basic mainstream song, using a fully-recognizable Funkadelic sample. The group would lament that they were forced by the record company to tack on to the album something that would be radio-friendly. But whatever De La song I heard first on WNUR, prompted me to, later that summer, purchase with my own summer-job money, my very first hip hop tape cassette at Pyramid Records and Tapes on Broad Street in Augusta, Georgia. Through 1989 until I graduated in 1991 this was the only hip hop tape in my collection, outside of mix-tapes dubbed from the radio. I wore out the De La album. (I had a good college friend named Jennifer who I am sure annoyed to no end, calling her “Jennifer Oh Jenny” every time I saw her. The particular song that refrain is from veers into some misogynistic sexual bravado, but I wasn’t thinking about that then.) Digging into the clever rhymes, the whimsical skit interludes, the samples familiar and not, and just the idea that the trio felt like some guys who might be in a dorm room down the hall provided a bit of respite from the pressures of college days.
I like others Gen Xers will take some time to delve into the streaming releases this coming week. Hopefully the nostalgia will spark some creative energy for some current writing projects, work projects, and whatever else that presents itself on the horizon of life.
A favorite “feel good” track from the 1991 “De La Soul is Dead” album:
An article about WNUR’s Street Beat:
A De La Soul primer from NPR: