De La Soul, the iconic hip-hop group, has a long history of making music that pushes boundaries and defies genre conventions. For many fans, their music felt like a treasure hunt, with tracks scattered throughout the musical landscape waiting to be discovered. I personally first heard their music on the video game NCAA Football 06, where the iconic drumbeat of “Me, Myself & I” became seared into my brain. However, for years, their early albums were unattainable artifacts, kept off digital media and streaming services for the better part of two decades. But in 2021, their full discography was finally made available to a fresh crop of listeners, allowing them to experience the group’s influence firsthand.
For those who didn’t grow up in the ’90s or earlier, De La Soul might exist only in a mythical space. Their music has been praised as “greatest” and “influential,” but without access to their full catalog, it can be hard to fully grasp their impact on hip-hop history. Even the available digital evidence, such as the crowd-sourced and the Anonymous nobody… and the critically acclaimed but seemingly lesser The Grind Date, only scratches the surface of their greatness. To the younger rap fan, it has always felt like being robbed of experiencing the genre in its purest form.
Ironically, De La Soul’s absence during the boom of streaming has continually built up their status as legendary phantoms of rap. Physical versions of their albums have been jacked up by resellers on Discogs and eBay, making them feel like hidden grails waiting to be uncovered. Sketchy download links on third-party websites turned trying to listen to their early masterpieces into a game of Russian roulette, adding to the intrigue attached to the trio. Each moment when you were able to encounter a De La Soul record felt like a gift from heaven — a brief experience of musical enlightenment that you wanted to hold onto for as long as possible.
In a way, De La Soul has existed in opposition to the way that modern music listeners consume music. The rules of the current streaming age cater to truncated attention spans, with the newest thing constantly replacing the previous thing. The magic of discovery has been reduced, now sanitized and delivered through algorithmic methods, instead of letting randomness and coincidence determine your path. Ease has usurped the old way, cheapening the sensation of finding something new.
But for a new listener in 2023, De La Soul can still feel prescient, if not rejuvenating. Their words and decisions invoke a brand of positivity that avoids the pitfalls that plague much of the “earnest” rap that exists. Instead of making morality plays about the ways that others should be living or rapping, De La Soul sought to celebrate their own individuality, centering their quirks and mannerisms. Even their shots at others prioritized the group’s own identity — “In no way are we trying to disrespect any sort of house or club music,” Trugoy says to open “Kicked Out the House.” “But we’re just glad that we’re not doing it.” They leaned into this beaming sense of personality with their Daisy regalia and inane inside jokes, a creative weirdness that displayed a security with who they were and the ways they operated. It is an infectious self-confidence that is not just for rap historians, but for the uninitiated too.
The iconic “Me Myself & I” video shows them being bullied for their “hippie dress,” while simultaneously rapping with pride about refusing to copy the other ways that their peers performed and existed. It’s a level of self-acceptance that artists crave, and one that listeners gravitate towards, even now.
De La Soul’s music is a testament to the power