Despite being arguably the most important and influential music catalogue of the last 30 years, the vast majority of De La Soul’s albums are still unavailable digitally, and another blow was dealt to the situation last weekend.
On the 30th anniversary of their pioneering 3 Feet High And Rising album, their former label Tommy Boy was finally about to release these classics on Spotify and other platforms, but another dispute has put it in jeopardy.
Let’s take it back to the beginning. In the late ’80s sampling was rife in hip-hop and De la Soul’s debut was one of the most inventive uses of old records yet, as, assisted by Prince Paul, the trio produced a vast album packed with great humour, grooves, swagger and creativity. It was like nothing we had heard before, and it changed hip-hop forever.
At the time, there were other creative producers and rappers, but this was a revolutionary album that went even deeper into musical history with its samples.
These samples and breakbeats had always come from a wide variety of sources, but 3 Feet High And Rising was the first new school album which really opened up new possibilities for a music genre that could be thought-provoking, creative and above all fun.
It wasn’t as hard-hitting as some of the other big albums of the era (Straight Outta Compton and It Takes A Nation Of Millions) but it opened up hip-hop to a new audience, and suddenly groups like A Tribe Called Quest and the (critically underrated to this day) Jungle Brothers ushered in a more bohemian wave of hip-hop.
Rap fans uncomfortable with some of the sexism and even violence were suddenly offered the perfect vehicle for their own taste, and there is no doubt it helped attract more women too.
Rap was changing by the day in the ’80s and by the end of the decade an already libellous country like the US was struggling to come to terms with the legal complexities that sampling created. The subsequent legal mess has followed around this classic for 30 years. Clearing the samples for their follow up album, De la Soul Is Dead, took years, and subsequently the group’s relationship with their Tommy Boy label eventually disintegrated too.
The complex sampling clearance of 3 Feet High And Rising didn’t account for streaming and the digital age, and though deals were struck for vinyl, CD and cassette releases, it’s one of the reasons why the group’s material is still stuck in the digital quagmire.
Tommy Boy have always had a love-hate relationship with some of their artists but it finally looked like De La Soul and them had come to an agreement lately, with the digital release scheduled to happen last Friday. Unfortunately, at the 11th hour talks broke down over a dispute owing to previous disagreements, and as I write this De La Soul’s music is still largely unavailable to the masses. Let’s hope they sort it out.
The importance of this catalogue is impossible to overstate. Most youngsters these days stream music so it’s essential that one of the most respected cannons in hip-hop is available from an educational perspective to the hip-hop fans in 2019. De la Soul not only sampled lots of other music but they also attracted a huge audience of people who were previously uncomfortable with rap, and there’s no reason why they still can’t do the same.
I know lots of young people who are huge fans of the group, and I’m sure many will be travelling to the forthcoming Masters of Hip-Hop show in Dublin, where they will be joined by fellow legends Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan and DJ Premier.
Sampling these days is a lot more complex and clearing them is difficult unless you have deep pockets. De La Soul have got around this by crowd funding a record that enabled them to pay for top class live musicians to play and then be sampled at their own will for the record.
Sampling remains an essential part of hip-hop culture though, and it is hoped 3 Feet High And Rising and other classics will soon be widely available to inspire and motivate a new generation of fans, producers and MCs. In the meantime go and try to find it on record, tape or CD and sit back and enjoy one of the great music groups of all time.