You never forget your first love.
As cliché as it sounds to say that hip hop was my first love, in my case, it’s actually true. I don’t remember anything else becoming as essential to my being as devouring all of the homemade mixtapes my older sister’s friends made for her. As a military brat growing up in Frankfurt, Germany—in the late 80s and early 90s—each new mixtape with the latest hip hop from the states, or VHS tape with the hottest sitcoms or music videos, was a treasure trove of knowledge. All of us who lived overseas trafficked in a delayed version of the latest styles, music and fashion coming from our family members living it daily. Basically, for a significant time of my life, my only access to what would become the culture I most identify with and the music that shaped my identity was other people.
Such was the case with De La Soul Is Dead, the sophomore album by legendary and innovative hip hop group, De La Soul. The album, which received the vaunted 5-mic rating from The Source magazine—back when that mattered—was the follow up to their game-changing debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, often considered to be one of the best hip hop albums ever. I don’t have the warm and fuzzies about that first album, probably because I wasn’t yet 10 when it came out and most likely, my older sister didn’t have a copy of it for me to “borrow.” But by the time I heard De La Soul Is Dead, I was a much more mature 12-years-old, in middle school and hip hop had overtaken my life.
De La Soul Is Dead was released on May 14, 1991—it will be 30-years-old this Friday—but because I was in Germany, I know I didn’t hear it until probably much later. We almost never got anything on time; our PX (stands for Post Exchange; was our equivalent of a mini-mall type situation) got all the latest albums, just, ya know, later than normal. But in the off chance that somebody from over seas sent you a package of stuff, maybe you’d get an album only a month or so late. Even now, I can’t entirely place exactly when I first heard it though I vaguely remember somebody telling me to listen to DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s Homebase, which came out in July 1991, so I suppose early fall; I mostly attempt to piece together the timeline based on what I was doing and where I was going. And that’s where this love story begins.
At the beginning of every school year, when we were all back from our summer vacations and what not, I remember we’d take some huge school trip to one of the amusement parks that was probably an hour-or-two drive away. Because the trips were so long folks always brought their Walkman or, if you were big time, a Discman with…shuffle and that random ass button for like, skip protection or something. Those long trips were where we’d all share tapes, was where I learned how many profane words were in AMG’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” On this one particular trip, I sat next to a girl, who was a friend of mine, who had an 8th-grade boyfriend and always seemed to be on things going on back stateside. Her same 8th-grade boyfriend was also my music plug since he always seemed to have that new-new music.
Anyway, as we sat talking, I asked her what she had in her Walkman and instead of telling me, she handed me her headphones and told me to listen to it. I vividly remember her playing, “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays,” and me being like, “Yo, this is amazing! What is it?” She told me it was De La Soul, who I remembered from their “Me, Myself and I” video on one of the tapes my mom sent me. That song didn’t make me a fan the way their remix for “Buddy” with Native Tongues (featuring verses from the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love and Queen Latifah) did. Either way, I couldn’t call myself a fan at that point, but everything changed when she handed me the headphones. Normally on those bus rides we’d all yell and throw things and break all of the bus rules. Not this time. I asked if I could listen to the tape the whole way there and back. From the skits to the samples (I don’t think I realized they were samples at the time) to the lyricism to the album art work I literally could not get enough of the album. It was the first time I truly paid attention to producers. Before this album I don’t think I had any real concept of how to put together a song or what a producer was, etc. But because of this, I started asking questions of all my music friends. I found me a squad of friends who loved hip hop like I did and we’d listen to and discuss everything, which included an actual fight—on our version of the subway—over Geto Boys “Minds Playing Tricks on Me” (also released during the same period) about who had the best verse.
When we got back from the field trip, I remember taking a trip to our PX to get the tape and listening to it incessantly, almost exclusively for months on end. I knew all the words to the songs and skits. It’s like De La Soul Is Dead opened me up to hip hop in a way I didn’t get before. I cared to dissect the songs and really understand what they were talking about. This was in 1991. I was in total love, as a 12-year-old, with this album and that never really changed. The only thing that changed was how I learned to appreciate. As I got older and really got into sampling and producers and song construction and lyricism and understood just how much went into it, I determined that De La Soul Is Dead was my favorite album ever, a thought I held onto until some years ago, when because of De La Soul’s issues with Tommy Boy, I could never listen to their early albums on streaming so I always listened to A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. I did eventually re-buy the De La CD—all of my CD’s are in boxes in the back of a storage space; I haven’t opened those boxes of CDs in over 10 years.
But you never forget your first love. You remember where you were and how it made you feel seen, like you’d finally found something that spoke directly to you and your sensibilities. The fact that an album I heard at 12 is as resonant to me now in 2021, as it was in 1991, speaks volumes about how good of an album it is. How in the pocket Prince Paul was on production and how amazing Pos and Dave were lyrically and how Maseo blended it all together.
I had plenty of CDs and tapes before De La Soul Is Dead, and have had plenty since. But that feeling that I had never left and it has kept this album in my atmosphere for 30 years and at this point, I imagine it will be here forever. De La Soul Is Dead, to me, is a perfect album that changed the way I interacted with music and hip hop and has influenced my life since that day way back in 1991. And you never forget your first love.