Why I Liked David Turner’s De La Soul Piece
Critic David Turner recently wrote a piece for MTV News about hearing De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” for the first time. The album was released in 1989. Turner is now twenty-four — I am forty-nine years old, meaning I was twenty-two when “3 Feet High and Rising” came out. People got mad about Turner not loving this De La Soul record. So mad. Wow. You have a copy of Google. Go nuts. You’ll see.
When the first De La Soul single came out in 1988, I was twenty-one. I wasn’t a music critic. I was in an enfeebled version of my college band, Dolores, and working behind the counter of a restaurant called Food, a roomy spot on the corner of Prince and Wooster. Years later, I found out that Gordon Matta-Clark had founded the place, but all anybody knew at the time was that “a famous artist” had started the restaurant. The telephone game of history had turned the founder into Willem de Kooning.
I spent my spare money on records and lived with one of my bandmates in Brooklyn, on the corner of Flatbush and Sixth Avenue, above a store called Royal Video, which lasted well into the 21st century, long after I was gone and long past the death anyone would have expected. I shopped for rap 12-inches at a store called Downtown Records, which was confusingly not downtown, mirroring another rap mecca, Downstairs Records, which was actually upstairs.
By 1988, Downtown Records had moved uptown from its first location on Sixth Avenue below 23rd to a spot on 25th Street, slightly east of Sixth. Rap records were stocked in wire racks, on the right wall, just as you came in. The rest of the roomy shop was devoted to R&B and dance music. A DJ in the back would play you a record of interest, if there was an unsealed copy available. People lined up patiently and waited to hear what they might buy. (It was like Spotify, but slow, public, and with lots of IRL judging.) One Downtown employee, Albert, knew me from the old location and mentored me when he had time, bringing me behind the turntables to hear old disco and funk songs. He wiped his nose a lot and often disappeared unexpectedly.
One day, I picked up a single on the Tommy Boy label called “Plug Tunin’.” It was by a group I’d never heard of: De La Soul. I took it out of the racks because Tommy Boy was one of the labels that still put out a fair amount of rap and not much else. I waited behind all the people at the DJ platform who were waiting to hear the dance smash of the day. I heard a lot of Jody Watley then, who just made me miss Shannon.
Downtown Records was no different from Vinylmania in Soho, or Beat Street on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. Nobody racking these stores knew how to sort the R&B from the dance from the house in 1988, and rap was just confounding.
For years, rap found radio play only on late night shows, usually on Thursday and Friday nights. The original tri-state spot was WHBI, a college station in New Jersey that fed Mr. Magic to WBLS, a big New York R&B Station. His Rap Attack show, transplanted from WHBI, was the first big FM rap show in New York. His WHBI replacement, Afrika Islam, was the first person to put Red Alert on the radio, during his Zulu Beats show, a thing still fetishized by English people who are especially good at memorializing New York long after New Yorkers have given up or moved on.
Some rap songs had broken into daytime R&B radio rotation by 1988, and customers at Downtown has become less huffy when a skinny kid held out a Fantasy Three 12-inch to be played. (You didn’t get a shot at more than three records per go; fewer if it was crowded.) Once sampling was introduced, a rap single might be, musically, an old funk song the old guard was defending, so now what? Such struggles.
Even if I hadn’t gotten my turn with the DJ on call at Downtown, I would have bought the single on the strength of the Tommy Boy label. But I got to hear it, and not everybody in the shop was happy about that.
“Plug Tunin’” was fucked up by any standard. The beat was slow and dirty. The main sample was of a brass instrument, either a trumpet slowed down or maybe a sped up trombone. The rhymes were almost impossible to make out. Did they even rhyme? Posdnuos — a name it took me weeks to figure out how to write — seemed to be the leader, since he rapped more. In his first verse or two, I could make out the word “paragraph,” which was nice. The rest sounded like someone reading from an FBI document that was mostly redacted.
But I loved the fact that rap had become weird enough to confuse me as much as everything else I read about happening in New York out of my pre-legal reach. Treacherous Three were not confusing. I loved them because they made me want to dance and rapping had been cool, not corny, since I’d heard “That’s The Joint” in 1981. Not being corny is pretty much your mission until you hit a certain age, a number which lowers every year. (Sorry, everyone who is not twelve.)
Whether it was 1981 or 1988, rap made people uncomfortable, which made young people giggle for the reasons they will always giggle when their lingua franca is misunderstood. Rap was perfect for dancing and it was cheap to dress like an imitation b-boy. One set of fat red laces in your knock-off Adidas and you were set. Why wouldn’t a teenager pledge himself to rap?
The next De La Soul single, “Me Myself and I,” got onto daytime radio. It was playing all the time when I worked at Food. I sort of hated it. The song was centered around a big chunk of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep.” It was a sample that would soon be seen as a kind of a cheat — like the carcass of “Super Freak” whale-boning “U Can’t Touch This” — since the familiarity and catchiness of the original seemed to be what made the song a hit. I didn’t care. We were years away from hip-hop authenticity wars. Rap fans were still trying to get people to stop making fun of rap, and that battle was almost over, thank god. Funkadelic? Great. De La Soul? We liked them, so, whatever, this could work.
The “Me Myself and I” twelve-inch was the only piece of vinyl like it I’ve seen: three-sided. The A-side was pressed like all other records, with one song following another, engraved as one continuous groove. The B-side was pressed with two interlocking grooves. One groove would play two mixes of “Me Myself and I,” sequentially, while the other groove played a completely different song. Which groove engaged depended on where and how you placed the needle. It was both a kick and a huge pain in the ass and I probably tried three times, maximum, before giving up on the B-side.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t love any of the sides of “Me Myself and I.” I was generally in favor of rap becoming as user-unfriendly as the work of downtown types like Christian Marclay, who seemed to be referenced every time somebody had to write about rap. “Look — the white artist guy does this weird shit with turntables! Rapping stuff might be legit!” Marclay hadn’t made a record with interlocking grooves, so there, fella. (What do I know? Maybe he had, and I loved his work, but I felt that sides were forming.)
By 1989, I had started working at a non-profit called Families & Work Institute, located three blocks away from Downtown Records, which was reason enough to take the job. I was a “desktop publisher,” a fancy way of describing a kid who makes questionnaires in Quark. There was no internet to speak of, so in my down time, I plotted the band that would become Ui and flirted with a new hire named Deborah, who I later married. She was an ex-lawyer and I had dropped out of college. Her mother wasn’t thrilled.
When “3 Feet High and Rising” came out, I bought it, and became obsessed with it. Or at least I tried to be. Everything rap or hip-hop (the name was still a toss-up at stores) was of interest to me. Critics really loved “3 Feet High and Rising” — it won the 1989 Pazz & Jop Poll in the Village Voice. I am sure that I was very happy about this at the time.
What a lot of autobiography, you say. Write about the topic. But this is the topic — consciousness and historical context. I didn’t just think Bob Dylan was corny in 1988; I thought half the shit Albert played me was corny, all those funk and soul records that were the building blocks of hip-hop bla bla blabla bla. Mandrill and The Jimmy Castor Bunch and Pleasure and Cymande and Babe Ruth could each claim a few great songs, or some strong twenty-second breaks, but I didn’t want to listen to their albums in full any more than I wanted to listen to an entire album by Chuck Berry or Foreigner. I wanted whatever was new and sharp and disturbing and unknown. I loved Wire. I loved Run-DMC. I loved Bad Brains more than anything.
Over time, some of my opinions changed. Cymande albums turned out to be solid, from top to bottom; early Kool and the Gang was ferocious; and Bob Dylan was — get this — not just a weird born-again Christian in a Members Only jacket. In “Don’t Look Back,” Dylan acted a lot like the first punk. I didn’t see the Pennebaker film until I was a parent in his thirties. People are busy. Band practice. Bagels. Kids.
So as I read Turner’s piece, I felt — or thought that I felt — sad. “Gah, my heroes being bollocksed by a writer I respect. Gah, my senescence.” But when I read “Maybe it’s strange that I’ve never really given much time to De La Soul, because I looooove A Tribe Called Quest, and I certainly hear a lot of them here. But Tribe songs are so much tighter,” I paused. Wait. When was the last time I willingly listened to “3 Feet” all the way through? Or even in bits? At no time. That album is back in 1989.
Other De La albums, like “De La Soul Is Dead” and “Stakes Is High,” have journeyed with me into the night of grey, but none merit the attraction of A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory,” which I play several times a year. My affection for “3 Feet” is a received idea, in the purest sense; a hometown allegiance bookmarked; an unconscious pledge of fealty to an act who made other acts possible. These are historical moments rendered as emotional reflexes. I wasn’t around for The Sonics making people want to make even noisier music in the sixties, nor Patti Smith turning her poetry into punk in the seventies. Those moments belonged to strangers and all I had was their recorded output, which was butt. I didn’t care about Patti Smith or Sonics records. I heard no fire. (Many years later, when I saw Smith live, I felt fire.) I listened, because people told me to, and they were right about a lot of stuff. “Beggars Banquet” is tite!
So David Turner did the same. He brought his consciousness to the material reality of “3 Feet High and Rising,” a recording that, like all of them, has to make its bones on merit, not hobble into your house on the basis of stars and points and liner notes. Few things are more central to the work of a critic than bringing his or her consciousness to bear on a work, in the current moment, committed to being honest while recording ideas without strategic mediation. Turner could have Googled for weeks and crammed and aped the ideas of his elders, but why? We have those reviews already. I want to know exactly how sampling sounds to someone raised in the now, especially a person who listens to tons of current hip-hop. I want to hear how everyone who is twenty-four hears the records of my youth, with the proviso that they’re as smart as people are supposed to be in whatever this spin cycle of words is.
When I was twenty-two, I couldn’t escape my age — in every sense of that word— when I encountered legends or rookies. Some of those artists eventually sank in and became important; some are marginal notes in paperback anthologies of pop criticism. I adore Patti Smith, the performer, the memoirist and the public speaker. I still can’t listen to more than three or four of her songs before I drift off.
Why wouldn’t we want people with different consciousnesses and brains and intuitive visions to upturn our paving stones? What a good way to test our foundations, and for free! How do I know that I really need “3 Feet”? And what if, heaven forfend, I still love it? IT WILL BECOME CLEAR THAT AN AMERICAN HUMAN HAS PUBLISHED A DISSENTING OPINION. I will live.
“3 Feet High and Rising” may be something Turner never comes around to. I haven’t put it on yet, because I suspect that I am not going to turn back to it. “The Low End Theory” is in my bones, and if Turner tries to “debunk” the first Cypress Hill album, may Kool Herc have mercy on his soul. But history is ruthless, as should critics be. In fact, everyone go ahead and take a whack at the first Cypress Hill or “Supreme Clientele” — you might play yourself and make those albums stronger. Or maybe we will all be wrong on some kumbaya shit.
De La Soul can be as important as Patti Smith and still not have made it over that weird sandbar of recorded history, where a Joni Mitchell album still sounds perfect in a bar but somehow early Elvis Costello records don’t. Why? I loved “This Year’s Model,” and it taught me how to play the guitar, so the fault must be with, um, you, them, with with wait with um wait — and that’s where history returns, as a Star Wars character. There is no fault. There is only play. Or not play. And in ten years, the play button may reverse.
Last week, whoever is in charge of the jukebox at a local bar swapped out some CDs. Out went Vince Staples’ “Summertime ‘06” — aw heck — and in came Miles Davis’ “On The Corner.” Hot damn.
So I played the whole album, because: “On The Corner.” Two things happened. The bartender, who I like and whose taste is not batshit, kept skipping tracks because she said they made her “nervous.” A trio of French people near me, though, said “This is fantastic! What is this?” Forty-four years in, Miles’ album had the power to split the room. It was more interesting than consensus. I have “On The Corner” at home, anyway.