De La Soul, the iconic Long Island hip-hop trio, performed last Saturday to a capacity crowd at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom. It was "nuts-to-butts crowded," as my Tennessee friends like to say. Consider now the fact that the group hasn't released a proper album in five years (2009's obscure Are You In?: Nike+ Original Run), and that 3 Feet High and Rising is now 25 years old, and the very idea that they can still pack venues like Cervantes' makes De La's staying power all the more impressive.
This had us wondering: what makes De La still such a big draw, at a time when their contemporaries have long since disappeared? We decided to take the question to the crowd at last weekend's show. Here's what we found.
Ethan, 37 They came out during a movement. Preceded Tribe Called Quest. That's heavy, man. They are an institution. De La was a separate entity from what was going on in the rap world. It didn't matter to them. Harris, 37 They cater to people. They're very likable. They're in the same family as Tribe Called Quest. It's very positive -- not all guns and shit. They're like Mobb Deep... very jazzy. Also I'm from Long Island, so De La ties me to where I'm from. Jim, 25 Oh it's the history. People understand that. They want to see a band with history. I do construction, and I work with these guys who don't even know who they are. I ask if they know that album, with the guys' faces and the yellow, and they're like, "no, I've never seen it." "Me, Myself and I" made it into popular culture, but it was also in movies. [Guy from Alaska who didn't give his name], 25 Most people listen to commercial-based hip-hop. De La gets no radio play. They have a consciousness element. They're more repressed in the hip hop world, because they have a positive vibe. They don't rap about molly. When I'm down, their music brings me up. I wasn't even born when 3 Feet High and Rising came out. I'm a crate digger. I find the influences of my influence. Like Lyrics Born -- you look at his shout-outs, and start from there. Brian (a.k.a. B Fresh), 27 Spontaneous creativity. De La is the antithesis to mainstream drivel. These dudes keep it weird.
Jason, 34 It's conscious music. The lyrics, the issues being discussed are relevant, even today. It took me a while to get a taste for hip hop. I did it by looking deeper into the lyrics, linking it to its deep roots. They have songs that are just beautiful. Have you heard the Fela Soul album?
[No name given; this guy pretty much disappeared after we talked. Intense-looking dude, probably around 27.] You'll have to excuse me -- I'm drunk.... I don't think De La's popularity is about the music. It's probably more the atmosphere. People here don't even know who De La is. Half the people here are just here because they're here. They're just part of the scene. [Walks away as I was asking another question. Seemed mad that he was even at the show.]
Jumaane, 38 Why are they still popular? They're not all about the bling bling. They speak to issues affecting poor people.
Aaron, 33 [Following up on what Jumaane just said]: They speak to broader social issues that are relevant from the Reagan era to now.
Daniel, 34 I used to bump this shit with this guy! [Pointing at Aaron.] Let me ask you a question: have you ever felt something you never felt? Something that makes you hyphy? That's what De La does for me.
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