Joel Biswas owns the deeds to some acres in the W. Indies.
In the mid-nineties, the plate tectonics of NYC rap shifted dramatically. Wu-Tang, Black Moon, Biggie, and Mobb Deep gave the five boroughs a funereal makeover and stark subject matter. Bi-coastal beef bubbled and New York rap entered its decadent phase, circa the summer of ’96. Nas’ It Was Written sang the clarion call for a new era, swapping the razor sharp street corner poetry of Illmatic for baroque Scarface narratives, crushed linen, and Trackmasters string arrangements. Smooth criminal Jay Z swaggered with Reasonable Doubt as Rocafella was birthed. Change was in the air.
Multi-syllabic flows, party rhymes, battle raps, and afrocentrism were suddenly déclassé and a whole generation of artists from Rakim to EPMD to Slick Rick to Pete Rock and CL Smooth experienced a collective falling off — unprecedented in the genre’s young history. In the midst of it, two cornerstones of the previous generation re-emerged, determined not to go quietly. On July 2, 1996 (the same release day as It Was Written), De La Soul released Stakes is High. A week later A Tribe Called Quest dropped Beats, Rhymes and Life. The Native Tongues movement was about to be officially reinstated. Maybe.
Tribe came off career-peak The Low End Theory—an album that perfectly blended their griot jazz rap aesthetic with the street corner and got everything right. Since it’s release, three years earlier, Q-Tip stayed current with the harder-edged Queens renaissance, making seminal contributions to both Illmatic and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous. De La Soul, on the other hand, had long since retreated from the acclaim of Three Feet High and Rising and followed their muse in increasingly idiosyncratic ways. Buhloon Mindstate (released only three days after Midnight Marauders in ‘93) was an ambitious meditation on identity. It was heavy on live instrumentation, dense rhyme concepts, and limited mainstream appeal.
Fast-forward three years and Beats, Rhymes and Life was the more curious of the two releases — if only because at first listen, it was exactly the Tribe record that we all fiended for. It duly shot straight to number 1 on the Billboard Chart–a first for the Linden Boulevard crew. The brief was clearly “if it ain’t broke…” The low-end sound had been delicately tweaked with crisp Havoc-style drum programming, while J Dilla joined the production stable and respectfully adhered to an iconic sonic blueprint. Most surprising was the addition of Q Tip’s cousin Consequence to a classic duo—a clear concession to changing times, ostensibly bringing a harder-edged flow to Tribe’s sound and in hindsight, serving as a portent that a classic mic partnership was failing.
If each of Tribe’s previous three albums marked a seismic evolution in rap music, this was the first where signs of stasis were apparent. There were brilliant moments—the opener “Phony Rappers” in which vets Phife and Tip find themselves endlessly tested by wannabe MCs and yet again have to crack their knuckles and demonstrate that being on TV doesn’t mean they “can’t hold it down in NYC.” Phife memorably dismisses an upstart who needs a blunt before battling with a wave of his hand, rapping “Money please, I get loose off of orange juice.”
On “Jam”, the crew unfolded a classic tale of youthful summer madness: flirtation, Heineken bottle caps, house parties, and the lingering threat of violence. But even when the party takes the inevitable turn for the worse, it’s not oft-told ghetto morality play of “Soliloquy of Chaos”—it’s the embodiment of adolescence’s dangerous allure. What stands out most now is just how vibrant Phife sounds, as if affronted by the presence of Tip’s cousin, bringing a characteristic blend of humor and bravado to every verse and repeatedly tearing the heart out the heart of sucka MC’s “like Jordan had Starks.” If Phife was straining against inertia with sheer energy, it was Q-Tip the de-facto leader and creative agitator who sounded worryingly anemic.
Tunes like “Crew,” “Motivators,” “Once Again,” and “The Hop” knocked hard and could have sat comfortably on Tribe’s previous album—which was, of course, the problem. The breakneck speed of East Coast rap’s evolution shifted into high gear; the term “Golden Age” had not yet been invented. Rap fans stubbornly refused to allow anything entering the canon to hide behind the banner of timelessness. Behind the scenes, fatal acrimony brewed. Tip was now a Muslim. Phife sensed the end and bounced to Atlanta. By the time Tribe’s swansong effort The Love Movement was released in ’98, the shiny suit era was in full swing and the album was hardly a fitting epitaph to one of hip hop’s greatest groups.
A week earlier, De La Soul’s Stakes is High dropped to considerably less hype and expectation. Over the past seven years, the two ambitious follow-ups to the universally loved Three Feet High and Rising had been met with popular bafflement and with the recent departure of sonic architect Prince Paul, the omens weren’t particularly promising for De La. One might have been forgiven for interpreting the LP’s title as a desperate rallying cry for an imminent career reckoning.
The truth was that De La Soul had bigger concerns on their mind than just claiming their place in history—concerns that would help them create a minor mid-career classic that sounds better with every passing year. Stakes is High is dense, down-beat, and as vital and complex as any of the hugely ambitious albums that preceded it. Production-wise, Pos, Dave, and Mase shrug off Prince Paul’s absence and cook up a smoky low end symphony of jazz keys shooting through with nostalgic grace notes from Kurtis Blow, Slick Rick, Run-DMC, and BDP.
Over a sprawling seventeen tracks, the Long Island vets flitted between anger and bewilderment over the cold winds and crass commerciality that were blowing through NYC, pausing only to grieve for rap’s lost innocence with elegiac sweetness. The album kicks off with an evocative collage of voices reminiscing about the first time they heard Criminal-Minded before “Supa MC’s” rides a moody organ break. A Slick Rick sample quietly reflects on just how much “times done changed for the MC’s.” “Dinninit” and “the Breaks” are on the surface party cuts that undercut their “Yes Yes Y’all” choruses with blue-green keyboard loops and dreamy flows that carry the listener into hip hop’s happier past, gently reminding us that before guns, “there were Native Tongues on this plain, putting others on without there being pawns in the game.”
Self-deprecation was everywhere. “Itsoweezee” kicks off with our heroes driving around lost after going to the wrong nightclub; older gods weary of chasing the night before grumpily admonishing those fronting club kids who see beef with everyone they don’t know. Not that our heroes had lost their game. “Betta Listen” was a classic exercise in seduction—a two verse master-class in storytelling, metaphor, and grown-up sexiness and a masterful critiques of the world of video vixens by sheer contrast. The trio saved plenty of fire for a new generation of “champagne sipping money fakers” and the title track is a blistering critique of gangsta chic that is quotable from start to finish and notable as a highlight among Dilla’s early beats. De La deployed guests and collaborators perfectly—whether it was Common destroying “The Bizness” for an unexpected summer jam, the very conscious torch passing to Mos Def on “Big Brother Beats,” or Truth Enola’s stunning verse on “Pony Ride”.
Even if it was overshadowed by other blockbuster releases at the time, Stakes is High was to have a slow burn impact on the sound of NYC, presaging the brief Rawkus boom-bap renaissance by anointing two of its most bankable stars, Mos Def and Common. In the following years, De La Soul would become, for better or worse, spiritual godfathers to the backpack rap movement working with and influencing everyone from Talib Kweli to the Dilated Peoples. And when Q Tip finally emerged from the wreckage of A Tribe Called Quest, it was Dilla who he would summon to exclusively produce Amplified.
But if Stakes is High gave De La Soul an enduring creative formula and a resilience that would carry them right through to 2016’s De La Soul and the Anonymous Nobody, the pursuit of nostalgic revivalism they helped spark would ultimately prove self-defeating for many of their acolytes. Indeed, New York’s growing obsession with its place in rap history wouldn’t cease until the crown finally slipped irrevocably. It’s an irony unlikely to be lost on De La Soul in 2016, not that they’d care. Even when bemoaning an industry that didn’t recognize their genius, De La Soul never succumbed to bitterness.