Girls: Yo, Jeff, where you been, man?
Jeff: Guess what I just found, I just found a De La Soul tape in the garbage
—De La Soul Is Dead, Intro
The skit that serves as an intro to De La Soul’s album De La Soul Is Dead, released 25 years ago this month, revolves around a discarded De La Soul cassette discovered in a pile of trash. A kid named Jeff shows it to his friends, a group of bandits appear, a fight ensues, and the tape is wrestled from Jeff’s possession. The bandits eventually gather around a boom box and press play. We hear the dying lines of De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, released two years earlier, right before the intro seamlessly tumbles into De La Soul Is Dead’s first real track, “Oodles of Os.”
Aw, this is so corny, man
Tell me, what are they saying, man?
—De La Soul Is Dead, Skit 1
When I hear black people described as “weird,” especially in 2016, what I often feel like I’m hearing is a lack of imagination on the part of the describer. That lack of imagination is still there, despite the lanes of blackness expanding more rapidly now than they were in the early- to mid-1990s, when I was growing up in a mostly black neighborhood, going to mostly black schools, and existing in mostly black spaces. I would ride the school bus 45 minutes from my house in one black neighborhood to my middle school in another black neighborhood, sneaking cassette tapes from my oldest brother’s secret stash and shoving them into a hand-me-down Walkman that I kept sporadically alive with whatever batteries I could swipe from around my house. I wasn’t a victim of bullying any more than most small sixth-graders who are in shared spaces with older kids; mostly it consisted of eighth-graders coming to the back of the bus, snatching my headphones off my head, and listening eagerly to whatever I'd chosen for the day.
It began, like most acts in this vein, as an expression of power. Slowly, though, it shifted into a respectful exchange: discussions about Mobb Deep, Raekwon, Black Moon -- any East Coast MC who kicked aggressive rhymes over aggressive production. Still, on the days when I wanted a quiet bus ride to myself, I would put on De La Soul. In 1995, that meant either 3 Feet High and Rising or De La Soul Is Dead; often the latter. When the older boys would snatch my headphones off of my head on those days, they would listen for a minute or two, scrunch their faces up, and say “This shit is weird” before tossing my headphones back in my lap. In that way, De La Soul Is Dead was the first rap album I knew that I could run to and feel safe. It felt like the album was reaching for me and no one else.
Bitties? Uh, if you were to flip it on 45, so I could dance to it, it'd be kind of slammin'.
No! It's wack, man, wack!
—De La Soul Is Dead, Skit 2
De La Soul Is Dead is 74 minutes long, with an astounding 27 tracks if you count the skits. Today I marvel at how easy and seamless De La made this seem, weeks after Drake released Views, a 20-track album that feels every bit of its 81 minutes, the way you watch the clock tick away agonizingly while waiting for the final school bell to ring before summer break. Sure, I suppose we’re all killing our attention spans with Twitter, or Netflix, or PlayStation, or simply by virtue of being so-called millennials. But the other side of this is that the art of the long rap album has died off. Twenty songs, crammed onto a single album with no real craft or story, is a task. Twenty-seven songs, skits, and narratives carefully built into an album is a journey.
In 1991, they called De La Soul hippies. Dudes from Long Island who draped their first album cover in flowers, a group without a country. Rappers who weren’t as outwardly militant as Public Enemy or N.W.A, but who weren’t as explicitly playful as the Fresh Prince or the Afros. De La Soul Is Dead builds its own country. The range shown on the album is ahead of its time and entirely breathtaking. In the midst of odd and fun party jams like “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” and the infamous “Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays” is “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” which tells a story about a girl who is abused by her father and believed by no one until she finally gets a gun, walks into the Macy’s where he’s playing Santa, and shoots him. A few songs before “Millie” is “My Brother’s a Basehead,” where the shared tale of a brother’s drug addiction sits heavy in the air before whisking you off to another party jam, “Let, Let Me In.” MCs Posdnuos and Dove are among rap’s greatest storytellers, and so it's fitting that the album plays out, through skits and songs, like a book. Nothing about black people telling their own stories can ever be too weird for us to revel in — even if it's packaged in between jams about answering machines and roller skates.
Oh man, this album sucks, man they starting
To sound just Like MC Shan's. I don't like it, I don't like it.
—De La Soul Is Dead, Skit 3
Black people tend to be seen as the most monolithic when someone needs something from us to fulfill their interests. I need De La Soul Is Dead most in these sorts of moments. When a white politician talks about “the black vote” as if it is a single hand reaching in to punch a single ballot, I play “Pease Porridge” and close my eyes. When any news anchor approaches the idea of a singular black resistance and paints it as violent, I play “Afro Connections at a Hi 5” and am small again on the back of the bus, left to my own imagination. The lanes on the road ahead of me widen with each song.
Stop it! Stop it! I can't take any more!
Chill! Chill, let's just hear the rest of this tape!
—De La Soul Is Dead, Skit 4
What I most disliked about the 2015 movie Dope, despite all of its good intentions, is the way we are introduced to the young black character. He's a kid who likes rap and punk, collects records, and does well in school. The film’s intro, though tongue in cheek, brands these things as “white shit.” It's a tale as old as black time, even now, because those who push against these narratives still aren’t as seen as they should be. All of this — everything we do as black people — is “black shit.” My black parents lined the walls of their homes with records, and so do I. My black people played punk rock once, and before that they lifted up rock music with their bare hands, and so I pay them homage. De La Soul put flowers on their first two album covers because they knew that hippies were also a part of all this black shit, or that anything black people called white shit was just the shit they forgot we had our arms around first. First we have to get beyond the idea that there is more than just one type of black person, and then our thinking has to flourish into something that says there is more than just one way to be black at the same time as all the others. The slow crawl to that temple is ongoing, for all of us who are black and still here trying to lean into all our histories at once. For me, though, the crawl began when I heard De La Soul Is Dead.
That little bastard Jeff. He found this in the right place
De La Soul is dead!
Word, let's be out.
—De La Soul Is Dead, Skit 5
The album's tale concludes where it began: a De La Soul tape in the trash can, cast off by someone who wasn’t yet ready for it, waiting again for someone who might be. I imagine the message here is that Jeff will find the tape again just where he did before. It will return to the one who needs it most. Twenty-five years later, I am less weird than I always felt like I was, but I'm sure that someone who looks and lives like I used to hasn’t figured out yet that they are less weird than they think they are. For them, I hope that there is a trash can with that De La Soul tape in it, even if the trash can isn’t a trash can, and the tape isn’t a tape. Maybe the trash can is a corner of the Internet where they see themselves for the first time, and the tape is a stream of an album that begins with a child having something taken from them but knowing that, in the end, it will always find its way back when it is most needed.