Timmhotep Aku is a music writer, editor and producer from Brooklyn. After the death of De La Soul’s David Jolicoeur – known as Trugoy the Dove, Plug 2 and Dave – just as the group’s catalog was about to be available to stream, we asked Aku to talk to artists about the influence the Long Island rappers had locally and outside of New York City.
My De La Soul fandom started when I was in elementary school. As a kid in the East New York, Brooklyn of the late ‘80s, my favorite pastime was watching television. Sure, I enjoyed running around the neighborhood and playing with my mischievous friends, but there was nothing like watching TV at home. Plus, when I was home glued to the tube, I was accounted for and my mother didn’t have to worry about the myriad ills of Brooklyn circa 1989. But it wasn’t about danger for me. Outside I was constantly reminded of things I didn’t have: the newest kicks, the latest gear and pocket money.
Indoors, however, sitting just a few feet from the screen and making my poor eyesight even worse, I could watch and fantasize. The TV became a portal with a view, a tear in the fabric of my own reality through which I could imagine things I might have and what I could be.
In this era, when TVs had wire antennae and broadcast channels were split into UHF and VHF, I found myself religiously turning the UHF dial to Channel 31 to tune into a show called “Video Music Box” after school every day. The show, now the subject of a Showtime documentary, was the brainchild of two Black men: video directors “Uncle” Ralph McDaniels and Lionel “The Vid Kid” Martin. It was the first and, for a while, the only music video show on TV that mostly played hip-hop, alongside R&B, reggae and pop music videos. It was essential to my social life at school; it was my cultural education and fodder for lunchroom banter about new music, new fashion, and our own local New York City celebrities. It was the only place where Run-DMC and Whodini were as big as Michael Jackson and Madonna. It was how I could relate and fit in.
One afternoon, Uncle Ralph played De La Soul’s first music video, “Potholes In My Lawn.” It was lo-fi before people used that term, with jittery imagery that was poorly synched to the Plugs' abstract lyrics — perhaps intentionally. The first verse belonged to Dave Jolicoeur aka Plug 2 and Trugoy the Dove, rocking a sloped “Gumby” haircut in all his glory, leaning against the side of a house reciting a cryptic verse about unnamed emcees biting his rhymes. This was my first glimpse of Black suburbia via three teens from Amityville, Long Island, who were goofy, intelligent, stylish and ultimately cool. I had never seen or heard anything like it. I was enthralled. And in them, I saw possibility.
This would be the beginning of decadeslong appreciation for the work of the group’s rappers Pos, Mase, Dave, and producer Prince Paul, which would inform not only my musical tastes and my sense of humor, but also my concept of manhood.
News of David Jude Jolicoeur’s death at age 54 broke on Feb. 12, Super Bowl Sunday, breaking the hearts of family, friends and fans who were eager to see De La Soul finally get their just due in the digital music era. After years of fighting to gain control of their master recordings and a long process of properly clearing the samples therein, De La Soul’s catalog is set to hit streaming platforms on March 3, exactly 34 years after the release of their groundbreaking, sample-and-skit-laden debut, “3 Feet High & Rising.”
As we De La fans mourn Dave, we also reflect on his and the group’s work and influence. Having the foundational albums of their catalog absent from places like the iTunes Store, Apple Music, YouTube and Spotify meant that microgenerations of potential fans have been deprived of their music up until now. But it’s a testament to their impact that even despite these barriers, the “heads” – those archetypal hip-hop obsessives defined by their curiosity and interest in music discovery – still managed to find De La Soul.
Many of these heads are fellow artists who, while much younger than De La Soul, can trace their artistic roots to the Long Island trio. In the days following Dave’s passing, I spoke to four such artists in their 20s and 30s to hear how Dave and De La shaped them as artists and what they taught them about being men in hip-hop and beyond.
Ahwlee of B. Cool-Aid
Ahwlee (pronounced “Ali”), a producer and native of Long Beach, California, has been a fixture of the Los Angeles beat scene that began in the late aughts and produced premier beatmakers-turned-instrumentalists like Flying Lotus and MNDSGN. Adept at finding samples and flipping them in unpredictable ways, the 32-year-old first discovered De La Soul at age 11 while watching throwback videos on VH1 Soul.
“Buddy (Native Tongue Decision),” featuring A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and Monie Love, was the first video he saw. In January, Ahwlee and his partner in the duo B. Cool-Aid released their video for “Wassup,” a fun, flirtatious track from their upcoming album about kindling and rekindling a romance that matches the energy of the “Buddy” video. The video features guest appearances and cameos from their collaborators and friends, mirroring the community vibe he witnessed on the posse cut that introduced fans to the Native Tongues collective.
Like the Native Tongues before them, Ahwlee’s loose-knit community of collaborators all have their own distinct musical styles and perspectives "but can come together with some vibes and can work with each other’s energy,” according to the LA-based producer. “That’s why I feel De La’s s--t is so important, that’s partially where I got it from.”
For the record crate-digging Ahwlee, a Dave solo track from their album “Stakes Is High” has the distinction of being the first piece of vinyl he owned as a 14-year-old aspiring producer. “The first record I ever bought, period, was ‘Itsoweezee,’ he said. “I was on a YMCA trip, I was in a program, and that’s where I first learned how to make beats on the computer and shit, and we went to San Francisco to [the] Amoeba [record store]. I just wanted to buy a record, didn’t even have a turntable then, and I bought the ‘Itsoweezee’ single, and it had the ‘Stakes Is High’ Jay Dee remix on it.” That song, part grown-man reflection and part screed against hip-hop’s infatuation with mafioso tales at the time, exemplified the cooler, wiser older brother role De La grew into as their career progressed. They chose to lead by example.
“They were Black dudes that personified the Black men they wanted to see. They were themselves unapologetically, and it was beautiful.”
Cavalier and Quelle Chris
Performer and artist Cavalier, a Bed-Stuy native and New Orleans transplant, has distinguished himself as a poet laureate of the inner-city working class. His eye-level observations and analyses of cities and cultures changed by gentrification carry the emotional gravity only a homegrown artist could convey.
His partner in rhyme, rapper and producer Quelle Chris — who was recently nominated for a Grammy for his work with Lizzo — has lived in many places but considers Detroit his home base. Quelle’s music is infused with introspection, humor and absurdity. On ”Purple Robes,” a track from “Death Tape 1: Black Cottonwood,” the project they released in January, Quelle namechecks De La Soul: “Gimme my loot like Dave, Mase and Posdnuos.” I met with both emcees, who are in their late 30s, on Marcus Garvey Boulevard in Bed-Stuy days after Dave’s death, and they reflected on the group and how the music captured Black manhood.
“I thought that song [“Buddy (Native Tongue Decision)”] was incredible,” said Cavalier. “And it wasn’t only men speaking. That always stood out to me. They didn’t have one singular perspective per se, but they were pro-safe sex. And it inferred understanding that there’s an exchange and that the woman has a valid opinion in the situation.”
Though De La were contemporaries and fans of hardcore rap artists like NWA, they never imitated them. Instead, they chose to stay true to their own individuality and artistic impulses, and modeled nonconformity as a virtue. “They did a good job in presenting what masculinity is,” Quelle said. “[It’s] not some standard Rambo thing; the masculinity lies in the confidence in which you walk and standing on your morals, and being a part of your community.”
Driving the point home, Cavalier offers up an anecdote. Doing his best impression of an Italian American from Long Island, he quotes their De La Soul-hoodie-clad friend Tone Tank: “I had this hoodie since I was 17 years old. I listened to a lot of hip-hop then, but that was the only music that made me wanna be a better person.”
Rapper Deem Spencer, 27, is releasing his new album “adultSW!M” on Friday, the same day that De La Soul’s catalog hits streaming. The left-field emcee, who hails from Jamaica, Queens, and has spent time in Long Island himself, relates to De La Soul on a few levels.
“In New York, there are a lot of tough neighborhoods — even in Long Island. And as young men, sometimes you don’t get to decide where you stand in the economy of the different paths you can go,” he said. “And De La, they wore their personalities naturally and almost as if s--t wasn’t so tough, and that was something that always inspired me. It goes such a long way in being able to represent the lighthearted side of things and the humanity of things. Throughout a lot of eras in hip-hop, if you weren’t a part of these communities, you’d think the only thing going on was drugs and violence. I like how De La Soul was able to — in the late ‘80s — have some fun.”
Though he didn’t grow up on De La's music and only found himself delving into it as an adult, he developed an appreciation for the lightheartedness and youthful energy of their first two albums, “3 Feet High & Rising” and “De La Soul Is Dead.”
“I think they were brilliant for coming out like that. And that’s something I learned myself as an artist, to always keep humor in it because it’s easier to say it when you put humor in it. Not only is [it] easier to hear it, [but] it’s also easier to say it.”