March 27, 2017
Released On October 5, 2004
Released By Sanctuary Records
Last year, De La Soul experienced an unexpected renaissance with the release of their ninth studio album And The Anonymous Nobody. It was a triumph of longevity, fan loyalty, and a re-affirmation that the group still mattered to people all over the world. The group funded the album entirely through a massive Kickstarter campaign, yielding a windfall of nearly five times their initial goal (the campaign surpassed its goal of $110,000 in under ten hours!). The people literally put their money where their mouth was. The final product was progressive, wide-ranging and, most importantly, sample free. To me, it was… fine, I guess? But I’m biased. I’m tethered to another project from De La’s legendary catalog that I feel never got its just due. And in the spirit of Off Your Radar, I present to you: The Grind Date.
The Grind Date is every underground rap fan’s wet dream. It’s like a hip hopper’s private birthday party at Putt Putt Golf, and the only guests are all of your heroes at the top of their game: De La Soul, Common, Ghostface Killah, J Dilla, DJ Premier, Flava Flav, Common, MF Doom, 9th Wonder, Jake One, Madlib, and, oh yeah, Spike Lee. What? I know, I know — you’re saying to yourself “how in the hell did I never hear this album.” Trust me, it’s pained me consistently since 2004.
The Grind Date is a crystal ball into the future, specifically the next ten years of the rap game. The references to the future are rampant. It’s a warning shot to the next generation, seemingly lacking the respect and acknowledgment for the fore bearers of the culture. It’s a war cry for my generation, knowing we’re being phased out, but these dudes are going out swinging. They know the enemy is at the gate, skinny jeans and all. An unusually irritated Dave plants the flag for “grown man rap” on “Verbal Clab:” “Ayo, prepare yourself for the neutron, bitch / this is ’86, let that neo-rap go / We present these flares to put fire to your ears ’till they smoke like rusty exhaust pipes / We run mic’s, let Sean (Puff Daddy) run the marathon / yo raise that money, son / we raising these kids”.
Could DJ Premier lay out the mission statement any plainer on “Much More?” “Y’all care anymore, about this hip hop, man? I mean, how far will you punk motherfuckers go for fifteen seconds of fame? Microwave popcorn-ass ni__as. Yea, we give you much more. Longevity baby!”
And then we have “Rock Co.Kane Flow,” my favorite song (in any genre) since, well, 2004. Producer Jake One immediately puts himself in the hall of fame for this one. The snare alone would be enough, but the off kilter tempo changes throughout the song are a hip hop original. It had never been done before, and any attempt thereafter will immediately raise flags as a cheap imitation. An unusually condescending Pos proclaims “up in them 5-star ‘tellies saying 2-mic rhymes, be them average MC’s of the times / Unlike them, we craft gems / so systematically inclined to pen lines without sang the producer’s name all over the track / Yea, I said it / what you need to do is get back to reading credits.” And then later “everyone cools off from being hot / it’s about if you can handle being cold, or not.
The Grind Date means so much to me because it’s a reminder of what the art used to stand for before the rules changed. We (those of us in the 30-35 range) were the last generation to value excellence over aesthetics. The last generation to hold skills over swag. The last generation striving to be the best, while adhering to the tenants of the culture. As Dave says on the title track: “I was born with the boom-bap, respect the name.”
A late career triumph from, without a doubt, one of the finest hip-hop groups of all time.
What a coincidence that just last Thursday, Gorillaz finally announced the release date of their next album (it’s about time!), and that this week’s newsletter is dedicated to De La Soul, who were front and center on the Gorillaz worldwide hit, “Feel Good Inc.” But, this issue isn’t about the virtual primate band or that track. No, we’ve jumped back even further, pre-dating that Record Of The Year by a little over half a year. Still, knowing what was going to soon follow Grind Date, this early ’00s hip-hop album is a superbly balanced display of De La Soul’s appeal and aptitude around the genre as the band stands alone, rather than as a co-host. Right away, despite not being terribly vintage in actual age, this 14 track project exudes subtle but quaint old school qualities that left me intermittently nodding in agreement, if you will. The audible crackling that’s sprinkled over “The Future” with the classic drum machine snare and kick, followed by the string samples and smooth toned bass plucks… all of it downplayed just enough to give the oncoming rapped vocals that much more punch and presence. Then you listening back again for each of the slickly connected, cleanly enunciated lyrics, flooded with real life context inside narrative (“So do you understand it now? (Now?) / Well try standin’ over / Seven box sets reppin’ 16 years / This rap career ain’t work / It’s the life in between rep time / ’til the next set time and date”). Cap it off with the fact that the sung chorus portion of the song (“We are singing / You this message / Through our music”) goes against the format of rap collaborations of today — wherein the melodically singing featured artist usually gets pushed much farther up for their contribution of the “catchy parts” — and the result is a perfect blend of older hip-hop nuance, newer production value, and of course, De La Soul’s own explicit but contemplation-worthy priority of subject matter. And that’s just the first track! Rappers of matching caliber but differing perspective (everyone from Flava Flav, to Sean Paul, MF DOOM, and more) give Grind Date an almost sub-cultural mosaic feel; like a hip-hop microcosm showcasing a spectrum of individual rap styles, vocal idiosyncrasies, and many other elements that give the album massive replay value. You can be super versed in the genre and its history or, you can be a relative passerby. The beauty of Grind Date is it gives people plenty to observe and study without expecting anyone to know “this or that” in order to get a positive experience from hearing the whole work.
The Grind Date exists on the front lines of a war that’s as old as hip hop itself: The struggle to define what is and isn’t “good rap music,” as Flavor Flav puts it in “Come On Down.” To be clear, it’s not just artists pushing each other down in an effort to make it to the top. Those are skirmishes. The bigger war represents an ongoing internal police action that’s aimed at bolstering the overall legitimacy of the genre. Hip hop has had to fight for the prominent role in American culture it enjoys, and one thing’s for certain: De La Soul are on the right side of this conflict. They’re the good guys, and they’re not afraid to let you know it on The Grind Date. That theme is all over “Come On Down,” complete with a devastating rhetorical question: “Is it because I’m the main Jackson and y’all just Titos and Randys?” (“Yes it is!”) Earlier in the album, in “Verbal Clab,” Dave tells you to “Let that neo-rap go.” But my favorite crystallization of this idea comes at the very beginning of “No.” Here’s how Posdnuos defines De La Soul’s role: “Them guardians that shouldn’t let you get past the gate / Watch out dawg, the watchdog’s showin’ his teeth.” You know who played the gatekeeper role for me during my most formative hip hop listening days? Look no further than the Off Your Radar contributor who chose this week’s album. Since high school, Mr. Ford has been making sure I’m listening to “good rap music,” and I have to thank him for continuing to fight the good fight by picking this album.
Lil Boosie is banned in my classroom. My high schoolers, mostly from poorer areas and broken homes, love rap music, constantly ask to put on this or that song while we are working. Usually I screen them first, making sure the clean edit is really actually clean and that even the clean versions don’t deal with subjects inappropriate for that age range, and usually they do. Lil Boosie, though, deserves a special place in hell for his terrible lyrics, his scratchy hung over voice cracking through deep, aggressive shit beats. Once, he played, and once was enough. Listening to The Grind Date this week, I couldn’t help but think of my students. I know they ask for music because they want something to be normal; they want to be reminded again of what they call home, unbound by cinderblock walls and locked metal doors. They go for this awful street shit like Boosie because that’s what plays in the four-block radius most of them live their whole lives inside, but I wish I could play music like De La Soul for them. With lyrical content that deals with some typical hip-hop fare, skewing a little into the cynically humorous with “Shopping Bags (She Got From You),” for the most part the album runs against the grain of violence and bitterness that can be found in a certain subset of hip hop and rap. With a set of fresh, enthusiastic beats forming a backdrop, De La Soul sounds inspiring and uplifting no matter what the story includes.
A topical outlier for the record, it still contains some great bars from the trio and two fun samples joined together by Madlib.
De La Soul was one of the first hip hop artists I ever really got into. Their debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising, may be the first hip hop release I bought with my own money. That said, I had never heard The Grind Date before. Tastes change over the years, and an artist you’re nuts about when you’re 13 may not still be on your radar when you’re 28. Conversely, an artist may be in a completely different place after 15 years than they were when you first discovered them. That’s definitely true of De La Soul, who by the time of The Grind Date were a much more straightforward boom-bap hip hop project than they’d been on their bizarre, psychedelic, and thoroughly charming debut album. I expected as much when I put The Grind Date on though, because even before I lost track of De La Soul, they were changing in between every album. By the time of their third LP, Buhloone Mindstate, they’d taught me to evaluate their work not by a standard of consistency but by a standard of quality. On this, their seventh LP, they continue to uphold the same high quality standard that made their first three albums such faves of a much younger me. Without Prince Paul’s production, the beats are more straightforward, but their effectiveness at making Jeep speakers thud more than makes up for the loss in psychedelic texture. And make no mistake, this album has some pretty striking beats regardless. With a veritable who’s who of ’00s production talent (J Dilla, Madlib, 9th Wonder, et cetera) appearing throughout, it’s no surprise. Individual songs don’t always stand out as much for me, but in a way that just speaks even more highly for the unified sonic quality of the album as a whole. Don’t look for highlights — just dive in and have a top-flight hip hop listening experience. You’ll be better for it.
This great video, produced by Vox, shows the evolution of rhyming in rap and explains how artists use progressively complicated rhyming to communicate and tell stories. I thought of it when I listened to the line in “He Comes,” from De La Soul’s 2004 album, The Grind Date: “Most rappers is real hard, but still hardly rhymin’.” It’s weird to be reminded of the time when hip hop was so obsessed with a tough image. Now, earnestness and being ground-breaking are valued, though De La Soul were both of those things when it wasn’t cool. The Grind Date feels like a sturdy bridge between the alternative hip hop De La Soul pioneered and contemporary artists (Frank Ocean, Shamir, and Thee Satisfaction all come to mind, amongst many, many others). This makes the record feel magically timeless and infinitely enjoyable. There are De La’s usual samples, sure (the Tom Tom Club one on bonus reggae-ish track “Shoomp” is very inspired), but having one vocalist that appears on all the hooks (Yummy Bingham, who particularly kills it on “No“) makes the record feel like it came from more of a collective. The closing track, “Rock Co.Kane Flow” is just beginning-to-end perfect. I love the beats, the amazing guest verses by MF DOOM, and the sample that becomes a creepy chorus. Each verse ends with a skipped beat and a few faster lines, like these by MF DOOM: “For fam like the Partridges, pardon him for the mix-up / Battle for your Atari cartridges or put your kicks up / It’s a stick up.” It’s the kind of thing I love that I wish I heard more often. I don’t portend to be a hip hop expert (I mean, I linked a Vox video for chrissakes), but The Grind Date is uncommonly wonderful — it’s definitely one OYR selection that will be sticking around on my playlists for a while. As Posdonus raps in “Rock Co. Kane Flow,” “We stayed originals ever since, y’all / First to do a lot of things in the game but the last to say it.”
I wasn’t feeling well this weekend and so I found myself stuck in a deep rabbit hole of things I listened to while trying to write about De La Soul. Handsome Boy Modeling School, Butta Verses, MF DOOM, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip, and plenty of others were swirling around in my head preventing me from sorting out my thoughts on The Grind State. I didn’t recall ever listening to any of the post-Prince Paul records, but thirty seconds into sampling AOI: Mosaic Thump, and memories of working at the record store came flooding back. As it turns out, De La have been infiltrating my brain this whole time like brilliant music ninjas. I started to hear their influence on artists I’ve been listening to recently like Open Mike Eagle, Milo, even Cities Aviv and I now understand D.A.I.S.Y. I love that De La has matured their sound and have continued to be relevant in each era of hip hop. I’ll be returning to their catalog once I clear my cache.
At the risk of seeming like a hip hop heretic, I must confess to being mostly indifferent to De La Soul. While I was amused by the “daisy age” period (hats off for the Steely Dan sample), at the time it was not what I was looking for from rap. Then, their quick repudiation of that whole scene and attempt to come hard was off-putting and only made them easier to ignore. So I come to The Grind Date without much baggage and find it to be a remarkably solid album with some seriously elevated high points — and only one low ebb. Perhaps most surprising is that even though it’s over a decade old it doesn’t really feel dated, a tribute to the mostly top-flight production from people like J Dilla (rest in power), Supa Dave West, and Madlib. The liquid bass groove on “It’s Like That” even seems to presage some of the Thundercat-driven backdrops of today’s jazz-influenced hip hop. For me, the album reaches its peak right in the middle, with “Church,” “It’s Like That,” and “He Comes,” a varied trio with well placed guest spots from Carl Thomas and Ghostface Killah. The nadir arrives with “Come On Down,” featuring a phoned-in Flava Flav cameo that is just depressing and a Madlib track that seems designed to be irritating. Fortunately, the party is saved by the bonus track, “Shoomp,” which actually manages to have fun with both Sean Paul and a Genius Of Love sample, two things that should’ve been played out by 2004. Such is the alchemy of the rap game. Now pardon me while I dig out my well-worn copy of Dutty Rock…
Despite an all-star roster of producers and guest MCs, it’s the combination of Maseo, Dave, and Posdnous that ultimately makes Grind Date so truly remarkable.
As De La Soul boast on the appropriately titled “Much More,” they’re here to give the listener a deeper experience than what they believe their contemporaries can offer, and boy do they deliver. The Grind Date is a dense record filled with lush samples and arrangements, suffused with soul and swagger. It’s a sumptuous combination of eclectic, old school-meets-new school production from Supa Dave West, J Dilla, Madlib, 9th Wonder, and Jake One, De La’s understated lyrical style, and just enough features to keep things interesting (Flava Flav aside). The joyous title track and the dangerously smooth “It’s Like That” were dynamite for me, but The Grind Date is so consistent and concise from front to back that even making my own personal distinctions seems a little ridiculous. There’s no filler, no extraneous content, just one great album in a long line of great albums from De La Soul. As they say themselves, it’s “longevity, baby.”
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
My favorite track on the album is the last official track, “Rock Co.Kane Flow.” Sometimes what I need on a rap track is a clearly established pattern that allows each MC the opportunity to show off their rhymes and ability to outwit tongue twisters. Plus MF DOOM has become one of my all-time favorite rappers and it’s awesome to see him in full force on this one. I could (and have!) listen to this track over and over without tiring. I especially like when Posdonous says “We De La to the death… or at least until we break up.” That line and this whole song are like a concluding paragraph of the essay of this album. They can talk the talk with the best of them, but they emphasize that some of the talk is bullshit and deserves to be ridiculed. You can say that your rap group will be around forever!… but let’s be honest, things happen and sometimes these partnerships dissolve. This album was fantastic and that perfection was sealed in for freshness off by a brilliant, perfect closing track.
If I’m being honest, I think I first became of aware of De La Soul after their performance on Chappelle’s Show. I knew “Me, Myself & I” of course — mostly from watching teen movies on TNT and TBS — but I didn’t really have an idea as to who or what they really were. The episode they performed on isn’t remembered as highly as others — though it does have one of my favorite skits, Make A Wish, and one of my favorite lines, “Hooray for me!” — yet their performance had to be one of my favorites of the show’s run. What do you know, the song they played was “Much More,” the first taste of what would come from The Grind Date the following year. I can’t say I picked up that album the next year based off their performance: I’m not even sure I was aware it was a new song. But I can say that even when my friends began to skip over performances when binge-watching DVDs later on, I made a point to make sure we watched Dave of De La Soul rhyme while wearing a random Hulk glove every single time that episode came on. This past week, I was thinking a lot about Chappelle’s importance in exposing myself, and millions more, to a world of hip-hop not destined for MTV (or even BET who claimed De La Soul wasn’t relevant at this point). I was also thinking how crazy connected things inevitably end up being. We covered Muddy Waters last Monday, Chappelle’s new stand-up specials were released on Tuesday (featuring a cut of “Mannish Boy” from that Muddy record), and then De La Soul was next on the OYR docket with a record that perfectly matched that striking Comedy Central performance over a decade ago. Other than when I was ten and refused to listen to anything but the Space Jam soundtrack, I’m positive I would have enjoyed The Grind Date in any context at any point in my life. It’s the exact style of hip-hop I love (save the bonus track) with enough features to be an endless rabbit hole of discovery and adulation, especially if you start with MF DOOM. Songs like “Verbal Clab” and “Rock Co.Kane Flow” are the very definition of lost classics, ones that should be near the top of any list of best hip-hop songs of the 2000s, and even the weaker songs, like “Shopping Bags (She Got From You),” would be instant stand-outs on other releases, a testament to De La Soul’s unbelievable talent. I just can’t see a scenario where I listen to this record and not instantly put it on repeat, but I will say, thanks to Dave Chappelle, I’m able to appreciate this record even more and desperately want the thirteen years of my life back that I could be listening to it.
Fantasy by Jinbo The Superfreak
Chosen By David Munro
Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Carly Green, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes