David Jude Jolicoeur, who passed away on Sunday, February 12 at the age of 54, helped revolutionize of hip-hop and change the course of popular music. It’s why he’s being mourned so widely in the rap community today, and far beyond it as well. As one-third of De La Soul alongside Kelvin “Posdnous” Mercer and DJ Vincent “Maseo” Mason, the Haitian American musician and producer who adopted names like “Jude,” “Trugoy the Dove,” “Plug 2” and, finally, just “Dave” expanded the art form in ways not seen before or since. Many fans — even those familiar with De La classics like “The Magic Number,” which plays over the closing credits of the 2018 movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — may not fully appreciate the seismic impact of their 1989 debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising. Generations of artists, from collaborators like Mos Def, J Dilla, and Common to acolytes such as Freestyle Fellowship, Hieroglyphics, Open Mike Eagle, and too many others were inspired by that singular masterwork.
A handful of De La Soul’s contemporaries nurtured an equally surreal sensibility, including Ultramagnetic MCs enigma Kool Keith, Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav, and Digital Underground circa “Underwater Rimes.” But 3 Feet High and Rising is the cornerstone for what became known as “alternative rap” and “underground rap.” It wasn’t just the dozens of samples the Amityville, New York trio and mentor/producer Prince Paul crammed into the album, or how they deployed those references in ways that predecessors like PE did not, resulting an off-kilter whirligig of psychedelic funk, smart-aleck pop, and self-deprecating emotions. It was Posdnous and Dave’s plain-spoken voices and introverted slang. They didn’t sound as cool and stylized as Rakim and KRS-One or boom with authority like LL Cool J and Run-DMC (the latter a huge influence). They rhymed like middle-class kids with a cerebral and quirky sensibility, the rap equivalent of R.E.M. and They Might Be Giants.
Vocally, Posdnous and Dave complimented each other. On that first album, both flowed with soft-spoken, tentative grace. On later affairs such as 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate, Posdnous’s voice became more emphatic and prone to declarative statements, leading some listeners to brand him as the “Plug 1” lead. Meanwhile, Dave maintained the same leisurely “Plug 2” gait, even as he refined his cadences and words. He delivered masterclasses of dense, metaphorically rich lyrics, whether it’s the meditative deep-cut classic “I Am I Be” on Buhloone Mindstate, or the punchy conscious chants of “Church” from 2004’s The Grind Date. “The early bird gets the worm in this Rotten Apple/But explore deeper, you’ll find a seed/Plant more, even get your mind free,” he rapped on the latter. He could be unapologetically silly: His performance as “Ma Whitter” on First Serve, a 2012 collaboration between himself, Posdnous and French producers Chokolate and Khalid Filali, may be the funniest skit you probably haven’t heard. Yet, just like Posdnous, he wasn’t afraid to make pointedly aggressive statements. With 1996’s “Stakes Is High,” he rattled off a list of everything he hated about what hip-hop had become: “I’m sick of bitches shaking asses/I’m sick of talking ‘bout blunts/Sick of Versace glasses.”
The concept of “alternative hip-hop” remains a subject of heated debate. More than Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest, their comrades in the fabled Long Island rap crew Native Tongues, De La Soul represent a tension between standing out for your wit and intelligence and racially tinged claims that by doing so you consider yourself somehow better or weirder than other artists. This deathless tension between being celebrated or marginalized for one’s uniqueness is one the underground scene De La Soul inspired has yet to solve. Yet to label the trio as “nerds,” whether pejoratively or as a badge of honor, is to limit the scope of their Black expression. Thematically, they spanned quotidian economic concerns like “Shopping Bags (She Got from You),” adolescently horny impulses such as “Buddy,” child abuse and intrafamily violence like “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” and drug abuse on “Say No Go.” And then there’s the wonderfully blissed-out “Breakadawn,” where Dave raps about the joy of reaching folks in the cheap seats during concerts. “I keep it to the rear, and then I’m exploding,” he raps. In his view, De La Soul was for everyone.
During De La Soul’s first decade, the group bristled against being categorized in oft-contradictory ways. During a 1989 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, they segued from their top 40 hit “Me Myself and I” to the B-side cut “It Ain’t Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie.” Two years later, they released the sarcastic and cynical 1991 masterwork De La Soul Is Dead, effectively dismembering their image as friendly prophets of the Da.I.S.Y. Age. They got into fights on tour, and sparked beefs with rivals over barely concealed shots, such as when Dave called out the Notorious B.I.G. “I got questions about your life if you’re so ready to die,” he rapped on 1996’s “Long Island Degrees.” They memorably complained about “rap and bullshit,” yet also collaborated with R&B singer Vinia Mojica on the delightful single “A Rollerskating Jam Named ‘Saturdays.’” On Buhloone Mindstate, they chanted, “it might go up, but it won’t blow up,” struggling to define success on everchanging terms.
Much of De La Soul’s work this century, beginning with 2000’s Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, involved aging gracefully within an industry myopically marketed to youth, and making “grown-man rap” before it was even called that. They remained skeptics of the game, whether that meant clowning dudes who thought they fell off on “All Good”; or poking fun at a new generation of arena-rap strivers like Drake and Big Sean on First Serve. However, the critiques are gentler and less barbed than those on their prickly and thrilling first four albums. De La’s 2016 album, and the Anonymous Nobody, pointedly encompasses a spectrum of rap stylists, from familiar mainstream stars like Snoop Dogg and 2 Chainz to underground icons like Roc Marciano and Pete Rock.
Throughout, Dave continued to excel as a subtly effective presence, the professorial middle-aged everyman unafraid to let his lovely mind float. He wrote the kind of deeply felt verses that take years to fully unpack, such as when he raps on “Royalty Capes,” “I get swallowed by the barracuda/Androids read raps off iPhones/I choke the blood out of felt tips.” (In the song’s video, he discusses suffering from congestive heart failure, which limited his ability to tour and perform.) Occasionally he and De La reminded the world of their massive cultural influence, like starring on Gorillaz’ deathless 2005 global hit “Feel Good Inc.,” which memorably centers on Dave’s cackling laughter; and that “Magic Number” drop on Into the Spider-Verse. But when Posdnous appeared alone to rap “Buddy” during the “Hip-Hop 50” tribute on the 2023 Grammy Awards, something seemed amiss. Now, it’s clear why Dave was absent.
For those of us who worry that younger fans haven’t fully appreciated De La Soul’s groundbreaking career, the January announcement that their catalog will finally be made available on streaming services brought a sense of joyful relief. Finally, everyone can begin to explore the depths of an artistic achievement that has few equals. It’s sadly ironic that Dave passed just before 3 Feet High and Rising’s March 3 streaming debut. Yet his memory echoes in three decades of hip-hop brilliance.