Every week, thousands of new titles arrive on digital streaming services, but few have been as long-awaited — and longed for — as De La Soul’s.
The seminal ’90s hip-hop trio is perhaps best known for pioneering a quirky, sunny and sample-heavy style that yielded some of the most beloved and influential records of the genre, starting with their 1989 debut, “3 Feet High and Rising.” They’re also known for the fact that most of their archive is impossible to stream.
De La, as they’re known by fans, have tried before — in 2019 and 2021 — to get their early catalogue on streaming services but the deals fell apart at the last minute. For the group that has always held a special fascination with the number three, the third time was indeed the charm: For the first time, De La Soul’s complete catalogue will hit streaming services on March 3, the 34th anniversary of its debut album’s release, the group announced late Tuesday.
From the archives: The Post’s 1989 review of De La Soul’s debut
De La Soul co-founder Posdnuos or “Pos,” 53, in an interview with The Washington Post said he and group members Trugoy and Maseo (real names Dave Jolicoeur and Vincent Mason) for years had wanted their full archive to be available to fans, but industry forces — ownership of the master tapes, clearing decades-old samples in the modern era and contract negotiations — led to repeated setbacks.
“These albums mean everything to us,” said Pos, whose real name is Kelvin Mercer. “It was a lot of work even by the time we got control of the catalogue, just taking care of all the business that needed to be taken care of, that, unfortunately, may not have been taken care of like years before or decades before.”
The deal between AOI (the label run by Maseo, the group’s DJ) and Reservoir Media, which acquired De La Soul’s back catalogue in 2021, means the group’s first six albums will become digitally available for the first time; only the group’s most recent two albums are already on streaming services.
De La Soul in 2002: Still Getting Around and Getting Down
De La Soul never vanished from the musical landscape: Beyond its devoted fandom, the group has long kept a prolific touring schedule and a steady stream of new releases in the form of mixtapes, singles and collaborations with artists such as Gorillaz. De La songs pop up in commercials and video games, like in FIFA ’10, or in the closing credits of 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
All of that made their total absence from platforms such as Spotify and Pandora and digital marketplaces like Apple’s iTunes Store all the more confounding for fans, according to A.D. Carson, a rapper and assistant professor of hip-hop and the Global South at the University of Virginia.
“De La Soul may be the most prolific example of having this parallel existence of being hyper-visible and invisible,” Carson said. Carson, a De La Soul fan, said his students who want to study the group’s influence on hip-hop or incorporate their music into a project often have to scour YouTube videos or “find someone who has a ZIP drive of the archives.”
Carson has also encountered some young students, whose music discovery and listening habits take place entirely on digital platforms, who assume De La Soul is an obscure underground group rather than a giant of the genre.
“Visibility is also a currency; it doesn’t pay any bills but it does put you in a position that will help you do things that does pay bills,” Carson said. “You are sometimes dealing with consumers who think if they can’t find you on a platform, you don’t exist or aren’t worth paying attention to. At the very least, consumers might think a group’s cultural contribution is proportionally smaller than what it really is.”
Carson acknowledges that although De La Soul may have managed to remain profitable and in-demand despite not being in the digital music marketplace, other artists can suffer from the lack of visibility in a format that now dominates music distribution and revenue. Digital streaming and digital downloads are a $6.5 billion industry in the United States and accounted for a combined 87 percent of all U.S. recorded music revenue last year, according to a report by the Recording Industry Association of America.
For some artists, opting out of all or some streaming platforms is a personal preference. Country star Garth Brooks famously avoided most streaming platforms until striking an exclusive deal in 2016 with Amazon Music (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). Other artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulled their catalogues from Spotify last year in protest over the service’s lucrative deal with podcaster Joe Rogan, who was criticized by doctors and scientists for spreading vaccine and health misinformation during the at the height of the covid-19 pandemic. King Crimson leader Robert Fripp has never allowed his band’s music on streaming over criticisms that the revenue model exploits artists.
De La Soul’s saga bears a closer resemblance to that of the late R&B star Aaliyah, whose most popular records and singles, including “One In A Million” and “Aaliyah,” finally came to streaming services in 2021 after a protracted battle with her family-run estate and Blackground Records, the label that controlled the master tapes owned by Aaliyah’s uncle.
De La Soul’s first attempt at entering the streaming market in 2019 was scuttled after outcry over the proposed streaming contract signed by their longtime label, Tommy Boy Music, that included what the group called “unbalanced, unfair terms.” After Reservoir acquired the rights to De La Soul’s back catalogue from Tommy Boy in 2021, the group was once again poised for a streaming debut under more agreeable terms but ran into new liabilities over getting the rights to — “clearing” — samples of songs, beats and other recordings used in De La Soul’s compositions.
“Any song that had a sample in it and that sample was never addressed when the previous owners owned it, we had to find out from the writers, the publishers — whoever owns the masters — and get them all on the same page and say ‘hey, can we now take care of this business and get this done with you?’ ” Pos said.
It was a tall order for a group which, along with the late Biz Markie, “are probably responsible for creating sample layers,” Pos said. Behind the guidance of producer Prince Paul, “3 Feet High and Rising” alone has a dizzying number of genre-spanning samples, including Bob Dorough’s “Three Is a Magic Number” (made famous by “Schoolhouse Rock!”); the Monkees’ “Mary, Mary”; Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europa Express”; and a spoken word intro from a Liberace performance.
Digital albums and streaming didn’t exist when De La Soul’s first six albums came out, and clearance agreements for samples would have covered only album distribution and radio play. That meant a phalanx of lawyers, artists and sample-clearing experts had to go back to whoever owned the rights of the original samples and get permission.
Pos was surprised to find that most artists or copyright owners were gracious and supportive of the group’s efforts. The only situation he was aware of that might have been an “unfortunate problem” was a tiny part of a major song: A short whistle by Otis Redding from “Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay” that appears on the track “Eye Know.”
“The Redding estate was doing their due diligence and making sure their father or husband’s work was taken care of, and by whoever sampled his music,” Pos said. “So when they got the information from us about, ‘hey, we want to make sure that this is good,’ and they realized that we hadn’t or, you know, hadn’t cleared this with them back then, it was an issue.”
Ultimately, the group was able to convince the Redding estate that it wasn’t trying to do anything underhanded, but as 18- and 19-year-old kids who created “Eye Know” in the ’80s, they didn’t know anything about copyrights. They had understood permission but had been unsuccessful in trying to pass the information along back then, Pos said.
“In the end, we got on the phone and took care of them and they were really beautiful, gracious people to us,” Pos said.
With the streaming debut set, the group has plans for a few special physical releases — like a new 7-inch single of “The Magic Number” — and continued touring, the place De La Soul most often connects with as many old fans as it does new ones.
Often Pos and his group mates will look out into the crowd and see people their own age who have brought their children to a show — an act Pos sees as fans passing De La Soul’s music down the next generation; fans will approach them to share they were turned on to the group by a big sister or an uncle.
The biggest divide Pos sees with younger fans and technology is how they’re recognized — and addressed. Kids, he says, don’t exclaim, “You’re Pos! You’re De La Soul!”
“Someone will be like, ‘excuse me, are you Kelvin Mercer?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh no. Are you the IRS?’ ” he said laughing. “They’re showing me their phone because they want to make sure I am De La Soul, but they have my real name under there.”
With whatever changes come in the industry and with technology, Pos said he’s confident the group will be making music and sharing it for many years to come.
“We love doing what we do with each other and we all equally love our history, our legacy and what we can see for ourselves for the future,” he said. “You know, not to sound corny, [but] three is the magic number when it comes to that — when it comes to us.”