Rap nerds rejoiced today. The veteran hip-hop trio De La Soul released their second gift to listeners in as many months. Back in February, the group made its entire discography available for free download on Valentine’s Day. Today, a visit to their official website revealed a download link to a “new” mixtape, Smell the Da.I.S.Y., a collection of vintage De La verses re-recorded over production by the late, great producer James “J Dilla” Yancey.
De La fans immediately recognized lyrics from such classic tracks as “Potholes In My Lawn,” “Oodles of O’s,” “Ego Trippin’,” and “The Bizness,” though layered over familiar (for Dilla heads) and unfamiliar beats. Listening to the mixtape is like taking a scenic road trip in a beloved old car with a brand new V-8.
This afternoon, I talked with Dave Jolicoeur, one of De La’s two MCs, and asked him about the project. It’s been ten long years since the last original De La Soul album (The Grind Date, 2004), and its left fans eager for new material. I asked Jolicoeur why the group chose to use existing lyrics for this release. “The songs sound fresh. They sound brand new,” he said. “We believe there’s life in our music. It never sounds old. We were a little bit ahead of ourselves in regards to lyrics back then.” There’s no denying that. The group’s 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising ushered in a bold, if offbeat new sound, one that was in stark contrast to many of the group’s peers.
I was also curious why the group chose to lay the old material over J Dilla beats. It’s not a novel idea. Back in 2007, Busta Rhymes (another emcee who benefitted greatly from Dilla’s production) teamed up with Mick Boogie to release Dillagence, which was chock-full of previously unreleased Yancey production.
That said, Dilla played an outsized role in De La’s evolution as a group (though Prince Paul gets the majority of the credit for his work on their first three releases). After being passed a tape of songs by Slum Village (J Dilla’s group, which had long admired De La, and like-minded outfits like A Tribe Called Quest), the group instantly recognized a talent they wanted to work with.
“From the very beginning, it was like … who, who are these people? These guys are doing stuff that we wish we were doing,” Jolicoeur said. “We wanted to be a part of that sound, work with that sound or have that sound in some way, shape or form weave into what we were doing.” Dilla would go on to build a professional and personal bond with his idols and produce one of the group’s greatest singles, 1996’s “Stakes Is High,” the title track off their fourth album.
Jolicoeur credited Dilla with injecting new life into the group. Smell the Da.I.S.Y, in turn, seems to be an attempt to jumpstart the group’s engine once again. “We just wanted to be creative. And I think Dilla was always the muse for that. He was always that springboard, that person, that individual, that sound, that kind of … generated creation, generated inspiration.”
Indeed, this new release is just one of several projects the group has in the works. Before year’s end, they plan to release a six-song EP called Premium Soul On the Rocks, half produced by DJ Premier and half by Pete Rock. And if all goes according to plan, the year will culminate with group’s first new studio album in a decade, entitled You’re Welcome. For now, fans probably won’t mind kicking back in our rocking chairs for a little bit longer and reminiscing over these old tracks mixed over beats by a departed talent, especially if it’s just the first act of a reinvigorated De La Soul.
“We’re feeling alive, we’re feeling good, we’re feeling happy to create again,” says Jolicoeur. “Even without his physical being here, [Dilla’s] left us enough jewels, enough gifts, enough artillery to get that done.”