Brow Beat

De La Soul’s Long, Still-Incomplete Journey to the Digital Era

Thirty years after the group’s groundbreaking debut album, you still can’t stream it. What’s taking so long?

A black-and-white photo of the members of De La Soul.
De La Soul in Berlin in 2004.
Matti Hillig/Wikipedia

On Feb. 25, the official Instagram account of legendary rap group De La Soul posted a message that rap fans had been looking forward to for several years—that the band’s back catalog with its original label, Tommy Boy Records, featuring such classic albums like 3 Feet High and Rising, Buhloone Mindstate, and Stakes Is High, would finally reach streaming platforms for the first time ever. However, the group itself didn’t seem too happy about this, reporting a lack of proper negotiations:

Shortly afterward, De La posted a follow-up, mentioning that “Tommy Boy was not happy about our last post … [but] we are not happy about releasing our catalog under such unbalanced, unfair terms.” The next day, they clarified what they meant: The music would be available for purchase on digital marketplaces and for streaming elsewhere, but its creators would only receive 10 percent of all revenue, with the rest going to Tommy Boy. In solidarity, Tidal decided not to stream the group’s catalog until the label dispute was resolved. (The group specifically thanked Jay-Z for this in the note.) The saga culminated with Tommy Boy postponing the catalog’s streaming release until negotiations between the label and De La were finally settled, as the latter announced on Monday. Once again, their classics wouldn’t be available digitally—a much-desired release put off for a few more months, years, decades, eons.

It’s all part of what’s been a heavy, trying battle between De La and Tommy Boy. Tommy Boy was founded independently in 1981, launching influential rappers like Afrika Bambaataa, Biz Markie, and Queen Latifah. In 1985, Warner Bros. acquired a 50 percent interest in Tommy Boy, but in 2002, after Warner expressed dissatisfaction with sales, Tommy Boy split off and its roster of artists scattered. Master recordings remained with Warner during that time. However, in 2017, Tommy Boy reacquired its catalog and quickly worked to upload several albums and videos to its YouTube channel.

Through all this upheaval, De La Soul’s relationship with Tommy Boy was murky at best. With 1989’s 3 Feet High and Rising, the group and its main producer at the time, Prince Paul, established themselves as sample-heavy sonic collage masters, of a piece with contemporaries like the Bomb Squad and the Dust Brothers. Paul and De La were audacious in their ventures—the track “Eye Know” alone contains prominent slices of Steely Dan, Otis Redding, and Sly and the Family Stone. None of these samples were cleared before 3 Feet’s release, a typical practice of the time that soon brought trouble: The rock band the Turtles sued De La for sampling their song “You Showed Me” on the skit “Transmitting Live From Mars.” The case was settled out of court for $1.7 million, but it was one of the key legal cases that would forever alter the sound of hip-hop: Biz Markie was sued by Gilbert O’Sullivan for sampling “Alone Again (Naturally),” and the eventual ruling barred Warner Bros. from selling either the offending song, Biz’s “Alone Again,” or the album that contained it. (To this day, Biz’s early releases, including Goin’ Off and the cheekily titled All Samples Cleared!, are still not available for widespread purchase or streaming.)

De La’s Posdnuos told Rolling Stone in 2014 that the vague language in the group’s early contracts made it uniquely difficult for the particular samples they used to be cleared specifically for digital release. In fact, their contracts had no clause that could be adapted to the online music landscape—even when the label was able to clear samples, these applied only to “vinyl and cassette” releases, which meant that “new deals needed to be cut” for internet consumption. When Warner didn’t do the necessary work for the group’s catalog to be released on iTunes, it left their music “trapped in digital limbo.” (Tommy Boy’s recently aborted rerelease plan was apparently to put the albums out through digital channels and sort out the legal niceties later.) After Tommy Boy took back its catalog from Warner, the label gradually uploaded several classic De La singles to its YouTube channel, starting with “Buddy (Remix)” in summer 2017. All of De La Soul Is Dead’s songs were released individually on there as well, making it the only De La–Tommy album available for full stream. Last year, Buhloone Mindstate was made available for partial streaming as well as purchase on the independent music marketplace Bandcamp. This too might have been worthy of celebration had De La known of it—but the upload, engineered to promote the album’s 25th anniversary rerelease on vinyl, was short-lived, and the rest of the catalog never appeared.

It’s not a total wasteland for De La online: The group’s post–Tommy Boy albums, The Grind Date and And the Anonymous Nobody…, are both available for purchase and streaming, and some of their classic singles, among them the group’s best-known hit, “Me, Myself, and I,” are available on other compilations. But their most important work still suffers from a lack of easy accessibility. It’s a particular shame for De La, for as Andrew Nosnitsky noted in a retrospective review of Buhloone Mindstate, it was the group’s quirkiness—as well as that of the Native Tongues collective at large—that helped clear a path for many of hip-hop’s weirder, more left-field acts.

Not every group of De La’s era has been similarly left behind. Sample-soaked classics by Public Enemy, including It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, had their copyright issues taken care of after their releases, according to Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee. The influential acts of the time who were also available in the early days of digital, like A Tribe Called Quest and N.W.A., can attribute some of their continuing cultural resonance to their widespread online presence—without which subsidiary products, like the documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life and the biopic Straight Outta Compton, probably wouldn’t even exist. It’s not as if De La is forgotten—the successful Kickstarter campaign for funding the creation of And the Anonymous Nobody… proved that—but unquestionably the group has lost listenership it could have steadily held over time: Some of the official YouTube videos for the group’s most popular songs don’t even have 100,000 views.

Whether or not digitization is to become the end-all for music collection and consumption—which is an entire discussion on its own—the fact that such an influential group can’t command the same online presence as its peers is frustrating. There have been some physical reissues, but De La’s essential early work still tends to flicker in and out of legal availability. (Just check out the lack of new purchase options available on the group’s Amazon page.) And with sales of physical units dropping year after year, De La can’t consistently depend on those units, or merchandise, or tours, to sustain the group’s legacy.

In 2014, after De La Soul made its entire catalog—apparently sourced from a Russian pirate site—available for free download for a 25-hour window, critic Geeta Dayal asked in Slate whether the group’s digital battles were nearing their end or just beginning. It’s a question still being wrestled with a half-decade later. This historical landmark of rap will have to wait at least a little longer for its digital enshrinement. But it’s better for it to be done on the creators’ terms, instead of the cash-grabby whims of their label executives.