Television

Why De La Soul Went on a Teen Titans Go! to Fight to Get Their Music Back

The latest front in the hip-hop pioneers’ copyright battle: a superhero cartoon.

The Teen Titans and De La Soul in the "Don't Press Play" episode
Cartoon Network

On Saturday, the long-running Cartoon Network show Teen Titans Go! added three new characters to its ranks: Posdnuos, Trugoy/Dave, and Maseo, better known as the members of the influential rap group De La Soul. The show has a long history of celebrity guest stars—Lil Yachty voiced Green Lantern in the show’s spinoff movie, and LeBron James played himself in one episode—but this week’s instance is unique. Not only is the entire episode full of references to De La Soul’s classic songs, right down to the day and date this show is airing, but the plot revolves around a fraught real-life issue: the ownership and availability of the group’s back catalog.

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It’s clearly a moment of high importance not only for the rappers, who’ve been promoting the episode on their Instagram accounts, but for those who’ve been following their legal battles against their former label Tommy Boy for literal decades now. If you’re new to De La Soul, the group’s music-ownership issues, or the particular significance of this Teen Titans Go! episode, we’re here to break it down for you.

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Why is De La Soul here in the first place?

Sure, let’s start with the basics. De La Soul, whose career started in the late 1980s and continues to the current day, is one of the most acclaimed rap posses of all time. Their albums 3 Feet High and Rising and Buhloone Mindstate, among many others, are cited time and again as classics of the genre.

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Oh, tight! I’ll take a listen.

Hold up! That’s the thing: As yours truly chronicled just a couple years ago, the group’s best work has long been unavailable for streaming or digital purchase, thanks to squabbles with its original label, the historic Tommy Boy Records. To give a brief summary of a complex and messy issue: Vague legal language in the trio’s early contracts with Tommy Boy made it difficult to release their sample-heavy songs through any digital platforms, not to mention streaming services. Time and again the remnants of the now-defunct Tommy Boy have tried to make these early albums more freely available for purchase and streaming, but De La’s members wanted to ensure the terms of release were fair, considering the lack of clarity over what they were rightly owed for the use and distribution of their music. Yet they kept having to fight with the label, which tried again and again to platform the music over the group’s objections.

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That sounds awful.

You’re right it is! There are a couple post–Tommy Boy albums available for streaming—The Grind Date and … And the Anonymous Nobody—but that’s about it.

What does that have to do with Teen Titans Go!?

I’m getting there. De La’s loyal fan base, ranging from casual listeners to heavyweights like Jay-Z, has supported the rappers throughout the years in their struggles against Tommy Boy. With the help of social media, De La has been able to gin up enough popular outrage and pressure to get Tommy Boy to the bargaining table, but repeated negotiations with the label have failed to yield anything the group considers suitable.

So, appearing on a high-profile TV show like Teen Titans Go! makes sense for a few reasons: 1) The rap golden age–era group can make itself known to younger audiences who may not have heard of them; 2) hip-hop, comics, and cartoons have a long, intertwining history; 3) a major network show tailored for kids can get away with including more didactic lessons and explanations than perhaps countless documentaries and online entreaties read by their fans would.

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Nice. So how deeply were the members involved with this episode?

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Very deeply, it seems. Let’s take you through the myriad references and plot devices at hand here—there’s a lot of them, and I think it’s fair to say the titans did them justice.

Tell me more!

The episode is appropriately titled “Don’t Press Play.” After the theme song (which, incidentally, is remixed by Mix Master Mike, known for his work with the Beastie Boys, among De La’s most recognized contemporaries), we open on a shot of the Teen Titans’ T-shaped tower, along with a smug-looking turtle resting on a nearby rock. This is likely a reference to the rock band the Turtles, who sued De La in 1989 after the group sampled one of their songs on a 3 Feet interlude—a suit that paved the way for further litigation against rap artists, ultimately chilling the sample-heavy hip-hop of which De La and Prince Paul were early masters.

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The superheroes are seen watching a rap video on TV before they receive a crime alert from Amityville, Long Island—the hometown of De La Soul. When they realize it’s that very rap trio that’s in trouble, most of the titans burst in excitement; Raven excitedly whips out her LPs, CDs, and tapes, which include covers resembling those of De La Soul Is Dead, The Grind Date, and 3 Feet High and Rising. When Starfire doesn’t recognize the group, her teammates fill her in on De La’s importance, hyping them all up for the mission.

Cartoon versions of De La Soul's early albums.
Cartoon Network
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Wait, but what’s the crime?

Getting there! We later see an octopuslike alien damaging a building named “DLS Recording Studio” and sucking up a stream of music notation from the remains as De La’s members watch angrily. “Yo, we can’t let them take our music!” yells Pos. Wonder if that’s an allusion to anything!

The titans appear on the scene as the rappers fight off the alien, and they immediate fan out, introducing each individual member by going through their real names as well as their multiple stage names (Plug 1, Plug 2, and Plug 3). The titans get easily beaten by the alien, who yells, “Your music is mine now,” before disappearing into the cosmos. Dave laments that “our fans won’t be able to listen to any of it, ever again,” spurring the young heroes to offer to save the day. “Don’t you worry, De La Soul,” team leader Robin says, “we’ll help you get your music back.”

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Are you implying that the alien represents Tommy Boy?

Hey, I didn’t write this episode. I’m just reporting what I see.

The cartoon versions of De La Soul fight a giant octopus.
Cartoon Network
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Interesting.

I agree. Anyway, the titans track the alien to Mars, where it’s broadcasting a steady stream of their music— “Transmitting Live From Mars” being the De La song that incorporated the Turtles sample and led to the lawsuit. Posdnuos notes that the alien “must be after our sweet music royalties,” which leads to a brief yet in-depth lesson on artist royalties and intellectual property from the titans. (The group has repeatedly alleged that Tommy Boy’s previous attempts to their music for streaming would have led to the group losing out on royalties.) Still, in the episode, Pos clarifies that “we want to get our music back for our fans,” something he’s said over and over again in interviews.

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The two groups head to Mars together in the T tower that also happens to be a rocket. While on board, Cyborg serves a couple cups of yogurt, which Trugoy snaps up (try reading that nickname backward). When they finally get to Mars, Robin finds a crater with a boombox that has a note taped to it reading “De La Soul’s Music.” As he runs to the radio, the others realize it’s probably a trap—the rappers desperately yell, “Don’t press play!”—and indeed it is. Metal bars trap them inside the crater while water starts filling in.

That seems … dark.

You’re telling me. And it’s worth noting that this may likely, again, be a reference to Tommy Boy’s attempts to put up the group’s catalog on streaming without consulting with the rappers first, which caused the rappers to reach out to their fans and tell them not to, you know, press play on those songs.

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That goes deep.

It’s deeper than that, my friend. As they’re about to be drowned, they all toss out references to various De La albums under the Tommy Boy belt, with huge winks added on. The funniest and most layered of these references comes when the rappers get into a “Buhloone Mindstate,” wherein they blow up their heads like balloons and manage to break everybody out of the cage. As my colleague Derreck Johnson, also a huge fan of the group, noted on Twitter, the form they assume upon ballooning bears a striking resemblance to an iconic piece of art from the back cover of, what else, the album Buhloone Mindstate.

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Wow!

I know, right?

After the escape, the heroes and musicians find the alien and the device in which he is keeping the music and racking up royalties while he’s at it. Maseo asks the alien to “give us back our music,” a request the alien again refuses. Posdnuos counters: “Listen, man, we’re willing to negotiate. Give us back our music and we can split the royalties.” But the alien only splats them away. Dave laments, “There’s no getting through to this dude.”

OK, so this is definitely about Tommy Boy.

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Yup! The royalties split makes it very clear, considering that when Tommy Boy tried to upload the catalog to streaming services in 2019, De La was only going to get 10 percent of those royalties.

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That sucks.

I mean, why do you think De La’s taken the measures it has?

But then how does this end?

While battling the alien, the titans burst the machine holding De La’s music, which then goes back to the creators and gives them special powers, while the song “Pain” from … And the Anonymous Nobody plays. The three reference another of their missing albums, AOI: Bionix, before vanquishing the monster. The group thanks the Teen Titans for saving their music, to which Robin replies, “Just doing our duty as De La fans!”

I meant, how does the real-life fiasco with Tommy Boy end?

Oh. Not so happily, yet. But maybe Teen Titans Go! can help turn the tide.

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