Music

De La Soul’s Trugoy Is Dead, and With Him Goes One of Music’s Greatest Groups

Their first four albums could go up against just about anyone’s.

The three pose in front of a gray photo backdrop, looking young and hopeful and stylish, Maseo in a camo jacket, Pos, in a zigzag-patterned shirt, and Dave leaning forward in the foreground, in a floral shirt and shorts, his hair piled up over his head, one of the group’s iconic daisies dangling from his neck.
De La Soul’s Vincent “Maseo” Mason, Kelvin “Posdnuos“ Mercer, and David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, in 1989. Paul Natkin/WireImage

David Jolicoeur, better known to music fans as Trugoy the Dove, Plug Two, or most recently simply Dave, died on Sunday at age 54. It was shocking news that meant that we had just lost one-third of De La Soul, one of the great American musical groups of the past 50 years, and losing one-third of De La Soul feels an awful lot like losing De La Soul itself. He is survived by fellow group members Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer and Vincent “DJ Maseo” Mason, but right now it is impossible to imagine the group continuing in any recognizable way without the man who first introduced himself to the world 35 years ago with the memorable lines “Dazed at the sight of a method/ Dive beneath the depth of a never-ending verse/ Gasping and swallowing every last letter/ Vocalized liquid holds the quench of your thirst.”

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It’s hard to overstate the impact that De La Soul had on hip-hop music, and particularly what would come to be known as “alternative” hip-hop music, a category that De La has a decent claim to having straight-up invented. De La Soul debuted in 1988 with “Plug Tunin’,” an esoteric and striking single that was recorded when all three members were still teenagers and that was produced by Prince Paul, an erstwhile deejaying prodigy previously best known as a member of Stetsasonic. In March 1989, De La Soul released their debut LP, 3 Feet High and Rising, an astonishingly creative album full of weird characters, invented lexicons, surreal skits, and brilliantly left-field samples. It was a work that, in the landscape of late-1980s hip-hop, seemed to arrive both completely out of nowhere and utterly fully formed.

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3 Feet High received rave reviews from the press and became an unexpected commercial hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart and winning the top spot in Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. At a time when hip-hop had become a lightning rod for controversy, De La’s self-effacing eccentricity presented itself as something entirely different from the envelope-pushing provocations of N.W.A and the political militancy of Public Enemy.

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The success of 3 Feet High and Rising was a blessing and a curse for the four guys who’d made the album. (De La were a threesome, but Prince Paul’s production work on their early LPs was just as crucial as any of the core members.) Their label, Tommy Boy Records, ran a shrewd ad campaign that clearly aimed to promote the record as rap for people who don’t think they like rap. Some of the positive reviews were laced with a similar sort of condescension: Hey, these guys are great! Nothing like those other rappers. De La Soul quickly began to chafe at their image as cuddly, quirky hippies.

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De La Soul’s follow-up to 3 Feet High reflected their growing unease with this image, clearly evident in that album’s title. De La Soul Is Dead was released in 1991, and arrived as a sprawlingly ambitious, scabrously funny work, full of sharp edges and darkened corners while still maintaining the exuberant adventurousness that defined 3 Feet High. It didn’t sell as well as its predecessor but is, to my ears, a better album: Both Pos and Trugoy have markedly improved as MCs, and Prince Paul’s beats are even more eclectic and inspired, and the skits are both funnier and much edgier. The album has a darkness that was mostly absent from the dreamy effervescence of 3 Feet High: The stunning “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” for instance, is an unflinching exploration of incest and abuse, while “My Brother’s a Basehead” spins a tale of drug addiction over a sample of the 1965 Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders hit “The Game of Love.” Even ostensibly party-oriented tracks like “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” and “Keepin’ the Faith” brought a wry bite that suggested these young idealists had become cynics a lot quicker than anyone would have expected.

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De La Soul Is Dead felt like a reset and a revitalization of the whole De La Soul project, and it liberated the group to return in 1993 with their best album yet, Buhloone Mindstate. At 30 years old, Buhloone Mindstate remains one of those sui generis masterpieces that defies categorization or even easy description: There’s live instrumentation to go along with Michael Jackson samples and righteously indignant songs about the injustices of the record industry mixed in with extensive ruminations on area codes. It’s the best album De La Soul ever made and one of the best hip-hop albums of the 1990s.

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In 1996 they returned with Stakes Is High, an album that saw them embracing a new role as hip-hop elder statesmen (despite all still being in their 20s). It was an album that looked back on their own career and surveyed the landscape of hip-hop as a genre, past and present, in ways that were sometimes nostalgic and sometimes critical but always forged with love. After a four-year gap, they followed that up with 2000’s Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, the most uneven album of their career that included one of their best-ever singles, the Redman-featuring “Oooh.”

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I would put De La Soul’s 1989–1996 run of 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate, and Stakes Is High up against just about any other four-album run from anyone. (Well, almost anyone.) It’s a collection of music that still feels endless in its inventiveness and sense of possibility, like listening to a group of extravagantly talented guys who are making up everything as they go along and somehow getting it all exactly right. De La Soul continued to release terrific music well into the 21st century, albeit at a much more sporadic clip. Their most recent studio album was 2016’s excellent, crowd-funded And the Anonymous Nobody. Before that, their last studio release had been 2004’s The Grind Date.

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Much of the magic of De La Soul’s best music came from the interplay of Posdnuous and Trugoy. Their vocal partnership didn’t really have the yin-and-yang duality of a Dre and Snoop or a Q-Tip and Phife; rather, the complementary aspects of their respective styles and approaches were subtler and more suggestive. While Pos often came off as the more technically dazzling rapper—wordy, complex, intensely cerebral—Dave’s cadences tended to be more luxurious and laconic, delivered in a baritone voice that was equally sweet and gruff. To De La’s more ebullient tracks, he brought a charming and playful nonchalance, and to their more introspective music, a world-weariness that was almost bluesy in its effect.

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Despite being a group whose catalog contains no shortage of joy and humor, I’ve long thought of De La Soul as hip-hop’s premier renderers of a particularly gorgeous brand of melancholy. This isn’t to say that De La Soul’s music is ever sad—I don’t think “sad” is a word that can really contain something so purely musical and thus indescribable. But there are moments in their discography that achieve a sort of downbeat beauty that’s unlike anything else in hip-hop, if not popular music entirely. Listening to some of those tracks drives home how much of that came from Trugoy’s own contributions: the way he intones the elaborate pun “I bring the element H with the 2/ So you O me what’s coming when I’m raining on your new parade” from “I Am I Be” on Buhloone Mindstate, maybe my favorite De La Soul track ever; the way he half-raps, half-sings “Hey yo pack my bags cause I’m outta here/ Momma don’t love me and my momma don’t care” on the extraordinary Teenage Fanclub collaboration “Fallin’”; all of “Itzsoweezee (Hot)” from Stakes Is High, the rare De La single that was essentially a Trugoy solo showcase.  

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If you’re even a casual De La Soul fan, you probably know that most of their music has long been unavailable on streaming services and digital platforms, for reasons entirely too maddening to go into here. Back in January, it was announced that an agreement had finally, finally been reached to bring De La’s 1989–2002 catalog to streaming services starting on March 3. It was wonderful news for those who love the group and have raged at the crime of their music being so stupidly unattainable for younger generations whose musical consumption is largely driven by the likes of Spotify and Apple. De La Soul made music that changed a lot of people’s lives, and soon their music will do so again. The fact that Dave Joliceur won’t be here to see that happen is too sad for words.

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