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De La Soul returns to streaming platforms

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After years of legal battles, the music of the iconic hip-hop group De La Soul is now streaming on major platforms. But for those of you who aren't familiar with their sound, we've called Oliver Wang to help us out. He's a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach. He's also a DJ and a huge De La Soul fan. So we called him to talk about a few must-listen tracks from the group's catalog.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE KNOW")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Greetings, girl, and welcome to my world of phrase. I'm right up to bat. It's a D.A.I.S.Y. age, and you're about to walk top-stage. So wipe your Lottos on the mat...

OLIVER WANG: For the De La newbie, I would recommend starting with my personal favorite, which is a song called "Eye Know," Released on their debut album from 1989, "Three Feet High And Rising."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE KNOW")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Let me lay my hand across yours and aim a kiss...

WANG: The reason why I chose "Eye Know," even though it's maybe not the best-known single off of this album, is that it was the song that, for me, as a high school, I think junior or senior, when I first heard this song, it made me just want to listen to anything else that sounded like this. So it was my gateway into hip-hop, and that literally and figuratively changed my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EGO TRIPPIN’ (PART TWO)")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Ego trip - ah - ego trip - ah - ego trip - ah - ego trip...

WANG: "Ego Trippin' (Part Two)" was featured on the group's third album, "Buhloone Mindstate." And I think it's both one of the best musical productions that - not just on this album. It's just one of their best musical productions in general.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EGO TRIPPIN’ (PART TWO)")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Now, I'm something like a phenomenon. I'm something like a phenomenon. Well, I'm the hourglass glass cat, drug it out of Jack for Jill 'cause I spilled the phenomenon...

WANG: A lot of "Ego Trippin' (Part Two)" is really built off of using or reusing famous lyrical snippets from people like Run-D.M.C., Boogie Down Productions, Pete Rock and CL Smooth. And so there's a lot of Easter eggs that are embedded in this track that is a reminder that De La didn't just see themselves as being important artists, but they always wanted to give respect to the artists that they grew up around and were their contemporaries that they had a lot of admiration for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAKES IS HIGH")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Neighborhoods are now hoods 'cause nobody's neighbors, just animals surviving with that animal behavior. Under I who be rhyming from dark to light sky, experiments where needle to skin connect. No wonder where we live is called the projects.

WANG: "Stakes Is High" - it's as if the group had transformed into becoming these elder statesmen of hip-hop. This album and this song was trying to, I think, establish a kind of new moral center to hip-hop, one that was meant to be a critique of the glamorization, from their perspective, of gangsterism and of drug dealing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAKES IS HIGH")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Stakes is high. You know them stakes is high when you're talking about vibes...

WANG: I'm obviously biased, but I would certainly consider De La's music to be essential listening. And I think, you know, one big reason is that their presence coming around when they did in the late '80s, it really opened up our imagination about what was possible in hip-hop and in a way that I don't think just transformed for listeners the idea of what was possible but had a huge impact on countless artists that followed them. You talked to groups like The Roots. You talk to someone like Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def. So many artists will point to De La's emergence as being this almost fundamental shift in how they thought what was possible for themselves as being artists, that this opened up a space where you could be a misfit, a nerd, a geek, you know, whatever else, and still be viable and still be able to make a statement that was compelling and interesting.

MARTIN: That was Oliver Wang, a professor, a DJ and culture writer based in Los Angeles. He wrote about even more must-listen tracks from De La Soul for NPR. You can check that out at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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