Take time to smell the dry erase fumes. In 1990, De La Soul expunged their tour schedule from a whiteboard hanging in the offices of Rush Artist Management in SoHo. Dave “Trugoy” Jolicoeur wiped out entire cities, along with the days and dayglo baggage that went with them. In their wake, the 22-year-old from Massapequa, Long Island, wrote “De La Soul is dead.” This sudden change of itinerary would become the title of their second album, released a year later. It was as if Trugoy, Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, and Vincent “PA Mase” Mason had relinquished one future for a possibility yet realized. They just wanted to be home.
De La’s pronouncement was a reinstatement of the parts of themselves that were depleted from performing “Me Myself and I” every night. The trio of high school friends from Long Island were tired of being seen only through the hit for which they were widely recognized but narrowly known. “Ring Ring Ring (Ha, Ha, Hey),” the first single from De La Soul Is Dead, begins at home with an answering machine in playback. They’re at a remove, screening calls. You can’t get to them.
De La Soul were often pegged as inscrutable by critics and fans alike. But what distinguished the group was a welcoming and inclusive spirit—whether heard in their open, omnivorous ear for sampling, or their collaborative approach to music, through which they expanded channels of Black expression. Their catalog is rich with alternate versions. In the N.W.A. era, when De La was judged as “soft” for brandishing flowers, they also wrote “Millie Pulled A Pistol on Santa.” What is hard as hell? Releasing a single that deals with paternal sex abuse by a popular social worker, victim doubting, and gun access.
This past March, “Millie Pulled A Pistol on Santa” along with the rest of De La Soul’s catalog became available for streaming, just weeks after Trugoy died before his time, at 54. The group’s fans were left in a complicated flux of bereavement and celebration. De La’s virtual access arrived after two decades of wrestling for control of their master recordings while hamstrung by outmoded sample clearance laws. Which may be one reason “I Am I Be,” a searching track from their third album, Buhloone Mindstate, now sounds prescient in confronting issues of ownership and identity. Framed by a collage of voices and snippets of dialogue from friends, it’s a song that evokes sampling as community, a form of gathering. But De La also brought in the J.B.’s—James Brown’s mighty horn section—for the track, adding live support. This passing of gratitude offered a possible model for circumventing the copyright restrictions that prevented De La’s other music from being available online, as if they’d found loopholes in their own lawn, if not in the most sampled man in showbiz’s own backyard.
Trugoy’s verse in “I Am I Be” begins in anticipation of touring, where it’s said that you learn who you are, or don’t want to be. He’s left us much to decode in this song which finds him in various states, still unpacking himself, wary with glances at biowaste, the burning sun, faces in the crowd, troubling memories. There’s so much that “could be” in this record, a generous work both open and subject to interpretation. Or regionalization. When I hear “I Am I Be,” I always imagine Dave in the south—where I first heard De La’s music, and last saw them live.
Since Trugoy’s passing, I’ve been revisiting those shows from the early ’90s in Virginia and North Carolina, where I grew up. Meanwhile friends, collaborators, and fans shared tributes online, many from encounters on tour. Lady Tigra, of the teenage Miami bass duo L’Trimm, posted about a gig with De La in north central Florida where they ended up at River Phoenix’s pond with River’s vegetarian dogs—on a school night. It could’ve been an absurdist skit from De La’s 1989 debut album Three Feet High and Rising but was really about Tigra and Dave’s friendship, bonding over their Haitian roots. Such memories echoed his own road stories, like the one about a stop at a Burger King in Kansas that he flipped into a verse on De La Soul Is Dead.
In “Bitties in the BK Lounge,” Trugoy was at once hilarious and vulnerable, his own stardom misrecognized while charmed by a dab of jelly on the sleeve of a worker at the register. She thinks he’s Tracy Chapman. He played himself as her Burger King muse, flirting back and forth across the counter and then diving into the rap archive, our home of the Whopper, away from home, where you’ll find a prosthetic P-Funk nose in the sink of the BK bathroom. The nose belongs to Digital Underground’s Shock G (R.I.P.), who at 16 was kicked off a radio station in Tampa for playing a 15-minute version of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep,”—a track which Shazam, thanks to sampling amnesia, now identifies as De La’s “Me, Myself, and I.” All commingling, as I listen to it now, with memories of friends quoting “Bitties” in a Char-Grill parking lot in Raleigh.
It was enough, then and now, to send one’s propeller hat in a tailspin. De La were enablers of do-whatness and curiosity, of rewind and recollection. And of their producer Prince Paul’s outlandish imagination, which had him calling into a fake radio show hosted by his own alter ego, the Dew Doo Man, and making claims about boosting his memory with real estate self-help tapes. Save me that box set. Hopefully De La has long forgotten the gig in Chapel Hill, where an aimless poli-sci student with a terrible sunburn came up afterwards and asked them about this skit (and its slow burn cameo from Divine Styler) while his face melted in real time. It didn’t occur to me, then, how they might have felt about touring. About taking the stage between The Durutti Column and 808 State in England, or playing the steps of a frat house in Chapel Hill. About the pressures they felt, as young Black artists, navigating the two-way and often two-faced looking glass of acceptance and exposure. The demand of getting out there. What did putting oneself out there mean when perceived as out there in the first place? Out there could mean just being from Long Island. Or the geometry of the fade Dave gave himself, in his Massapequa basement. Out there could be, taken in so many ways, home.
Every spring, Trugoy reminds me to go home. Things start blooming and his voice drops in on “I Am I Be,” a fragment of a line nudging me to “head down south.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean my mom’s garage in Charlotte, but there it is when I pull up: the same EV speaker, as blown as it was back in ’84, three feet high and half-coiled in garden hose, making cobwebs next to a sprinkler powdered in rust. The version remembered often finds itself someplace else.
In “I Am I Be,” North Carolina is mentioned in passing, and in loss. Posdnous mourns his mother but the grief now extends to the voice of the next verse, as Dave is no longer here to drop it in person, “to push the infinite and carry it.” He’s moved on, leaving us in the subs of understory, pondering the line, “Trees fall so I can play ground with my ink,” and the walla of children’s recess at the song’s end. But forensic reads can feel like vulture signaling. Like just now noticing the brief shred of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” which appears in Dave’s verse. Grief tends to assign meaning indiscriminately, especially to those who resist being defined. So now y’all pay attention?
“I Am I Be” is an interiority reaching out, bookended by the voices of friends and collaborators—not surrounded as much as held together. Many of these statements were recorded outside the studio by Prince Paul and Pos. It’s a roll call of artists looking in on themselves, declaring who they are and where they’re at in this given moment. In love, tripping, traveling, scrambling, fabulous, broke, “chilling the hell out,” in friction—each in their own headspace, though everybody’s been there. “I be psychiatric attendant,” offers one voice I can’t place. Meanwhile, Shortie No Mass, a newcomer from Philadelphia, presents herself by her height (four foot 11). She asks to play it again, to be heard. The song replies in kind, looping her take. I am Shortie…
“I Am I Be”: the title demanded a lot from Black artists in their twenties still figuring themselves out, in a business that had no time for becoming. “I wasn’t prepared to delve into who I am,” Trugoy said to Rolling Stone. “Because I was still discovering, experiencing.” In a world where be has been racialized as unfinished grammar, De La turns the declaration on itself, finishing the thought by leaving it open to question, as if asking, finally, to be left the fuck alone.
In the studio, engineer Bob Power rearranged the collage of voices and relocated them in a spatial constellation—sampling to make room for everyone, placing Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, and Muhammad Ali’s daughter, May May, in the booth at the same time. The illusion plays with perceptions of closeness, and intimacies assumed by fandom (the posse that records together, stays together). This beloved album cut seems to be listening to its own sense of place, through acoustic relations between friendships in and out of the studio. Some drifted apart while others might need a sec to see how they feel about things and ask if the tape is still recording. (It is.) Shortie, first up, asks, When? Now? This could be an interrogation of the present. Of being present, of the too-soon, of grieving performed on social media, which doesn’t take a moment but steals many in a voracious timesuck. Hold up, wait a minute.
Since Trugoy’s death, “I Am I Be” has become an elegy. I had to listen from memory since my Buhloone Mindstate CD was lost in the ancient war between laser and dirt. I checked YouTube but only found a constellation of blips trying to livestream “I Am I Be” at a De La show at Nokia Park. I Am iPhone, so streaming platforms were checked, the flawed muscle memory insisting that all is knowable in the lazy age, except maybe knowing better. (“YOU BETTA!”, reminded Pos, from “Bitties…”) I visited user-generated lyric sites that didn’t exist when we began absorbing these songs into our road trips, in-jokes, and out-takes.
After searching online, I learned that Dave, at least according to the Internet, did not in fact say he, nor I, better head down south. The consensus from the lyric sharing aggregate (which is illegal?) believes Dave “brought a head down south.” Who’s head? His own? Was this before he moved to Maryland? Was it something sexual? According to Kenny Calhoun, a De La collaborator and friend of Dave’s since high school, the line concerned a traumatic incident on tour. “That was a subliminal thing,” Kenny tells me on the phone from Raleigh, where he now lives. “They were on the road and somebody in the crowd spit at Dave. He threw the mic at the crowd and accidentally hit a girl.” Maybe it was a terrible night that Dave was processing for himself, not us, “a ghost heckling from the crowd.” A reference to “the noose and the neck” immediately following “down south” also hits home. Maybe less misheard than not wanting to hear, or know. When things go south, they can also go to shit.
“It could be three or four things,” said Kenny. “You could be right about that too.”
If you’re from New York, “down south” basically starts on the Jersey Turnpike. I asked friends in North Carolina about that line and they’ve all been hearing it the same way. Maybe because we just wanted De La to come see us. Or maybe because NC has become home to Dave’s peers: Sadat X (Brand Nubian) and Mike Gee (Jungle Brothers) have relocated to the Raleigh-Durham area. Maybe my hearing had been swayed by the rare mention of North Carolina in the verse preceding Dave’s. I nearly fell over when Charlotte received a shout from the Miami bass queen and Trina influencer Anquette, in her local bass atlas “Shake It (Do the 61st)”—back in 1987. Her “hold up wait a minute” echoes in De La’s “Buddy,” a crowdsourced call and response that hollers across area codes and borders.
Often I hear Dave heading down south because De La Soul’s name migrates into my brain from Texas. It’s the drawl of WC, saying “De La Muthafuckin Soul,” from when I once eavesdropped on an interview with the West Coast heavyweight and khaki crease advocate. While WC’s albums and C-Walk dance (which nearly upstaged Dre’s entire Up In Smoke Tour in 2000) proudly locate him in South Central, Los Angeles, he is originally from Houston.
Home can be wishful thinking, heard with any tree-felling turn of speech in that direction. A nod to the JB’s saxophonist Maceo Parker, who plays on “I Am I Be,” is a nod to Kinston, North Carolina, his birthplace. “I Be Blowin” is a nod to Parker who takes a solo and turns it into the instrumental version of “I Am I Be.” The peas are passed. Maceo met James Brown as a student at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. The HBCU was a second home for De La in the south, receiving a shout in “Area,” the track preceding “I Am I Be” on Buhloone Mindstate. Parker would quit James for George and P-Funk, who played Greensboro’s War Memorial Coliseum in 1993. I cannot place Maceo on stage that night, but George Clinton wore an Aladdin bedsheet and his mother was in the crowd singing along when “Knee Deep” slid into the chorus of “Me, Myself and I.” De La gave it right back to us, with a bite, when they did “Me, Myself and I” at a Crush Party at Hollins College in Virginia. This is where I first heard "we hate this song" as a refrain and rebuke. They even amended “da inner sound” of their D.A.I.S.Y. referent with an “inner sigh.”
My favorite memory of seeing De La in person wasn’t a performance but a moment to themselves. It was a chance bit of unrehearsed downtime with A Tribe Called Quest, at Ziggy’s, a club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Tribe’s DJ and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and De La’s Mace were playing turntable round robin, squeezing around each other in a tiny space. They were trying to catch a classic disco break I can’t remember, extending another generation’s moment to make it their own—with only seconds to get there. At one point, Ali ducked under Mace's armpit before Mace inadvertently boxed him out. Dave and Phife watched from the side observing, maybe laughing.
How many nights of “Me, Myself and I” did it take to get to “I Am I Be”? I’ve been going over this koan while driving around NC, listening for what may or may not be there. On 85 North, I passed through Greensboro, hoping to be struck blind by epiphany in the Biscuitville drive-thru. I passed the exit to Chapel Hill where De La and Tribe tore down UNC’s Memorial Auditorium. “We’re taking you back to this century,” they chanted that November night in 1993, over a bassline named for Jules Verne’s doomed submarine. (Between Chapel Hill and Raleigh, one could’ve seen A Tribe Called Quest do “Footprints” in two different towns on the same night.) I passed the exit where I once pulled into a Stuckey’s parking lot in a borrowed Samurai Suzuki and transcribed the lyrics to “Eye Know.” In Raleigh, I passed the Seaboard Railway Station, where De La was photographed walking down the tracks. The shoot was originally scheduled for California, but they asked that the locale be changed because they were enjoying North Carolina, a place to be. After Trugoy’s passing, the black-and-white image would resurface with a familiarity I couldn’t locate, failing to recognize my home of 13 years. Until now, I didn’t realize that it had been taken in Raleigh, where I’d first seen the photo in The Source and skipped class to read about an album called De La Soul Is Dead. The railway station is now a floral nursery.
“I Am I Be,” authorized by the group, is finally available on YouTube. One commenter played it for their four-year-old daughter who complained about the lack of rhyme. The next morning she stumbled around the house declaring I am, I am, I am, in her own loop, looking for her future selves. Which one will she remember? A when-now runs through it, this song that recites a piano phrase from Lou Rawls’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” Another return home. That loop always felt a little Peanuts-in-autumn to me. The existential melancholy, the scuffy shoe bottom. The Cheshire beagle deep in a thought balloon, considering deciduous leaf time. (It was another Charlie Brown, a rapper from Long Island, who first brought “North Cakalaka” to the rap idiom.) Unsampled and left to its own, the coda of the Lou Rawls single now plays out in Trugoy’s verse. As if it’s always been and belonged there, in shared histories. It’s a chorus of thank you. A collective fade. And it just keeps going, when if not for now. ♦
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