Friday, December 9, 2016

Diggin in the Cassettes: Stakes Is High

I wanted to keep the Native Tongue vibe going here. Unfortunately, this is the only De La Soul cassette I own. Fortunately, it is one of if not the best De La album.

Prof Thug's Diggin in the Cassettes Vol. 6

De La Soul - Stakes Is High

Signed by group members Posdnuos and Trugoy (Dave).

A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul are inevitably compared because of their Native Tongue association, as well as their similar vibes and the eras in which they came to prominence. Tribe was my first favorite rap group. For whatever reason, it took me a little longer to appreciate De La Soul. I immediately loved their first major single, Me, Myself, and I, but for some reason, I didn't get their first two albums (I was a broke kid. That was the reason). I loved all the singles from their first two classic albums, and my friend had Buhloone Mindstate, which I listened to so much I might as well have owned it, but the first De La album I actually owned was their fourth full length.

I eventually bought all their albums. 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul is Dead are undeniable classics. With the help of legendary producer Prince Paul, they defined the sound of the D.A.I.S.Y. Age on the first album, and then declared the death of that era on their second. Their humor, and their stance in opposition to anything overly popular, defines their sound. Besides showing the industry that you can be yourself and still make quality, commercially viable music, they also invented the rap skit (for better or for worse). Originally, these skits were groundbreaking; they were funny but they also established a theme throughout the albums. Now, however, the skits drag those albums down a little. Maybe it's because the world moves at a faster pace, or I'm more impatient, or maybe I've just heard them too much, but whatever the case, they don't hold up. They were groundbreaking, sure, and the albums are still classics, but it can be difficult to listen to them straight through.

Their third album, Buhloone Mindstate, could easily be considered a classic, too. Their sound evolved (as it does with every album they release). It was more straight up jazzy, smoother, and more focused than their previous albums. The skits were kept to a minimum but the humor was still present. The biggest fault I have with it is that they took some shots at other Native Tongue affiliates, which made me sad. Fortunately they made up on this album.

De La's consistency and longevity is unmatched in hip hop. When they came back in the 2000s with their Art Official Intelligence series (Mosaic Thump and Bionix) they managed to reinvent their sound again. I consider these two albums classics, too. We bumped the shit out of those albums in college. Their last two albums, The Grind Date and ...and the Anonymous Nobody are the only weak spots, and even those are high quality material.

I don't know which album I like best. It's similar to how I view De La and Tribe: on any given day, my preference changes. That says a lot.

Stakes is High was released a day after my 16th birthday, on July 2, 1996, the same day as Nas' It was Written. That's a damn good day for hip hop in a damn good year for hip hop.

Those two tapes dominated my summer. Both represented a change in sound for the artists. Nas went more commercial and "gangster" and De La pushed back against the commercialism in hip hop. This was their first project without the input of legendary producer Prince Paul. The three members of De La mostly produced it themselves, so the beats are a definite departure, although they maintained a similar formula (classic drum breaks, James Brown samples, etc.). I love Prince Paul and he was a huge factor of the unique sound and legendary status of the first 3 albums, but his absence made the album a lot tighter and more focused. It lost a bit of the absurdist humor, but I think it helped them grow and take their sound to the next level.

It is most similar to Buhloone Mindstate, but instead of looking inward as they did throughout that album, they look more outward at the world, and the culture, around them. This album was a little angry and disillusioned at times, though ultimately it remained hopeful. The overarching theme here was the declining state of 1996! Man, they had some high standards. It wasn't really the music itself they were mad at, it was really the commercialization of hip hop culture and the lack of integrity a lot of artists showed. Many people consider 1997 to be the year that corporate radio changed the hip hop industry permanently for the worse. There was less diversity of sound on the radio, and independent or even just slightly weird acts were not getting much play. That was when radio pushed more crossovers with other genres, in particular R&B. De La had a lot to say about the current state of affairs, and the things they complained about just became more prevalent as the years went by. De La the Prophets.


The album starts with clips of people describing where they were when they first heard Boogie Down Production's Criminal Minded.

Then the all right! sample comes in and we're off. There are some classic drums and kicks and Posdnuous begins with the same line as his opening line on the previous album (Channeling!) but he slightly changes it at the end. They were always very self referential. It establishes a connection between albums, and creates a distinct universe in which their songs exist.

Pos drops some great bars De La Soul is here to stay like racism for a minute then Dave does the same. As well loved as they are, I think their lyricism is still underrated. Dense wordplay, crazy pop culture references, humor, intelligence. If they were solo artists, maybe they'd get more recognition as lyricists, but because they work so well together it's hard to judge them separately.

Pos also says Stick to your Naughty by Natures and your Kane which Treach took as a diss. Apparently Treach jumped Pos, and later 2Pac got into the beef because he took offense to one of their lines and was also friends with Treach. I never knew about any of this. I always thought it meant "stick to" them because they are much better than the wack rappers he was just describing. I was so innocent.

The song ends with Dave screaming, which is also a reference to the last album in a way..

Supa Emcees

A great Slick Rick sample, a simple drum track, an organ sample, and great rappers always make for a good song.

The theme of the album continues to develop here. They are disgusted by the lack of creativity, originality and authenticity in hip hop. Their beef is mostly with the industry and society overall, but they also hold individual rappers accountable for the decrease standards. They don't call anybody out by name but they challenge any and all rappers to do better.

Generally, everything they did had more reason for it than simply sounding good. They were calling out wack rappers using a sample of one of the greatest rappers ever saying "MC" over and over. Levels.

On this album, they layered in various samples expertly. On their first 2 albums, some songs felt like distinct, individual samples on top of one another. It was cool, but sometimes the beats felt haphazard.

The Bizness

This is a great beat with veteran, yet still young, MCs at the top of their game. This would probably be considered a "rappity ass rap" song these days, but this shows why that phrase is so silly when used as a pejorative. Rappity ass rap songs can be great when they feature rappers who can rappity rap their asses off!

Common sets his verse off with Do you wanna be a emcee? All the guests' contributions fit perfectly with the themes of the album; guests didn't just jump on a song and rap some words, their appearances meant something. Unfortunately, Common has a bizarre homophobic line about Greg Louganis and his "gay ass," so it's not the greatest contribution, but his verse is solid besides that. It was always interesting seeing Common growing into the GAP wearing Hollywood actor, LGBTQ supporter that he is today, considering some of his grimy earlier work.

The beat switches and they shout out their friends in the business. A Tribe Called Quest yo they nonstop. I always liked hearing who my favorite rappers liked. It made me feel good when I liked them, too, and sometimes it put me on to new artists.

Then there's a short clip of a verse from Down Syndrome, a song that appears later on the album. This serves as a skit, a transition, and a preview of what's to come all in one. It also cuts off on Pos' line not from the PJs yet I still got something to say, which leads into a song about where he is from. Brilliant.

Wonce Again Long Island

What the hell do you wanna be when you grow up?
I wanna be a supa emcee

(W)once again, referencing another song on the album and pushing the theme of "emceeing."

It's got a simple drum track with that cool bow bowmp bowmp sample. Pos shouts out his birthplace and describes his experiences as an 18 year old kid entering the business, finding wild success, then falling somewhat out of the limelight.

He shouts out Tip and Phife and spends most of the song calling out wannabes and wack mcs. He just rips it for a couple minutes straight then shouts out some neighborhoods in Long Island. Solid track.

Dinninit produced by Spearhead X

Dinninnit. Yo! Hey hey hey.

This is a great party jam/head-nodder. It opens with the soft piano keys. It's got the warbling high pitch noise (like a melodic swarm of mosquitoes) that rises and falls throughout the song. It's got the call and response to the ladies and the fellas. Their voices never get too loud or aggressive, they are just floating on the beat. It feels like a Saturday in the summer and everyone is drinking Arnold Palmers after eating barbecue and playing softball all day. It's a mellowed out grown folk party.

It's so real when we come thru 
sunshine be on my sidewalk when we come thru!



After a short instrumental break the beat starts in with another Slick Rick sample. This song has a bunch of samples from classic rap songs and many common hip hop breaks. And of course it's got the Kurtis Blow sample that sounds like these are the boooyyyy here.

The beat has the high pitch bells ringing over the boom bap drums and James Brown's The Funky President, one of the most utilized samples in rap. It's a nice throwback/ode to the past.

Mostly they just rap about rap and the "breaks" they caught to eventually make it in rap. They also talk about things plaguing many communities at the time. A mother gets mugged by a crackhead son. That's the brakes that's the brakes! It's a cold yet realistic play on Blow's iconic song. Instead of the breaks in songs, that's the breaks in life. They always discussed the flaws of their own communities, and society at large, but they never came off as preachy or angry. Their the old men on the porch yelling at the kids but making everyone, including the kids, laugh while doing it. They are lamenting the harsh realities of life, but they are ever hopeful and appreciative With the blessings of the great we took it from state to state, Cause we landed on the good foot and got our biggest break and that's what differentiates them from many "conscious" rappers. They were conscious when that meant talking about real issues rather than the "super woke" preachy rappers and conspiracy theorists that have come to define the term now.

Dog Eat Dog

This is a nice low-key jam. Dave sings the chorus. There's the dog barking sample. Like many of the songs, there's the weird sounding organ sample or something (I call it the bowmp bowmp bowmp) that directs the beat. I say weird but it's awesome.

This album really foreshadowed Tribe's Beats, Rhymes & Life, released later that year, discussing similar frustrations with the music industry.

The song ends with a record scratch, as if it's being pulled from the turntable. They had all these little flairs in songs and in between songs that provided more cohesion than the skits from earlier albums, and they just sound really cool.

Baby Baby Baby Baby Ooh Baby

This is hilarious, but also somehow a jam. It helps that it features the Jazzyfatnastees.

Just in case you weren't sure what was going on, the intro at the beginning should give you a clue as to their intention:

Ohh there go that bullshit again
You heard that shit?
That's that bullshit from the other day
They done took the Buffalo Girls beat and changed it all around
They playin themselves!

They were making fun of popular R&B songs that used an old school rap song (or break) for the beat and randomly threw on a short verse from Popular Rapper of the Day. It reminds me of their House music parody (Kicked out the House) on De La Soul Is Dead. They are making fun of a certain trend, but they are also taking part in that trend and making it dope.

At the end it has Fat Man Scoop closing out the song, as if he's a DJ on the radio playing this pop record. It effectively frames the song and sets it apart from the rest of the album.

Long Island Degrees

Yet another ode to their hometown. "Pleasant" is a good way to describe this song, with its breezy samples and lacksadaisical singing. I listened to this tape at the beach a lot as a kid, and songs like this were perfect for a sunny day in the sand.

The two verses start off similar. Dave says: It's strong island for real, where the critters run wild, The prefix is 516, the top of the dial. To start his verse, Pos says: It's strong island for real, the diagnosis is supreme, The prefix is 516, where microphones fiend. This technique created cohesion in the song and showed the dynamic between the two. They were the definition of a true rap group; a lot of groups are just solo rappers coming together, and their verses feel disconnected. The songs feel disjointed because there is no real chemistry. That's never an issue for De La.

Dave raps I got questions about your life if you so ready to die. They were never afraid to call out the biggest stars and trends. It's not even really dissing Biggie, but it's definitely a shot at thug mentality. Regardless, it's an honest question, and you can tell the guys really care about their peers and the culture.

A skit at the end features some hillbilly talking about why he hates rap music: There's no music in it. It's just niggers talking. Besides highlighting the ignorance of many people's opinions on rap, this is interesting because De La themselves criticize rap the entire album. They seem to be using this clip to compare types of criticism: valid vs ignorant. This asshole's opinion is not uncommon, and I would imagine De La disagree with it because they always defend the value of rap; the thing is, they want rap to be better. They know it can be so much more. This is a way to say "we're criticizing hip hop, but it aint like the way #yall do it." Then the tape is silent for almost a minute. I know that's to "preserve continuity" but it makes for a powerful end to side one. 

Flip the tape!

Betta Listen

Great opening track to side 2. It's amazing how they took the format into consideration when sequencing the album.

It starts with the vocal sample that makes up the hook Listen all ya fellas, give her good loving. There's a cool little piano sample. Dave talks about getting dissed by a girl, and Pos tells a story about him actually getting with a girl. He raps from her perspective at times, talking about the struggles she deals with as a woman. It's basically a description of how to respectfully pick up a lady and have consensual sex. Hip hop feminists! Again, they set themselves apart from many rappers and trends.

The skit at the end gives insight into why they stay so grounded: the third member, Maseo. He is pissed at something someone said to him. He gives the group a harder edge (he shows that again on the next album with U Don't Wanna BDS). Even though he doesn't rap on this album, his presence is always felt.

Itzsoweezee (HOT)

This was their most successful single from the album. This video was everywhere. Dope beat, a cool trumpet/tuba-like sample during the hook, and an excellent chorus If money makes a man strange, we gots to rearrange that! Add great verses from Dave and you have a perfect rap song; one of my faves on the album and their entire discography.

With this song we can see more clearly how their attitude and sound influenced that of Tribe's 4th album. De La always gave commentary on the culture and industry; they usually used satire to mock it, but as they evolved, they gave more direct critiques. However, the main intent was to make great songs, so even though the lyrics are cynical at times, the beats still make your head nod, you can sing along with the choruses, and you can rap along without being depressed. I always rap When's the last time you had happy days? and it makes me smile even though it's a dark line.

Dave directly calls out the Mafioso/drug kingpin rap phase that blew up after Raekwon's Cuban Linx album:

Them Cubans aint care what yall niggas do
Columbians aint never ran with your crew (Nas started calling himself Nas Escobar that year...)
Why you acting all spicy and sheisty
The only Italians you knew was icees 

I love that line. And verse. And song. So damn good.

There's a little instrumental to close out the song that leads right into...

4 More co-produced by DJ Ogee

Their third single, with the legendary R&B group Zhane. This should be called A Roller Skating Jam Named 4More.

I wasn't a fan of this type of song at the time (neither were they!) but I loved this regardless. They were masters at calling out industry tropes, like mixing R&B and rap, and then using those same tropes better than anyone else.

There's a lot to like about this song: the telephone dial beat that somehow works despite telephone dials being the most annoying sound effect in the world, Zhane, and great lines all over the place, like Got a way with women so i get away with yours. It's more grown man player rap.

This is a sipping lemonade in a hammock on a Saturday afternoon in the Summer album. It's a "yeah we know we got bills and we know there's some fucked up shit in the world but we're gonna make love and enjoy ourselves when we can" album. So. Damn. Good.

Big Brother Beat produced by Skeff Anselm

Then they go and introduce me to Mos Def?? Man, I don't know how much more I can love this album.

Another great transition. The sequencing of the albums I've covered so far really make me miss tapes. I know not everybody paid such close attention to sequencing in this era, but these guys sure did. Then digital music killed off what CDs had already injured; only a few artists (Danny Brown comes to mind) really put any thought into sequencing anymore.

This has a similar tempo as the previous song but with a harder beat. There's a great bass line under the drums, with lot of great sound effects, plus that beep...boop boop boop sound like a heart monitor that maintains the pace of the song. This is a straight butter hit right here.

On the first verse, the guys go back and forth with a few lines each. On the second verse, Mos starts, then Pos comes in, then Dave, then Mos closes out the verse. He even leads the chorus. Basically, he owns the song. I had no idea who this dude was, out-rapping these legends on their song, but he became an immediate favorite.

Down Syndrome

The drums start low and build up. There are cool piano chords, lots of different noises, and various samples throughout. It's a really cool beat, and Pos and Dave just rip #barz with no hook, just the Keep on singing. Keep on sannggin sample.

The end of this song has possibly the best transition on the album. Pos raps Gotta rip it from the start when the beats come, as his voice trails off, the beat cuts off and the first notes of the next beat start up immediately. Masterful sequencing.

Pony Ride

Just stop taking me for a riiiiide. This is another great chorus to sing along to.

The opening keys lead into a back and forth scratch that becomes the foundation of the beat. The scratching creates the groove for the entire song, like a warped bassline. It's really wild.

A few times, like when Truth Enola starts his verse after helping with the chorus, the scratching drops out and bells come in, making it sound like an entirely new beat, just the same drums. Overall, one of the more unique beats I've heard.

In a skit at the end, a homeless man talks about his struggle living on the streets, and how he wavers between optimism and depression. When he's done he says, "Stakes is high" and...

Stakes Is High co-produced by Jay Dilla

The horns start up, we hear some guys playing dice, then the infamous vibe...vibration.

As playful as they can be, they take this rap shit seriously. The stakes are high in these turbulent times, and people are too busy shaking asses and smoking blunts to realize the impact they are having on the culture.

Pos declares every word I say should be a hip hop quotable and he proves it on this song:

Man, life can get all up in your ass, baby, you betta work it out
Let me tell you what it's all about
A skin not considered equal
A meteor has more right than my people
Who be wastin' time screaming who they've hated
That's why the Native Tongues has officially been re-instated
(this line made me really happy)

Somehow, Dave matches him bar for bar. I shouldn't be surprised though, that's what they always do. He talks about some of the things he's sick of and drops this observation of the state of society:

I think that smiling in public is against the law
Cause love don't get you through life no more

This is a direct attack on the industry and standard rap tropes. And it was the first single off the album! It wasn't a commercial success (which makes sense since it is so anti-commercialism) but everyone I knew loved it.


It starts with the great Commodores sample hiiiigggggh on sunshine!

The chorus is just a bunch of dudes singing, not trying too hard, simply grooving. They reference the album title and explain their mission to move your mind and soul with perpetuated ease. They understand the stakes of this industry and this world, but they are not joining the rat race. They are gonna keep doing what they've always done.

The beat has an old school, melancholic vibe; our Saturday in July has come to an end and we look forward to the sun rising again tomorrow. It's a great closing track.

It ends with a guy saying "when I first heard 3 Feet High and Rising, I was" and then it cuts out.
It mirrors the beginning of the album (closing the circle) and the implication is that De La Soul's first album was as important and influential as Criminal Minded. I agree, and I also think this album deserves a lot more appreciation and respect as the classic that it is.

5 THUGS out of 5

I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

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