The most formative musical memory of my youth occurred 30,000 feet over central California in the summer of 1989. I was almost 17, flying on a school trip from LA to the Bay Area, and popped into my Walkman was an album I had just picked up from my local record store, Moby Disc: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. When the cassette reached “Eye Know,” about midway through Side A, I sat transfixed in my seat. I had never heard anything like this before: an earnest rap song about love that wasn’t a sappy radio ballad (no offense, LL Cool J), set to a delicious groove that merged ’60s soul and ’70s art pop. Part of me wanted to take my headphones off and share the song with one of my classmates but the part that was selfish won out. When the track ended, I rewound and played it again. And again. And again. “Eye Know” wasn’t the first rap song I ever heard but it was the first that sparked an interest to explore the music and culture behind it. As with many others who discovered hip-hop in that same era, that private epiphany changed my life’s trajectory.
We learned yesterday that one of the group’s core members — David Jolicoeur, aka Trugoy the Dove, aka Plug Two — has come to the end of his own journey at the age of 54. As of this time, no cause of death has been announced, but in 2017, Jolicoeur revealed that he was suffering from congestive heart problems. On Feb. 5, when De La Soul was feted as part of this year’s Grammy Awards’ celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, Trugoy was conspicuously absent from the proceedings.
Like the rest of the group, including Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, Vincent “P.A. Mase” Mason and their mentor “Prince Paul” Houston, Jolicoeur grew up in the Long Island village of Amityville; all four men met while attending Amityville Memorial High School. Their middle-class, suburban roots were an important part of their difference from most of the hip-hop landscape of the mid- and late-1980s when rap music was still associated with gritty, urban ‘hoods like Compton in Los Angeles or New York’s South Bronx and Queensbridge Projects.
The leading MCs who hailed from those areas were mostly brash braggarts with super-sized personalities: Think Big Daddy Kane, Run DMC, LL Cool J or Ice Cube. By comparison, Trugoy and his group-mates looked downright bookish, wearing “black medallions, no gold,” and possessed of irreverent wit and cutting humor that became the group’s calling card. Dante Ross, who helped manage them after they signed to Tommy Boy Records in 1987, told Check the Technique author Brian Coleman in 2007, “when De La Soul came in the game, there was just a changing of the guard. The gold chains and the macho s*** just wasn’t all that anymore.”
Trugoy, in particular, felt like the group’s irrepressible id, the embodiment of De La’s D.A.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Soul Ya’ll) Age ethos of the time with his floppy dreads and gap-tooth smile. Both he and Posdnuos were skillful MCs, but while his rhyming partner possessed a sharp, precise flow and more topical songwriting, there was a care-free charisma to how Trugoy carried himself on mic. Chris “Thes One” Portugal, of the LA rap duo People Under the Stairs, grew up on De La’s music too, and he described Trugoy to me as possessing a “leader of the outsiders vibe,” observing that the “effortless cool of his verses magnified our assumptions of [the group’s] character: laid back and loose.”
Over the course of their early albums, beginning with Three Feet High and Rising and continuing with De La Soul Is Dead in 1991, Buhloone Mindstate in 1993 and Stakes Is High in 1996, De La became avatars for future generations of hip-hop nerds and geeks inspired by the group’s commitment to creativity and cleverness. Brooklyn’s Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), who also idolized De La Soul as a teenager, explained to me in 1999: “They weren’t just arbitrarily creative. They were really intense with mad thought and focus. [No one] thought hip hop could be like that.”
The group recorded steadily from 1989 through 2001, when they released AOI: Bionix, the last of their six albums for Tommy Boy. They shifted to an independent model after that and their output slowed considerably, releasing just two albums after 2004, most recently the crowd-funded and the Anonymous Nobody… in 2016. For all their humor, the group spent decades waging serious battles with the music industry, partly around their sampling practices, and mostly with Tommy Boy. One legacy of those disagreements with the label has been the absence of most of their albums from legal streaming services, an unfathomable void in the age of the infinite jukebox. This travesty is finally being rectified on March 3, but it’s a sad, cruel irony that Trugoy should pass away mere days before the indefensibly delayed return of his and De La’s music to the masses. Normally, the death of a beloved musical artist leads people to dive back into their catalogs, sharing favorite songs with others. The basic gestures we normally take for granted are impossible right now because of De La’s absence from common streaming sites.
On the other hand, it also means that the next couple of weeks can serve as a celebration of Trugoy’s life and legacy, culminating on March 3 when so much of De La’s best work will finally be available again. I’ve had the benefit of having their old tapes, CDs and vinyl recordings on hand to revisit all these years but it’s the potential new fans who will benefit the most from De La’s long-delayed digital debut. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to Trugoy than for a next generation of listeners to sit with his music and potentially have their own life’s trajectories set anew.
Oliver Wang is a Los Angeles-based culture writer and professor of sociology at CSU Long Beach.