FEATURE: That De La Soul Acronym: Could the Daisy Age Grow Again?



That De La Soul Acronym


PHOTO CREDIT: Janette Beckman

Could the Daisy Age Grow Again?


I think there are periods in music that do not…


IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul, circa 1990/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

get the credit they deserve. Some movements come and go; others sort of stumble on for years but, when it comes to the Daisy Age (the term was coined by De La Soul: it stands for ‘DA Inner Sound Y’all’), I think we need to re-examine; people do not understand how influential the Daisy Age was. There are those who says, in the late-1980s, it distilled Hip-Hop and provided a too flowery, soft and jokey version. At a time when we had bands such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. penning these fired-up, political and vastly important songs, there was a movement emerging that took a more peace-and-love, pacifist approach; the need for us all to come together and create some love. My mind is on the Daisy Age because there is an excellent compilation available that brings together some of the finest tracks from the time. It is a fascinating period of music but, as Bob Stanley writes, the Daisy Age bloomed for a brief time:

It wasn’t really a movement, barely even a moment, but the Daisy Age was an ethos that briefly permeated pop, R&B and hip hop. The name was coined by Long Island trio De La Soul; they claimed D.A.I.S.Y. stood for “da inner sound, y’all”, but then De La Soul said a lot of things. Playfulness and good humour were central to their 1989 debut album, which cast a long, multi-coloured shadow. The 90s, it promised, would be a lot easier going than the 80s.

In Britain, the timing for De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising” couldn’t have been better. The acid house explosion of 1988 would lead to a radical breaking down of musical barriers in 1989. Just 18 months earlier, snobbery had been so rife that Bomb The Bass’ ‘Beat Dis’ was faked as a US import (pressed in the States, then imported back) to get club play; by the summer of ’89, however, something as previously unhip as Chris Rea’s ‘Josephine’ could become a dancefloor hit and indie veterans Primal Scream would be reborn as space-seeking Sun Ra initiates and still taken seriously. Ecstasy was largely responsible, of course, and its associated look – loose clothing, dayglo colours, smiley faces – chimed with the positivity of rising New York rap acts the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, both at the heart of a growing collective called Native Tongues.

What was so new about De La Soul’s sound? Previously, sample material for hip hop had been almost exclusively taken from 60s and 70s soul and funk, especially from James Brown and his extended family – Bobby Byrd, Maceo Parker, Lyn Collins, the stuff of purists. The freewheeling collage of “3 Feet High And Rising” gleefully raided the non-U catalogues of Billy Joel and Hall & Oates; soul heroes Wilson Pickett and the Mad Lads were now abutting such unlikely material as the Turtles’ ‘You Showed Me’ and French Linguaphone lessons. The Invitations’ sweet, Drifters-like ‘Written On The Wall’ provided the hook for De La Soul’s first single ‘Plug Tunin’’ which, along with follow-up ‘Potholes In My Lawn’, referenced “the daisy age”. With the album including a cover of Bob Dorough’s ‘Three Is The Magic Number’ from Schoolhouse Rock – a song every American kid knew from Sunday morning TV – the essence of Sesame Street was everywhere.

By 1989 hip hop had made major inroads in Britain with rock fans (via Run DMC) and pubescent teens (the Beastie Boys), while NME writers had voted Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” the best album of 1988. Still, it had an air of exclusivity, with Tim Westwood its mirthless UK gatekeeper. De La Soul were also fans of Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC; they were fans in general, and threw their love of music into the blender, giving more time to melodies and mind-expanding samples while most contemporary rap records still revolved around the biggest sounding beats.

Above all, De La Soul were welcoming. They had grown up with their parents’ eclectic musical taste, a TV culture grab bag, and black radio stations that played Hall & Oates and Steely Dan alongside the Spinners and Brass Construction. They had also attended the same high school as producer and Stetsasonic member Prince Paul who, intimidatingly, was two years above them. He knew their faces but it wasn’t until he heard a demo of ‘Plug Tunin’’ that he realised they were all on the same wavelength; working with their rough sketch, Paul added a sample from Billy Joel’s ‘Stiletto’ into the mix.

As hip hop rapidly became a bigger commercial concern, rights owners smelt money and – for the rest of the 90s – made sample clearance unfeasibly expensive. Robbed of their pick-and-mix approach, some Daisy Age-era acts moved towards consciousness and a jazz-leaning live feel, which down the line would lead to the rise of Arrested Development, and beyond them the Fugees and the Roots; meanwhile, on the West Coast, the gut-churning violence and misogyny of Dr Dre’s “The Chronic” took rap to a whole new commercial level. Neither direction, sadly, would involve much use of Sesame Street, Turtles samples, or magic numbers”.

There are some interesting points Stanley raises. Although the literal Daisy Age movement faded relatively quickly, you can feel its influence and importance. It mutated into other genres and inspired a whole wave of artists. Maybe the Daisy Age couldn’t last through the 1990s as it was not as explosive and charged as traditional Hip-Hop; maybe the modern version of the Summer of Love, in Hip-Hop form, was viewed with cynicism.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Brand Nubian/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Certainly, as genres like Grunge took off, Daisy Age music seemed to be out of step. I have a lot of love for that time and pioneers such as De La Soul. Just compare their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising in 1989 with albums such as Pixies’ Doolittle. There were fun and uplifting records in 1989 from the likes of Beastie Boys (Paul’s Boutique), Madonna (Like a Prayer) and The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses) …but nothing like 3 Feet High and Rising! I love the fact artists could offer a colourful, sample-rich alternative to the beat-heavy music of the time. Now, when we are more divided and tense than ever, is there anything in modern music that provides much relief and lift? There is some great Hip-Hop and Rap around right now – nothing as potent and exceptional as we saw in the late-1980s -, but there is little to contract the heaviness and truth. That might sound weird, but we do not a lot more joy and togetherness. Again, will the modern age sniff at a scene that promotes harmony and humour?! Maybe so. One reason why a new Daisy Age might struggle to blossom is because of one of the bedrocks of the original movement: samples. Look at some of the artists on the Daisy Age compilation – A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Queen Latifah -, and there is such richness and layers! One of the problems, even back then, was getting clearance to use samples.

Could a Daisy Age exist now; a time when it is so difficult to afford samples and get that legal clearance? This article from 2013 in The Atlantic posits a link between a decline in Hip-Hop’s standard and the diminishing role of samples:

It’s notable, for instance, that at the same time sampling was curbed by new copyright enforcement, we also witnessed the sunset of rap’s “golden age,” a time when dropping socially or politically engaged lyrics didn’t automatically relegate artists to “the underground.”  As someone who studies and teaches about hip hop (and who’s been listening to the music for 25 years), I'm not sure that’s a coincidence.  After all, sampling provided an important engagement with musical and political history, a connection that was interrupted by Grand Upright and the cases after it, coinciding with a growing disconnect between rap music and a sense of social responsibility.

That’s not to say sampling always resulted in the lyrics that educated, even during the “golden age.”  The Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, a sampling classic, wasn’t exactly concerned with social edification.  But as Hank Shocklee, pioneering member of Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad, told me, having open access to samples often did significantly impact artists’ lyrical content:  “A lot of the records that were being sampled were socially conscious, socially relevant records, and that has a way of shaping the lyrics that you’re going to write in conjunction with them.”  When you take sampling out of the equation, Shocklee said, much of the social consciousness disappears because, as he put it, “artists’ lyrical reference point only lies within themselves”.

Whilst it might be difficult to have quite the same sound as back then, I do feel there is a chance for revival. Rather than go through estates and artists to get clearance for samples, we have technology now to create so many different, disparate sounds. I think there is a general lack of positivity in modern music and, in my view, the Daisy Age’s greatest impact was promoting a more affirmative, enriching style of music. I think it will be gradual, but there is a definite window right now; maybe a combination of the Daisy Age and the second Summer of Love, both taking shape around the same sort of time (roughly) – even if the scenes in which they were representing were very different. I listen back to the music of the Daisy Age (dates vary to exactly how long the movement lasted) and there is not this hopeless nostalgia: rather, there is this real feeling that, in 2019, a modified replication could survive. Whilst we might have to compromise in terms of samples used, the spirit and infectiousness of Daisy Age songs remains to this day. I do not think there is anything like this happening in Hip-Hop today – the genre is weaker because of that. Whilst there are definite benefits of re-purposing the Daisy Age for a today that is need of sunshine, there are pitfalls and obstacles.

Its founders, De La Soul, soon had to distance themselves from the Daisy Age and this image of them trying to reviewing the 1960s’ vibe – their second album, De La Soul Is Dead, of 1991 continues its skits and samples, but extinguish notions of the Daisy Age and mainstream Hip-Hop. In this feature/interview, we learn why De La Soul quickly moved away from their debut album’s sound:

 “De La Soul’s dreams came at a price. Aiming to be more thoughtful than gangsta, the trio had coined the term Daisy Age, short for ‘DA Inner Sound Y’all’. With the Daisy Age name and the debut album’s dayglo floral sleeve, it was quickly commonly accepted that Posdnuos, Trugoy The Dove and Maseo were all about flower power. “Daisy Age was about opening everything up,” says Maseo. “But it overshadowed our music, because we were interpreted as wanting to copy a certain time in the 60s. That whole Woodstock thing, it was everything we knew nothing about. I appreciate how and why it happened, but it wasn’t the correct interpretation of our music’s soul. De La has always been about hip-hop. It’s not about daisies or the hippy era. We were doing hip-hop our way”.

I can understand, perhaps, why De La Soul wanted to move on from their debut, but one cannot deny the impact and effect it had. Artists like them played with sound and textures; they filtered into the 1990s and undoubtedly had an impact on so many other artists. I think music is weaker for lacking anything as captivating as the Daisy Age. I think it would be possible to rekindle some of the flame. Listening to the new Daisy Age collection and one is still hooked by the songs. They bring something out of us, make us feel better and resonate deep. It would be great to return, however briefly, to…

A better time.