Guilty pleasures: De La Soul, "A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays" (1991)

I’ve never understood why so many people — even in the present-day environment of mainstream acceptance for the modern, much more watered-down, commercially acceptable version of hip-hop — still see rap music as a threat.

Well OK, maybe I do understand this. At least, sort of.

In the post NWA world of gangsta’ rap, there is the rather obvious matter of the drug slanging, gang banging, bitch-and-ho talking sort of stereotypes involved — even if cats like Snoop Dogg tend today to reduce these to walking-talking cartoon caricatures.

Hell, last weekend at Coachella, Snoop and Dre even resurrected the corpse of Tupac. Talk about your gang-banging cartoon heroes brought back to life. From what I hear, Michael Jackson, Elvis and the Doors (over John Densmore’s sure-to-come objections) are next, too.

And let’s face it. If either of you or I have to watch yet another crassly calculated, ridiculously choreographed, lip-synched “performance” from Nikki Minaj, Chris Brown, or Drake at one of those music award shows, I’ll be the first to race you to the john.

It’s enough to make one puke.

But coming strictly from a serious musician’s (or musicologist’s) point of view, there is also the matter of sampling. When “sampling” means simply looping some new lyrics over some ancient, pre-recorded track, I can sort of see their point. There is absolutely nothing about Vanilla Ice’s remake of David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (“Ice, Ice Baby”), MC Hammer’s early-1990s update of Rick James’ “Super Freak” (“Can’t Touch This”), or most of Diddy’s entire recorded catalog, that says “art” to me, either.

No, sir.

However, coming from the perspective of a self-confessed, and pop culturally obsessed “Rockologist,” this art of sampling — at least when it is done right — can produce great works of art that are every bit as musically innovative and ground breaking in their own way, as anything by Brian Wilson, the Beatles, or Pink Floyd.

Think I’m kidding? De La Soul — at least in their early years — are a perfect case in point.

When bits and pieces of musical history are woven together with all the skill of a dedicated musical alchemist like the way the Dust Brothers did it on the Beastie Boys masterpiece of sampling (Paul’s Boutique), or the Bomb Squad did on Public Enemy’s classic It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, the results can knock even the most jaded students of recent music history on their collective asses.

Both of these albums rewrote the rules for the way pop music is made every bit as much in their own way, as Pet Sounds, Dark Side Of The Moon, or even Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did. But none of them compares to Prince Paul’s stunning work on De La Soul’s landmark debut album, Three Feet High And Rising.

This amazing record is a virtual mosaic of post-war (read, 1960s and beyond) pop music history, made up of little bits and pieces of mostly obscure slices — though sometimes, not so much — cut from short musical passages of the same songs. These are then wrapped up in a brilliant package of post-modern psychedelia, with an urban hip-hop twist, along with some post-production studio tweaking.

Check out the way Prince Paul slows down the Turtles minor hit “You Showed Me” here:

Brilliant.

On this same amazing record, De La Soul pretty much turn Steely Dan’s “Peg” (a song I never particularly liked, at least until I heard it done like this), completely upside down and inside out (with apologies to Diana Ross). What really makes “Eye Know” great though, is the way De La Soul reinvent the original Steely Dan sample. It’s not merely looped with new rap lyrics. That would be too easy.

I’m not sure what Becker and Fagan were thinking when they wrote this, and I’m not enough of a Steely Dan fan to care. What I do know though, is that most of the people who enjoy the original are the sort of wine-and-cheese types who take their picnic lunches to Steely Dan concerts under the stars during summertime.

Sorry, but I gotta’ call it like I see it there. De La Soul on the other hand, take the “I know I love you better” chorus of the original, and infuse it with some ghetto-ized flower power.

So why I am calling De La Soul a guilty pleasure, you ask?

The answer, in a single word: “Saturdays.”

De La Soul never made an album as great as Three Feet High And Rising again. In fact, on their followup De La Soul Is Dead, they seemed to be running pretty furiously from the hip-hop hippie vibe of that classic. But it did include what is arguably their greatest recording.

And this is where the whole guilty pleasure thing really comes into play.

“A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays” is about as far a cry from the street-smart, ghetto-thug stereotype of the gangsta raps of groups like NWA that were then beginning to really define early-1990s hip-hop. What it is rather, is a clever melding of what are arguably two of the worst examples of the whitebread pop of the day — Frankie Valli’s “Grease Is The Word” and Chicago’s “Saturday In The Park” — remade as the completely innocent-sounding soundtrack to a roller-skating disco party, complete with opening up the sprinkler system, the fire hydrant, or whatever.

I get kind of choked up, every single time I watch or hear it to this day.

As a unique snapshot of the time it was made, De La Soul’s “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays” is about as brilliant as it gets — and about as far a cry from the ghetto-thug stereotypes that remain so prevalent in today’s post-gangsta hip hop as could be imagined.

Having worked in a record store in a ghetto neighborhood in Seattle at the time this record was originally made, I can tell you that the audio and video imagery was much closer to the actual, existing reality of the time. In that sense, De La Soul nailed it.

Unfortunately, De La Soul have never made a record this great since.

And on that note, I’ll leave you the best version. The “Dave’s Home Mix” version weaves the bass line of Young Holt Unlimited’s version of “Light My Fire,” right in there with “Saturday In The Park” and “Grease.”

This is why I love sampling. At least when it is done right.

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Glen Boyd

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