De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), was a milestone in the history of rap. Arriving at a time when the medium was widely regarded as a forum for violence and rage, thanks to confrontational albums such as NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul presented a more accessible alternative.
It duly became popular with mainstream and college audiences, reaching No 24 on the US album chart and No 13 in the UK. The single Me Myself and I topped the US R&B chart and was a major hit around the world.
David Jolicoeur, who has died aged 54 after suffering from congestive heart problems for several years, was one of De La Soul’s founding trio, performing under the stage name Trugoy the Dove. This was derived from spelling “yogurt” backwards (it was his favourite food), while bandmate Kelvin Mercer called himself Posdnuos, the reverse spelling of his DJ name, Sound-sop. The third member Vincent Mason was known merely as Mase.
Jolicoeur’s playful, experimental spirit was crucial in shaping the group’s sound and attitude. As Melody Maker put it, “the Dove, befitting his name, is gentle in manners and soft in speech”. Where gangsta rappers favoured ostentatious gold chains and dressed in ominous black, De La Soul preferred colourful floral shirts and CND medallions.
Their album teemed with samples, sound effects, jokes and comedy sketches, while musically the trio exhibited a range of tastes that defied categorisation. With the album title an echo of Johnny Cash’s 1959 song Five Feet High and Rising, the tracks were crammed with quotations from all quarters of pop music’s compass, from blue-eyed soulmen Hall & Oates to Steely Dan, Ben E King, Funkadelic, Lee Dorsey and the 1970s British funk group Cymande.
There was even a snippet of Liberace, the voice of New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia from 1945, and extracts from a French-language instructional tape. “It’s a hip-hop masterpiece for the era in which it was released,” Jolicoeur reflected recently. “It opened up minds and spirits to see and try new different things.”
Jolicoeur was born to Haitian-American parents in Brooklyn, but grew up in East Massapequa in Nassau County, Long Island. He met Mercer and Mason when they attended Memorial high school in nearby Amityville, and formed De La Soul.
Being able to observe the New York hip-hop scene from the arm’s-length distance of Long Island helped broaden their horizons. “We had the opportunity to soak in a lot more. And that’s why we are who we are today,” he said in 2000.
The trio developed their eclectic sound and comedic stage show by performing at parties and school events, often appearing at a venue nicknamed “the dugout” on Dixon Avenue in Amityville. They made a demo of the track Plug Tunin’ – the trio would sometimes refer to one another as Plug One, Two and Three – which caught the ear of Prince Paul (Paul Huston), of the Brooklyn hip-hoppers Stetsasonic.
Paul helped them raise $1,000 to pay for studio time in Manhattan to develop the track, and his production skills helped the fledgling De La Soul to work towards their own alternative vision, steering away from the harshness of gangsta rap in favour of a wittier and more whimsical sonic brew. They became part of a loose collective of artists called Native Tongues, alongside the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and Queen Latifah, dedicated to disseminating “positive vibes”.
Their sound and appearance, and the flower-power influenced, DayGlo-coloured artwork on the 3 Feet High and Rising sleeve, earned De La Soul accusations that they were hip-hop’s hippies. After all, they declared themselves to be part of the Daisy age, the acronym deriving from “da inner sound, y’all”. “If some think we have a hippy style and a hippy sound, that’s just fine,” said Jolicoeur. “But we’d be offended if it was said that we wanted to be hippies. We just want to be ourselves.”
De La Soul were never able to repeat the resounding impact of their debut. While their second album, De La Soul Is Dead – a broken flowerpot on the sleeve denoted the death of the Daisy age – was less successful (though it it made the UK Top 10), it was highly rated among some listeners, and was included in the Source magazine’s top 100 hip-hop albums of all time. Subsequent releases Buhloone Mindstate (1993) and Stakes Is High (1996) displayed the group’s ability to keep evolving, though a planned trilogy of albums under the umbrella title Art Official Intelligence stopped after the second release, AOI: Bionix (2001).
In 2005, De La Soul featured on the Gorillaz’ single Feel Good Inc., which was written by Jolicoeur and Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn and reached 14 on the US chart and No 2 in Britain. It won De La Soul a Grammy award for best pop vocal collaboration.
The De La Soul legacy suffered a major setback owing to legal squabbles over their use of samples. A lawsuit from the Turtles over a quote from the song You Showed Me was settled out of court, but a dispute about sample clearances across their catalogue has hitherto prevented their music from appearing on streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. A settlement was finally reached that will allow their catalogue to be streamed from 3 March 2023.
• David Jude Jolicoeur (Trugoy the Dove), rapper and songwriter, born 21 September 1968; died 12 February 2023