(February 22, 2023). When De La Soul’s “Plug 2,” David Jolicoeur (aka Trugoy the Dove) passed away unexpectedly on February 12, 2023 (at the age of 54), it was yet another reminder of how fleeting life is and how quickly hip-hop’s pioneers are leaving us.
Jolicoeur’s passing means that at least one member of each of the following legendary rap trios has now moved on to hip-hop’s great beyond: Sugar Hill Gang, Run-DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, Geto Boys, Whodini, Fat Boys, Beastie Boys, and Migos. None of those who passed lived to see their 60th birthdays.
Now De La Soul, the Long Island, NY-based trio that was at the center of hip-hop’s historic explosion in 1989, joins that dubious list. Jolicoeur, a founding member whose laidback demeanor set the tone for and powered some of the group’s biggest hits, had suffered from congestive heart failure for years and was noticeably absent from De La Soul’s appearance at the Grammys’ stellar 50th anniversary hip-hop tribute just a week prior to his death.
Still the announcement of his untimely demise was a shock to the hip-hop community, particularly fans of its golden era which, in many ways, was buoyed by De La Soul’s unique, abstract brand of alternative rap (before we were calling it that).
The following is a tribute to Jolicoeur and his longtime group, specifically their important role in hip-hop’s expansion as the 1980s gave way to the ‘90s and the genre’s golden era was in full swing.
Before De La Soul’s 1989 breakthrough smash “Me Myself and I” was all over boomboxes and radio in the spring and summer of 1989, there had only been one hip-hop single to ever top a Billboard chart not devoted solely to rap music.
And that was a ballad.
It was the 1987 hit “I Need Love,” a rap love song by a softer LL Cool J delivering lip-puckering rhymes over a lullaby-like melody. The widely appealing and radio-friendly “I Need Love” topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart (then bearing the name that read like a 1-900 phone-dating line, “Hot Black Singles”) in September 1987, becoming the first rap song ever to do so.
Two years later, and nearly ten years after rap music made its first appearance on that same chart—in October 1979 when first Fatback’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” and then Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” made their debuts a week apart–another song would match LL’s feat.
That was “Me Myself and I,” a track that famously sampled George Clinton’s Funkadelic classic “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” making De La Soul’s the first rap song that wasn’t a ballad to top any of Billboard’s main weekly charts.
To join LL Cool’s ballad in rap history, De La Soul’s introspective ode to first-person pronouns ironically had to overcome two other R&B ballads in June 1989 (Atlantic Starr’s “My First Love” and Natalie Cole’s “Miss You Like Crazy”) that had earlier surpassed it while the three songs were racing up the chart that spring. First, Atlantic Starr’s hit and then Natalie Cole’s torcher took turns at No. 1 (both had hopped over “Me Myself and I” to do so, and it appeared De La Soul’s chances had vanished).
Then, in a surprising turn, “Me Myself and I” took over the top spot, nudging Natalie’s wistful ballad out of the way and making chart history (it would be another year before Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” became the first rap song to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 pop list).
De La Soul’s crowning thus created two interesting full-circle moments in “Black Singles” chart history: 1) overcoming two soul ballads to join a rap ballad as hip/hop’s only two No. 1 representatives (at the time); and 2) heavily sampling Funkadelic’s “Knee Deep,” which was No. 1 on the same 1979 chart on which the first recorded rap trio Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” had made its debut.
And with its ascension, there was finally a song that had epitomized rap’s earlier identity—a sample-heavy, danceable jam featuring clever rhymes by three young MCs out of New York—topping the national chart. As a historic marker of the occasion, “Me Myself and I” was the first song to top all three of Billboard’s R&B, Rap and Dance music charts.
De La Soul’s 1989 accomplishment was no small feat though. Coming more than fifteen years (as we now know) into hip-hop’s existence and nearly a decade after the genre’s emergence on mainstream radio and Billboard’s charts, it meant that the proverbial glass ceiling for uptempo, fully rap, hip-hop songs had finally been shattered.
But even as late as 1989, radio was still reluctant to play (and report airplay for) popular rap songs…despite earlier groundbreaking records by Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, and despite the fact that the genre was driving higher record sales while the streets were breaking new hip-hop acts seemingly weekly as the music was expanding from its New York roots to other parts of the country.
The trade mags had acknowledged rap’s expanding popularity but noted that, before De La Soul’s breakthrough, it was still more likely for an R&B artist who featured a rapper in a minor role (like on a song’s bridge) to reach No. 1 than it was for an all-rap song by an all-rap act to do so.
“Me Myself and I” was the lone exception in 1989, the only rap song to top the chart that year, but one that signaled greater success for the genre in the years to come. In fact, De La Soul’s success, along with that of many of their contemporaries, may have made 1989 hip-hop’s most pivotal year.
Historians could legitimately argue that 1989 was the year that hip-hop’s undeniable popularity and irrepressible cultural influence were finally being recognized by people outside of its target communities. It was the proverbial elephant in the music room whose hard-to-ignore status was beginning to manifest in ways that expanded beyond urban streets and Black radio into pop culture and the mainstream.
For example, David Mays—a white guy—had just founded the nation’s first hip-hop periodical, The Source, in late 1988. Around the same time, MTV debuted its “Yo! MTV Raps” program in the U.S. (it had already been a hit in the U.K.). BET’s “Rap City” followed in 1989.
Also in 1989, Billboard created its first chart devoted solely to hip-hop—“Hot Rap Singles”—which “Me Myself and I” topped for eight weeks from May-July that year. The Grammys had just created its first rap category in ‘89, which DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince won that year for the ultra-safe novelty-rap “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
“Me Myself and I” would be nominated during rap’s sophomore year at the Grammys but lost to Young MC’s “Bust a Move.”
And speaking of Young MC, that rapper/producer had been responsible earlier in 1989 for Tone Loc’s giant hit “Wild Thing,” which came within a gnat’s nose of becoming hip-hop’s first No. 1 pop crossover when it reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 in February that year.
But perhaps most importantly, rap and hip-hop were driving album sales more than ever before. As a case in point, rappers accounted for nearly half—or seven—of the 16 LPs that topped the Billboard Top Black Albums Chart in 1989 (only four rap albums had topped the chart in all the earlier years combined).
One of those seven was De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, the trio’s eclectic blend of off-the-wall rhymes by mostly Plug 1 (group member Posdnuos, born Kelvin Mercer) and Plug 2, Jolicoeur. Third founding member Maseo (plug 3, born Vincent Mason, Jr.) would have more a prominent presence in later albums).
The sample-heavy 3 Feet High and Rising, which included “Me Myself and I,” is now widely regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Coming during what some consider rap’s most creative period, the album was a sampling marvel, with musically innovative ideas courtesy of the three MCs and producer Prince Paul, and lyrics that tackled everything from drugs (De La Soul took an anti-drugs stance) and women to Black life and culture, but also that veered into left-field topics like numbers (a la “Schoolhouse Rock”), fish swimming in a kitchen sink, and crocodiles.
De La Soul’s album was considered revolutionary at the time, as much for its use of sample sources as diverse as Led Zeppelin, The Turtles, Eddie Murphy, Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Funkadelic and ABC’s “Schoolhouse Rock,” as it was for the group’s abstract rhymes and their incorporation of clever skits between songs.
As a result, De La Soul’s members were largely considered rap beatniks, a fun trio not as goofy as contemporaries like The Fat Boys, but not as braggadocious as the more popular Run-DMC. De La Soul offered a refreshing alternative to those groups as well as the harder-edged hip-hop that was also emerging at the time from the likes of N.W.A., Public Enemy and Geto Boys.
That diversity was reflected on the charts, where in 1989–for the first time since hip-hop’s birth—there were several weeks when albums by rap artists occupied 50% or more of the top-10 positions of Billboard’s Top Black albums chart. During all but one of the five weeks that De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising topped that list, there were at least four other rap albums listed in the top ten, including breakthrough LPs by Slick Rick, M.C. Hammer, Tone Loc, Too Short, and N.W.A.
That diverse group of rappers highlighted the genre’s versatility but also placed it in the crosshairs of pundits who sought to limit hip-hop’s growth with censorship or worse, outright banning. Tipper Gore, wife of future Vice President Al Gore, had famously launched the Parents Music Resource Center designed to prominently label music products deemed by the organization as unsuitable for minors. The growing popularity of acts like Ice-T, N.W.A., Too Short, and 2 Live Crew caused critics to generalize and stereotype all forms of rap, whether they be of the gangsta variety or not.
De La Soul clearly was not gangsta (a sub-genre that, despite the efforts of politicians’ wives, thrived in the ‘90s anyway). Instead, Jolicoeur and his cohorts were an ironic group who could emphatically embrace Black culture in one verse but turn around and mention Fred Astaire and Punky Brewster in the next. They were an eclectic group whose D.A.I.S.Y. movement caused them to be branded as “hippies,” a label they would try to shred in subsequent years.
Those years saw them follow up 3 Feet High and Rising with critically acclaimed LPs like 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead and 1996’s Stakes Is High, both of which rank with their debut as being among hip-hop’s greatest albums, even if they weren’t as commercially successful.
Jolicoeur continued to tour with De La Soul in the 1990s and beyond, while hip-hop continued to grow both as a music type and a culture. But by the time it emerged as the most consumed genre of music in America, thanks mainly to the digital streaming age, the group who gave us classics like “Buddy,” “Eye Know” and “Potholes In My Lawn,” were absent from platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. De La protested those companies’ low royalty rates and held out for years, right up to the weeks preceding Jolicoeur’s death when they finally reached an agreement that cleared the trio’s music for release on all streaming platforms starting March 3.
Jolicoeur never got to reap the full benefits of his and his group’s efforts in the digital age. Their songs (from all eight of their albums) will be added to streamers on the 34th anniversary of the release of 3 Feet High and Rising. That milestone is even more poignant given Plug 2’s sudden death and De La Soul’s status as having one of hip-hop’s most celebrated catalogs not to be available for streaming.
But then, De La Soul always marched to the beat of its own (sampled) drums. And it was “Me Myself and I,” which featured Jolicoeur on its opening and third verses, that served as our historic introduction to that fact, one that will remain a part of Trugoy the Dove’s legacy forever.
R.I.P. David Jude Jolicoeur, September 21, 1968 – February 12, 2023.
A lover of hip-hop’s golden age, DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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