De La Soul’s Classic Back Catalog Was Almost Forgotten
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

De La Soul’s Classic Back Catalog Was Almost Forgotten

The legendary trio's impending return to streaming services illuminates the crucial role digital platforms play in musical legacy

After a very long wait, De La Soul’s most coveted albums will finally reach streaming platforms. Come March 3—the 34th anniversary of the rap trio’s debut album—you’ll be able to queue up 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate, Stakes Is High, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, and AOI: Bionix on streaming services for the first time. De La Soul’s absence from Spotify, Apple Music, and the other digital platforms has been a sore spot for many years.

Back in 2019—on 3 Feet High and Rising’s 30th anniversary—the group’s music was scheduled to hit streaming services, but thanks to controversy around how profits would get shared, the plans were shelved. The group’s former label Tommy Boy was set to receive 70 percent of the revenue and take another 20 percent off the top to cover a $2 million phantom debt. A key aspect that has made the process of getting this music available for streaming or digital release on places like iTunes are the myriad of samples on the albums. The language drafted in the original paperwork that cleared the samples only accounts for CDs, vinyl LPs, and cassettes. There are also questions about whether all of the samples—60 on 3 Feet High—were actually cleared in the first place.

De La Soul’s frustration with the unavailability of the group’s music had reached a point in 2014 where they released it for free, which undoubtedly upset the suits at Warner Bros., then-owners of the music’s rights. None of these headaches are necessary now that music rights company Reservoir purchased the Tommy Boy catalog for $100 million. De La Soul is a legendary rap group, a pioneer of the sport. Those samples eventually caused a lot of headaches, but they helped create a lush psychedelic atmosphere and created some of the greatest albums the genre has ever conceived.

It’s criminal that such a seminal piece of hip-hop’s story hasn’t been available on any digital platform because when you aren’t on digital services, how does your art really exist? Because of these label troubles, for decades, the only way you could listen to Buhloone Mindstate by legal means was through a rare preowned CD, record, or tape. And CDs, the most accessible of these outdated options, are increasingly becoming a dead medium. The computer I’m typing this on has no disc drive and it came out in 2020. My car, released in 2018, doesn’t have one either.

Every day, using physical media becomes harder. Not because we don’t want to use them, but because tech companies have phased them out. Because of this, musicians whose music isn’t on a digital platform are at risk of their art going the way of the dinosaur, too. Thank heavens De La Soul is much less at risk of this. Thank heavens De La Soul is not dead.

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