De La Soul has been there for me during most of my life milestones and summer of 1996 was no different. After providing the soundtrack to my middle and high school years they’d been a little quiet since my sophomore year of college when they dropped the enigmatic Buhloone Mindstate. But as I was chasing thesis deadlines and checking off various graduation requirements, here they came with the theme song and mantra to one of the most stressful times of my young adult life.
I held a freshly minted Bachelor’s Degree, 20K in student loan debt and no job. At least not immediately. I’d secured a teaching position at a private elementary school in New Jersey but that gig wouldn’t start until August and I needed money now. There was music to buy and booze to drink. So I pounded the pavement verifying maps for a corporate real estate catalogue (further proof that a lot of those jobs America has “lost” have actually been phased out due to obsolescence). On Tuesday July 2nd I chopped it up with a fellow temp about which CDs we were going to cop that day and at the top of the list were Nas’s It Was Written and De La soul’s Stakes is High.
Stakes…was in every way De La’s graduation album. After working exclusively with producer and mentor Prince Paul on their first three albums the group would take the reins and produce the project themselves. Fueled by relatively low sales of Buhloone… and a changing musical landscape, De La Soul had reached a fight or flea moment in their careers.
“I’mma be perfectly honest with you, I was really afraid around that time,” says Vincent “Maseo” Mason, DJ and sometimes MC. “I thought it was gonna be kind of over. I thought we were gonna break up. Dave was kind of in a weird space at that time and within that space I realized whatever was going on was a metamorphosis for him to take charge. A big portion of that record was produced by Dave. Dilla delivered what he delivered and Dave West had just came on the set. I kinda fell back. De La Soul as MCs they were in a different space. It got a lot more serious about what was transpiring in hip-hop. We were all kind of weary of where things were at and ‘Stake Is High’ was a symbolic record. The way we felt collectively, this record would let us know if we can continue on or if we need to bow out gracefully and go get day jobs.”
That sense of urgency ran throughout the project from inception to completion.
“It was the first album that we did—and I think at this point the only—- where the title was already understood,” says Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer. “We already knew what we were going to name the album before we started working on music. We kind of sat down and felt like the world is changing, we just came out of Buhloone Mind State and it didn’t really do really well. [We wondered] Do people really still want to hear from De La? Are we old school? We got kids. We’ve seen the world. And God bless the dead, Dave’s cousin said “Yeah man, Stakes is high” so [the name] was from him. Dave was like that’s a great title for the album. That’s what this should be. Stakes is high for us and all the negative things going on in the world. It should be treated like our What’s Going? like Marvin Gaye. So we were like cool, every song was approached with that in the back of our minds.”
Musically the world had indeed changed a lot since their last release. New stars like Notorious B.I.G and the Wu-Tang Clan had established themselves as the nucleus of the New York rap scene. While De La had always stood for the hard working everyman, the compass had moved to either reflecting the grit of street life of celebrating the ill-gotten spoils of it. There was little room in rap for people with day jobs or their progeny. Add to that an increased regional splintering that buoyed stars like Tupac, Snoop and Dr. Dre out west and Goodie Mob and Outkast down south and it was easy to see why a three-man group waving the flag of Long Island, NY would suddenly feel like the odd men out.
Nevertheless, they felt compelled to reinsert their source code into the machine, bringing balance back to the matrix, and part of that process was recruiting new energy.
“It was an amazing, great recording process,” Pos recalls. “Common was around and Mace was like, Yo we should definitely do something with Common. Outside of doing what became “The Bizness” he was just around. Mos Def was around the entire album because he was working with Mace on different things, promoting in clubs. He was such an amazing battery for me lyrically. I really feel like I came into my own a bit just focusing on adding meaning to songs and mastering a better flow. [Mos] hanging around and being such a cheerleader and having fun in the studio, he played a big part in that lyrically for me. So it was just a really dope process even though people can be like ‘That was kind of a dark album’ but it was an amazing time.”
Extending the family also necessitated some internal housekeeping. On Buhloone’s “I Am I Be” Posdnuos aired some internal dirty laundry on his Native Tongue extended family of A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers and Black Sheep with the line: “Or some tongues who lied and said ‘we’ll be natives to the end’/ Nowadays we don’t even speak.” Having been the one to put it out there Pos felt it was his place to fix it and on the title track he proudly declared, “The native tongues have officially been reinstated.”
“It felt like we were doing the right thing,” says Dave. “We came from the Prince Paul nest and it was nice to know we were out there finding new family and friends and doing it ourselves. And rebuilding old friendships and alliances. Patching some old sails. We were never enemies, we just needed to shake it out and hug it out a little bit. And that began to happen. It felt like a movement was taking place all over again, but not to be on top, but a movement to create a balance in what was happening.”
The album extended much of the industry critique levied on Buhloone and their previous work, but there were no quirky game show skits or outrageous tour stories like “Biddies In The BK Lounge” to help the medicine go down. So aural subtweets like “I have questions about your life if you’re so ready to die” and “Nubians actin like Colombians moving keys” definitely went noticed.
“As much as we didn’t want to sound like haters it was important that we said what we said,” Dave says with no regrets. “And I know that it resonated with some people. I don’t know if they’ll ever say it but I know people felt what we were saying. Hip-Hop as a community respected us for being ourselves. It wasn’t the loudest thing that happened that year but it was important for it. We were going through a lot with hip-hop and felt personally like, ‘Wow things were changing, how are we gonna fit?’ If De La had ever been marked as people making a statement we needed to make a statement to hip-hop. We need to address some things…We don’t want to sound like haters, the goodie goodies, or the saviors of hip-hop. But we definitely wanted to sound like people asking the community the question ‘What the fuck are we doing?’”
Thanks to the J-Dilla produced lead single and a very De La video (riding mechanical bulls in Times Square with Maury Povich introducing it) fans were eagerly waiting to cop the album. Critical reception was mixed with Rolling Stone Magazine giving the album two stars out of five stating “most of the 17 pieces on Stakes Is High crawl along lifelessly, trailing a wake of assembly-line beats that impart all the exhilaration of a suburban traffic jam.” Nevertheless, fans like me ran to the store on July 2nd pushing it to a #13 debut on the Billboard top 200, besting their three previous albums.
“The record was strong enough to carry us through to let us know we had life with the fans and life with the industry, which was a beautiful thing,” says Maseo. “There was a period in time if you wasn’t showing up in Soundscan a certain way, the industry was writing you off. The fans was in the business too. They knew too much about Soundscan. You were deemed hot or cold based on what you were selling as opposed to the quality of your music. It was a unique time.”
And as much resistance as they may have experienced for the stances they took on the album, De La received support from an unlikely place.
“I think Dre had just dropped [Dr. Dre presents The Aftermath]. Dre was on MTV or VH1 and he was like ‘The hottest record out right now to him was De La Soul.’ I was shocked,” Maseo remembers. “It said a lot about Dre’s character for someone of his stature…He didn’t have to co-sign nothing. And we was also at a time when rappers showed love, but they wasn’t showing love publicly. And he and a bunch of West Coast cats they showed love publicly. Mainly him. It meant a lot. For him to get on national television and say yo the hottest record to me right now is De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” that felt great to be acknowledged by someone you highly regard.”
Like many others I copped both Stakes Is High and Nas’s It Was Written at the now long gone Nobody Beats The Wiz on 32nd St and 6th Ave in Manhattan. The next day before the holiday weekend I compared notes with my fellow temps and the consensus was that De La had kept it more “real” and Nas’s sophomore album was a bit of a let down. It wasn’t Illmatic.
Thankfully, time would be kinder to Nas. It’s almost laughable now that at one point a song like “If I Ruled The World,” whose DNA was comprised of Whodini and Kurtis blow songs with a hook sung by Lauryn Hill, wasn’t considered hip-hop enough. De La recently recorded a song Nas called “God It” and even appeared on Tim Westwood’s radio show together in 1996, but the separation created by the release of both albums on that day is undeniable.
“I never heard that. That’s deep,” Pos says of the “NY hip-hop schism” theory. “I gotta ask Nas if he’s heard that. It’s funny because I spoke to Nas a few days ago. We’ll occasionally check in on each other and he just hit me out the blue to tell me “Yo God, I’m listening to ‘Ego Trippin’ that’s my shit.’ And I was telling him the story how when the Buhloone Mindstate album got packaged and was getting ready to come out, we were in Battery Studios working on a remix to a single. And Nas was in another room in Battery. I came into his studio and was like ‘Pleasure to meet you, I just wanted to give you my album.’ Everyone was smoking and I told him when I walked out that I thought y’all were gonna use my shit to chop up some weed. He starts dying laughing saying he didn’t even remember me giving him the Buhloone Mindstate album. It’s funny, as dope as he was I thought he was young and wouldn’t get what I was saying. So it’s dope to hear him say what songs on that album mean to him.”
As for Stakes Is High it saved the group. Even though it would be another four years before their next release it gave them the confidence to know that they could create on their own terms and still make a living doing what they loved.
“It was an important record. It needed to sound different but it needed to sound like us and I think we accomplished that,” says Dave. “It was also a kick start of confidence. I remember doing “Itzsoweezee(HOT)” the last day it was owed, like yo we gotta get this song today. I was scared and nervous like ‘Fuck I’m not gonna finish this record.’ I remember pressing play and writing that song out like it was the easiest thing in the world. And I just felt like that was a sense of confidence coming through like ‘We can do this, we can knock this out.’ Stakes Is High was just freedom and confidence to make more records.”
Today that title is more relevant than ever. In this election year a quick scan of news headlines reveals just how consequential the choices we make right now are. Thankfully we are getting a new De La Soul album right on time, And The Anonymous Nobody, to help us make sense of this trying times (or at least live through it). With a broad cross section of guests and a painstakingly organic recording process, it is very much a dissertation on what De La Soul has learned about making music and the music business itself, which all started with the leap of faith they took with Stakes Is High twenty years ago.