When I First Heard “Stakes is High” I was…

(These pictures are of a recent trip to N.Y., the most appropriate images to go with this post)

Love N.Y. in the mist.

Love N.Y. in the mist.

If you’ve been following my twitter account of late (@mattmanguso), you’ve probably noticed I’ve been tweeting about De La Soul nonstop for about two months. I apologize for the onslaught, but at the same time I hope it led to someone clicking a YouTube link and experiencing one of the most eclectic, long-standing hip hop groups, ever.

It all began when I was planning to go home to New York. I love Wyoming, it’s a fantastic place, but it’s been a long time since I saw a concert worth getting excited about (in the two years I’ve been here the only show I was pumped to go to was G. Love and Special Sauce, which was a dope show). Now, every time I go back to N.Y. I always get the shaft when it comes to live music. I always somehow choose the week that has no shows worth going to see. This most recent time was no different, but while perusing the websites of my favorite artists, I noticed De La had announced more dates for their tour. I scrolled down and saw

March 14 – Pink Garter Theatre

Now, there’s a Pink Garter Theatre up in Jackson (some 70 miles north of Pinedale), but there was no way De La (Posdunous, Trugoy the Dove and Maseo) would ever play in Wyoming. It was too much for me to comprehend.

Still, I clicked the “get tickets” link and there it was: Pink Garter Theatre – Jackson, Wyo. Deliriously, I clicked “get tickets” so hard and fast I almost broke my computer and was relieved when everything went through and I had my tickets. I called my girlfriend.

She can hail a cab but she ain't never been to hip hop show.

She can hail a cab but she ain’t never been to hip hop show.

“Do you want to go see De La Soul in Jackson in March?”

“I don’t really know them and I’ve never been to a hip hop show, but sure.”

“OK, good because I already bought tickets.”

After hanging up, my mind had time to process what my girlfriend  had said: I don’t really know them and I’ve never been to a hip hop show.

How. Could. This. Have. Happened?

Forget never having heard of De La Soul, I can understand that (kind of), but never having been to a hip hop show? My God. I can’t even count how many I’ve been to, nor can I remember my first. And my girlfriend is a concert freak.

I began thinking (a dangerous pastime, I know) about when I first heard the hip hop group that totally changed how I thought about the genre and music in general. Like most things in my life, it goes back to college.

It was during freshman year and I was trying to make friends. My roommate was a drag, so I spent the first few weeks roaming the halls trying to bump into someone and strike up a conversation (that sounds so much more pathetic than I thought it would). With no luck, I headed back to my side of the dorm and passed by my neighbor’s room. I heard the unmistakable hard, gritty beats of the Wu-Tang Clang pouring from the door. I timidly knocked, introduced myself and said, “Hey, I like hip hop, too,” meaning I wanted to be friends. That man was Tom Ford, and we did become friends.

I’ve always loved Tom: He was from Queens and I was from Long Island, so we always had a slightly better connection than the other members of our crew who were all from north of the city (if you’re not from N.Y. you might not understand that, but just trust me on it). I could write a million posts on the shenanigans the two of us got into, but that’s for another day.

A few months into our friendship we were sitting in his room getting ready for Friday night, which always consisted of watching boxing, followed by A Tribe Called Quest’s “Beats, Rhymes and Life” album, and plenty of beers in between. One Friday night, though, it wasn’t Tribe that come on, it was a new (for me) album. I clearly remember Tom hitting the play button on the tape (that’s right, my man has this album on cassette) and hearing the album begin:

“When I first heard Criminal Minded I was…”

I didn’t know it then, but that album, “Stakes is High,” was “the album” that would change everything I knew about everything. I listened in silence for the first five or six songs until Tom said, “Yo, you ready to go?” I had completely blacked out (there weren’t that many beers, finger-waggers,).

“Yea. Who is this?”

“De La Soul.”

“I never heard of them.”

“Noodles (my nickname), they’re from Long Island.”

The evening’s plans were delayed, and we sat and listened to the rest of the album. I was floored. It was one of those moments where I was immediately in love with everything I was listening to, but also super pissed off that it had taken me this long to hear it.

Love that mist.

Love that mist.

For me, Stakes is High is a flawless album. It pulses with the rhythm of the Southern State Parkway, it chugs along like an LIRR train heading West, it ebbs and flows like the tide at Long Beach.

It begins with a homage to KRS-ONE, it questions what it means to be a “Supa Emcee,” the third track introduced me to Common (The Bizness), it blared out Long Island towns I had lived in and around my whole life (Wonce Again Long Island), it gave me a go-to make out track (Dinnit) and then it just completely grabbed me and seemed to say, “Shut up and listen” (The Brakes).

That’s only the first six tracks, and it just keeps going.

I knew what Dave meant when he said, “I shed a tear cause I’m hearing nothing new or particular,” (Dog Eat Dog), another make out track (Baby, Baby, Baby, Ooh, Baby), the smoothest beat to ever accompany rhymes about Long Island (Long Island Degrees) that reminded me of so many summer days, “Betta Listen” was the song I played for my sister that got her into De La (she’s always loved the line, “her name was Gail from the Union of Dale”) and then came the moment when I realized I was listening to a group of craftsmen at the top of their game, “Itsoweezee.”

I don’t know what to say about this song. It has some of the sickest lines and is a lyrical masterpiece; it’s De La calling out everyone else in the rap game and saying, “top this, if you can.” In my opinion, no one ever has and the song just put me deep into hypnosis.

And, the album STILL keeps going. “4 More,” an incredible love song that only the “right” girl is allowed to hear, “Big Brother Beat” the Mighty Mos Def, enough said.

Then it gets real (Down Syndrome), with Plug One throwing verbal haymakers, one after the other, and landing every one, (“Just because you talk all that glock shit don’t mean you can rock shit.”). I can only imagine it’s like being knocked out by Muhammed Ali; you’re nose is broken, you have a concussion and probably brain damage, but you feel blessed to have been punched by someone with so much skill.

“Pony Ride,” again, a ridiculous beat that is a testament to the mastery of Maseo and a song I’ve repeated so many times I could recite it in my sleep. “Stakes is High,” the title track that is buried at the way end of the album, quite unusual, but which, I think, is only at the end because it conveys all the messages the group is trying to get across (“people try to snatch the credit, but claim the card,” “I think smiling in public is against the law, because love don’t get you through life no more,” “because nobody’s neighbors, just animals,” “no wonder where we live is called the projects,” “gun control means using both hands,” “man, life can get all up in your ass”)  and it just makes you say, “I probably wasn’t listening closely enough, I should listen to this album again, from the beginning” because I don’t want to miss any “hip hop quotable.”

Unfortunately, it eventually does end, but in the best way possible, with “Sunshine.”

This album was it for me; “Stakes is High” is what made this Long Island white kid get out into the hip hop world, strike that, it made me get into The World and explore. It caused me to listen more closely to hip hop and weed out who was rapping for fame and who was rhyming because they had something to say. Rappers weren’t songwriters anymore, they became poets, and that helped me understand Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth and all the other wordsmiths I studied in college. They may not have been using iambic pentameter or other such canonized lyrical standards, but theirs thoughts, opinions and observations were just as valuable.

Stakes is High introduced me to new artists (Native Tongues, Mos Def, Common), the samples brought me back to musicians my mother used to listen to and who I grew up with and made me appreciate them even more.

It was like having a tapeworm; no matter how much I ate, I was never satisfied and just needed to consume more and more and more.

I only wish losing my virginity was as life changing as the first time I heard Stakes is High was, because then it might be a story worth telling, which it sure as shit is not. Sex for the first time was just something that happened, but after hearing De La Soul for the first time, I wasn’t a kid anymore.

So thank you to Tom Ford for introducing me to what is now my favorite hip hop group of all time, and thanks to De La Soul for keeping it alive since ’89 and for coming to Wyoming in 10 days.

Where were you when you first heard “Stakes is High” ?

That's Tom in the back.

That’s Tom in the back.