De La Soul's David Jolicoeur, who rapped as Trugoy the Dove, dies at 54

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De La Soul's David Jolicoeur, who rapped as Trugoy the Dove, dies at 54
The trio expanded the stylistic vocabulary of hip-hop in the 1980s and ’90s, but its early experiments with sampling led to legal troubles, and the group’s longtime exclusion from streaming.

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK, NY.- David Jolicoeur of De La Soul, the rap trio that expanded the stylistic vocabulary of hip-hop in the late 1980s and early ’90s with eclectic samples and offbeat humor, becoming MTV staples and cult heroes of the genre, died Sunday. He was 54.

His death was confirmed by the group’s publicist, Tony Ferguson, who did not specify a cause or say where Jolicoeur was when he died. In recent years, Jolicoeur has openly discussed a struggle with congestive heart failure, including in a music video for the group’s song “Royalty Capes.”

De La Soul arrived with the album “3 Feet High and Rising” in 1989, a time when hip-hop was still relatively new to the mainstream. The genre’s public face was often confrontational, with groups such as Public Enemy and NWA speaking out about the racism, police violence and neglect faced by Black communities in America.

By contrast, De La Soul — three middle-class young men from Long Island — presented themselves with hippie floral designs and a music video set in a high school for their song “Me Myself and I.” The group wore baggy, brightly colored clothes, to the sneers and side-eyeing of their classmates in gold chains, black shades and matching B-boy outfits.

Jolicoeur — whose original stage name in the group was Trugoy the Dove, though he was also known as Plug Two, Dove and later, just Dave — had the first lines of the track, riffing on a fairy tale. “Mirror mirror on the wall/Tell me mirror, what is wrong?” he rapped. “Can it be my De La clothes/Or is it just my De La song?”

That album, with singles also including “Say No Go” and “Eye Know,” reached only as high as No. 24 on the Billboard 200 chart, but it was an instant classic that pointed to new directions in hip-hop. Later albums included “De La Soul Is Dead” (1991), “Buhloone Mindstate” (1993) and “Stakes Is High” (1996).

With its producer, Prince Paul, the group developed an idiosyncratic and freewheeling style of sampling that brought new textures to hip-hop. “3 Feet High” contained pieces of more than 60 other recordings, including not only Funkadelic and Ohio Players grooves — de rigueur in 1980s rap — but also oddities such as sounds from old TV shows and recordings of French language lessons.

But legal problems related to its samples became the bane of the group. One sample, of the Turtles’ organ-driven psychedelic pop track “You Showed Me” (1968), had not been cleared properly, and the Turtles sued; the case was settled out of court.

Ongoing legal problems with sample clearances prevented the group from releasing its music in digital form, which effectively blocked the trio from music’s most important marketplace in the 21st century. Recently, the group finally cleared those samples and was gearing up to release its music in digital form in March.

The group’s lighthearted style — whimsical in-jokes, and lyrics that could be irreverent or earnest — delighted fans and captivated critics. It was one of the first in hip-hop to cross over to the collegiate crowd, and took on the reputation of “thinking-person’s hip-hoppers,” as critic Greg Tate put it in a review of “Buhloone Mindstate” in The New York Times.

“With irreverence and imagination,” Tate wrote, “De La Soul has dared to go where few hip-hop acts would follow, rejecting Five Percenter polemics and gangster rap for reflections on an array of topics: ecology, crack-addicted infants, Black suburbia, roller-skating, harassment by fans, male sexual anxiety and even gardening as a hip-hop metaphor.”

Jolicoeur distilled the group’s worldview into a few lines in “Me Myself and I”:

Write is wrong when hype is written

On the Soul, De La that is

Style is surely our own thing

Not the false disguise of showbiz

David Jolicoeur was born on Sept. 21, 1968, in Brooklyn, and moved to Long Island with his family as a child.

In Amityville, New York, Jolicoeur joined with high school friends Kelvin Mercer, known as Posdnuos, and Vincent Mason, or Maseo, to form De La Soul. The group’s demo for “Plug Tunin’,” which later appeared remixed on “3 Feet High and Rising,” caught the attention of Prince Paul, DJ of the group Stetsasonic, who was then quickly establishing himself as one of the most gifted producers in rap. Their collaboration introduced the abstract, alternative hip-hop it would become known for.

“Every last poem is recited at noon,” Jolicoeur rapped as Trugoy — yogurt backward, for a preferred food. “Focus is set, let your Polaroids click/As they capture the essence of a naughty noise called/Plug Tunin’.”

The trio honed its sound and comedic stage presence at school concerts and parties at a space it called “the dugout,” on Dixon Avenue in Amityville. Proudly repping “Strong Island,” De La Soul noted that its proximity to New York City allowed it to keep an eye on the hip-hop stronghold, while the suburbs gave it space to grow and learn.

“The island has given us the opportunity to see more things,” Jolicoeur told The New York Times in 2000. “It broadened our horizons.” He added, “We had the opportunity to soak in a lot more. And that’s why we are who we are today.”

De La Soul went on to lead what was known as the Native Tongues, a loose collective of outsider hip-hop groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers, which influenced artists including Mos Def and Common.

In addition to sampling, De La Soul was formative in the incorporation of skits — spoken dialogue between tracks — on its albums. In a live review from 1989, New York Times critic Peter Watrous wrote that the group “seemed on the verge of inventing a new type of performance — part talk show, part rap concert — where their funny conversations and routines were as important as their raps, even if the funniest lines were accusations about Trugoy’s status as a virgin.”

The group’s absence from digital services kept it from reaching new audiences for years.

“We’re in the Library of Congress, but we’re not on iTunes,” Mercer told the Times in 2016. Two years earlier, in frustration, the group gave away virtually all of its work, releasing it online to fans at no charge. Its 2016 album, “And the Anonymous Nobody,” was financed by a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $600,000. The album was largely sample-free.

Still, the group retained a strong following among fans and fellow artists. In 2005, De La Soul was featured on “Feel Good Inc.,” a hit by Gorillaz, the multimedia project created by British singer-songwriter Damon Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett. Jolicoeur co-wrote the song with Albarn. The song went to No. 2 in Britain and No. 14 in the United States.

In the group’s interview with the Times in 2016, Jolicoeur spoke about the urgency the trio felt about getting its older work back before the public.

“This music has to be addressed and released,” he said. “It has to. When? We’ll see. But somewhere it’s going to happen.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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