A couple of weeks back, someone dumped a record collection - around one hundred vinyl albums and 12-inches - in the street in Maida Vale. It might have been the work of a vindictive girlfriend or boyfriend, or maybe it was a thief who had overestimated what he could carry. But I don't think so: it felt like someone trying to rid themselves of clutter, probably as part of a move, someone who had admitted to themself that it's not just that they don't own a turntable now - they'll never own one again. It's the kind of bold gesture that makes you excited for a couple of hours, and then regret sinks in swiftly.*
Anyway, my sister found the records outside her house, and retrieved them, figuring that there might be an item or two there to interest the few people she knew who still did play vinyl, and the rest could go to a charity shop. She turned out to be right: there were albums that my brother and I were happy to have. But in a strange way it seemed wrong to split them up because as a group of records they had a character of their own. Like all real record collections - the uncensored version - there was no single, universally readable aesthetic: Al Jarreau nestled alongside Throwing Muses. Maybe there was a story behind that - unwanted gift, bullying boyfriend - but there doesn't have to be: I know someone who owns - and likes - The Velvet Underground And Nico and the soundtrack to Yentl, Des O'Connor and Public Enemy.
I once came across someone whose music so almost fit a box: he was a gay man almost exclusively into disco and divas, but even he had Orange Juice and Tom Waits lurking in there, a respite from Barbra and Sylvester. But while not defined by ideology, the Maida Vale discovery was firmly of its time. The records dated from roughly 1986 to 1991, which I'm guessing is when he/she bought a CD player. So there was a dodgy late James Brown album, lots and lots of Prince, a couple of things by the Cure, Deee-Lite, the Sundays' Reading, Writing And Arithmetic, Soul II Soul, Peter Gabriel, a bit of classical, Bummed, De La Soul, an Isley Brothers' greatest hits, a DC Lee single, Lou Reed's New York, Terence Trent D'Arby, Pixies, the first Stone Roses album, 'White Lines'... I'd be willing to bet that whoever owned these records was born sometime between '68 and '72.
The LP I was most excited to find in there was De La Soul Is Dead. An album that I once owned, and which had fallen victim to one of my purges of my record collection. Not chucked unceremoniously into the street, but sold to a stall in a grey seventies shopping centre in Leeds for some token amount of cash. I was trying to pare my possessions to a minimum for a move back to London. Also: I needed every penny I could cobble together. So out went music I took a guess that I would never want to listen to again: the Julee Cruise album with the Twin Peaks theme on it, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, and De La Soul Is Dead. But while in the decade since I haven't once regretted parting with MBV's deliberately vague wibbling, De La Soul Is Dead was another matter.
I'm not quite sure why I had taken against it so. Certainly, lots of albums I still own from back them seem more obvious candidates for the chop, records that I'm slightly bewildered that I either bought or kept after getting them for free. A vague memory suggests that I thought De La Soul Is Dead was too fragmentary, and had bought into the generally accepted line that the album was as grumpy and ungracious and plain sulky as the title suggested. And I also suspect that it had something to do with the way I always got a kick out of writing off groups and singers I had once liked, relieved that I would never have to expend mental space or emotion on them.
I believed that De La Soul really were dead, consigned to history, irrelevant next to Gang Starr or even Ice T, who at the time seemed pertinent and a lot more consistent than almost anyone else in hip hop (rather than a man who would go on to earn a living appearing in dodgy cop shows and nostalgia programmes, the Antonio Fargas of the late '90s - my powers of prophecy have always been pretty rotten). I certainly wasn't reckoning that De La Soul would make my favourite album of 2001, or that their producer Prince Paul's separate adventures would prove to be equally entertaining. And now that I've got it back, De La Soul Is Dead doesn't seem a tetchy rejection of the spirit of Three Feet High And Rising at all: it's playful and inspired, with Stevie Wonder and Serge Gainsbourg sampled on the same song, and a Curiosity Killed The Cat chorus being hijacked to fine effect. It's everything the Native Tongues promised to be, and occasionally actually managed. And the way that hip hop history turned out, all that the mucking around between the songs, which annoyed me so back then, now sounds perfectly natural. More importantly, 'A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'' is as fine a pop single as De La Soul ever made, a decent reason to own the album by itself.
Still, I can always hope that someone in Leeds a decade ago took a punt on a second hand-but-newish copy of a much maligned album, discovered that it was actually damn good, played it a few hundred times down the years, and is thanking me for having mindlessly parted with it just as I'm grateful to - if puzzled by - whoever decided to dispose of a load of pop on a prosperous West London street.
*It also seems peculiarly prevalent in West London - I once retrieved an early edition of Tony Crosland's The Future Of Socialism from a huge pile of books strewn over a Ladbroke Grove pavement.
© 2002 Mark Morris