Cookies and Yogurt

Niela Orr

Abomunist Manifesto, Bob Kaufman’s broadside published by City Lights in 1959, is an absurdist, recursive work of Beat poetry that sends up the proclamatory nature of political pamphlets. The text – comical, iterative and tautological – depicts a riotous tableau for heads too blown or too stoned to riot. It includes ‘Notes Dis- and Re- Garding Abomunism’: ‘Abomunists love love, hate hate, drink drinks, smoke smokes, live lives, die deaths’; ‘Abomunist writers write writing, or nothing at all.’ According to the ‘Abomunist Election Manifesto’, ‘The only office abomunists run for is the unemployment office.’ In the all-caps ‘Abomunist Manifesto’ itself: ‘IN TIMES OF NATIONAL PERIL, ABOMUNISTS, AS REALITY AMERICANS, STAND READY TO DRINK THEMSELVES TO DEATH FOR THEIR COUNTRY.’

This is poetry as political cartoon, as if Rimbaud wrote for Mad Magazine. The last line of the ‘Abomunist Manifesto’ reads: ‘ABOMUNISTS REJECT EVERYTHING EXCEPT SNOWMEN.’ Snowmen are figures of impermanence which melt away on sunny afternoons. As for abominable snowmen, no one believes they exist, though they leave footprints:


Kaufman’s writing channelled jazz and bebop rhythms, and he was an influential member of Greenwich Village’s poetry and folk scene, credited with coining the term beatnik. A mixed-race black man with what would pass for early dreadlocks, he was known for wandering around San Francisco’s North Beach neighbourhood trying not to be arrested for being himself (he was apparently apprehended nearly forty times). In 1963, at the tail-end of a three-year stay in New York City, he was detained, sent to Bellevue and given electroshock therapy, after which he is said to have taken a ten year-vow of silence, except to bum cigarettes and dollar bills from North Beach buddies.

The freewheeling brilliance of Abomunist Manifesto resurfaced thirty years later, three years after Kaufman’s death, in 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), De La Soul’s first album. De La Soul had a significantly wider orbit than Kaufman; they toured internationally – though I doubt they ever rapped at a dental college or USO canteen – and once performed at the White House. But 3 Feet High and Rising is to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back what Abomunist Manifesto is to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: a text that’s less a rallying cry than a high-concept hosanna for outliers. Where Kaufman was surveying the Bay Area’s brain fog, the Cold War and the menace of the A-bomb, De La Soul looked out at the macho rap landscape and added their small-pond sensibilities and day-glo colours to an overwhelmingly leather and gold NYC rap scene.

Along with their producer, Prince Paul, the three members of De La Soul – Kelvin Mercer (aka Posdnuos, or Plug One), David Jolicoeur (aka Trugoy the Dove, or Plug Two) and Vincent Mason (Maseo, or Plug Three) – for a while played with the idea that they were conduits of sound plugging into frequencies from Mars. Although they abandoned that conceit, they kept the ‘plug’ aliases. They came in peace (not from Mars but Amityville), used the nuclear disarmament symbol in their iconography, and made V signs in their videos. ‘We are the others from a brother planet,’ Pos once said, riffing on the title of a John Sayles movie.

The last track on 3 Feet is called ‘DA.I.S.Y. Age’, an acronym for ‘Da Inner Sound Y’all’, and although De La Soul claimed vehemently not to be hippies – they insisted the daisy image was a marketing ploy – there was something of Kaufman’s North Beach pre-Flower Power and Hashbury humour in their songs: ‘When received, you’ll see that we’re a small part/Of the new way, there’s no part at all,’ Jolicoeur rapped on ‘Change in Speak’. 3 Feet is suffused with fanciful skits and lyrical tangents, much like Kaufman’s offbeat detours into various aspects of abomunism, as well as invented language: ‘Dan Stuckie’, a recurring figure in the group’s mythos, turns out not to be a person but De La slang for ‘awesome’.

In an interlude in the video for ‘Me Myself and I’, Prince Paul posed a question: ‘If you take three glasses of water, and put food colouring in them, you have many different colours, but it’s still the same old water. Make the connection?’ I don’t know what to make of that connection, but I think the producer’s watercolour riddle owes something to the enigmatic compositions of George Clinton – something of a generational bridge between Kaufman and De La Soul – who repurposed Black spirituals and nursery rhymes to stunning psychedelic effect, and created his own allusive mythology. De La Soul sampled Clinton’s ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’ on ‘Me Myself and I’.

In ‘Me Myself and I,’ Jolicoeur asks: ‘Mirror mirror on the wall/Tell me mirror, what is wrong?/Can it be my De La clothes/Or is it just my De La song?’ Later in the tune: ‘Proud, I’m proud of what I am/Poems I speak the Plug Two type/Please, oh please let Plug Two be himself, not what you read or write.’ This was a new, perhaps unconscious form of Kaufman’s footprintism – Jolicoeur freeing himself of outmoded restrictions and asking listeners to take him on his own terms.

In an electronic press kit pegged to the release of 3 Feet High and Rising, the trio introduced themselves. ‘My name happens to be Trugoy the Dove,’ Jolicoeur says, ‘and I’m a pioneer of a phrase called “talk”.’ He explains that ‘Trugoy’ is the word ‘yogurt’ spelled in reverse. ‘I enjoy to eat yogurt, I mean, I eat it a lot.’ He introduces viewers to Purdue, the group’s pet dove.

I want to freeze the frame here, before Jolicoeur’s death, on 12 February, at age 54. His professed love of yogurt – so serious he named himself after it – recalls a line from Kaufman’s manifesto: ‘Abomunism’s main function is to unite the soul with oatmeal cookies.’ On the phone to my brother once I asked if he was paying attention to what I was saying. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I just got a text message and I’m eating a cookie’ – a distracting combination of confection and communication. The soul, and da inner sound, wants cookies and yogurt, satisfying sustenance, a distillation of pure good feeling, the same vibe you find in De La Soul’s approach to music: silky, soulful delicacies, full of rare grooves.

Over the course of their career, De La Soul continued to criticise the direction of mainstream hip-hop, in tracks from ‘Me Myself and I’ to ‘Ego Trippin (Part Two)’, ‘Stakes Is High’ and ‘Trying People’. As they aged, the group’s two emcees gave up the fun noms de plume in exchange for more understated rap names, like an animal sloughing off a carapace: Posdnuos went by ‘Pos’ and Trugoy the Dove became ‘Dave’. The cover art for their second album, De La Soul Is Dead (1991), showed an overturned daisy pot. In the video for ‘Stakes Is High’ (1996), the trio are seen folding laundry and emptying a dishwasher. It was an image of the rapper as everyman, and a way of still standing apart, not selling out to a big money image, pledging fealty to no one but themselves. ‘ABOMUNISTS JOIN NOTHING BUT THEIR HANDS OR LEGS, OR OTHER SAME.’

It feels cosmically unfair that Jolicoeur died less than a month before De La Soul’s first six albums at last become available on digital streaming platforms, where new generations will be able to listen to them. For several years, the group were in a dispute with their label, Tommy Boy Records. They regained legal control of their music in 2021, and the full back catalogue will be released on 3 March. In his poem ‘Dolorous Echo’, Kaufman wrote: ‘When I die,/I won’t stay/Dead.’ R.A.P. Ferreira, who was born three years after 3 Feet High and Rising came out, recorded a version of ‘Abomunist Manifesto’ in 2019.