25 years before De La Soul received their first group album Grammy nomination for and the Anonymous Nobody…, they released their much-anticipated sophomore effort De La Soul is Dead. Taking the wall of sound, sample-collage style that won people over with 3 Feet High and Rising debut, Dave, Posdnuos, and Maseo upped the ante by injecting their style with newly discovered anger. Critics ate it up, as they hit their critical zenith with The Source awarding them a then much-coveted 5-mic rating. Some fans, however, were left scratching their heads over the dramatic change from positive to pissed off.
Though most of the group’s fans were unaware, several real life stressors were at the source of the De La’s venomous lyrical content. A $1.7 million dollar sample-clearance lawsuit from their first album, frequent brawls with people who thought they were soft, and their subsequent removal from an LL Cool J tour all played a role in stoking the group’s fury.
And as De La dealt with fist fights and financial stress, they were also dealing with the scary truths of adulthood. “When we made 3 Feet High and Rising, we were younger and had less to worry about,” Pos told Spin in a 1991 interview. “Once it took off life got hectic, friendships and relationships changed, and we went through the whole nine of being in the public eye. Negative things happen and you learn how to deal with them.”
Several of the negative things that Pos mentioned were happening in his own backyard. His older brother’s struggles with drugs drove him to write “My Brother’s a Basehead,” and “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” perhaps the album’s darkest cut, was also inspired by real-life events.
“Whatever we see, whether it’s from within us or what we learn or see in the streets, that’s what we write about.’’ — Posdnuos
On “Millie”, Dave and Posdnuos act as narrators, painting a disturbing tale of a high school friend who is sexually abused by her father. The father Dillon — a model citizen, Pos’s social worker, and a volunteer Santa at Macy’s during the holiday season–is a monster within the walls of his own home. It’s a horrifying tale of the evil that can exist next door in our own communities. Riding a somber Parliament loop, Pos tells the listener about the terrible suffering his friend Millie endures on a regular basis.
A young Dave and Pos showed remarkable maturity with how they handled such delicate subject matter. Rhyming about something as dark and disturbing as incest and rape is not an easy task and it can be difficult to illuminate the issue without seeming insensitive. Both rappers succeed–they make the listener feel sympathy for Millie without exploiting her while also bringing awareness to the important issue of sexual abuse.
“When we made 3 Feet High and Rising, we were younger and had less to worry about. Once it took off life got hectic.” — Posdnuos
Though “Millie” evokes sympathy, the song also touches on the denial that victims of abuse often face when they try to talk to someone about their situation. When Millie tries to talk to Dave about her father’s perverse behavior and asks for help locating a loaded pistol, his response is dismissive and unsympathetic.
He ends his verse by saying, “Yeah, whatever you say, go for ya self” when Millie tells him she’s going to get a gun somewhere else if he won’t help her. Dave’s denial of what’s happening may seem harsh, but given our country’s embarrassing history of rape apology and sexual abuse victim blaming, it’s also very believable.
At the end of the story, Millie gets her hands on a pistol and sets out to rid the world of Dillon. Pos brings home the surrealness of the final confrontation between Millie and her father as a department store Santa with the line, “None of the kids could understand what was the cause, All they could see was a girl holdin’ a pistol on Claus.” Millie shoots her father dead and the song comes to an abrupt end, leaving the future of Millie and the other characters in the song to the listener’s imagination.
Although the dramatic climax of “Millie” didn’t happen in real life, the storyline of an abused friend was very real. “I know a young friend who was going through that, her father was abusing her,” Pos revealed to Spin. “I was really upset about that and just applied it to wax — that’s all that was.”
The Architect Speaks: Read along as De La producer Prince Paul explained what made the group’s music so imperfectly great.
As it stands, a quarter of a century later, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” is one of the all-time great storytelling rap records. It’s a necessary punch to the gut for a society that often denies, hides, and mishandles cases of rape and sexual abuse. With the recent exposure of the Trump tapes and the ensuing “locker room talk” bullshit defending our president-elect, the song seems relevant now more than ever. Hopefully in the near future, record labels can resolve the antiquated and ridiculous copyright laws that are keeping De La Soul is Dead out of streaming services and iTunes so more listeners can rediscover this remarkable song.