It was over a few stressful minutes last summer that I rediscovered my love for De La Soul. I was getting ready for my brother's wedding, tying my tie in the hotel mirror. Shellie must have seen the vertigo in my face, and she suggested I take a break. I put on "Trying People," the last track on the last De La Soul album, and sat down, just listening and breathing. The song is about facing the rest of your life, and it's by guys clearly not ready for the rest of their lives.
Got fans around the world, but my girl's not one of 'em
And my relationship's a big question
Cuz my career's a clear hindrance to her progression
Said she needs a man and our kids need a father
I'm not at all ready to hear her say don't bother
For people who have grown up listening to them, and listened to them grow up, De La Soul remain among the few groups of any genre who consistently matter. Which isn't to downplay the fun they have, or the fun we have. Watching Mase bear his shining Buddha belly at First Avenue a couple years ago remains one of the happiest spectacles in my live rap memory.
What I'm trying to say is this: It was a loss to more than De La Soul when the mass audience overlooked 2001's AOI: Bionix. And now I wonder whether we'll lose De La Soul themselves...
A month ago, I called Sequence Records/Ultra Records in New York to find out what was keeping the new De La Soul album. The release date for SFS: Spit Flows & Safety (It Ain't Safe in the Water) had been pushed back for months, to April 3. A world tour was set to kick off March 25, and I hoped to hear an advance copy of the album before then.
Turns out SFS had been dropped from the label's schedule altogether. Why? Apparently, De La Soul weren't getting along, couldn't even stand being in the same studio together.
This rumor struck me as odd: First of all, SFS required only a few tracks from them--the album has been advertised as a compilation, with classics from Nas, GZA, Large Professor, and many others. Besides, at least two De La Soul tracks were already in the can: The group performed "Much More" (the b-side of their promotional single with dancehall don Sean Paul, "Shoomp") in a video that aired earlier this month on (Dave) Chappelle's Show. (The short shows the trio sharing close quarters inside a bus.)
What's more, the tour is going ahead on schedule: De La Soul received good notices for a performance at the We the Planet Festival in San Francisco on Easter Sunday. They have two concerts in Minnesota next week: at Carleton College on May 3, and at First Avenue on May 4. (Side note: Opener Brother Ali's own new album sounds great, though I've only heard selections on 2 The Break-A-Dawn).
Anyway, I'd be happy for De La Soul to dispel these rumors, if they ever get around to doing interviews. But in the meantime, I can't help noticing the obvious: It's been a tough year for De La Soul.
Back in March of 2002, when the album was going to be the third in a planned Art Official Intelligence trilogy, De La Soul's label of 13 years, Tommy Boy, sold off its hip-hop assets to Warner Music Group. The transaction resulted in the trio being stranded on Elektra (a Warner subsidiary) for the millisecond that it took Elektra to size up De La Soul's sales figures and summarily drop them.
The music industry is imploding, sure, and life sucks. But De La Soul are considered one of the most consistently great hip-hop groups of all time. When Tommy Boy reissued the 1989 debut last fall, with a bonus disc of single mixes and rare tracks, it only framed and focused what admirers from the start felt peripherally: that pop music, never mind hip hop, would be still catching up for decades. (A singles collection is due out on Rhino this spring.) Now many are coming around to the idea that De La Soul have yet to release an album that isn't "classic."
Contrary to fashionable opinion, corporate synergy and promotional payola really do buy something. And they really do take away something from those who aren't buying. Still, De La Soul are buying what they can afford these days: Upon closer examination, the Dave Chappelle opportunity looks like the usual confluence of business interests: Corey Smyth, the show's musical director and talent booker, also happens to be CEO of Black Smyth Management, which promotes De La Soul.
The group is on Sequence, an admirable but small indie specializing in hip-hop compilations. There's no shame in De La Soul making (or breaking) their home there, of course: I love Sequence CDs. But it's still hard not to feel as if De La Soul got lost somewhere in a shuffle that's bigger than them, bigger than hip hop, and way smaller than music.