De La Soul: Our Crew Could Be Your Life
Dave, Posdnous, and Maseo on the cover of their gray album
The trio talks about leaving New York, leaving their label, and coming back home to hip hop.
(excerpted from a forthcoming article in Stereo-Type)
For a while it seemed as though De La Soul were no longer high and rising--just up in the air. After releasing six classic albums by the trio, Tommy Boy left the rap music business in 2002, passing the crew along to an indifferent Warner Music Group. New releases were announced on new labels, but nothing materialized. De La Soul kept their live commitments, never looking more joyful or assured onstage. But there were rumors of tension, and 2001's AOI: Bionix appeared to anticipate a crisis. "Baby Phat" embraced the physical middle that comes with age, but "Trying People" was more telling--a song about facing the rest of your life, written by guys obviously not ready to face 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
'Cause 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
Posdnous rapped those words not long after he saw the smoke of the World Trade Center from a window on an airplane circling over JFK. Within two years, all three members of De La Soul had moved out of New York: Pos to Atlanta, Maseo (the DJ) to Miami, and Dave (the rapper formerly known as Trugoy, or "Yogurt" spelled backwards) to Maryland. Before The Grind Date, which arrived October 5 on Mathew Knowles's new Sanctuary Urban label, fans could be forgiven for assuming De La Soul were off pursuing the quiet life.
In a sense, they were.
"We felt like it was time to think about our children, and where we would like for them to grow up," admits Dave, sharing a speakerphone with Posdnous and Maseo in New York City. "When it comes time to work, we all just come up to New York."
"It's pretty much the same as when Mase was right around the corner from me in East Mass," says Posdnous, "and Dave was only five minutes from us in Amityville. If Mase wants us to hear a beat, he instant-messages it to us."
For these old Long Island friends, The Grind Date is the culmination of a busy absence: Since their last album, the group launched a web site (www.spitkickers.com), created a message board, designed a shoe (Nike's "De La Dunk"), developed one independent label (Maseo's Bear Mountain Entertainment, www.bme.cc), started another (the group's AOI Records), delivered a guest lecture at New York University, released a greatest hits collection (without "Say No Go," "Eye Know," or "Trying People"), reissued their 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising (with a bonus disc of rare material), followed with a rarities collection (everything they've released is worth a listen), put out a live album, rapped over an Isley Brothers remix ("It's Your Thing," naturally), and established a chain of po boy sandwich shops in outer space. (OK, I made that last part up, but ever since Pos's four-year-old son saw the dolls based on the cover image of AOI: Bionix, he tells his teacher that his father is an astronaut.)
Along the way, De la Soul found time to assemble a rare cast of guests for the new album: Ghostface, MF Doom, Common, director Spike Lee, and Flavor Flav, the reborn star of The Surreal Life. Name producers dropped by to contribute their finest work: Madlib turns "Shopping Bags" (this year's "She Watch Channel Zero," for better and worse) into a halting shimmy of Coke-bottle percussion. What drew these ears is obvious. The slow motion funk, the grumpy honesty, the humane sense of humor--these are what makes De La Soul your grind music, your soundtrack, your substitute for breathing into a paper bag.
Even the group's battle songs are confrontationally nonconfrontational: "Stop fronting like you're hostile," Dave barks on "Verbal Clap," against a stadium stomp from producer Jay Dee. "You know that there's a booger rubbing up against your nostril."
And the haranguing message jams are less memorable as lyrics, more taken away with their ebullient musicality. It's as if De La Soul couldn't be mad at having company.
"We're not preachers," says Dave over the phone. "We're just people among people, talking."