Still complicated: the De La Soul interview
painting by Ricardo Reyes
Two weeks ago, De La Soul gathered around a speaker phone in New York City to answer some questions from me about their lives since meeting in the 1980s at Amityville Memorial High School in Long Island, New York.
I've been a fan of hip-hoppers Posdnous (born Kelvin Mercer, August 17, 1969, a.k.a. Plug 1), Dave (born David Jude Jolicouer September 21, 1968, a.k.a. Trugoy the Dove, Plug 2), and Maseo (born Vincent Mason March 27, 1970, a.k.a. PA Pasemaster Mase, the DJ) since I first heard "Me, Myself and I" on Washington, D.C., radio in 1989. That means I've had 15 years to prepare these questions. Unfortunately, I've also had 15 years to procrastinate. So enjoy the haphazard results of a freeranging conversation about eggs, crack, and not being as cool as Chingy...
Hey, what's up.
Posdnous and Dave: Hey.
Are you on a speaker phone?
Pos and Dave: Yeah.
I thought I'd start with this: Old people are supposed to make the same records, over and over again. But that's not the way it worked out with you guys...
Dave: Yeah, not really. I guess a part of it is not paying attention to what everyone else is doing. A lot of people are just copying the next [guy]. Us, we don't pay attention to what's happening around us.
We try to invest our lives in our music. So if you're talking about what you're going through every day, and your experiences, it's destined to be new and fresh, each album and each record. We're not the kind of group that's going to sit there and talk about how hard it was to struggle to get out the neighborhood, or get out of the ghetto, or whatever it was that you felt trapped in, on each record. I wake up today, and it's raining, I might make a song about it raining. I wake up tomorrow, and I got to fly to go do a concert somewhere, I might write about that.
But you're also trying a lot of new things stylistically. Your flows on this album are different from the last one, and the one before that...
Posdnous: We definitely just love music. And we pay attention to, and take in, musics of all types, and ideas from everywhere.
Honestly, I think a lot of other artists, they've taken the same things, but sometimes they live under the unfortunate rule that, you know, "I love Fiona Apple, I love looking at Sex and the City, but when the rap camera turn on, I'm going to turn into this hardcore rapper that only talks about the streets."
But when you meet them, or you see them outside of that, you see they read books, you see they may be reading The Da Vinci Code. They may be doing other things. But they can't put inspiration from anywhere else into that arena of being an artist.
I think we've just never had any problems doing that. We've always had positive encouragement from people like Prince Paul, as far as, like, "Yeah, I know you love Rakim and Kool G Rap and Juice Crew and BDP, but the way you're doing your stuff now as De La Soul, and trying other things, that's great." We've always had that reinforcement to continue to do like that. And that's what's helped us to continue to go where we have been, from Point A.
1989 tour poster with L.L. Cool J, N.W.A., Slick Rick, Too Short, and De La Soul
You mentioned Prince Paul. Did you guys ever have a manager giving you direction?
Dave: We've always had managers. In the early days we were managed by Rush, Russell [Simmons] and Kimora Lee [Simmons]. We've had road managers in the early stages that then turned around and became our managers. And now we work with a manager and his company called Blacksmith. I mean, those are the individuals that definitely reenforce where we're going with our careers, and make sure that we're out there working. Those individuals are the ones who are booking tours, and getting us the deal to do an Apple commercial, going into the label in the past and talking to, like, Tommy Boy, and trying to negotiate certain things for us.
But for the most part, you know, we are definitely always involved in the business end of things, and obviously the creative end of things. We influence our managers. We tell them what direction we'd like to go in. There's been people there, but they haven't directed us where to go with our careers, and how to do it, and where to go with our lives. They've just been a reinforcement, something underneath us, just in case we slip through the cracks and forget things.
I saw you guys on Chappelle's Show last year. Was Blacksmith the connection there?
Dave: Absolutely. Well, you know what? Not really. We bumped into Dave Chappelle doing a show one time in Ohio. He was around, hanging out, and came out onstage and cracked jokes with us. So we all hung out then.
We kind of introduced Dave to Blacksmith, and from then on, Dave just being around our circle, they formed a relationship. The involvement and the introduction are sometimes separate. I'm not trying to take props on who introduced who to Dave Chappelle. But we just bumped into the dude, and he's been a good friend since, and then, obviously, when we had to transcend it to take care of business, Blacksmith came into play.
Is Maseo there with you right now?
Dave: Uh, Maseo is somewhere looking for some eggs.
Where are you guys? Are you in New York?
Dave: We're actually in New York, yeah.
Where are you based now, where do you guys live?
Dave: We're kind of spread out, you know. New York is always going to be home for all of us, but we spread out. We have families, and we're just trying to take care of the personal end of our lives as opposed to, you know, always just concentrating on our careers.
We felt like it was time to think about our children and where we would like for them to grow up. In better schools, I guess. Trying to get more for your buck as well. We're all on the East Coast, we're spread out between Miami, Atlanta, and Maryland. So we stay close to each other, regardless. And when it comes time to work, we all just come up to New York and take care of business. We all shipped out of New York, maybe three years now.
I'm actually in Maryland.
And, I'm sorry, Posdnous is in...?
I see. That can't be easy for group inspiration. How do you interact with each other? Do you call each other?
Posdnous: Yeah, it's pretty much the same as when we were living maybe five, ten minutes away from each other in Long Island. Mase was right around the corner from me in East Mass, and Dave was only five minutes from us in Amityville. But you know, phones and technology make you come together a little bit quicker. If Mase wants us to hear a beat, he instant-messages it to us. I mean, like, technology just plays a part in all of it. Plus, we've been blessed to always be able to do shows, and continue to work, so we usually see each other still damn near more than we see our families, anyway.
You mention your daughter on this record, and your family on the last one. Has it been hard getting back into music now, with your family and all?
Pos: It can go through different phases. For me, it's a really good phase. For me, you know, it's not a situation where all of the stuff that I was talking about on "Trying People," it's definitely not that for me, at this point. But even in saying that, it's still always hard, you know, just to miss things with your children. When I talk to my daughter, and she's blessed to be able to have this drive to do well in school, and it's a possibility that she can skip the second grade, and she's so proud, and she wants me to know these things... I just miss certain events that go on. So I mean, it can be trying.
One of the hardest things, for me personally, is when your kids get used to you being away. Like, at first they always say, "Where's daddy, why didn't he come to this?" But [my daughter], she's 12 now, so I mean, she's used to it. It's like no big deal. So I show up, it's like, "Oh wow you're here!" That can sometimes be a little troubling.
How does she regard your work?
Pos: She loves it. You know? She's just proud of her father. I'm her father at the end of the day, so even when it comes down to seeing me in the studio, and understanding things that I do, she's been through it. She's sharp from the beginning. My youngest kids, you know, it's real new to them. My son, he's the youngest, so I mean, he doesn't really understand it. A lot of times when I say I'm at work, he just thinks that means I'm in New York. He really doesn't know what that really means. I mean, he saw the De La Soul doll with the astronauts. So when he talks to his teacher, he thinks I'm an astronaut.
How old is he?
Pos: He's four.
What else does your 12-year-old listen to?
Pos: Anything typical of a 12-year-old. She loves B2K. She was mad when they broke up. Chingy. You know, the normal stuff that pumps on the different radio stations and video stations. But me being a father, and trying to show her different things to listen to, she latches upon that. She knows who Mos Def is due to the Def Poetry thing, but she knows him as Dante because she was around most when he was recording Stakes Is High. So she has an attachment to different things because of just being around me. But she's just a normal 12-year-old girl. She loves what's out there, and she's into putting posters on the wall of the cute little rappers, JaQuan and all that shit.
Maseo: Clash fan out looking for eggs
Do you guys remember the exact moment you met? Like, what class were you in? Or was it outside of school?
Dave: We were smoking crack.
Pos: Me and Dave, I knew his brother, man. Me and his brother was in the same grade. So I always saw him [Dave] from afar. I always saw him...
Maseo: Smoking crack on the corner...
Pos: We started talking when me and him had a summer school class together, and we started hanging out from that point. Mase, he was just some big-ass kid who was, like, 12, looked like he was 30, walking around fucking school. We was like, "Look at this Brooklyn nigga, he going to get beat up." And he was always in fights. So I was like, yeah, man...
Maseo: [in background] It was the opposite. [cackling laughter]
Pos: I was like, look at this nigga like George Foreman walking around here. Who the hell does he thing he is?
Maseo: [inaudible] You know what I mean?
Pos: But also Mase DJs...
Is that Maseo in the background?
Dave: He walked in, he's kind of mad.
What did he say? It was the opposite? You can come up to the speaker phone there, Mase.
Maseo: Yeah, son, I'm fucking them niggas up on Long Island. You know what I mean? [laughter] How you doing, man?
I'm all right, how are you?
Maseo: I'm good. I'm good.
Well you guys were saying...
Maseo: I met Dave at English class.
Dave: Yeah, we met each other at school. Mase used to always get in trouble in class. The teacher used to always tell him to get in gear. And he was always, you know...
Maseo: You a goddamned liar! [laughter]
Dave: We met each other in high school, pretty much. And, um, it was just an interest in music. Back in the days, obviously, hip hop was something that we enjoyed doing, it was the culture, it was always going on in our neighborhoods, from parties to just contests.
We had a thing called Amityville Day where there'd be like performances and guys getting up there and DJing or what have you. So it was something we enjoyed doing in the neighborhood. But then, when you had like groups getting together and people having battles and talent shows or what have you, it was like, well, we got something, too, let's try something. Let's put ourselves together and see if we can make something work, and it went on from there. But it began with just friends meeting each other in high school and just working on some music.
Were you guys ever embarassed by anything you put onto a record? Was anything too personal or too silly, in retrospect?
Pos: I mean for me, personally, I don't think so. I think that when we were making it at the time, it can be something that you're into, and I think it can be things that one person may like more than the other. But I think it's like anything. Like when you look back at something you was wearing... Like when we see pictures of ourselves from back in the day, you can be like, "Wow, I can't believe I wore that, or I tried that."
Pos: For me, songs are like that, too. It's like, I can listen to a song, and I can't believe I actually worded sentences like that. Or I even wanted to rhyme or whatever. Because the way you are now can change, but then you do realize that for that song back then, it was what it was. But there's a bunch of songs that I can't believe we did.
Pos: "Tread Water." I hate that shit. "Tread Water" is disgusting.
Dave: I like "Tread Water."
Pos: "Tread Water" is disgusting. Um, there's something else I hate. I don't really like "Pottholes [in My Lawn]." It never really came out the way it was supposed to. "Breakadawn," blech. Three days later it was like, "Hey, hey, hey..."
Dave: "Breakadawn," yeah, that's my record, too. I hate that shit.
Dave: Yeah. It's like, some songs you jump on. Some songs you feel like, "Oh, I got to do this. I got to write this." I never felt enthused about "Breakadawn," never felt like I had to do this record, like I was into sitting down and writing for it. It just didn't feel like a song I wanted to write for.
Maseo, what role do you find yourself playing in the studio? Are you sort of a buffer between these guys?
Dave: [deep voice] He just rolls the cheeba.
Maseo: [laughs] I roll up the herb to keep Dave, you know, nice and sedated. Certain songs he be disagreeing on, you know. I just throw in a little cheeba and he change...
Dave: [deep voice] Shut the fuck up, dude.
Maseo: Have him smoke out. And, you know, you have a difference in opinion later. You know what I'm saying? Songs like "Breakadawn" do get done. You know what I'm saying? Like, you might not feel strong on it, but once you light that L, it changes things.
Are you pretty much running the show in concert?
Maseo: Am I running the show? Yeah, I'm the one-man maestro. I'm the one-man band.
Why did it take so long for the new album to come out?
Maseo: Definitely going through the transition with Tommy Boy, them losing their catalogue to Warner Bros. and us working on trying to get out the WEA System. And also just trying to take time out like we normally do to be with family, to record as well, and also commit to touring, to go check the fans, and pretty much tour the last project.
I mean, really, when you think about it, it's only really been like maybe a two-year hiatus, 'cause you at least got to give the last album like a year to get some burn. So, all of the natural things that take place. There's life outside of hip hop. So once we do our amicable touring, and all of that, I got a family to go home to. I got to spend some time with them, just as much as I spend time witch yo ass, and the rest of the group. [laughs]
So how did you end up on Sanctuary?
Maseo: It was a mutual friend of ours that used to work at Tommy Boy, and they landed a position over at Sanctuary, so we got wind that they was making some moves over there with an urban division, and Mathew Knowles was partnering up with them to help develop the urban division, and he was hearing about our situation through the grape vine. And between what he's trying to accomplish and what we're trying to accomplish, it seemed like a good marriage.
It seemed weird to me that one of the great rap groups would be sort of floating without a label for a little while there...
Maseo: Well, for us, it was just about the freedom. We didn't mind floating. It was our own decision to do that. Being with Tommy Boy for so long, under a label situation for so long, it just felt good being free.
Dave: We actually asked for our release. We was like, we wanted to just for one second feel like we didn't have to answer or comply, or...
Maseo: Or meet anyone's demands.
Dave: Or meet anyone's demands for a minute. So, we always thought about what are we going to do next, what's going to happen, but we kind of wanted to enjoy that freedom as well.
How did you track down all these collaborators on The Grind Date?
Maseo: We bitch-slapped motherfuckers. [laughs]
Dave: There are some times when we sit down and say we'd love to work with this one or that one. But a lot of times, you hear the music and the music just calls for that artist. It's just like hearing a beat, and then saying we need a bass line to add to that, and this sounds like you can play the horn this way on it, or you can trip the sample up like this. It's just the same way. You hear it, like, "Wow, this sounds like Ghostface's voice should be on this record. It sounds like something that he would rhyme to." Or, "Doom could definitely freak the style of this song." So you hear a person in the music.
When I heard Redman's voice on "Oooh," it was only his voice I heard. We didn't hear anyone else's. That instrument and that tone, sonically how his voice was, and his whole cadence of how he comes across was perfect for that record. So you just hear the person's voice, or the person's art, or their cadence, or whatever it is they do, on the record, and you just ask, and hopefully they say yes.
I'm calling from Minneapolis, and here's a fan question: When are you coming back?
Maseo: Is Minneapolis on the tour?
Dave: Nah, probably not until after the New Year. But I'm sure we'll be coming back to First Ave. sometime soon.
Dave: I'm not familiar with them. Rhymesayer? I've heard of Atmosphere.
What was the session with Flavor Flav like?
Dave: Oh, shit, The Surreal World.
Maseo: I mean, yo, Flavor Flav, what you see is what you get. That's really what it is. Who he is on record, is who he is in person. And I think it's even a lot more, when you get to spend some time with him. You get to see different sides of Flavor, you know. Not just the character Flavor Flav, but you get to see the father figure, the grandfather, the...
Maseo: Yeah, the outright nigga. But he's definitely an icon. He is hip hop.
Do you guys think of yourselves as preachers?
Pos: Not at all, man.
Dave: Nah, we're not preachers, man, we're just people among people, talking. That's all we are, man. We talk about what everybody else is seeing as well.
We've never been far-fetched, and we've never talked down to people about what they should or should not do. An album like Stakes Is High wasn't to me a preachy record. Some people might think that. I think that record was a record of concern, and wanted to address issues that we personally felt, about where hip hop was. Even back in the days, when we made songs like "Nellie Pulled a Pistol," it was never nothing directed to certain individuals, it was just about our sentiments on what we felt on things. So we never really preached, we just talked about things...
Maseo: Mase from Bad Boy's a preacher. He's a devil!
What's some of the current music that you guys are into?
Maseo: I like that bitch and ho shit. That thug shit. That fuckin' incarcerated shit.
Dave: We listen to everything.
Maseo: That drug-sellin' shit. That's what I like.
Dave: We like the Common Senses and the Kanyes, but at the same time we pick up Jadakiss's album, and we pick up Jay-Z's album and we pick up Lloyd Banks's album as well. I would hate for people to think that De La Soul only listens to stuff that might fall under the same category in the same genre. We listen to everything, man, and it goes further than just hip hop.
You might find De La Soul listening to Coldplay. You might find De La Soul listening to Ben Folds Five. You might find De La Soul listening to the Rolling Stones. And then again, James Brown, Stephanie Mills, and Michael Jackson. We listen to whatever's good. And it doesn't matter if it's American, it could be music from the Islands, or other countries, or what have you.
Maseo: I actually play the Clash in my DJ set.
My time is up, but thank you so much.
Maseo: Where the Rhymesayers from?
They're from Minneapolis.
Maseo: You know about Muja Messiah?
He's from here as well.
Maseo: Yeah, he's hot.
Have you collaborated with him?
Maseo: Nah, I'd like to, though. I'd like to do something for him. I like Muja. Out of all the artists I've seen coming out of Minneapolis, he's the one I really like. I think he could be something.
Yeah, there's people like that everywhere with talent that just haven't caught the shine yet.
Dave: It's unfortunate. But sometimes we get the chance and the opportunity when we roll into town to see what's happening, so it's good for us.
Maseo: Muja Messiah's your guy, though. I think he really got something.
My favorite live band, Black-Eyed Snakes, performs today on Radio K's Off the Record (4:00 p.m. on KUOM-AM 770/KUOM-FM 106.5, or listen online) before heading to Northfield tonight, where they'll play the Cave with another cool band, the Keep Aways. Meanwhile, one of my favorite singers, Sara Softich (above, click here for more), plays a CD release party tonight at the 400 Bar with Rhode Island opener Mary Bue. That's where I'll be.
Both Brad Nelson in the Snakes and Sara are friends of mine in Duluth (where Mary Bue went to college), so I've refrained from writing too much about them in the paper. But Sara is a true talent: a passionate fiddler with an arresting voice you should hear. I love her songs about escaping the Iron Range, and the one about people there who drink to escape. The album she recorded at Sacred Heart Studios, Rusted and Bent, strikes me as the next new sound in indie country after Haley Bonar, her old roommate. Come down and I'll buy you a beer.