Only a handful of rap groups can be bandied about as G.O.A.T: Wu-Tang, Outkast, EPMD, Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, UGK, The Geto Boys, and De La Soul. If you need an introduction to the De La — Posdnuos, Dave/Trugoy the Dove, and Maseo — you obviously haven't listened to their seminal first four albums.
Since the release of their most recent full-length, 2004's The Grind Date, the trio has largely kept quiet, save for receiving a VH1 Hip-Hop Honors Award, playing last year's Rock the Bells, and turning the Gorillaz' “Feel Good Inc,” into a Grammy-winning, radio-conquering smash. This week, the Plug Ones announced their return, with Are You In?, an iTunes-only Nike Run Mix, that finds them following in the footsteps of Aesop Rock, LCD Soundsystem, and A-Trak.
How did you get involved with Nike in the first place?
Posdnuos: It was 2003, and we were doing San Diego Street Scene. At the same time, we had stepped into an event called ASR, where we ran into some of the SB cats who usually handle skateboarding and surfing for Nike. They were coming down to the Street Scene show, and we exchanged numbers.
Several weeks later, they came up with the idea of us doing a dunk, and that shifted into doing two dunks, and we wound up forging relationships with other entities throughout the Nike corporation–it led to us doing shows for Nike for their marathons, and then one of the key people in the organization, Don Baxter, asked us if we wanted to do a Run album with vocals, like an actual De la Soul album for Nike.
It was great working on the project, and we stand behind it 100 percent. This is a De La album, not something for Nike. We'll be performing these tracks live, and we feel very comfortable about them.
Are you guys at all into working out?
Some of us are. All of us have dabbled with working out, and we're very aware of our health. Out of the entire group, I think try to stick with it the most–when we're on the road, I always hit a gym, try to do some cardio, lift some weights. But like any normal person who works out, it's hard to be incredibly dedicated when you don't have someone motivating you. That was the cool thing about working on this project, the project became the second person next to me. I worked out to it, and ran to it. They even gave it to the Nike runners to run to, and test out.
Mos Def recently compared De La Soul to Steely Dan in the way your music was thought out structurally. Do you agree and if so, can you expound on that idea. It seems that when hip-hop stopped having groups, the songwriting became more limited.
That's an excellent compliment because I respect Steely Dan's music so much. We consider them some of the greatest songwriters structurally, and I'd say that it's hopefully a fair assessment with what we've tried to do in our little realm of hip hop. We were blessed to learn a lot from Prince Paul when we first came up and we inspire each other via the formula of always trying to add different things and making sure that the structural plan has an element of surprise. One of the great lessons we learned from Paul is that we're willing to try trying anything out sonically. We do our best to not just write anything, even a fun song essentially about rhyming, we'll strain to pick the best antonym, the right verb. We don't just smoke some weed, write a song, and lay it down immediately.
You mention how valuable Paul was in mentoring De La. I had the chance to interview Busta Rhymes recently, and he mentioned how valuable Chuck D was in guiding his career early on. Do you think this idea of mentoring is absent in the industry today?
Definitely. Back then, you had people like Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen working hands-on and focusing on actual artistry. If you listen to hip-hop today, at least from the artist side, there's so much business talk. Jeezy talks about handling his paper, and Jay-Z too. Maybe its the people surrounding them who bring in this sort of business element–which is fine–but that doesn't mean that the creative side needs to lack too. I think embracing the business side too readily can often overshadow the creativity, especially among groups and artists who lack the right mentoring.
This artist might know how to make money, but he might not know how to stay out of trouble, nor how to do a correct stage show. We were blessed to have Prince Paul, or LL to sit us down and drop knowledge on our first big tour, or a Chuck D to sit us down. Doug E. Fresh would see us and give us pointers all the time. It was part of the world they had emerged from, where maybe a Red Alert or a Bambaataa would help the up and coming dudes learn how to become artists. Now it's like, 'I signed you, let's get this money.'
Do you think part of this stems from the complete break-down of the major label system thanks to corporate mergers, the Telecom act, and illegal downloading?
It's definitely lacking. Even when we signed to Tommy Boy in '88, you had an A&R dept that helped to the artist and had their repertoire correct. I remember even when they signed Yummy [Bingham], Arista had Sylvia Rhone to make sure that she had people to do her hair, to ensure that she dressed right, conducted interviews properly. Now no one has that unless you're a mega-star like Beyonce.
Do you feel that a song like “Stakes is High” has become even more relevant today?
I do. I think that the energy we put into that a song was similar to that of what Marvin Gaye put into, “What's Going On.” I look back on people like that and think about how they had that moment of clarity, where they looked around them and at things decaying in their society–whether it's music or life, that's where “Stakes is High” was at. That's where we were as young fathers and getting along, trying to be some sort of pioneer at what we were doing, looking up to people we were truly respecting.
I've always thought that was one of the things that's enabled De La Soul's catalogue to be so timeless. It's this ability to capture a sense of a moment in time, while steering clear of a need to capture a hot trend or ephemeral fad.
Exactly. I think you can break down each album and the making of each album, and freeze-frame it as a snapshot of us at that moment in time. Even down to our name–when we were deciding on a name, I was already thinking about how it would stand up in 20 years. People were adding themselves “Ski's” onto their name, or they would call try to rip off BDP Crew. Everyone had Crew in their name.
We knew that we needed a need a timeless name, and the same approach went into making songs. It wasn't about the current dance going on or what iconography was in. That's what separates groups, take a song like “My Adidas,” Run-DMC picked a company that's blessed to still be around. They could have just as easily been rapping about their Ellesses. We were definitely trying to write cool, funny songs, rather than dwelling on every symbol that was in.
What's your plan now, are you guys working on another album?
We are, it's called, You're Welcome. We have some tracks already assembled, one is called, “Some Kind of Nature.” We did it with Damon Albarn and it's dope. We have a song called “Peoples” with Public Enemy.” We had to put it on hold, to get everything technically and creatively right with the Run Mix, but we're going to head back in the studio soon to try to finish it up.
Are you releasing it on a label, or are you thinking about releasing it yourselves?
We're blessed to still have people around and talking to us. We're good friends with Dante Ross, and support what his label is doing. However, we're looking at putting it out ourselves. We have a great fan-base who supports what we do, and helps keep us keep going in terms of selling albums. Also, the 20-year anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising came up recently, and we've talked to Warner Bros about re-issuing it and adding cool things to it–one of the thoughts was to possibly pair the new album to the re-issue.
Early in your career, De La found themselves pigeonholed as “hippie rappers,” have you paid any attention to the similarly awkward titled hipster rappers, and do you feel they're being unfairly boxed in.
We were definitely victims of that sort of press–sometimes, it's easier to understand something with a label, rather than allowing it to be outside of its box and fall where it may. We had a chance to hook up with a lot of them on last year's Rock the Bells tour, and whether it's Kidz in the Hall or even someone like Gym Class Heroes, it's good to see people try to express themselves outside of the norm. It's at the point, where the press is tired of eating the same cracker.
Now is this a movement? I don't see it as a movement. These are groups that have a way of expressing themselves–and the labels are now signing them because they see that they might make money. Some will fade out and some will end up having great longevity–out of the pack, I definitely think Wale and Jay Electronica are going to stick around for a long while.
Do you feel that sometimes the emphasis on fashion comes at expense of content?
Yeah, honestly, expressing yourself through clothing in hip-hop, has been around forever. Even that portion of our lives in the 3 Feet High and Rising-era, yeah sure we cut peace signs in our hair, and wore dashikis, but what I loved about it was how we killed it off on the second album. What we are is the sound and how it's going to continue to grow. We didn't want people to get stuck on the physical attributes, because so many great groups have gotten stuck like that.
Take a great group like Onyx, the fact that they had bald heads tended to overshadow the music, and by the time their next album rolled around people don't want to listen. Snoop had to grow out of that and evolve. A lot of groups from the same street didn't necessarily put gang culture up front. Maybe people didn't want to keep listening to listen to Jayo Felony–even though he was dope–because they allowed a color, a flag, a rag, a peace sign or the way you cut your hair to be at the forefront of consciousness.
We've also looked at lyrics as our anchor, or else–how you look—stifles how far you can can go. Yeah, it was cool to dress crazy, but it had to become more about the music or else who would still care?
You guys have a pretty massive hit with the Gorillaz's “Feel Good.” Did you see that coming, or was it a huge surprise?
I definitely didn't see “Feel Good” coming. We knew a little bit about the Gorillaz and shared mutual friends, so when the opportunity to do “Feel Good” came about, we were like, “why not?” They sent us tracks, we heard them, thought they were crazy, etc. The song we ended up picking was “Kids With Guns.” We went out to London and recorded it with Damon and thought it was an incredible song. Our third day of recording, Damon played us “Feel Good,” and everyone thought it was so cool. There were so many clouds of weed smoke around, and Dave just started writing to it, and we had no idea what would come of it, but it turned out wonderfully. Now, the relationship between us and Gorillaz is like family, when we go to London they show us love, when they come to NYC, it's the same.
How hard is it to please fans of your original, funnier material now that you've grown up?
It's something that we've taken under consideration since the first album. We knew that we could make another 3 Feet High, and it was, of course, what Tommy Boy wanted, but they knew that we weren't going to give it to them.
People have approached me and told me that it took them six years to understand De La Soul is Dead. We fully get that, and now it's just par for the course, it's not about trying to capitalize on this atom we split, or something beautiful that we previously made.
People still come up to me at the airport, and they're like “Potholes in My Lawn is the shit.” It's good that people appreciate that, and I understand where they're coming from. For a lot of people, 3 Feet High and Rising was the soundtrack to their youth, and now as we're aging men and women, we still gravitate towards what we lived when we were in high school and college. Whether it's De La or Biggie, or what have you.
Random Question: What was the O in Oodles of O's?
That was something silly that Dave came up with. What's cool about the group is not knowing what your friend is talking about sometimes. At the end of the day, I just interpreted it as making a song about stuff that ended in o's. The O endings were the Oodles of Os. When you hear the song, your ears are literally hearing oodles of O's.
Early in your career, there were stories about y'all fighting dudes on stage. Did people still step up to you guys after you set the record straight on De La Soul is Dead?
In terms of altercations, a lot of artists were victims to that, whether it was us or NWA or the Beastie Boys. On our first big tour, it was us, LL Cool J, NWA, Kane, Public Enemy, and a bunch of other dudes. All of us groups were about protecting each other, because if there were always groups of guys jealous because we had tons of girls around.
De La was no different from Scoob and Scrap or NWA, it was just that we weren't supposed to fight because we were these 'hippies.' We weren't into fighting or overcompensating, it was about protecting ourselves. If Kane had a beef, we came to the aid of him. Same with Ren and Cube and LL people. Being De La Soul made us stick out like a sore thumb, but really that's how it was at the time.
How was working with Maceo Parker? The whole Buhloone Mindstate album was really ahead of its time in terms of instrumentation, what are your thoughts on that one years later?
Working with Maceo was amazing. We always considered ourselves students of music, no matter how well known our songs got. To get to work with someone like that who we respected so much, and to hear what he's gone through in music was a blessing. It was incredibly valuable from a musician's standpoint to see how a guy like Maceo vibed just like me, Dave and Q-Tip. We saw how masterful they were from an instrumental standpoint, and we ended up getting it all on video, Fred Wesley playing the trumpet, and Maceo on sax, and us, pulling out the pen and writing.
They were just off the charts in their knowledge of music theory and they could put together astonishingly complex pieces in such a short amount of time. They made three songs for us in one day, and they weren't tossed off, they were well put-together and thought-out songs. We also managed to get a little bit of downtime with them and they'd tell us incredible stories about being on the road, and cutting “I'm Black and I'm Proud,” and walking it down to the radio station that same day. They were such sweet gentlemen.
The collaboration with Teenage Fanclub, “Fallin” also sticks out as another ostensibly bizarre collaboration that still stands the test of time. How did that come about?
We actually went to the studio, and they started pairing up different artists, and we could've been paired up with familiar names. But we didn't know who Teenage Fanclub were at the time, so we picked them. When we did the song with them, we were in Scotland, and we had no idea what we were going to do. I think they might have been a little in awe of us at first, but when they saw that we were normal dudes they calmed down. We're both musicians obviously, so we just started vibing and we happened to be sitting in a little reception area outside the studio, and Tom Petty's “Freefallin'' video came on.
I've always been the person in the group, who when he hears certain words I take it and apply it to a certain thing. It started as a joke, hey, let's make a song based off a Tom Petty video. Then Dave said, let's spin it about us falling off as a rappers. So we went to the store, bought the Tom Petty CD, and based it around the song. Then we got the bassline from “Nobody Beats the Biz,” the Steve Miller sample, and a snippet of Petty's voice and it came together pretty fast.
What are your thoughts about the current blending between rap, rock, and dance music?
I definitely feel some of the rap/rock stuff is homegrown, and that's where the trend seems to be going: making these fast keyboard songs to get play inside the clubs. People still say, 'why don't we use this' or make a song like Usher for the clubs, they try to put together a formula because they think it's what people want to hear. Then you have people like Kanye, who is very honest about what he's grown up listening to, and what he's inspired by. Think about it, the most early of forms of hip-hop featured Bambaataa DJing these incredible songs, and the average person didn't even realize it was a white dude making the record.
We grew up on that first generation of MTV, incorporating stuff like Thomas Dolby, Flock of Seagulls, and Robert Palmer. You'd add it to your life. It's about the feeling as well as the song. It's the the energy and that link between hip hop and punk, that energy, that need to rebel, you can feel it in the energy of the music itself. That's why I love the music. Groups coming up today feel compelled to have this big radio hit, rather than accepting it for what it is. I was watching a Journey video recently, and this is one of the biggest groups ever, and their videos cost little or nothing to make–just footage of them on tour, playing on their tour bus. And here we are, spending millions of dollars to be heard in a club, or to get on 106th and Park. We've had BET reject our videos for being too intelligent, but fuck it, we have to do what we have to do.
You mentioned Wale earlier, I don't know if you head his “Perfect Plan” cut from his Mixtape About Nothing, but it's a pretty scathing critique of the fans for not supporting artists properly. What are your thoughts about that, illegal downloading, and how it impairs veteran artist's ability to make a living.
It comes down to the infrastructure of the music and the fans. I remember when I first was introduced to the Ramones and The Clash, they blew me away. You can find out that some soul artist or something sold more than them put together, but they wouldn't get the same respect. The problem is we only respect who's selling records at this moment in time. It's become a point of bragging for rappers, 'I sell more records than you.'
“The Blueprint” may or may not have sold as many albums as Ja Rule, but no one's ever going to tell you that Jay-Z didn't come harder. Vanilla Ice sold more than all of us, does that negate what we did? Three Feet High and Rising sold more than Criminal Minded, that doesn't mean I can look down on KRS. Busta Rhymes is incredible whether he goes platinum or wood.
It goes into where hip hop is today. The fans relate to the music knowing how much it sold. Your little cousin knows how many records Lil Wayne sold, but back in the day, kids didn't know how many records Menudo sold, they just knew that they liked them. Artists become disposable because this year they don't sell as many records as last year. But that isn't what the genre is really about, nor is what music's about. It's about, do you enjoy the record or not. I have no idea how many records, Aja sold, I still know that It's one of my favorites, whether it sold more than Countdown to Ecstasy or Pretzel Logic.
Are there any goals left you still haven't achieved/what can we expect from y'all in the future?
I feel so blessed to be able to keep putting out music, and having people still find out about our music. To understand where we were in '88 and where we are now, still around, it's a blessing. I'm going to be 40 this year, and to have people still talk to me about our music means so much to me, it moves and inspires me.
That's bigger than any award, or getting accepted into the Rock and Roll of Fame. If we do end up accepted there, it will be amazing, we understand what that legacy means. Having my father getting to watch us receive the VH1 hip-hop honors award was an amazing and truly humbling experience for me. To have anyone take the time to allow you to be a part of their life, I feel truly blessed. To have you take this 45 minutes to listen to me, means a lot. I don't know you, or the people who read this, but for us to have this common ground, and for y'all to care what I'm doing and documenting–that's an incredible reward.
Full Disclosure: The promotional campaign for the De La Soul Nike collaboration included Nike trainers and an iPod loaded with mix, which I accepted (though they haven't shown up yet).