Interview: Sanna King

Photos: Courtesy of De La Soul

De La Soul will release the new album And the Anonymous Nobody on August 26, the first full-length from the Long Island trio in 12 years. In anticipation of this new music, throughout the summer we are publishing articles and artifacts from Frank151‘s Chapter 37, the print edition that was curated by the group. The goal is to introduce new listeners to De La Soul as well as offer new insights for longtime fans of these hip-hop legends. We begin with an interview with all three members that explains how they came together and how, despite their differences with their contemporaries, they never really stood apart.

 

What were you guys like in high school?

Dave: We all went to high school with each other so we did have our little clique, our little vibe as teenagers. We were part of, I guess you could say, the in-crowd. We were different. Individually different, but also the little crew of people we had. We had our own language, used our own words, and dressed our own way.

When you first started out, where did you get the inspiration to go against the grain?

Posdnuos: I think it came with time. We were fans of any artist that was out during our years. We wanted to emulate them, from a lot of the earlier rappers, going all the way up until when Run-D.M.C. took it to another level. We stood in the mirror and tried to be like them. We didn’t necessarily go out of our way to be so different, we kinda just came into our own. Us being around each other helped push us more to do that. When you see like minds, they push you to try different things, because you got someone next to you feeling the same way, and other friends around you, they’ll look at you as weird.

It all came the same way with the music. In our neighborhood, everyone wanted to be with a crew, ’cause other rappers you idolized had a crew. And other rappers you idolized, they made tapes. And you would go to your friend’s house, whoever was the DJ, and you’d make tapes in their house. So the first group I was in with [Dave] was called Easy Street. Dave beatboxed, I was supposed to be the DJ, other kids was rhyming. And I think from there we had our own way of thinking and language and that came about once we met with Mase. It just got more and more into developing our own style of talking, rhyming a little bit different, even though we respected Rakim, or Kool G Rap, realizing, “Let’s not rhyme like them.” So it just kept building as years went on.

How has hip-hop changed over the last two decades?

P: I don’t think it’s made creative leaps and bounds as far as music, but just the fact that it’s accepted in so many corners of the world. It was always something that kids embraced, but how corporate America embraced it: “I can use this to sell what I need to sell, not only to the younger kids. They’ve grown up and maybe they relate to hearing something that they remember.” So hip-hop has definitely helped sell a lot of product.

Maseo: I think it’s changed. It’s definitely created a lot of economic opportunities, mainly for people who don’t even like hip-hop.

De La Soul

D: One of the biggest changes musically is that people aren’t sampling as much anymore. The method of hip-hop long ago, and for so long, was about sampling, emulating a lot of things. And people are emulating songs of the past, melodies, sounds, and what have you, but most of it seems like it’s being played [live], and that’s really different. What’s cool about it is that you’re finding that musicians now are becoming a part of what hip-hop is. We all had a sense of melody and harmony, but we were taking melodies and harmonies and making them match. Nowadays, a lot of producers are making the melodies up. So musically, that’s probably the biggest change—not sampling at all.

F151: What about lyrically?

D: It’s cool. As much as I like a Kool Keith of Ultramagnetic, at the same time, somebody like Lil Wayne can be as witty and as creative. I’ve heard 50 say some cool things just as I would say Common said some cool things. Lyrically, the game is still here. Of course there’s some bubblegum raps out there. For the most part, lyricists, MCs are still alive, and they’re still doing it just as a Mele Mel did it back in the day.

Do sales numbers and feedback from critics and fans affect the way you feel about an album once you’ve released it?

P: We are our biggest critics, and at the end of the day, if an album unfortunately didn’t sell the numbers that we wanted it to do, we as the creators of the album really feel like, yo, if we put what we wanted to put in it, that means a lot more to us. And we are a group that always tries to understand the business side of what’s going on, and we can feel like, oh, the label itself maybe didn’t help promote it well enough, or maybe the times may not allow for us to be in the light the way a younger or newer artist may be. But I think it was more based on how we feel the album came out and what we put into it for it to be a success, more than just the fact of selling records.

F151: There are a lot of artists—especially rappers—who come and go overnight. To what do you credit your longevity?

M: Being committed to ourselves, and secondly, to our fans. When we first started this, it was all about pleasing ourselves creatively. As long as we were happy with what we were doing, that’s really all that mattered. But then, it definitely became important that there was a large audience out there feeling the same way we feel. So we’re making our presence known by getting out on the road and doing a tour, like most artists won’t really do, especially in the days of selling records. We still always make a conscious effort to go on the road and give the fans a good performance. That’s a big part of giving back to them. When they spend to come to a concert, we look to give 110%, if not 150% of a good performance.

After a good deal of fame and, I would imagine, a fair amount of fortune, you guys never came off as egocentric or flashy.

D: It’s all determined by how much money you’re making. If you’re making $6 million, you’ll be buying Rolls Royces and million-dollar homes. If you’re making $500,000, maybe you’ll be going on vacations and buying a lot of sneakers. So I think everybody kind of does their own thing. We’ve all experienced it, we’ve all lived it, but when you weigh what’s more important—the idea of continuing a career like this and having the opportunity to meet people, travel, see things, and do bigger and better things—it becomes a lot more important than just living a flashy lifestyle. At the end of the day, who really cares? If you love a chain, or if you love a car, so be it. Enjoy it. But it doesn’t make you any better or any more popular or anything like that. We all realized that should be a personal thing you do on your own. It doesn’t really define your true accomplishments. The real accomplishment is when you get the fan who comes up and says, “You guys got me through school,” or “a tough time.” And we really, really, truly understand that. Throughout our years, it’s been more important than any material object or look or image.

The most important thing is sticking together as a group and hopefully pleasing our fans and people who’ve purchased the music.

M: I hate calling it the “flashy lifestyle.” It’s people’s comfort zone—what people are comfortable with, the luxuries they feel they can afford. It don’t become flashy until they start flashing. I never deny anybody of wanting to live comfortable and wanting to live luxurious, if you can afford to live it. It’s just a problem when they start flashing and you start talking about, “I have…I have…I have…And you don’t have.” That’s been a big part of the problem with the music. If you’re making $6 million a year and you live in a big mansion, I tip my hat.

Early on in your career you guys positioned yourself far away from “hardcore” rap. Did this stance create any tension between you and other rappers that were popular at the time?

P: No. One of the greatest tours we were on was the Nitro tour. The core artists on that tour were ourselves, LL, and Slick Rick. But there was a whole bunch of other artists, like N.W.A., Too $hort, and we was all the way over here on this side of the spectrum, and N.W.A. was over here, and we probably hung out with them damned-near the most.

You can find someone like Dr. Dre, who’s very musical, but that’s the way they want to project themselves, but there was always a camaraderie between artists—you know, Scarface, GETO Boys. We’ve always had a lot of love for them, and they all come up to us and let us know how much they love us.

It’s funny that a lot of times, the fans themselves will see somewhat of a division between artists when there really isn’t. When them cameras turn off, we really respect each other’s music. You know, like UGK. I could see Bun B and Bun B’s citing De La words.

M: I wanna work with Bun B, I do.

P: We never had a problem with anyone like that. Sometimes, people use what they feel is common sense, thinking, “Jay Z is talking about this, De La’s talking about this. How could they hang? How could they be into each other?” There’s all sides of us that we have, it’s just what you decide to show to the world. I love the Lox and I love listening to what they got. I could see Jadakiss, and he could turn around and start quoting [De La Soul] B-sides. It shows he knows what we do.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring artists?

D: Confidence and creating something totally different, or being the best, as clichéd as it sounds. That’s what everybody would tell an artist, but it’s the truth. Being able to walk into a room and show that you’re confident in what you’re doing, and hopefully bring something new to the table are the two most important elements of stepping out onto a stage and trying to be heard.

We also say there’s a flip side to it. Not every individual’s gonna be that rapper. Not everybody’s gonna be that DJ. So you have to learn to know how many times trying is enough and when to say, “Well, what else am I good at?” There are so many different seats in this industry to fill, it’s like, you can be a journalist, you can own a venue, you can be a catering company, you can direct videos.

What are you most proud of as a group?

M: Us staying together. Us making it through the trials and tribulations. Still being here together not only as a group, but as black men. That’s been a difficult thing amongst our race—black men truly being able to work together. And I say that sincerely. That’s an accomplishment in itself. Twentysomething years, three black men still being able to do what they love, and do what they love together. I couldn’t do this with nobody else. I enjoy working with other people, but really, the excitement that I get out of this, when I’m truly having a good time, being myself today but also tapping into my childhood—these two guys right here.

D: And we’re human. It’s not like it’s been a road full of rose petals. There’s been a lot of rocks and holes and thorns along the way. Bumps and bruises have happened. We’ve learned from each other and learned what buttons to push and what not to, and what to say and what we shouldn’t say, and how to respect each other. [Pos] would probably say the same thing. Just the idea that we’re still here together doin’ it. You can’t be proud about anything more than that.

What’s been surprising over the last 20 years?

D: For me personally, a lot has been surprising.

M: I have to admit, every show, every city, every country, even places I’ve been back to three, four, five times over, it’s been a new experience every time. Something’s different about what we do together, and even when others come into our circle, it’s a new experience. We enjoy ourselves. We get really exhausted having a lot of fun.

Who would you like to collaborate with?

M: I would like to collaborate with LL Cool J.

D: I don’t think we have a big list at all. It’s never been “that” person. We let the music dictate what happens.

M: That’s true. That’s very true.

D: If the music calls for Redman, so be it. And then again if it calls for Busta or…

P: Chaka Khan.

D: Amy Winehouse, whomever. We allow the music to dictate it. We appreciate all forms of music, but we never sit down and say, “We gotta do a song with this person. I wanna work with this person.”

De La Soul

P: There definitely haven’t been too many songs where we’ve done that. I can think of maybe two, three. Mase was like, “Yo, man, we should really do something with Common.” But even in sayin’ it, it was still like we have to find the right song, and then “The Bizness” just happened to turn around and be the right song.

M: I gotta say I’m guilty of that. I’ll be the one to be like, “Yo, we should do something with this person or that person.”

P: Opposed to hearing the record and Dave being like, “Yo, Redman would sound dope on this!” It’s more like an instrument, like, “Adding this horn, or this piano would sound great.”“Adding this Mary J. Blige over this would be great.”

How do you guys feel about the current state of the world?

P: It’s in disarray. It’s bananas.

M: Totally.

P: Amongst all that could be negative that’s going on, I sometimes look at it like, wow, we’re still blessed to be doing what we’re doing. We’ve always been a group that’s been blessed to know how to grind and work our brand in unconventional ways. Naturally, being who we are, it helped keep a core audience that, regardless of what’s going on in their lives, they wanted to maybe use us as something to get over the negative that they’re going through. So they’ll come and support us. I think from a group standpoint that goes on, but even as people, with all that goes on in the world, you can turn and still see like, yo I have my girl, or I have my children, or I have this person. Therefore, there’s always a way through it.

M: We are in extreme times. We’re dealing with extreme behavior. Me, myself, I’ve just been trying to communicate more and have more patience, ’cause we’re definitely dealing with a fast-paced world. It’s in a total disarray, and a lot of lack of patience, and so many different ideas. People got a lot of different ideas and they’re clashing.

What do the next 20 years hold for De La?

M: I bet you I’m probably gonna be having grandchildren!

D: I think we got some aspirations set in front of us, some things that we’d definitely like to do and accomplish. I know I’ve said it to myself lots of times, “How many more albums?” or, “How much longer do we record?” I can’t put a date on it. There’s no way to say, “Alright, this is the last one for me, or us.” I think whether we’re 13 or 35, or 50, I think we’ll still be recording. I think we’ll still be making music. I don’t know if we’ll be touring and doing those things, but I think we’ll always be creating, and I think we’ve found those different avenues outside of just releasing an album and traditionally going out and supporting it. I think we can still continue this and let it keep going and hopefully land in new places and try new things.

M: God willing, I will still be doing this. I know I will. I’m inspired by guys who are pretty much in their mid 40s and 50s. 45 King was in his 50s, still producing hit records—you know, “Hard Knock Life” for Jay Z and “Stan” for Eminem—so that’s inspirational. It lets me know we can never get too old for this. People feel like they get to a certain point with hip-hop and they grow out of it. I’m growing with it. That’s how I feel. More than anything, to continue on doin’ what I’m doin’ and lovin’ what I do. But I actually want to work towards doin’ nothing. I think I did a lot of helpin’ and everything. I love helping out, but I want to work towards doin’ nothin’.