It's hard to overestimate De La Soul's contributions to hip-hop as an art form. The group's 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, is one of the most important and influential albums in rap history, a hilarious, adventurous masterpiece that revolutionized sampling while introducing a witty, laid-back, conversational approach to lyrics that laid the foundation for much of the underground hip-hop that followed. (It's no accident that figures such as Common, Mos Def, and Q-Tip all received crucial exposure on De La Soul albums.) The underrated Stakes Is High (1996) was the group's first album after amicably parting ways with Prince Paul, the revolutionary producer behind 3 Feet High And Rising, De La Soul Is Dead, and Buhloone Mindstate, but all four are excellent. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with De La Soul's Posdnuos, born Kelvin Mercer, about the enduring legacy of his group's historic debut, old-school nostalgia, and the new Art Official Intelligence (Mosaic Thump).
The Onion: How were you introduced to hip-hop?
Posdnuos: It's always pretty much been a part of me, even at a very young age. My older brothers were always a part of it and had tapes. I can't remember being, like, "Okay, it's being introduced to me." I can't even remember it not being around. I just always remember people spinning records and stuff like that.
O: When did you start rapping?
P: It was probably just to myself, like writing, and I didn't start doing that until around sixth grade. I think I've always had a talent for writing. I've always loved the music, but around sixth grade, I started to write things down. I never really even looked at it from the point of view that I was going to be rapping; I just always loved music so much that I looked at it as… I wanted to be a writer for R&B and soul music, but I had no chops for singing, so I had no chance at that. I sort of drifted more to MCing and rapping when it was starting to get big, so I went more in that direction.
O: When did you team up with what would become the rest of De La Soul?
P: With Dave [Jolicoeur, formerly known as Trugoy], I met him through his younger brother, who was in the same grade as me. He beat-boxed and I DJed. But we just happened to write, so we sort of got down with a bunch of other friends in our neighborhood and formed this group called Easy Street, which didn't last too long. But from there, we teamed up with a gentleman by the name of Charlie Rock. It was really cool: He DJed, and that's when Dave and I decided that, "Okay, well, instead of me being a DJ, let me rhyme." And Dave was like, instead of him being a beat-boxer, let him rhyme, since we were writing already, and let Charlie DJ. Charlie introduced us to Maseo [a.k.a. Vincent Mason] out of Brooklyn and he was like, "Yo, you know, why don't we try to have this group where it's two DJs and two MCs?" It was really cool. We did it like that, and then Charlie Rock was pretty much left out of the group, which left ourselves and Maseo.
O: What were your early recordings like?
P: It was really cool. At that point, it was something everyone did: If you rapped, you rehearsed in-house, because even though vinyl was getting big and there was a lot of rap music on 12-inch, there were also always tapes. You could still get tapes from Doug E. Fresh or Cold Crush Brothers. Or you'd hear Slick Rick perform at a hall because someone got it on tape. So we all rehearsed in the house. Maseo would DJ and we'd rhyme over it onto a cassette tape. And then, when we were able to afford drum machines, we started to make beats and put music together using keyboards, and started creating our own songs. That's how that all started.
O: Was there anyone in particular who inspired you when you were just starting out? Anybody you modeled yourself after?
P: No. I mean, I loved a lot of them, and I respected everyone. I was very much into the Treacherous Three. I loved L.A. Sunshine, the words he would use. Special K, the big words. I was always into big words. Then there was a gentleman who came around called T. La Rock, who was Special K's brother. He just used these incredible big words, and that was really my style, always trying to sound smarter than I was. It was a lot of different people with different styles, because obviously there weren't videos. If you were into rap, you were into words: You heard the words and listened to the music. For a girl, it wasn't just seeing this handsome MC who they loved because he's handsome. Girls were into it for the music and the words, too.
O: It seems like there's this romanticized perception of what the old school was like: that it was this golden age where people were doing hip-hop not for money or fame, but just for the love of it.
P: It was like that, but there were other sides. At any given time, a Grandmaster Caz would have loved to realize that he gave his rhyme to Big Bank Hank for free. That blew. He wanted to make money off that and have his name out there and still be receiving royalty checks to this day. I've met a lot of them cats and love everything about them. I love sitting down and speaking to them. They all really wish they'd had their business together. The business came into play and got money off what they did, making it more than a hobby. I, as an artist, would never want to give that up, but obviously what was sacrificed when business came into play is that a lot of people now, at the drop of a dime, will only jump up on stage and perform when they know they can get paid for it. With me being in a club at a young age, I would see people come into the club just to chill, and all of a sudden there's a great feeling in the air and someone would just jump up on stage and drive the crowd wild. Now, Jay-Z is not going to just walk into a club and drive the crowd wild; he's going to get his manager to get in between and be like, "How much are you paying him?"
O: The intimacy is lost.
P: Yeah, it is, but I try not to look at it in a bad way. It's almost like saying, "When you have sex, you're no longer a virgin." But that's just what it is. Besides, within the golden age, there was as much negativity as positivity.
O: How did you link up with Prince Paul?
P: Paul was living in the neighborhood. I always knew Paul as this DJ, DJ Paul. You would see flyers with DJ Paul, until he became Prince Paul. He was a really respected DJ, and he was very good at his craft. A lot of people wanted to battle him, and he would take them out. He was very well respected in our neighborhood.
O: Was he in Stetsasonic at that time?
P: This is even before Stetsasonic. All of a sudden, I'm sitting in a lunchroom and I hear this incredible song they're playing off the Get Smart theme music, and I'm like, "Wow, this is an incredible song." People were like, "Yo, this is Prince Paul's record." I was so happy for him, because it wasn't like we didn't expect it, but Paul was very talented and what he was doing was cool. But me and him actually started communicating because Maseo, getting his name out there as a DJ, would always do parties with Paul and be on the same bill. They always communicated, and then me and Paul became close. He went to college and I went to college. That's where we really bonded. But Maseo really knew Paul, and we were just like, "That's Prince Paul from afar."
O: What happened before you could make 3 Feet High And Rising? Did you make demos and shop them around?
P: Once we met up with Paul, we let Paul hear the demo we had made in Maseo's house of a song titled "Plug Tunin'," and we made up a song called "De La Games" that became "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" for the album. He loved it. He felt such relief knowing that there were people out there who thought like him. He really wanted to produce us and be a part of what we were doing, because he was not allowed to reach the level of creativity he wanted to express. He brought us to the studio where Stetsasonic was recording, and he introduced us to [Stetsasonic rapper] Daddy-O. He and Daddy-O had a plan where they were going to shop our stuff, so we actually got offers from a lot of different labels. Priority, Audio Two, and MC Lyte all wanted to sign us. Warner wanted to sign us. Profile wanted to sign us. A lot of different labels were very much in tune with what we were doing, but we honestly sided with Tommy Boy because we knew Paul was there and we felt comfortable being someplace where he was. Not that it wasn't a wise decision, but it wasn't made wisely. That's what we did.
O: What was the making of 3 Feet High And Rising like?
P: It was fun, because we didn't have any idea what we were doing. A lot of incredible moments on the album were mistakes, and we were like, "Okay, just leave it." I'd make a joke about something and Paul would say, "No, try it." Or I'm acting out, not realizing that Paul has a mic sticking outside of the studio booth taping us talk. It was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot from Paul: We knew we could try anything, because at the end of the day, if it doesn't work, you can scrap it. We learned to respect each other's ideas. Dave or Maseo would say something, and I really couldn't hear it or see it until I gave him a chance to put it down and realize it would work. It was magical, because we were learning everything as we went along.
O: Did you have any idea how big the album would be?
P: I had no idea. I thought I'd made it when the album was on our famous New York rap station with the famous rap personalities. But then to turn around and know that we started getting calls: L.A. and Houston love it, or these people love it—let alone places like London. It was just unheard of. I couldn't believe it.
O: Were you conscious of the fact that you had made this album that was substantially different from anything out there?
P: We were very conscious of it, but it was more frightening, realizing that there was really nothing out there like it to judge it off of. We didn't know what was going to happen. No clue.
O: It seems like people would have no frame of reference for it because people just weren't doing what was done on that album.
P: There was no way to gauge it. Before the album came out, I was really, really scared. It was funny, because I knew Slick Rick's album had just dropped two weeks before ours was out, and I was like, "Wow, his album is incredible." I was really frightened for what would happen commercially. I didn't know what was going to happen.
O: Once the album came out, it got good reviews. That must have been a big relief.
P: It was a definitely a relief. It was a great thing to see that people who weren't even from the same area as us, or from the same country, could relate to it. We have people from different countries loving it now, because they found a link to the music. It was just an incredible, overwhelming thing. I'm on tour with my heroes, like LL Cool J and groups that… N.W.A and PE had just come out. And then to turn around and get off that tour and go on tour with Fine Young Cannibals, then turn around and go overseas… To know that our music was allowing us to be a part of so many different tours that were so different from each other. We got to go from a major rap tour to touring with Fine Young Cannibals. It was just like, "Wow." And then we went overseas and performed for thousands of people in a warehouse. It was just like, "These people are here to see us?"
O: It seems like 3 Feet High And Rising appealed to a lot of people who weren't necessarily into hip-hop before. A lot of people who love De La Soul don't necessarily listen to a lot of rap music. It kind of put you in an interesting position.
P: It did. Honestly, it was never a situation where we thought of it like that. We drew a lot of influences from the records we loved, from Daryl Hall & John Oates and Billy Joel as well as growing up listening to James Brown and Roberta Flack. So all that was implemented. It wasn't like we said, "It's great for us to do this because no one else is doing it." It's just where we were as three individuals, along with Paul.
O: Could you talk about the founding of the Native Tongues movement [a loose hip-hop collective that includes such pioneering acts as The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest]?
P: We had met up with The Jungle Brothers, whom we had already heard, and we were coming out with our first couple singles, like "Plug Tunin'" and "Potholes In My Lawn." They already had a single out. We were becoming fans of what they did and hearing promos of their stuff. We met up in Boston and did a show together, after which we exchanged numbers. A week later, they came into a studio with us, and when they did, we already had a plan of what we were going to do for the song we were calling "Buddy." The Jungle Brothers just showed up at the studio that day with this kid named [A Tribe Called Quest's Q-]Tip. We were like, "Well, you want to get on this song with us?" And they all said, "Why not?" So that's how that happened, and that obviously led to our relationship. Me and Afrika [Baby Bam of the Jungle Brothers] would always hang around, and he just came up. He was very much into
Parliament-Funkadelic and how they had different aliases, and he said, "We should make a name for ourselves. If we appear on each other's stuff, instead of having to list all the different groups, we can just list this one name." And we came up with Native Tongues, and he's like, "Yo, I'm with it. That sounds like a great name." That's how all that came about.
O: Your second album, De La Soul Is Dead, is a lot darker than your first. People saw it as a reaction to the way you were perceived after 3 Feet High And Rising.
P: It was definitely glued together with that aesthetic, but I think that at the end of the day, a lot of what we were going through with De La Soul Is Dead is what we had planned to do. Even if it wasn't the press bombarding us with, "Oh, they're hippies," or whatever, it was where we wanted to go anyway. We wanted to go somewhere else with the music than we had on 3 Feet High And Rising. I'm glad we did. I would never think it was a wrong move, because we saw that people unfortunately pay too much attention to visuals. Everyone had gotten so caught up in how we looked and what we were about visually, and once those visuals were over, people could consider the group again. Look at great groups like Arrested Development: They had so much to say, but when it wasn't cool to be dreaded and wear earth clothing and dashikis, everyone sort of moved on to something else. That's how rap listeners are: They're very fickle in who they support. And it's not even that we did it for that reason, but being artists, we never planned to just be all about visually showing you these flowers, or being lighthearted. As we grew, that's what we showed you. It's no different from documenting someone's life: You document a two-year-old's life up to age eight and he's gonna change, and that's what we did. We were changing as we were growing, and we had no problems showing it.
O: Your third album, Buhloone Mindstate—
P: Buhloone Mindstate was an album we made when we were comfortable with where we were as De La Soul, knowing that even though a lot of groups around us were doing things they didn't want to do, we felt confident knowing we weren't going to change for anyone. That was a really peaceful period in our career, with De La Soul Is Dead having expressed a lot of different things that we had seen and gotten weary of from the 3 Feet High And Rising standpoint. I think Buhloone Mindstate showed that we had come to terms with them. It was just a really relaxed album, a really mellow album, and that's where we were.
O: Do you think it's underrated?
P: It was definitely underrated. There was a lot, at that time, going on with rap music as a whole. Biggie was just coming out and becoming very big. And Wu-Tang Clan had just come out, too, and obviously Tribe had just released their album, so our music being very relaxed and all this other music around us being so much brighter… In sound and in content, that was what stood out more than our album.
O: Because 3 Feet was so influential, every album you've done since has been compared to it. That seems unfair.
P: Like I said, I try to look at it as, well… I'm glad we've created something that's looked at as a masterpiece, but we do our best to top that. I mean, maybe certain people feel we haven't, and some say we have. It's definitely where we are as artists: We accept what 3 Feet High And Rising has done, and we love what it has done for us, but we've moved on. We're trying to just keep it going and give you something different that you can latch onto and love and respect.
O: With your third and fourth albums, there wasn't the revolutionary technique of 3 Feet High And Rising or the darkness of De La Soul Is Dead. It seemed like after that, it's, "Well, here's another album. It's a really good album, but it doesn't necessarily have a marketing hook."
P: You kind of nailed it right on the head, because I let people know that regardless of how much we pioneered things and tried different things on 3 Feet High And Rising, if it wasn't for the single "Me, Myself And I," people really wouldn't have listened to it in the first place, and wouldn't have realized or felt that all the other songs were incredible or artsy or different. De La Soul Is Dead really didn't provide that, let alone Buhloone Mindstate. Like you said, they weren't albums that had a lot of singles.
O: Buhloone Mindstate has songs with Japanese rappers, songs with jazz musicians. Do you think people were like, "What is this?"
P: Definitely. We were always experimenting, slicing this and splicing that. And it worked on the first album, worked pretty good on the second album, and didn't really work at all on the third album. So you're right. Whoever had the tolerance for it was there for the party, and some people didn't have the tolerance for it, so they didn't want to deal with it.
O: What can you tell me about your new album?
P: The new album is 17 cuts long, and it's called Art Official Intelligence. It's great, and it has a lot of different guest appearances. It's going to be a triple album, but we're releasing the different installments separately. The first one has people like Busta Rhymes, who's a great friend of ours, and people like Redman, Chaka Khan, and Ad-Rock and Mike D of The Beastie Boys. A lot of great things have gone on with these albums. I really tag it close to 3 Feet High And Rising in the sense that there are a lot of these great songs, and we just try to mesh or connect everything toward the end of the actual cycle, which we did with 3 Feet High And Rising. We didn't walk in there with, "Okay, we need this game plan" or, "This is what this is gonna be about." You know, just having a good time and recording it. We're still recording different songs for the second and third albums.