De La Soul Isn't Dead

Music Features De La Soul
Share Tweet Submit Pin
De La Soul Isn't Dead

“For the first time, we’re going to sample ourselves.” That is how De La Soul initially described its eighth album and first in 12 years, when announced last March. The legacy hip-hop trio would offer a few more specifics. The basis of these samples were over 200 hours of jam sessions from over the past three years. De La Soul then mined those recordings for sounds to chop, loop and layer. But somehow, even that explanation makes that creative process seem simple.

That is, compared to how its chief architects describe it after the fact. There were 25 session musicians, 16 days where they recorded near around the clock. There was the Kickstarter campaign, which De La Soul launched after courting several major labels. Sampling attorneys remain the bane of the group’s existence. Only one member of De La Soul even bought up You’re Welcome. That would be the whole other album that the group would surely have finished by now, had the central conceit behind And the Anonymous Nobody not sounded so damn intriguing.

For emcees Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer and David “Dave” Jolicoceur, plus DJ Vincent “Maseo” Mason, the pursuit of such independence is well worth the effort.

De La Soul are no longer the quasi-hippie children of their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. But the legal drama surrounding its James Brown, Smokey Robinson and Johnny Cash samples have threatened to overtake the group’s legacy. In 1991, the Turtles sued for a reported seven figures over a 12-second snippet. De La Soul’s early record contracts also only cleared samples for “vinyl and cassette.” The fate of its discography has been in the hands of Warner Bros., who acquired De La’s first label Tommy Boy’s catalog in 2002. But even as album anniversaries passed, Warner still “don’t want to deal” with the legal trouble, says the group.

To call De La Soul sentimental would be a stretch. De La Soul Is Dead, which just turned 25, did away with 3 Feet High’s freewheeling approach a mere two years later. But the ambitious And the Anonymous Nobody shows how far the group will go to prove that it isn’t dead.

The point of sampling, De La Soul once argued, was to reenact how rappers used to lay down verses to DJs spinning records at the neighborhood park. Beastie Boys were also pushing this collage-like technique to new levels of sophistication. Now 25 years after the Turtles’ lawsuit, though, sampling is either reserved for free releases or major releases by marquee names like Kanye West. Tim Latham, who engineered parts of De La Soul is Dead and the entirety of 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate and 1996’s Stakes Is High, saw how other artists reacted firsthand.

“Not particularly with De La, but other artists, we would recreate samples and make them sound as close as possible, which would bring me back to my karaoke-studio days,” he told Frank151 in 2009. “My well-honed skills of making records sound like other records came into play.”

The one memory from its past that De La Soul holds dearest is the making of 3 Feet High and Rising. The group was working with Prince Paul, who was part of pioneering hip-hop bands Stetsasonic. But Posdnuos (“soundsop” backwards), Dave (then Trugoy, or “yogurt” backwards) and Maseo worked without knowing—or caring—how music “should” be done. That isn’t to say De La haven’t reached similar creative heights since. Buhloone Mindstate featured Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis of James Brown’s horn section, a decade after, via sampling, their brass stabs became part of hip-hop’s blueprint. But even today, De La Soul must consider the music industry’s constraints as much, if not more so than when they were teens.

And the Anonymous Nobody is no exception.

“For me, definitely it was all based on our stamp on history, and the issues that we have with our back catalog, then moving into the future of making music and still being who we are creatively, and still pulling from sampling,” Maseo says.

The record’s source material came courtesy of Rhythm Roots Allstars, who has recorded with Rakim and Ghostface Killah while backing De La Soul on tour for the past decade. On day one at LA’s Vox Studios, De La asked the collective to channel their chief influences: Otis Redding, Lee Dorsey, Johnny Cash, Barry White. But by day two, Rhythm Roots Allstars played whatever came to mind, which was even more wide-ranging than what De La initially had in mind. Up to 25 musicians came in bringing tambourines, cowbells, triangles, flugelhorns, harps.

The Beatles’ 1968 left turn Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band came up in discussions. Posdnuos thought back to those 3 Feet High and Rising sessions. Maseo remembered when Gorillaz featured De La Soul in “Feel Good Inc.” That 2005 single was Damon Albarn sidestepping into Rick James punk-funk, without any regard to his past with bratty Brit rock band Blur.

“At first we were doing certain styles,” says Rhythm Roots Allstars percussionist and founder Davey Chegwidden. “Then as we got more comfortable, we started taking more changes and playing styles that wouldn’t be thought of as a hip-hop record. Anytime we played something that would sound like a typical De La track, they’d be like, ‘Oh no.’ When we’d go into more orchestral or more rock or more country, they’d go, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’”

“Lord Intended” featuring Justin Hawkins, the flamboyant vocalist from the Darkness, sounds recorded straight out a dingy dive. At first De La Soul envisioned Axl Rose, Lenny Kravitz and Dave Navarro on lead vocals. Jack Black recorded a take but wasn’t happy with it. But when someone on De La’s team suggested Hawkins, who also happened to be a fan, the group’s Dave was all in. “He’s not only got that classic rock star sensibility, but he’s got a sense of humor going on as well,” he says.

And the Anonymous Nobody makes heel turns from a medieval procession (“Royalty Capes”) to backyard funk (“Pain”), eerie post-punk (“Snoopies”) to an impassioned Usher hook (“Greyhounds”). “Drawn,” featuring Little Dragon, is anchored only by a Posdnuos verse tucked in its last 30 seconds. “Whoodeeni” features what may be 2 Chainz’s knottiest verse ever—a display in lyricism that may surprise De La fans.

“Honestly we were like, ‘We should get Raekwon from Wu-Tang [Clan] to rhyme on it,’” Posdnuos says. “Rae was busy doing whatever it was he was doing. But in putting it together, I wrote a rhyme immediately, and Dave from the group started putting together his verse. Then he was like, ‘You know what, Merc. I hear this chant going on. I don’t think it’s necessarily like Fatman Scoop, but I hear 2 Chainz.’ I didn’t know what he heard, but I was just immediately intrigued by it. ‘Shit, yeah. Let’s do it.’ When I reached out to his people, we were like, ‘hey, we would like maybe 2 Chainz to try to do a chorus to this.’ His people immediately hit us back and was like, ‘Chainz, he doesn’t want to do a chorus. He would want to rhyme on it.’ I was like, holy shit.”

De La Soul could make a few more records of tight-knit, densely-layered collages from the leftover sounds of those sessions. That has been the group’s specialty. But for The Anonymous Nobody, the group reveled in the freewheeling nature of those jam sessions. Songs become portals into completely different worlds.

“Of course there are records that people were writing,” Dave says. “The Stevie Wonders, the Isaac Hayes, the Barry Whites, they were producers and writers. But there’s stuff like Funkadelic, Ohio Players and Earth Wind and Fire, and so many other groups that were just jamming. When someone happened, it became special. For us coming from a hip-hop point of view, this album was a big learning process. We didn’t realize how records and live musicians and bands were making songs. It was a revelation for us.”

And the Anonymous Nobody features 11 guests total, also including Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, Estelle and Pete Rock. Several of these guests were already confirmed by last March, when De La Soul launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the album. The group asked for $110,000, or the lower echelon of what major labels offered for a recording budget.

“They were coming up between $110,000 and $150,000, but with all these stipulations to give up a significant amount of control,” Maseo says. “That’s where the idea of crowd-funding came more into play.”

“We were out our 10th year already, so we were realistic,” he adds. “We’d been away for a while. ‘Okay, we’ll go for the lowest number.’ And we also don’t want to look like we begging, either.”

The Kickstarter campaign ended two months later with $600,829 in contributions. But De La Soul’s reach could still stand to grow. Less than 12,000 people backed And the Anonymous Nobody, which isn’t an Adele-sized audience, but a dedicated cult following, albeit one that could stand to be much bigger, given De La Soul’s influence looms over hip-hop today.

“It wasn’t like 200,000 people involved with the $600,000,” Maseo says. “It was just 11,000 people. So I’m like, yeah, there’s people out there who really care about what we did.”

More than anything, the money raised from the Kickstarter campaign allowed for total control of all aspects of And the Anonymous Nobody. De La Soul is releasing the album via its own AOI Records, which entailed handling the financial particulars as well. And this time around, the biggest setback wasn’t the samples. (“We got a couple of James Brown hits here,” Maseo says, “but I figure it was five things that needed to be cleared for this album. Five [samples] versus 5,000 is a major difference.”) Originally scheduled for a September 2015 release, De La Soul pushed And the Anonymous Nobody back because the group was getting permission itself to feature every artist from their respective labels.
Last February, De La Soul also inked a new distribution deal with Kobalt (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Pet Shop Boys, Prince).

“Getting the creative side of [And the Anonymous Nobody] done was one thing,” Posdnuos says. “That actually turned out to be easy.”

De La Soul is tempted to go though similar lengths—a petition, if not a crowd-funding campaign—for the rest of its catalog. The group hopes to see fans reach out to music providers like iTunes, if not Warner Bros. directly.

“We’ve been beating down on these doors for years now,” Dave says. “It’s obviously an issue about spending money to do it, compared to making money after it’s done, and I think they just don’t see that it’s worth it. But if the fans were to say that they want it, I’m sure that would make a difference.”

But first, The Anonymous Nobody: Nothing about De La Soul—its music, or relationship to the music industry—has been simple. That doesn’t change with this album, coming nearly 30 years after De La’s first. Yet in the years that have passed since, the group’s demands have become clearer to understand. All that De La Soul has ever wanted was to be another viable option for a hip-hop fan. That is what the group was when it toured with N.W.A., LL Cool J and MC Hammer. And that is what the group could be, in an age where Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are the default examples of hip-hop outside the norm, adding to what is already available. “We’re of the youngest genre—so do we not have room to grow like any other genre?” Maseo says. “Can we grow to be 80 years old? Because we just turned 40.”

The answers to his questions could well be answered starting Aug. 26, when And the Anonymous Nobody will be released on iTunes, Spotify and TIDAL. Most music fans take this accessibility for granted. But for De La Soul, its latest album could mean freedom.

Also in Music