De La Soul Interview

The hip-hop legends on their new Nike+ project...
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Hip-hop legends De La Soul have been going strong for over 20 years, with their debut LP of 1989, ‘3 Feet High And Rising’, recognised as a classic of both its genre and era.

The New York group – Kelvin ‘Posdnuos’ Mercer, Dave Jolicoeur and Vincent ‘Mase’ Mason (many other aliases have been adopted over the years) – have released seven long-players proper, alongside collections of rarities and remixes. Their latest is ‘Are You In?’, the latest in the Nike+ Sport Music series of albums available exclusively through iTunes. The single-track, 44-minute piece is De La’s first new music for five years.

Although initially aimed at runners, the Nike+ Sport Music series received something of a critical shot in the arm with the release of LCD Soundsystem’s much-celebrated ’45:33’ release of 2006. Much like James Murphy’s composition, De La’s latest instalment is something that need not be listened to while pounding the pavement to be appreciated. Indeed, as it shifts through a series of constituent ‘songs’, ‘Are You In?’ reveals itself to be just as vital in its makers’ catalogue as any of their previous long-play releases.

Clash met up with the three members of De La Soul in east London to discuss the specially commissioned ‘Are You In?’ as well many other areas of their career to date.

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De La Soul discuss their place in the Nike+ series


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I don’t suppose this part of the process, the promotion, gets any more fun for you as you get older…
Posdnuos: Well, it’s nice to know that people still wanna talk to us. I guess the time to be worried is when they don’t!

We’d better begin with the roots of this project – how did you come to work with a company like Nike?
Dave: I think the relationship has been going for some five or six years, and that’s certainly had something to do with it – we’d designed some dunks (basketball shoes) back when. And hopefully the individuals who were looking to do this next mix thought De La were a good idea – I would think the relationship we already had with them probably helped, but I’m hoping that a room full of people could agree that we were a good choice, and we were pretty up for it.

Were you already in a position to put something out, albeit maybe not a ‘proper’ De La Soul album?
D: Not really. At the time we were just recording to record, with an eye to putting an album out at some point. We love the fact that we did this, but in a way it got in the way rather than serve as an opening for something bigger, but because it was such a cool thing we were up for it. It didn’t seem like an opportunity, like, just to put music out, because we’re always working on music and looking to potentially release it. This kinda came from nowhere, and it was cool when it happened.

And the series has some critical clout behind it, too – these releases aren’t really received as ‘cut-offs’ collections.
P: Well, we would naturally never do that to ourselves. We respected the fact that if Nike wanted us to be involved, then they knew what the results were going to be like. We were quite critical early in the process, like maybe it sounded too commercial, but I can step back to it and say it still sounded good. It had to feel like a De La album that wasn’t just a poster for Nike – we wanted people to feel it was a great album on its own terms. We always think things through and put quality into anything we do – we never look to just take the cheque and run.

So none of what’s on the final release is stuff that’s been kicking about for a while?
D: It wasn’t music that’d been left over from years before or anything like that, no – we definitely sat down and put some new tunes together, listening to beats from other producers and really put in the work just as if it was a ‘proper’ De La album. We sort of approached it just as we would anything else – we never played up to the idea that it wasn’t an ‘official’ release in some way, and we essentially started from scratch on it.

Is beginning with a clean slate your typical way of starting an album?
D: I think, with music, it’s tough to sit with something for a while and then make it a part of something new. Like, there are songs we’ve got now that we’ve recorded, maybe four of them, and they might be on the next De La album… but equally they might not! You always want to start fresh.

It’s not like you make things easy for yourselves, as you’re often seen as being ‘ahead of the game’, if you will.
D: I think that’s something we’re quite critical about, always trying to do the new and be the new, create the new. But also the thing about De La is that, at the end of the day, what we put out has to feel good. Friends of ours, they don’t always do that – they’re like making these beats for people and knowing all this technical stuff, but at the end of the day it doesn’t always sound good, y’know? As much as we try to outdo what we’ve done before, sometimes that can just be the stripping down of a beat, something that simple. You find a way to treat a song properly.

With the many technological developments over the years, has it become easier to create the sounds you’re hearing in your heads?
D: It’s easier to produce, to put together a loop or add a delay, or what have you.
Mase: It shortens the time of it.
D: That’s it, pretty much, but the creative process is still pretty intense. You’ve still gotta think of that chorus, and perfect the arrangement; what instrument can be added, and what is the theme or the concept of the song? That stuff still takes time. And, y’know, we’ve obviously always been known for doing an album every four or five years, and we’ve tried to change that process a little bit to get more work in, but when it comes down to it De La’s new release will always have gone through that process, and it’ll take as much time as it needs to.

I guess if the end of the process – the recording and the mixing – is faster now, you can take that bit more time on the creative side of things.
P: Absolutely. We’re always bouncing ideas off each other by e-mail, sending each other tracks; I’ll record a lyric and get it back, and then I’ll send it on to an engineer, and he’ll mix it and play it back to us on a stream or what have you. That process is easier, but technology has to be used with respect, and you have to respect the other part of the process.

Do you think that sometimes bands take advantage of the speed you can get a record out, without properly considering its quality?
D: Yeah, but I don’t think you could take five years between albums nowadays, if you’re a new band. Consumers demand so much, as their mentality is completely different. Like, we were saying to someone earlier that you really don’t see that many incredible albums coming out. You see bands putting out singles, and they get sold and they have a video but if that’s not followed up in a couple of months, people just forget. But at the same time I think there is an audience that is willing to wait, that loves you and will play your music – across the last three or four albums you’ve had – and wait for the next one. But mainly the up-and-coming artists, they’re trying to release a record once every year or something, and only have two singles from ‘em. I dunno…

They try to ride that wave as long as they possibly can.
M: New artists these days, and this is just my opinion, but I think instead of putting put albums they should just keep putting out twelve-inches, so to speak, MP3s y’know. That way when they get to the point of focusing on an album, people really want that record – they’re, like, ‘I like you enough to buy you’.
P: And that’s what it used to be like, and it was great. You’d get four singles from someone like [Big Daddy] Kane, that’d draw you right in, and then you want an album. Nowadays everyone’s so fast to want to put out an album, but it’s only got one song on it of note, maybe two if you’re lucky.
M: Especially with rappers – there’s this Tupac theory of doing like over 17 songs on an album, and they forget that peoples’ attention spans are short, and they get bored real easy.

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De La Soul – ‘The Magic Number’ (1989)


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You’re one of only a handful of hip-hop groups that really embraced the ‘art’ of the album, as in having some sort of conceptual thread, and sequencing the songs so they sit together naturally.
D: That is important to us, because we come from that era of music – not just hip-hop music, but artists like Stevie Wonder, and Barry White, and Isaac Hayes, and Aretha Franklin. That was the concept, the album… But a lot of these new kids don’t know that. Going back to technology, now that you can buy a track for 99 cents, who really thinks about albums anymore?
M: Before there was the situation where the consumer was almost forced to buy the album – the single might be out, but really the only way you could get it was on the album.
D: And that obviously hurt sales, so now they’re obviously like: ‘Fuck it, let’s do the reverse!’
M: And now, if you don’t like the album, you can grab just the song that you like.

With so much competition, if you will, due to the way music is so widely consumed today, how does it feel to still be here, and still be relevant?
D: It’s a blessing, and I think alongside the mistakes that we all make we’ve made some great decisions along the way. I think, when we think back and wonder: ‘Why did we do a song with Teenage Fanclub…?’

Now, hang on – the ‘Judgement Night’ record was pretty big when I was a kid.
D: Well, okay, it was good that we did that in hindsight. Like, we did the Tibetan Freedom Concert with the Beastie Boys, and wondered: why were we there? But then you think about it, and realise why, and see how it’s helped. You know, the decisions that we made and what we were doing back then, it helped us out, alongside the good music. I think that’s helped us appeal to more people than just the boy on the corner. I think a lot of the times you don’t get the opportunity to go back and rethink those decisions, and we’ve always had people in our corner talking with us and trying to do the right thing.
M: And I think some of the traditional formats still apply, which helps, regardless of changes in the business. We put out a record, we go on tour – that’s who we are. We’re across the board, and that’s what all entertainers should be focusing on: putting out the music, regardless of whatever politics are going on, and satisfy that part of the soul and your audience, those people you’ve touched.

And when you go out on tour, do you still find it a pleasurable experience?
M: Yeah, and the best part about touring is when you don’t have any new shit out – I love that part. There’s nothing new out, no new product, but we’re still on the stage just as relevant as these new artists who’re selling the show out around the corner. People know when they come to see us, they get a good show, regardless of what we’re touring for or how old the material is. And that is a great feeling. Those are the divine moments for me – when you go into the struggle of your last record up to your most current one that you’re trying to release, and you’re looking at the way the business is going and seeing where you stand in it, and you’re still able to get on the stage and have that spark. That’s a great feeling, and it’s great to weather the storms with the same people.

Are you able to get any sort of perspective on just how influential a group you’ve been? Or are you too close to even the oldest material?
P: At certain times we can kinda appreciate what we’ve achieved, and our place in things. But, like, we don’t really see it as 20 years having gone by, as it’s gone in a heartbeat. So when someone’s saying we’re legends… It’s hard to see that, because we are everyday people. I don’t think a lot of artists are like that – they’re always around the business, getting money and splashing it, and we’re not like that. How you see us now, just lounging and sitting with y’all, this is how we always are. So it’s not a legendary life that we lead, y’know?
D: We never aspired to be ‘stars’. I don’t think we ever were attracted to the business side of the music, because Run-DMC were on the big screen wearing gold chains or anything – we got into this because of the music, and that’s all we’ve ever had. So for us it’s never about what we’re gonna pull up in, or anything like that.
M: To be making money from what you love to do, that’s a beautiful thing. There’s other shit that comes with this that I could do without, but ultimately we’re doing what we love. Ninety per cent of the world is probably doing something they don’t really care to do – they may even have gone to school to do something else, but now find themselves working a job elsewhere just because they have to. So, this is honestly a blessing, to be part of the ten per cent or whatever that gets to do what they love. The industry can force you to present a certain façade, but I thank God that we’ve never had that shit.

Totally. It’s not like the paparazzi have ever darkened your doors.
D: When these ‘megastars’ go back to just a small room, with nothing to show for their profile, that’s when the façade shatters.
M: We did it our way, and we’ll always do it our way. Some people might be uncomfortable with how we’ve done things, but it’s been the right way for us. I feel like my security is in the people who listen to our music, who know our music and understand it. They get to know who we are through that, so we don’t need no bodyguards or anything. Our bodyguards are people like you, people who feel connected with us in some way. If you’re connected, you’re gonna make sure we’re protected.

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‘Are You In?: Nike+ Sport Music’ is available to download now from iTunes; click HERE to get it into your earholes. Find De La Soul on MySpace HERE.

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