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Master Class

De La Soul Is Not Dead: How They Stayed Innovative On Their First Album In 12 Years

De La Soul's Dave Jolicoeur and Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer talk about their Kickstarted new album and the innovation that went into making it.

De La Soul Is Not Dead: How They Stayed Innovative On Their First Album In 12 Years

De La Soul

[Photos: courtesy of De La Soul]

Think about the landscape of 2004 hip-hop. J-Kwon, Chingy, and Lloyd Banks held sway. The word ‘crunk’ seemed utterly unstoppable. Ludacris sampled the Austin Powers theme with relative impunity. It was a world completely unrecognizable from our own, and it was unto this world that De La Soul released its last proper album, The Grind Date. In hip-hop terms, 12 years ago at any moment amounts to roughly the Precambrian Eon. To put it in perspective, that was also the year of Kanye West’s debut, meaning every discrete phase of Kanye’s career as a solo artist has taken place since De La Soul last put out an album. It should seem like a miracle that the group could slide back into the autotune-and-codeine world of 2016 after all this time and sound right at home. Or at least it would, if this were any other group.

Dave Jolicoeur and Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer met in fifth grade. They recruited Vincent "Maseo" Mason because of his DJ skills in junior high, and formed a rap trio. When they were still teenagers, the three put out their playful, highly influential 1989 debut, 3 Feet High & Rising, and they’ve been making music together as De La Soul ever since. Their stature among hip-hop fans has remained as strong as their friendship all this time. The group long ago attained the hallowed status of a legacy act, but in hip-hop, that designation might only last until you put out two or three albums of formulaic dad-rap. It’s hard to imagine De La Soul ever doing that, though. The group has been consistently innovative throughout its career, and the just-released eighth album, And The Anonymous Nobody, continues the trajectory. This time, in fact, they had to innovate the entire process of making an album.

It took a long time before the members of De La were even interested in starting on a new project. The Grind Date was well received in 2004, but it sold only modestly. Depending on whom you ask, the blame either fell to a music industry in freefall or lackluster promotional efforts from the group’s new label, Sanctuary. Either way, De La Soul soon managed to wriggle out of their relationship with Sanctuary through a ‘disaster clause.’ Suddenly, they were free agents with a clean slate.

"It felt like we could do anything at this point in time," Jolicoeur says. "But the last thing I think we wanted to do was release another album."

Experimental Phase

Instead, the group spent the next several years experimenting with different projects, hitting the festival circuit and touring, and just generally living their lives. In 2005, they collaborated on the bouncy Gorillaz song, "Feel Good Inc," for which they won their long-overdue first-ever Grammy. The following year, they put out a mixtape of unreleased material called Impossible Mission, along with one of those 45-minute Nike workout soundtracks, Are You In? Eventually, they tinkered with tracks for an album called You're Welcome, which they eventually abandoned.

"I guess maybe the music went a little stale to us, like we had sat on it a little too long," Mercer says. "We were slowly and steadily building up to this album and that building up turned into years. We took a bit of time away from it when Damon Albarn wanted to tour around the world with The Gorillaz, and now those You're Welcome recording sessions are pretty much in the vault."

De La Soul only started making steps toward the album that became Anonymous Nobody in 2012. After touring with funky LA ensemble The Rhythm Roots All-Stars as their backup band, the two groups ended up going into the studio together. It wasn't that De La Soul decided to get crisper live arrangements on their next album; they just wanted to jam out and see what happened. Some 300 hours of improvising later, they’d organically arrived at the skeletal outline for a new project.

"It was a learning process," says Jolicoeur, who has been the group’s in-house producer since amicably parting ways with original mentor Prince Paul in the mid-'90s. "I think something we needed was to be able to communicate with musicians in another way, in a creative capacity as opposed to just having them playing our tunes in the background."

Not Giving Up On the Album

It was important to get the texture of the album just right because De La Soul deeply believes in the album as an artform. While everything from their debut to this latest beast sounds undeniably like De La Soul, each album sounds like its own phase in the group's history. (Kanye may have taken some notes on this approach.) The group refuses to put out a collection of songs unless it sounds like a cohesive unit. It’s a major difference between them and current high-profile hip-hop artists like Future and Young Thug, for whom the mixtape is the coin of the realm.

"I just think that a lot of the cats today, they are just constantly churning out stuff and it just winds up being the same thing you've heard over and over again from them or any other artist out at the moment," Mercer says. "I wouldn't say take off for 13 years the way De La has done, but take off at least two years and take in life and tour and do everything else. Take in enough stories and information to create a project, you know?"

At just about any point in the past 12 years, De La Soul has had enough material stored up to package some tracks as the promised third entry to their Art Official Intelligence trilogy. They never did, though. Since only some of those songs have the specific vibe of that series and what they want the conclusion to that series to be, they’ve allowed their concentration to wander. (Both Jolicoeur and Mercer swear AOI3 is coming one day.) Once messing around with the Rhythm Roots All-Stars cohered into some actual songs, they realized the creative wave they were riding had lead to a new album. The only problem was they still didn’t have a label to distribute an eventual album. Perhaps they didn’t need one, though.

Maseo the first to raise the idea of going through Kickstarter. They were aware of how popular crowdfunding had become, but even though Hollywood players like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Lee had funded movies that way, very few major musicians have followed Amanda Palmer’s controversial lead since 2011. They started sitting down having discussions with other people who had used Kickstarter, The idea of not having to deal with a label again held tremendous appeal.

"I think record labels work with a standard of what's gonna make a hit and what's gonna be successful and we just didn't want those people in our circle anymore since the deal with Sanctuary," says Jolicoeur. "We just didn't want that mentality around."

"It’s that constant nudge and that constant walking in the room, suggesting what could help a release of a record and selling an album and promoting an album," says Mercer. "Had the label been coming in the room saying ‘Hey man, why don't you try this keyboard, this is a real cool sound,’ it would’ve been a little different. But instead it's about ‘Why don't you make that record shorter or why do you have three choruses.’ That was one of the things that we didn't want to deal with whatsoever."

Digital Jail

The group had another colossus-sized reason for being disenchanted with the traditional system. Because the publishing contracts on their earliest albums had only cleared the samples on those albums for cassettes and CDs, they remain locked in a digital limbo. In the early 2000s, as iTunes began to raise its flag in the music marketplace, De La Soul first tried to get their albums online. They were unsuccessful. The fates of stone-cold classics like Stakes Is High and Buhloone Mind State remains in the hands of Warner Brothers, who insists those hands are tied.

"Warner either feels like it isn't worth it for them monetarily to renegotiate all these publishing contracts to re-release this stuff, or they don't care," Jolicoeur says. "So it's nothing we can do right now, but we're not giving up on it to the extent where we ask Warner Brothers, like 'Hand us over everything and we'll work the deals out and we'll cut you guys in and we'll take the task of paying for attorneys and just hashing all of this out,' and still it has been a no."

An entire generation raised with the knowledge that albums are things you get online has the option only to steal De La Soul’s discography if they want it online. In response to Warner’s apparent ambivalence, the group decided to put digital music in fans hands legally, giving away their entire discography online for 25 hours in 2014. Those fans appeared to be thankful the following year when De La Soul launched their Kickstarter. They asked for $110K, offering perks like the opportunity to appear on a skit in the album for $7,500. They cleared their goal within the first eight hours and eventually ended up sextupling it. The group was as shocked by the response as they were gratified.

Nobody Finally Arrives

Now, a year and a half later, the album is here, debuting at #1 on the Billboard Rap chart. The title, And The Anonymous Nobody, is a winking allusion to the fans contributed to the kickstarter. "Anonymous Nobody" is how Jolicoeur used to refer to himself when he made donations to charitable organization. The music itself is a fitting addition to the De La Soul canon. It does not sound like it could have come from anybody else. Lest Jill Scott's spoken word intro over swelling strings sound overly serious, the next song, "Royalty Capes" features tooting trumpets that sound like a parody of pomposity. All the songs hang together as a whole, but there is a lot going on here. It's a shapeshifting grabbag with something for everybody, featuring turns from guests both expected and otherwise, including David Byrne, Snoop Dogg, Little Dragon, and 2 Chainz.

"When we then had this song that sounded like a country western record, it felt right to be like 'Yo, why don't we try to see if we can get Willy Nelson on the record,'" Mercer says. "We unfortunately didn't but it allowed us to feel like comfortable saying, 'Let's try it.' So the first person we got to be on this album was David Byrne. Once that happened, that set a tone of like "If David Byrne can do it, anyone can."

and the Anonymous Nobody...

One of the other unexpected cameos comes from Justin Hawkins of hair metal revival act The Darkness. Considering that the beat change on "Lord Intended" kicks in like Guns N' Roses' "Estranged," it's not surprising that De La had wanted Axl Rose to sing it. When they couldn't track the pre-Coachella reunion singer down, though, there was a long delay in finding an alternative.

"Jack Black was supposed to be on it," Mercer says. "He actually had tried something for that song, but he himself didn't like it and didn't want us to hear it."

The group eventually landed on Hawkins at the 11th hour, and his presence adds an operatic tension to the song that Jack Black may possibly not have delivered. (The world may never know.)

Beyond its tony music palette and stellar roster of guests, the album also of course features the assured vocals, verbal dexterity, and dense lyricism for which De La Soul is justly famous. But unlike their approach to the process of making the album overall, this is one area the group did not have to innovate. They write their lyrics the same way they always have, with little consideration for the fact that this is the first album they've written since entering their forties. There is no guidebook for gracefully aging in the world of hip-hop, but if there were it would probably include a chapter on remembering what made you great in the first place.

"I’ve always wrote about where I was with my life," Jolicoeur says. "There's never been a time where I can pick up a pen and be like, 'Wow, I'm getting older and what should I say or what should I not?' I think with De La Soul, we always had so much more of a mature approach to our rhymes. So even now, it's the same way. I don't ever feel bad or weird about doing 'Me, Myself, and I' or 'Saturday,' because it still has to do with where I am in my life. And the same with this album—where I am is no different than any other album we've done."

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