De La Soul: Life and Soul of the party

By Scott Kara

Hip-hop trio De La Soul, who return to NZ this month for Coro Gold, still bring the noise after 25 years in the game. Scott Kara reports.

US hip-hop group De La Soul. Photo / Supplied
US hip-hop group De La Soul. Photo / Supplied

If there's one thing Vincent Mason - better known as Maseo - from De La Soul is proud of after 25 years in the game, it's turning "older white people" on to hip-hop.

And the New York group did it with the help of Hall & Oates and Steely Dan, two of the many groups and musicians they sampled on their fun, ground-breaking debut album 3 Feet High and Rising from 1989.

"I think it opened up their minds to get into hip-hop more," he says. "I'm not saying white people weren't into it, but I'm just saying white people of an older demographic became a little more appreciative of hip-hop when groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest came across the table."

The blue-eyed soul of Hall & Oates' I Can't Go For (No Can Do) and the arty soft rock of Steely Dan's Peg were key to the catchiness of classic tracks like Say No Go and Eye Know respectively, and elsewhere the album samples everyone from Michael Jackson and Billy Joel to Kraftwerk and Johnny Cash.

"It was something I guess they were able to identify with and appreciate hip-hop in its entirety and its diversity," says Maseo on the phone from his home in West Palm Beach, Florida, ahead of coming back to New Zealand for New Year's Eve party Coromandel Gold in Whitianga.

The last time the group played here was to support Gorillaz in 2010 when they were in energetic and fiery form - expect more of the same this year.

"You can definitely expect a good show, performing the classics, and maybe a few new songs, we'll see how we go."

Take a trawl through De La Soul's back catalogue and Maseo says you will be able to track the life and times of the three members, also made up of his mates Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer) and Dave (David Jolicoeur).

"It's about truly living hip-hop in its truest form. Look at 3 Feet High and Rising; a record like that can never be duplicated because that was just about some high school kids from the years of 1985 to 1989. And then you've got De La Soul Is Dead which is pretty much late 1989 to early 1991. And so forth with all the other albums, so basically it's what's been going in our lives both collectively and individually - whether it be having children, moving to a different state ... you know."

Back in those early days especially, De La Soul were game-changers both on a musical level as well as lyrically and philosophically because their songs were about peace and harmony with a heartfelt and funny tone. And perhaps most amazing, given it's hip-hop, there was (almost) no swearing.

"I feel blessed to say that my intro duction to the music business was a great one because we had nothing to compete with. All we had to do was stick to our guns and do what we do, which is a great place to be. It's not a situation many people are in so ultimately it's about putting music out there and letting people embrace it."

And even though they have not been as productive in the past 10 years, with their last group album 2004's The Grind Date (because this year's First Serve only featured Dave and Posdnuos with French DJ duo Chokolate and Khalid doing the music), Maseo says they are working on a new album and are always on a mission of musical discovery because they still see themselves as "students of music".

Which is why they continue to tour, do side projects, and collaborate (most notably in recent years with Gorillaz).

"We are pretty much a mainstay based on the reputation of the work we have done, and the respect we have from different people, and the different barriers we've been able to break down. And at this point in time we are just all about continuing to put out music and perform it. Anybody who embarks upon this as a profession, I can't see you not wanting to do this for the rest of your life. It's for the love of the music. It's not that complicated."

He believes the music climate these days suits the band because it's more about "doing projects" rather than "selling big units to survive".

"It's about making music, whether you do it individually or collectively. I don't really plan on doing anything else but music in my life, and I think the same goes for my group as well."

Who: De La Soul
What: New York hip-hop pioneers
Where and when: Coromandel Gold, Whitianga, December 30-31
Essential listening: 3 Feet High and Rising (1989); De La Soul is Dead (1991); Stakes is High (1996); Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000); AOI: Bionix (2001); The Grind Date (2004)

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