The influential DJ and producer chats working with Gorillaz and the state of hip-hop today
When I quiz DJ Maseo, now 43, about the enduring appeal of De La Soul’s seminal 1989 album 3 Feet High And Rising, he alludes to its originality: ‘In that era although we were inspired and influenced by so many other artists that came before us, we realised how different everyone was and there was something in hip-hop back then which was called biting.
‘It was forbidden to sound like someone else and if you did you got ridiculed. They called you a biter, they called you whack.’
The acceptability of aping another style is strictly measured: ‘Accents, phrases, dialogue – yes. But style – no. I’m from the same territory as Rakim and Freddie Foxxx – we don’t sound anything alike. I’m from the same territory as Public Enemy – we don’t sound anything alike.’
De La Soul’s collaboration with British concept group Gorillaz in 2005 exposed the rap outfit to a whole new audience. Maseo describes the track ‘Feel Good Inc.’ as a ‘worldwide phenomenon.’ He reveals that it was him who instigated the collaboration after hearing the band’s first eponymous album.
‘It started [with] me doing The Tommy Boy Greatest Beats Tour,’ he remembers. ‘The first album with “Clint Eastwood” with Del [Del the Funky Homosapien] on it – I thought the record was incredible. I was on tour with Arthur Baker, [Afrika Bambaataa producer], Dan the Automator and Afrika Bambaataa – we all DJ’d that tour. Dan the Automator was the one who actually produced that song [‘Clint Eastwood’]. At that time Dan had people under a different impression – that he pretty much was the Gorillaz. The closer I got to finding out what I wanted to know, the more I found out that Dan wasn’t the guy – he just produced the song.’
Maseo is at a loss to explain why Dan tried to mislead him initially: ‘I can’t answer that question, man. Here it is – I think that was kind of silly because I was just going off the innocence of me liking a record and trying to track down some vinyl. I met some guy in Birmingham [UK] who took me along and got me some records and he introduced me to the people who did the art of the Gorillaz, and once I met them I ended up meeting a couple of people who are part of the music and it got back to Damon that there was a lot of respect from this end for what he was doing. Del the Funky Homosapien and Dan the Automator are the sons of De La Soul. It was at Damon’s request that he wanted all three of us [De La Soul] on the plane, in the studio – he made it happen and he wanted the experience of working in a studio and that’s what I loved. That’s what makes better records – that’s what makes classic records.’
Maseo’s nothing but complimentary when it comes to working with Albarn, revealing a deep respect for him as an artist: ‘One thing I can say – I guess when people think he’s going to be Damon from Blur, they’re expecting some prima donna kind of person, but not at all. He’s just a humble guy and when it comes to music it’s a genuine love. You can tell it’s a childhood love. The feeling I got from him was the feeling we [De La Soul] always had when we were making music. Anyone from our era who’s successfully making music today – they genuinely love music. It started out with a little tension as we’d just met and nobody was really feeling it but we were trying to make it work. Egos get in the way and little things become too big. Every now and then someone’s ego needs to get knocked down.’
Following on from the track there was a successful tour with Albarn. Maseo explains, ‘we played Madison Square Garden and many more venues like it in the US. We played to 20,000-30,000 people per night on our US tour. We were on tour with an ensemble of artists – it was like a musical circus. It was a big orchestra and artists including Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Sean Ryder, Paul Simonon and Nick ‘Topper’ Headon from the Clash, and us – it was incredible.’
Like Albarn, Maseo is meticulous in the studio, revealing his musical philosophy: ‘Production is a vehicle for making things sound how you want it to sound. Sometimes a bass and a drum could be complete but you have a song like ‘I Am I Be’ that you feel needs to be more orchestrated, so you bring in a little more instrumentation. It started out with four samples and the next thing you know we’ve got the JP [Jimmy Ponder sample] and Maseo playing on top of it. It’s all about what it feels like when you’re in the midst of creating the music and what you think it should have. A song can be done in ten minutes and sometimes it can take two months. It all depends on the nature of the track and the song itself.’
He continues by revealing that back in the ’80s, ‘we all pretty much made records that talked in codes to one another and then the fans, the critics and the journalists would begin to pick up on it. A lot of hip-hop fans ended up becoming journalists because they wanted to convey the message accordingly instead of giving a negative interpretation or an interpretation that was just incorrect.’
A massive vinyl head, Maseo reveals that his passion for collecting records has taken over his house: ‘My wife said that if I bring another record into the house, she’s going to kill me but I’ve snuck a few in already. Right now I’m working on my 45s. Vinyl is what they call today “an endangered species”.’
He then reveals what we can expect from his upcoming performance in Dubai. He’s characteristically frank, stating: ‘I definitely won’t be playing Gorillaz. I’m going to be playing some De La [Soul] and some Tribe [Called Quest] and definitely showing my roots – playing the music we made and the music we grew up with. That’s the best part about DJing – I get to play what I love and coming from the era I come from, they [the crowd] don’t expect me to cater for today’s sound, which is cool.’
Yet, as his work with the Gorillaz proves, he still likes to keep his eye on the scene, admitting ‘some of the stuff I like, some of the stuff I don’t like. I listen to Drake, Rihanna, Mick Mills, Rick Ross… I listen to all of the current stuff from hip-hop to pop – I’m a music lover.’ He recommends I check out a New York rapper called Sean Price, who in Maseo’s opinion is ‘the most current in hip-hop at the moment to me.’
With such a successful and long career behind him, I ask him if there are any tracks he wished he’d made. After some thought, I’m surprised by his response. ‘There’s a few out there. I wish I produced “Sweet Home Alabama”.’
He doesn’t think they’ll be any more collaborations as Gorillaz, revealing that Albarn is ‘just not going to do it anymore because it’s kind of cool to leave it on a high note.’ However, he’s affirmative when I ask him if they’ll work together again, revealing that the pair have formed a close friendship. What to expect however remains a mystery, with DJ Maseo simply adding that ‘it’ll probably just be something else.’