As much as last month’s tuneful triumvirate of Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey and Fergie excited us at Time Out (and, of course, the cancellation of Mariah and Fergie drove us nuts), we have to admit that the real highlight of our summer was always going to be the arrival of De La Soul at Chi. Oh, sure, they’ll have to go a long, long way before they’ve sold as many records as Mariah, and they lack the mainstream appeal of Bon Jovi, but for any hip hop fans growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, De La Soul were easily one of the acts of the time, effortlessly achieving critical plaudits and commercial success.
It started in 1989, with 3 Feet High And Rising, the trio’s earcatching debut, which emphasised messages of peace and harmony, all wrapped up wry and goofy humour. The group’s intentional dismissal of the hardcore gangsta rap sound typified in NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, which had been released the year before, coupled with their peace-loving ideals resulted in them being labelled hippies. This name was matched by a soft, eclectic sound that threw jazz, pop and psychedelic samples into a genre more used to sampling funk and older hip hop beats (in fact, their unauthorised sampling of 60s US pop band The Turtles got them a legal kick in the chops). As time passed, the band continued to mature, even covering topics like child abuse (‘Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa’), but while they continued to gain critical success and remained mainstays of the non-mainstream hip hop scene, they never again had a hit as big as ‘Me, Myself And I’, the US number one single from their first album.
Which makes us wonder whether winning a Grammy in 2005 for ‘Feel Good Inc’, their collaboration with cartoon band Gorillaz has left a sour taste in their mouth. Not so, says Posdnuos – real name Kelvin Mercer – one of the band’s MCs. With a likeable humility, he explains: ‘Our travel through this industry has been a great ride and we are still riding. We are still sought after for our talents and that’s a lot to be thankful for, unlike a lot of our peers who can’t get work even though by their talents they should still be working.’
Indeed, the modern drive for the dollar in the US music industry – exacerbated by hip hop’s acceptance into mainstream pop culture – makes it hard for older acts to keep going. But Posdnuos remains confident in the US hip hop scene as a whole. ‘It’s still moving. Sometimes that’s without a driver and sometimes it’s even with the autopilot turned off, but it’s still strong enough to work itself out.’
And strong enough to spread itself right around the world to Dubai, where the influence of hip hop and, to a greater extent, its more commercial cousin, R&B can be seen in most stores. But for De La Soul, this effect won’t be purely one-way; Posdnuos says that this trip, which will see them playing ‘a little bit of everything’ from 3 Feet High And Rising to their latest albums – won’t just be about collecting the cheque and running off. ‘We’re coming here to soak in the good times and music and receive new inspiration that we will then be able to add to our music and of course our lives,’ he assures us.
And if you want to find out whether Dubai will be featuring in any upcoming De La Soul tracks, you won’t be waiting too long – good news for fans who’ve been eagerly anticipating a new album since 2004’s The Grind Date. ‘We’re looking to release our next album at the top of the year in 2009, around the 20th anniversary of the 3 Feet High album [in March].’ And those who think that a 10-month wait seems like an aeon after four years of tapping their feet can relax: ‘We are also doing an album with Nike later this summer that will have 45 minutes of new music. It’s a project to provide runners with work out songs.’
Hang on, though. Recording songs for Nike? We can hear cries of ‘sell out’ already, ones that will only get worse when they discover that the band provided tracks for the videogames PaRappa The Rapper 2 and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. So how would they react to that? ‘We’d just laugh,’ shrugs Posdnuos, ‘We have made serious songs, fun songs, complex projects and simple projects. In doing the games you mentioned, it was all about having a challenge, even if the challenge is to be very simple in our presentation. Plus it’s something that our kids appreciated, so that was great.’
And if it helps those musical purists, they are also working on more critic-friendly projects: ‘We are currently involved with Amnesty International,’ he says. ‘We’ll be interpreting The International Bill Of Human Rights into rhymes.’ So that’s De La Soul: still writing, still rhyming, working on everything from games to humanitarian efforts, and being modest all the while. Now do you see why we we’re so excited?
De La Soul play Chi on June 3.