By Jacob Katel
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Among the motley conglomeration of personalities that has descended upon the American Airlines Arena for a massive press conference with radio broadcasters a day before the MTV Video Music Awards, a diverse assortment that includes celebrity freaks (Victoria Gotti and her sons), flavor-of-the-month teeny poppers (Hilary Duff), rock and roll nonentities (Hoobastank), fledgling stars (Kanye West), and over-the-hill acts (New Edition), there are few musicians who resonate beyond the here and now, whose names indicate a body of work that continues to wield broad influence.
De La Soul is among them. As one of the creators of bohemian rap, an ambitious and wildly creative alternative to the hardcore macho idioms that dominate hip-hop culture, the Long Island trio is a certified legend, the b-boy equivalent of Sonic Youth. A few key encounters during their jaunt around the pressroom confirm their importance. The face of MTV journalism, Kurt Loder, doesn't seem fazed (or truly interested) in the hubbub surrounding him, but he makes a point of walking over and talking with De La Soul, even as Yoko Ono passes by.
But for the most part, De La Soul was there to work like everybody else. They had a new album, Grind Date, to promote. They snapped pictures and traded words with Dame Dash, Carl Thomas, and Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz, then spent five minutes chatting up the broadcasters. "Hip-hop legends De La Soul in the building!" shouted No Limit Larry from Power 98 (WPEG-FM) in North Carolina. Later, he marveled at De La's staying power. "If I have a choice, it's got to be hot. And they're still hot. Still together after all these years, still doing it."
Two hours after arriving (and running into OutKast and BET Rap City host Big Tigger on the way out of the arena), De La Soul was back on the road. Maseo, the group's DJ, was en route to Club Row in downtown Miami to do a sound check for their performance at an MTV block party that evening. Meanwhile, Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer and Dave "Trugoy" Jolicoeur took separate minivans back to the Hotel Nash, where they were staying that weekend, to rest up for the block party and another sold-out performance at crobar with the Beastie Boys.
"Every time an album comes out, we stay traveling," reflected Mercer as his chaffeured minivan hurtled down the MacArthur Causeway. He notes that the group performs shows around the globe, from Europe to Australia, nurturing a worldwide underground audience that continues to support them. "We've been blessed to go places where we have loyal supporters of De La Soul, just because we'll go places that no one else will," he said.
By now, most of their fans realize that De La Soul is a decade removed from the insular "it might blow up but it won't go pop" stance that once defined them. Ever since their highly underrated 1996 effort Stakes Is High, an album that stands as a dividing line between the freewheeling innovations of "golden era" hip-hop and the flossy hip-pop concoctions that now dominate pop culture, the group has unapologetically made records for the people. From the 2000 opus AOI: Mosaic Thumpwith its panoply of guests, (Chaka Khan, Xzibit), to the just-released Grind Date, which includes a cameo from film director Spike Lee (!), De La work hard to maintain a place among rap's current stars.
So far, they've succeeded: "Baby Phat," the lead single from their last album, AOI: Bionix, still gets play on MTV2, and Grind Dateis generating a nice, modest buzz in industry circles. Barring Chuck D. and KRS-One, both of whom are now better known as elder statesmen than cutting-edge artists, De La Soul, Dr. Dre, and LL Cool J are the only rap stars from the Eighties who still matter. LL Cool J has his chiseled, lady-killing looks and B-movie career to help him; Dr. Dre sticks to making beats, letting younger, fresher protégés handle the microphone. All De La Soul has to sustain them is good music.
"Three Feet High and Risingwasn't like anything that was out. It was on MTV, it was on Rap City, it was on everything possible," Mercer said. "Why not have that same drive and understanding now? It's not like I need to do it for money, it's just I'm not a liar, man. I won't sit here and say I make music to save people's lives. I make music because I love music. But I realized that, öWow, I can make money off making music that I love.' So it is to make a living.'"
That's not to say that De La Soul isn't a mentor. Since the classic single "Buddy," which introduced Native Tongues stars A Tribe Called Quest, the trio has continually supported new and emerging artists, from Common and Mos Def (Stakes Is High) to Devin the Dude (AOI: Bionix). Today, they are part of a resurgence in creative and thematically varied hip-hop.
"It's great to see Anthony Hamilton do a song with Jadakiss," said Jolicoeur. He cites Jadakiss's politically charged hit single, "Why?" as proof that the hip-hop scene is finally embracing new ideas and concepts beyond typical hos-and-designer- clothes rhymes. "Would it have happened in 1996? Probably not. It would have been Mariah and Jadakiss.
"I think people are starting to let their guards down and try new things," he added. "We don't have to be so tough. We don't have to be so rugged."
By now, the scene had shifted from the Hotel Nash, where Jolicoeur, Mercer, and their entourage had paused for a short rest, to the Delano Hotel, where everyone was enjoying a late afternoon meal. The hotel's sunny décor seemed to underscore Jolicoeur's and Mercer's contention that De La Soul's music is for the general public as well as their longtime hip-hop fans, some of whom have charged that the group has lost the freewheeling, eccentric touch of Three Feet High and Rising. For sure, Grind Date isn't as experimental as that classic debut. The ensuing fifteen years have brought considerable changes in all three members' lives. Each has a family now, and they've seen hip-hop music become a multi-billion dollar business.
For better or worse, De La Soul's recent output is the reflection of grown men, not talented teenagers. Grind Date is polished and sophisticated enough to be appreciated on its own terms, easily bumping from the bass bounce of "Verbal Clap" to "He Comes," a fleet-footed duet with Ghostface Killah. There's even a surprisingly unpredictable track, "Rock Co. Kane Flow," that finds Jolicoeur and Mercer trading stop-start verses with cutting-edge rap mathematician MF Doom. But Grind Dateis not Three Feet High and Rising or even Buhloone Mindstate. In reality, who would want it to be?
"In '88, we weren't conscious of what was going on. We were knuckleheads, we was young kids pulling jokes on each other," said Jolicoeur of those wonder years. "But in time, you've seen De La grow up. That's how it should be."