For a brief moment in the late 80s and early 90s the New York-based Native Tongues crew made braininess and political consciousness the coolest qualities in hip-hop culture—and then gangsta rap exploded and put an end to all that. There were a lot of great groups under the Native Tongues banner—A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep—but De La Soul were arguably the most fun. Though they addressed heavy social issues without hesitation (a Native Tongues trademark), the trio of Posdnuos, Maseo, and Trugoy did so with wry, self-deprecating humor and a laid-back vibe that almost made them sound like hippies. And the albums they recorded with producer Prince Paul (including their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, and 1991's landmark De La Soul Is Dead) are among the most sonically adventurous in pop history. Last month Posdnuos and Trugoy, sans Maseo, dropped an album called First Serve (Duckdown)—the closest thing to a full-length De La Soul release in eight years—and the group is working on an album called You're Welcome. For this week's Artist on Artist, Pos (aka Kelvin Mercer) is interviewed by Chicago MC and activist Rhymefest, aka Che Smith. Smith came up a generation after De La, and his aesthetic is more gritty and blue-collar than hippie-dippy psychedelic. But his work—both as a solo artist and as a lyricist for Kanye's early releases—has helped make their kind of social consciousness cool again. Plus he puts his money where his mouth is, and last year he made a valiant but unsuccessful run for City Council. De La Soul performs Fri 5/25 at the Shrine to celebrate the venue's third anniversary. —Miles Raymer
The song that caught my attention off First Serve, it was "Pop Life," and in the beginning somebody was speaking in French in the intro, which I thought was dope. Was that one of the members of the group? No, that was actually Lucien [Revolucien], who's been down with us, with the Native Tongues—I mean, if you remember, he's our heart, that's our peoples from day one, since we started the Native Tongues. So when we cut this in France, he was hanging out with us. That's always been De La's. . . . Whoever's in the studio—yo, if you in the studio, man, you are gonna wind up on the record. Skit, somehow—you hang with us . . .
Now I'm listening to this song, and it's got a feminine appeal to it. So the question is like, How does a rapper approach a song about femininity without sounding too much like Drake? Or express his vulnerability and sensitivity in a way that pleases the woman, but still keeps it real to hip-hop? How did you do that? I just think it's about who you are as a person. I definitely love quality music, man, and that's why I can even, for myself, look at someone like LL [Cool J], and be like, yo, LL is hip-hop. When he first came out and he could make a song like "I Need Love," and I could still see that—but that's a hip-hop dude expressing something that's real. Someone can gig on him, but then turn around and be on his little land line back at the crib in 12th grade talking to the girl the same way. It's a true part of who you are. So I mean, I'm hip-hop, so that's how I'm going to express myself, in a sense, if I plan to marry that way to that song, as you said.
I think a lot of artists become conflicted when they say, OK, you have a heavy, masculine force in hip-hop, but the purchasing audience is mostly women. So a lot of artists may feel as though they have to capitulate to the female audience. So what you're saying is, you just do it as it comes and you automatically have that energy? Honestly, man, that's what De La has always been about. We would never be the ones who would be like, Yo, we can't do this joint with Rhymefest unless he's on the charts. It's about, Yo, we can do this joint because we had a natural conversation. It makes me think about how we did "Peer Pressure" on the AOI Bionix album with B Real. I never smoked weed. Mason [aka Maseo, aka Vincent Mason] and B Real were smoking weed in front of me, and Mason hits B Real, like, puts the blunt in my face, like, "Peer pressure, Pos!" And I was like, "Yo! That's a dope song!"
That's how De La has always done things. We look at it as the artist or the feature is an instrument—it's like, we don't say, "Yo, we just wanna make a joint with Drake" because we wanna make a joint with Drake. It could be that the song itself spoke to us, like, Yo, we need to add some keys to that, yo, we need some scratches, yo, this song needs some Drake, or yo, this song needs Redman. You know, that's how we usually handle it.
First Serve, "Pushin' Aside, Pushin' Along"
So OK, one thing I did want to say, man—real dope lyrics. "I'm a microphone fiend / Addicted to the concept of rolling with a team." That was on the song "Pushin' Aside, Pushin' Along," which I thought, those were really, really dope lyrics. But I got some questions about some things other than music. I wanted to ask you—you all been in a gang like, man, I would say over three decades. How do you keep your soul inspired to keep material fresh? Like, sometimes, over 30 years, you just say, Man, I'm over music. How do you keep from saying that? Yo, man, I love—we love what we do. And one thing that I love about my group is that we're always learning new stuff. And for what we do, it isn't like we're athletes where, you know what, you get to a certain age and, you know, you're the amazing Michael Jordan, you're in your late 30s and you can't do what you need to do. Like, we're authors—me, even you, all of us, we're all authors. There's a lot of authors who sell these books and they're, like, late 60s. It's their minds just constantly reaching out for new inspiration, new music, new parts of life, new parts of seeing things that then inspire them to write. So I mean, that never stops.
I remember having a conversation at one of Common's dinners that he had, and Heavy D was there, and even he was like at one point, Yo, you know, I don't know if I want to do this no more, you know, make another album, because I just feel like I don't have nothing else to write about. And he asked me how I feel, and I was like, Yo, I feel like I got too much to write about.
Can you recall any kind of five-heartbeats moment that you guys had and survived through? Man, there's many. There's many a time where I'm like, Yo, if I see this dude's face one more time . . . [Laughs.] There's many a day when it's been that. But one thing, I think, with us, is that we truly came into this as friends. I've known Dave since we were like in fifth, sixth grade, you know what I'm sayin'? So growing up with each other, you learn more about each other. And even with Mase moving from Brooklyn at an early age and coming to Long Island, we grew up around each other.
There's several great groups that we all know where, in knowing them, you realize, like, Yo, this person was trying to be a solo artist, that person is trying to be a solo artist, but they came together to make it. And then when one of them made it or got successful, then maybe the rifts and all that started. We always look at each other like, Yo, we can't do this without each other. And even though, yeah, people always be like, "Yo, Pos, you can do a solo album," or people say that to Dave or whatever, still we appreciate and love each other. So even the little squabbles we have, at the end of the day, it's like I'm truly having a squabble with my blood brother. I'm never gonna disown him, I'm never gonna leave him—we just gotta talk through it.