Still Rising?

Racing to release part two of its Art Official Intelligence trilogy, De La Soul finds itself at a crossroads

Still, West can't help much to re-energize the band's lack of urgency. Whereas the De La Soul that exploded in their late teens with 3 Feet High represented with spirit and no-worries charm, the latter-day outfit has a more somber, subdued outlook. The difference is highlighted when Maseo explains the reason for the four-year drought between Stakes and Thump.

"We were having families," he says. "Responsibilities, being in our 30s, makes our days a lot more demanding than it was when we were back doing 3 Feet High and Rising. So with all that coming into play, it's definitely a challenge trying to make three records in the amount of time that we're trying to make them."

But it's more than time constraints and parental obligations taking a toll on De La's exuberance. The group has been pushed by the next generation of hip-hop heads -- who by now have absorbed and emulated its records -- into that iffy nether region reserved for rap's elder statesmen (think of veterans like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy, both slightly tarnished by less-than-stellar recent efforts).

De La Soul: Fighting to stay relevant in the ever-changing hip-hop game.
De La Soul: Fighting to stay relevant in the ever-changing hip-hop game.

"Definitely groups like Black Eyed Peas or what have you -- I think they've succeeded in what they were trying to do," says Dave, "but I think they would be even bigger if they were coming out when we were coming out. I think for De La to try to come out in 2002, knowing the way we approach music and rap as a whole, I think it would be hard."

Thus far, the AOI albums have been an uneasy truce between the group's intelligent, soulful inclinations and its desire to cross over to a wider audience.

"That's one thing that we do keep in mind when we are recording: being able to fall into line with what's happening today," Dave admits. "But we also give it our own style, our own flavor, never compromising what we do. [We're] just making it acceptable in both audiences -- our De La fans, people who listen to that sort of music, and the others on the other side."

Two hours later, De La Soul hits L.A.'s House of Blues stage, and that conflict rears its ugly head again. Again and again, Pos and Dave implore the crowd to make some noise, but their songs often lack the easy hookiness of, say, Jay-Z's "Girls, Girls, Girls," which gets the crowd moving as it pumps over the speakers before the De La set. And when Pos shifts into the heartfelt statement-of-purpose that is Mindstate's "I Am I Be," people don't seem to be feeling it. Tellingly, "Me, Myself and I" -- the band's first and biggest hit -- gets the most enthusiastic response of the night.

"A dream of ours is to not ever have to play 'Me, Myself and I' again," Dave says before the show. "We understand that people love that record and sometimes that's what gets the party started, that's what people are most familiar with. But, at the same time, not wanting to do that record is -- it isn't as if we hate doing the song. It's just that we want to open people's minds to the fact that there's more than that. There's another 20 songs on some albums -- 25 songs on some albums."

With Bionix, De La Soul is in a no-win situation. It's trying to attract an audience to music it no longer creates as definitively as it once did, though it still beats most of the predictable rap played on the radio. The members are fighting to stay relevant when most people would agree their best years are behind them. Looking at their faces, it's hard to detect any of the innocent eagerness they displayed on the cover of 3 Feet.

And yet, when Maseo starts fooling with his turntable before showtime, Pos comes alive, dancing to the music. Just as quickly, he stops, sticking his tongue out in a just-kidding fashion, as if that 19-year-old genius is still in there somewhere, fighting to get out.

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