About a year ago, Prince Paul, as part of Handsome Boy Modeling School, opened for Radiohead at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, segueing playfully behind the turntables from song to song -- kitsch tunes, classic jams, whatever in between. And then something truly startling happened.
Paul played the opening, ingratiating groove of "Me, Myself and I," the breakthrough hit for then-rookie phenoms De La Soul, a Day-Glo hip-hop act that he'd helped produce and put on the map. Just as the crowd began getting into the tune, Paul flowed seamlessly into "Oooh," the group's tough-guy collaboration with Redman from last year's Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump. And thus a band's 11-year journey was crystallized with a twist of the wrist. From fresh faces to grizzled veterans. From hip-hop's great hope to the game's bloodied old pros. Just like that.
Flash forward to November 2001, backstage at the House of Blues in Anaheim. The three founding members of De La Soul are in the midst of a monthlong tour to promote their forthcoming album, Bionix. The second installment in the Art Official Intelligence trilogy, Bionix continues the group's mission to reclaim some stature in the rap world.
"When we came out, there were just barely, you know, 25 groups," says Dave (formerly known as Trugoy the Dove). "Nowadays, it's hard to actually stick a stake in the ground and say, 'This is my thing right here,' and have people really have the opportunity to hear it. There's so much going on in hip-hop, it feels a little cluttered now."
In its formative years with inventive producer Prince Paul, De La first defined -- and then rebelled against -- hip-hop's humorous, positive possibilities. Suburban subculture dudes with brains and eclectic ears claimed De La as their own, and albums like 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul Is Dead spoke to the genre-spanning, Everyman potential of rap.
But after 1993's compelling Buhloone Mindstate, De La split with Paul and experienced some growing pains. No longer wunderkinds destined to reform hip-hop's lowest-common tendencies, Dave, Posdnuos and Maseo have struggled to prove themselves as more than just once-promising innovators.
The 1996 release Stakes Is High took the high road, placing the band above the fray of materialism and glorified violence that by then was moving huge units, but it was met with disappointing sales and was followed by a lengthy hiatus. Finally, last year, De La emerged with the beginning of this new AOI trilogy, whose origins Pos suggests came from an in-band joke.
"A lot of rappers had begun doing a lot of double albums," he remembers. "Throughout our career, we've always been known to try to do something different and introduce something different to the rap game. We just kinda made a joke like, 'Yeah, so what are we going to do when we come back out? Yeah, let's make a triple album.' And we just laughed about it.
"And then like maybe a day later, I came back to Dave like, 'Yo, man, that could be kind of a really dope idea. [It'll] give us a chance to make all types of music and not worry about a song not making it on the album because we're only allotted this much time or space for one CD or vinyl.'"
Part one of that trilogy, Mosaic Thump, was widely greeted by critics and fans as a calculated comeback effort, and it certainly sounded like one. The group handled almost all the production on its own, eschewing the social consciousness and innovation of earlier works, and to further hedge the bets, the album featured a slew of guest vocalists. It was an effective hip-hop effort, but Mosaic Thump was by far the least idiosyncratic joint of the group's career.
"The first record was a vibe record, a soulful record, a lot of choruses, a lot of partyin' and havin' a good time," Dave says of Thump. "Also, I think the first record dealt with a lot of old-school factors -- having Busy Bee on the record, Beastie Boys on the record. Stuff like tapping on the table and bringing it back to freestyle, kind of a battling kind of a thing. Remembering the old school and also having a good time with soulful vibes."
Part of the agreement De La made with its label, Tommy Boy, was that the band had to release one album of the trilogy each year, and so the group has just barely finished Bionix before the tour. If Thump was about mood and sound, Bionix accentuates hip-hop's lyrical reach. Tackling subjects and emphasizing word play, the new record reflects De La's move away from the boards and toward the mike. Dave West, who did some work on Thump, is Bionix's main producer, and he amplifies the group's mature tunefulness.
"We take pride in knowing we're rhyming on a Dave West beat," Dave says. "I mean, he might not be known to the world, but to us he's an incredible producer. He would do it like how we would do it but even better in some cases."
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).
"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."
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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.