Tuesday, April 30, 2013

DE LA SOUL, interview
Melody Maker, May 25th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

De La Soul may not be dead, but positivity smells kinda funny.

When 3 Feet High & Rising came out in 1989, De La Soul were in perfect sync with the favourable signs of the time. They revolutionised rap, replacing its stock emotions of rage, paranoia and hypertension with a new spirit of affirmation and togetherness. Along with Soul II Soul, they popularised the creed of positivity; Deee-Lite were their cartoon lovechild.

But suddenly, in the middle of 1990, Soul II Soul's new decade turned out to be a false new dawn for humankind. Even as Deee-Lite were putting the finishing touches to World Clique, the outlook for peacedelic unity abruptly deteriorated. The Eastern European revolutions merely opened a fresh can of worms (ethnic tensions, the spectre of neo-fascism); Gorby put the brakes on glasnost and the recession kicked in, putting intolerable stress on an already frayed social fabric. To cap it all, there was even a war, the biggest since World War II, with an increasingly grim aftermath of Kurdish agony and ecological woe.

With the global trend toward misery exposing the triteness of positivity's platitudes, there was no way De La Soul could return with a simple reiteration of 3 Feet High, hence De La Soul Is Dead.

Superficially, the new album sounds like no huge departure; there's the same slaphappy-go-lucky beats, goofy rhymes and lazy haze of samples, the same rather wearisome preponderance of skits and spoofs, running jokes and comedic interludes. But something has changed, the cover image (a knocked over flower pot and an uprooted, dead daisy) and the videos (black and white, as opposed to the dayglo Sesame Street hues of yore) symbolically underline a crucial shift in tone. Probe a little deeper beneath the sublime scat-doggerel lyrics and the disarmingly easy-going pace, and you'll find murkier, nastier undercurrents.

‘Please Porridge’ is based around a deceptively jaunty sample of Twenties tap dance music, but its lyric takes pains to point out that just because De La Soul are laid-back doesn't mean they'll let any one walk over them. Posdnuos and Dove warn that if you bug 'em, you'll get sprayed with Black Flag (a pesticide). ‘Bitties In The BK Lounge’ is a sour diatribe against the two-faced attitudes of the starstruck, loosely based on a real-life incident in a burger joint in which a waitress treated De La Soul with disdain, then drooled over them when she realised they were famous.
‘Ring Ring’ is a weary whinge about being pestered by aspiring rappers with demo tapes. The gorgeously r(h)apsodic ‘Pass The Plugs’ turns out, on closer inspection, to be a veritable litany of gripes (about radio, their record company, "pimp promoters", talk show host Arsenio Hall, De La copyists etc ad nauseam). Even the record sleeve's list of acknowledgements include various pointed "Fuck you's" to De La Soul's foes.

Clearly De La Soul have no truck with the idea that fame carries with it an obligation to be gracious about its many aggravations; they resent being public property. Then there's the socially aware songs; the anti-drug parable of ‘My Brother Is A Basehead’, a withering portrait of Posdnuos' sibling who became the "lowest of elements" after getting into "nasal sports"; and the stand-out track ‘Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa’, another true-to-life tale of child abuse set to a breeding backdrop of agonized blues guitar.

On repeated listens, De La Soul Is Dead emerges as a subdued, sprawling, ‘bleaker’ but altogether more ambitious record than the sunny 3 Feet High. Revealing a hitherto unsuspected capacity for cynicism and petty malice, the new album shatters the group's image as amiable rap clowns and replaces it with something far more complicated and interesting.


Naturally, De La Soul themselves see continuity rather than a drastic break with their past.

"With us, positivity was never about going around with a stupid grin saying, 'Hi, peace y'all, let's all be happy'," says Posdnuos through heavily-congested sinuses. "On the first album we had songs that dealt with social issues. We dealt with drug use on 'Say No Go', but it wasn't that personal, whereas 'My Brother Is A Basehead' deals with drugs from personal experience. The overall vibe of the new LP is not happy go lucky. But it is like 3 Feet High & Rising, in that there's positive elements and there's songs that deal with a negative situation, but trying to strive for a positive solution to it."

Did you find the positivity fad rapidly degenerated into inane platitudes?

Dove: "No, but it did get a little worn down, cos everybody was doing it. A lot of people lost sight of the fact that being positive means being aware of negativity, and trying to resolve it."

Posdnuos: "But there’s not one cut on 3 Feet High where we straight out said 'peace'. The 'hippy hop' thing was always something that the critics invented. ‘Me Myself & I’ was about not being like everybody else, 'Say No Go' was anti-drugs, 'Buddy’ was about being with the one you want to be with. What happened was the critics saw the overall vibe and look of the album and said we was about peace."

‘Please Porridge’ seems to be your rejoinder to the people who mistook your rejection of rap aggression for being weak or soft.

Dove: "That song's just saying that if people want to test us, we're not gonna stand for it. Just cos we spoke about being peaceful and positive, it doesn't mean we're gonna let ourselves be trampled on. We will do whatever it takes to defend ourselves. There have been situations where people tried to test us, and we defended ourselves, and whether it was worse for us or for them, it doesn't really matter."

Were these people gangsta rappers who thought the peacedelic attitude was wimpy?

"It wasn't even rappers, it was just kids of different ages that we met in clubs. They'd come to see our show, so it wasn't to do with music, it was just them wanting to test us as so-called peaceful people."

Then there was the strife on the LL Cool J tour, climaxing in De La being kicked off the tour for perpetrating violence!

"It wasn't trouble for us, it was trouble for them. We aren't people who have feelings and hold them inside. The people on the LL tour just didn't realise we were as open and forthright as we are. They treated us rotten. It was a learning process. You learn, especially if you're the last group on the bill, beneath Slick Rick and LL. We saw the bad side, and we got kicked off, because we stood for what we felt was right."


Various songs on the new album suggest that you feel a certain bitterness about the costs of fame.

Posdnuos: "All we're doing is writing about how we feel at one point. When you function everyday, you think of millions of thoughts each day you exist. But we can't put millions of thoughts and feelings on each piece of wax, because that’s just a record of where you are that day 'Ring Ring' is about how a certain kind of person had been bothering us, at a time when we really couldn't deal with being bothered. People don't realise that we're one group that really tries to be involved in all our business, every aspect of being a group.

"Often we're on our way somewhere to do something real important and people see it as their only opportunity to get to us. Half the time these kids are talking to us and they're so misguided you really need a couple of hours to straighten them out about how to work in the music business. 'Ring Ring' is about being bounded by these people and not having the time."

Dove: "The first album was the mood of us just getting into the business, and this one is about us being in the business. I'm not saying it's the worst thing that we ever experienced in our lives, but…"

What are the positive rewards of fame and success?

Dove: "You get a better life."

Posdnuos: "There are a lot of obligations, but you get a chance to do something positive. You have the options and the tools to do it. We can express what we feel, and people will buy what we're expressing. And the fact that we have influenced other artists is cool."

How closely does ‘My Brother Is A Basehead’ cleave to the truth?

Posdnuos: "Well, my brother is now in rehab, but it's basically a true story. Basehead is slang for someone who freebases or smokes crack. When he was basin', I had strong feelings about it. Some people might have thought it was too personal for them to write about, but I really didn’t care. It helped get it off my chest, plus I thought a lot of people could identify with it and it could help people.
Word by word, it's not following what actually happened, but it's close. It relates how we grew up together and how his downfall began."

Is he not somewhat miffed that you used his tale of woe as material?

"I really don't know – I don't speak to him. I really don't f*** with him too much. Even though he's trying to do better now, he's f***ed up so much in life that I really can't deal with him. He knows I've written the song, but obviously he can't do shit about it."

And what's the story behind ‘Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa’?

"That's also about a friend of mine who unfortunately was being molested by her father. It turned out that all of us knew a person who was going through that. But this was something so close to me that I wanted to express it on wax. In reality, it didn't go as for as her pulling a pistol on her father. The story is fictional, but the emotions are real."


Overall, it seems like De La Soul’s colours were yellow and orange, but now your palette is all greys and blues and blacks.

Dove: "The new album is much harder in sound and heavier in concept. It's good to do something different. If we had done something exactly the same as 3 Feet High & Rising, we would have watered the whole scene down. Cos a lot of people have been doing the same thing, the same colours, the same style."

Do you worry that people will find the album a bit of a downer?

Posdnuos: "From what I've heard, everyone loves it -- industry people, critics, friends. People who are straight up De La Soul fans will love it, I think, because it's really a much stronger album than the first one. But those people who were just into De La Soul cos 3 Feet High & Rising reminded them of their Woodstock days, might not like it. Those people should listen closely because then they'll realise that it goes a lot further than a lot of rap albums will ever go."


What do you think of the state of rap? It strikes me as scattered and stagnant.

"It's in a real wack state," says Dove. "It's in a stand still. There's nothing new. Like before it was all from the heart, now it's less heart, more business. It’s like, if Salt 'N' Pepa did well, companies look to get another Salt 'N' Pepa. It’s all about dollars now."

My impression is that the rap community is divided into factions (the gangsta/ghetto boys, the righteous prophet-rappers, your peacedelic buddies in the Native Tongue movement, the old school survivors and revivalists) who all see themselves as the way forward.

"We don't see ourselves as a movement," Dove continues. "Native Tongue is just a name for us, The Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and some others, but there's no set style. De La Soul do songs where we're preaching, songs where we're changing our characters, songs that a hoodlum or gangsta could relate to, songs that are just about fun. We don't stay in one style. At the moment we like groups like Brand Nubian, Leaders Of The New School, Son of Bazerk, but we don't downfall any rappers. We don't even downfall people like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Everyone’s part of the same rap community."

Doesn't it feel like everyone’s waiting for the next great leap forward?

"Even De La Soul is waiting," Posdnuos says. "We all wonder what the next step is. It could lie in working with live bands. We were involved in this ‘MTV Unplugged' show where LL Cool J and us played with a live band. That was real cool. And we played some instruments on the new album, and we got people in to play some stuff. I think sampling's been taken as far as it can be taken. We're watching and we're waiting, and when the new thing happens we'll see if we can be down with that too."


Like 3 Feet High & Rising, the new album displays what US critic Greg Tate described as De La Soul's "Fear Of No Music" attitude. As well as the usual archive of obscure disco, R & B and jazz-funk records, on De La Soul Is Dead, the group sample from such un-rap sources as Serge Gainsbourg, Frankie Valli, Wayne Fontana, Chicago and The Doors.

Dove: "Our sampling goes to any category of music you can name. There is every kind of music in our house. And it goes beyond music, to sound effects, instruments, toys, sounds that we make with objects."

This time around, you seem to prefer less recognisable samples.

Posdnuos: "That's not to do with the litigation problems that we had, it's more like a reaction against the fad of sampling something that was famous. With rap now, coming up with a real familiar loop isn't important any more. We feel relying on a famous sample overshadows what we do in terms of arrangement."

It sounds like you're using fantastically obscure records (the only one I recognised was the vamp from ‘Touch Me’ by The Doors).

"That delayed the album because a lot of what we sample was so old that it was hard to track down who owned the track, or whether they was even alive! A couple of the people we dealt with were sort of at the senile stage. They didn't even know what rap was!"

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