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February 21, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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De La Soul

De La Soul

De La Soul, the hip-hop group who have been around for almost 25 years and inspired generations of rappers, are in town for Orientation on the 20th anniversary tour of their second album, De La Soul is Dead. Salient caught up with Vincent Mason (a.k.a. P.A., Pasemaster Mase, Maseo, Plug Three).

You’d think that after touring “for the last 25 years, for six to eight months of the year”, De La Soul would begin to tire of performing much the same material—their previous tour marked the 20th anniversary tour of their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. But the exact opposite seems to have happened, with Mason feeling that “to come around and actually celebrate the birthday of De La Soul is Dead [is] very admirable on our part, the fans’ parts, the promoters, everybody involved who felt that this was an important record in their lives…

“What’s even really highly interesting, and a great feeling, is to see the new faces out there—people who’ve never maybe even heard of De La Soul, or who probably heard of De La Soul when they were really young, but are now old enough to come out and see us… they feel like they didn’t miss anything. They got exactly what they used to hear, if not better.”

Hip-hop as a genre is still quite fresh—you can clearly chart it from its origins in New York in the mid-1970s. Having formed around 1986, the members of De La Soul have seen hip-hop “go from an infant to a grown-up”, and have been riding the crest of the wave, so to speak, right from their formation. 3 Feet High and Rising is rarely missed from ‘greatest album’ lists, and even embraced by NME magazine, who rarely focus on hip-hop at all. Both 3 Feet and De La Soul is Dead are wholly original within hip-hop, not so much reflective of the musical sound of the time, as its inventiveness and originality. Both albums have skits and spoken word throughout, following a theme throughout the album. The skits and conversations of De La Soul is Dead follow a group of bullies who are criticising a De La Soul album, with many of the songs responding to their attacks. Mason refers to his skits as their “homework”—the result of too much time in the studio, that addressed interpretations of their music in a creative way.

In this way, Mason channels his frustrations into his music.

“In the music business, when they can’t identify with something, they like to give it their own category and new name—but who gave them the right to call what I’m doing ‘alternative hip-hop’? Who gave them the right to call me a hippie of hip-hop, when I don’t know anything about being a hippie, or Woodstock, or anything of that matter. Who gave them that right? How about turning around and asking me what it is? That’s something I had to constantly combat with the record label, and the media, because it helps sell records and magazines.”

From the beginning, De La Soul have been revolutionary in their music, and their image suffered as the industry tried to pigeonhole them. Instead of trying to actively combat the view that they were hippies, or the attitude of the record industry, De La Soul addressed it in their music lightheartedly.

“De La Soul is Dead was really clowning the success of 3 Feet High and Rising… We were just kids acting silly, really… we’re just being creative, and I think a big part of being creative is blocking out everything as an adult, and trying to capture your innocence.”

One could argue, then, that they responded to their critics by refusing to take them seriously. Mason was just 18 when he was catapulted to fame with De La Soul’s first album, and 21 when De La Soul is Dead was released. The band were pegged as hippies just as the hippy movement was ending, prompting them to try to “end this trend before the music business ends it”.

And it worked. De La Soul is Dead blew everyone out of the water and, today, their sound—even their delivery—constantly changes with the blessing of the industry and their fans. For example, De La Soul had a large part in the Gorillaz project (Mason is the booming laugh on the track ‘Feel Good Inc.’), and continue to keep up with technology and the world changing around them. In 2009, De La Soul created the Nike Mixtape, Are You In: over 40 minutes of constant music designed for people to work out to. The project was founded by Nike and iTunes, with the album only available on iTunes; the content and sound for such a commercially driven enterprise would surely be heavily controlled?

Mason admits, “If you want to make a living and have a career, you have to make some sacrifices and do business and compromise at some point, but not where you sacrifice your integrity. I’ve always had creative freedom when I made my music. That was something that will never be compromised.

“When Nike came to us with the idea of doing this workout album, we were actually trying to make a workout album and that’s not what they wanted. They actually said, ‘Yo, we want De La to… be De La. How we got the idea of you being the group to do this project with us is because of what we’ve been listening to already throughout your career. So don’t come in here trying to do a Jane Fonda workout album. Do your thing, De La.’ … The Nike project being something organic, different, unusual, outside the box… that’s what De La is all about.

“So here it is, I’m going in, thinking that I’m getting my opportunity to do my own kind of Billy Blake record, or Jane Fonda record, you know what I mean? And no, they don’t want me to do Billy Blake or Jane Fonda, they don’t want me to do Jane Fonda, and I have to appreciate that. I have to appreciate that because, you know—what can you say when somebody is actually telling you, ‘I want you to be you’? That never came out of this music business,” he says with a laugh.

Despite being an old hand in the music business—someone who openly criticises the way the industry batters its stars to be “all packed up and ready with an image… a sales pitch and everything”—Mason still seems genuinely surprised to receive compliments and support from the industry that has paid his bills for his entire adult life. However, he insists on sticking to his old formula of “seeing where it goes”, instead of “trying to release an album by a certain time so they can be at the Grammys or an American Music Award” (De La Soul has been nominated for two Grammys and one American Music Award).

It is perhaps this love of innovation that cemented both De La Soul and the hip-hop movement at the beginning.

“Everybody had something different to offer to hip-hop, and that was what it was all about—we all came from different walks of life, and it was all about being honest, about who you were, about what you did, and where you come from in your music.

“Nowadays, everybody does the same thing. Everybody’s chart driven… Not even about, ‘oh, let’s try this single, and see where it goes, then try this second single and see where it goes, and then do an album, then let’s put out the album and see what they’re feeling, see what our next single is going to be…’—no. [They] have to have three songs ready to be a single, three videos in the can, dropping them about a month-and-a-half to two months apart based on the success. It’s all contrived by the music business; it’s all corporately controlled, everybody doing the same thing.

“The golden era [of hip-hop] not everybody did the same thing, even the ones who were successful—I didn’t do what LL [Cool J] did, LL didn’t do what I did, and we were on the same stage together. Anybody that did what we did, didn’t have the success.”

Still releasing new material, still filling stadiums with shows from albums released decades ago, De La Soul is still at the forefront of hip hop. Travelling far and wide on this tour cements this for Mason: “The music business for hip-hop culture has grown tremendously. This culture has obviously become a force to be reckoned with.”

De La Soul are playing The Hunter Lounge with support from Alphabethead, Homebrew, Team Dynamite and The Arc on Thursday 24 February. Presales for students of Victoria University $40, door sales $45.

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