THEY ARE brothers in hip hop, part of the music’s ‘golden age’, yet still a going concern, keen to look for new ways to express themselves; they are innovators, legends, but also laid back and nice guys. They are De La Soul.
De La Soul play a ‘Galway Arts Festival and Róisín Dubh presents...’ concert in the Big Top, the Fisheries Field, on Saturday July 23 at 6.30pm. For the trio of Posdnuos, Dave, and Mase, it will be their debut show west of the Shannon, and Posdnous, or ‘Pos’ as he likes to be called in conversation, says fans are in for a treat.
“The show will definitely cover all periods from De La Soul Is Dead, 3 Feet High and Rising, Stakes Is High,” he tells me during our Monday afternoon conversation. “We don’t get to go to the west of Ireland consistently so fans will get to hear song from all parts of our career live.”
I am I be
Pos was born Kelvin Mercer in the Bronx in 1969 and he grew up in a New York about to dictate the course of Western popular music for the next decade, but his initial introduction to music came through his father.
“My father has a massive collection of records,” Pos recalls. “In the evenings my friends would be outside playing but I would be with hanging out with him as he played his “45s. We would listen to Motown, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar. When hip hop came along it spoke to me. You’d have a song by Gladys Knight and someone rhyming over it. That was amazing.”
New York in the mid to late 1970s was an incredible forging house of new and alternative music. The CBGB venue was the breeding ground for punk/new wave acts like Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Ramones while disco was pumping through the gay and Latino clubs.
In the Bronx, African-American DJs were setting up decks on streets, in school yards, and basketball courts, and spinning and mixing funk and soul records, over which others would chant, or ‘rap’ rhymes and lyrics. Hip hop was being born.
“I was born in the Bronx, the home of hip hop,” Pos proudly declares. “I moved to Long Island when I was 11 or 12 and I still have strong ties in the Bronx through my cousins. They would tell me about DJ Cool Herc and these block parties. It was a big thing. Long Island is more suburban but we would have back yard parties where we could set up equipment similar to the block parties but just in your back yard. You had to check it was OK with the neighbours, but it always was, and that brought in hip hop to the kids in the suburbs.”
Pos eventually crossed paths with two Brooklyn friends David Jude Jolicoeur (later to become Trugoy ) and Vincent Mason (Mase ). The three shared a passion for hip hop, rapping, and funk-soul, and in 1987 they joined forces as De La Soul.
Still in their late teens they signed to the seminal hip hop label Tommy Boy and in 1989, De La Soul, with producer Prince Paul, unleashed their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising.
Its lyrical themes of striving for betterment, sexual responsibility, and personal development were delivered with wit and humour; it took samples from The Byrds, Hall & Oates, Led Zeppelin, as well as from classic funk and soul, and re-imagined them into completely new forms of pop music; its psychedelic sound and vibe was also unprecedented in hip hop. This was cutting edge, post-modern, popular music.
“We didn’t sit down and have a discussion about it, for us it was the natural way of doing things,” says Pos. “The external view on the album was part of our inner view and we could show different sides of ourselves.
“Looking back you can talk about how people changed the way they thought after hearing the album. I remember Speech from Arrested Development telling me he was rapping and rhyming but after he heard 3 Feet High... it spoke to him and changed the way he thought about rap music.”
The 11 months from April 1988 to March 1989 were a major turning point in hip hop. It witnessed the release of three game changing albums which altered the course of the music and influenced everything that came afterwards - 3 Feet High and Rising, Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and NWA’s Straight Outta Compton.
“Being so young at the time I don’t think we realised it was a turning point,” says Pos. “At the time we were just having fun and making the music the way we wanted to make it. That De La Soul could be part of that movement was amazing.”
Another important factor was the strong bonds of friendship and respect between De La Soul, NWA, and Public Enemy, who all name checked each other positively in the album liner notes and toured together across the States in 1989.
“Of all the bands De La Soul and NWA were the closest,” says Pos, laughing. “I mean the two separate sides of the music! It was cool hanging out with Ice Cube and MC Ren and they telling us ‘We love 3 Feet High and Rising’ and we were telling them, ‘We love what you’re doing too!’
“I remember when the tour hit Detroit, I was begging MC Ren that NWA had to do ‘F**k Da Police’ but he said they couldn’t do it as they had been warned by the authorities that the police would take action if they performed that song. It was my birthday on the night of the concert and I said ‘Man it’s my birthday, you have to do that song!’ And they went on stage and did it - and the police rushed them!”
Throughout their career, De La Soul have always been willing to embrace change and evolve their sound. This was made clear in their second album, 1991’s acclaimed De La Soul Is Dead, which dropped the debut’s supposed hippy-isms for a more raw and darker sound.
“With 3 Feet High... I was 16/17 when we got signed, 19 when we made the album, we had those songs and ideas with us for a long time,” says Pos. “De La Soul Is Dead was us on the road in Paris, Ireland, Australia, the demands of your record label. Maybe it’s a darker record, confrontational too, but De La Soul Is Dead was about how we were evolving and where we wanted to go musically and there are bright and beautiful moments there too.”
More recent years have seen the band continue to take risks and try new things, such as their collaboration with Damon Albarn for the Grammy winning De La Soul/Gorillaz single ‘Feel Good, Inc’.
“We’re always up to being challenged by a different genre,” says Pos. “A mutual friend put us in touch with Damon Albarn and we thought, let’s give it a try. Damon sent me out CDs of demos of stuff so we could decide what tracks we wanted to be on.
“We chose ‘Kids With Guns’ and did the rhymes on it. On the third day Damon said ‘Let me play you something’ and it was ‘Feel Good, Inc’ and Dave [Trugoy] goes ‘Yo! This is the song!’ Dave wrote the rhymes and history was made.
“I love Damon’s work ethic. He reminds us of how we are. There are loads of different verses of ‘Me Myself And I’ that we did but that we later took out of the song. Damon will add so much to a track and he will choose what he wants and strip loads away until he’s happy with what’s left. We feel a kinship with that. I like to map things out but Dave and Damon are spontaneous and it’s good they are a counter balance to that.”
Almost 25 years after they began, De la Soul are still going strong. Their albums sell healthily and continue to enjoy critical praise, and the band tour to audiences across the globe. The trio are also working on new material, including part three of the Art Official Intelligence series (“Fans keep hitting us saying ‘What about the third instalment?’ We will finish it and give people what they most long to hear,” says Pos ). So what keeps them together?
“There are times when we can hate each other but we’re brothers, no different than my biological brothers” says Pos. “We’re family. We will fight about something in a day and forget it tomorrow. We love each other. We can go home to our family too. That helps. We still feel excited about being on stage, playing old songs and new songs, and being together.”
Also on the bill are The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Galway acts