De La Soul still isn't dead

Barry Piser
Photo courtesy BRANDON HIXON

Sure, De La Soul hasn't released an official album since 2004, but don't think the groundbreaking group from Long Island has been sitting idly by.

In some ways, the group has been more productive than ever in the past eight years: a world tour, special projects, major festival gigs including Coachella and Rock the Bells, Internet-only releases and eclectic collaborations, one of which earned a Grammy.

Maybe most important to long-clamoring fans, two albums are in the works, including one to be released potentially by summer's end.

"We've just constantly been blessed to be busy," De La member Posdnuos said by phone Tuesday, fresh from a concert trip to Dubai. "We're always working on music, and we stay touring."

That under-the-radar grind brings De La Soul north for Bear Tooth's May First Tap and gives Anchorage fans a chance to nod, bounce and sway to De La's catalog of timeless hits.

"We can't wait to get up there," said Posdnuos, whose real name is Kelvin Mercer. "We've always had a fan here and there who is like, 'I'm from Alaska. We love you there.' And it's been like, 'Yo, tell 'em to book us. We'll be there.' "

For over two decades, De La Soul -- Posdnuos, fellow MC Dave (formerly Trugoy, real name David Jude Joli

coeur) and DJ Maseo (Vincent Mason) -- has consistently produced smart, socially conscious hip-hop starting with 1989's groundbreaking "3 Feet High and Rising."

The debut album, a surprise success largely produced by Prince Paul, helped plant the seed for hip-hop's backpacker movement thanks to hits like "Me, Myself and I" and "The Magic Number," along with message-driven songs "Say No Go," an anti-drug anthem.

The album also launched the trio -- just entering their 20s -- into the realm of their rap and radio idols.

"Growing up in New York and being blessed to listen to the radio stations that would play all the different music we love, we thought we had made it when we heard our favorite disc jockey say our group's name, you know?" Posdnuos said. "We turned on the radio and heard our music. And then like a wildfire, it left New York. It was L.A. It was Texas. And then it was London and Paris."

"Next thing you know we're on tour with L.L. (Cool J), Slick Rick, N.W.A., Public Enemy and everything went flying fast," Posdnuos said. "With the type of music we were making, we went right from that tour to a Fine Young Cannibals tour. There's no genre of music that that album couldn't be a part of."

The down side of "3 Feet High," if there was one, was that its joyful beats, playful skits and colorful, flowery packaging left De La Soul labeled as "hippie rappers." The group, not wanting to be pigeon-holed, answered critics with 1991's dark and serious "De La Soul Is Dead."

The album, again with Prince Paul predominantly at the helm, didn't sell as well as "3 Feet High," but critics lauded the group for tackling subjects like drug addiction and sexual abuse. The group followed with two more seminal hip-hop efforts -- 1993's "Buhloone Mindstate" and 1996's "Stakes Is High" -- to cap a run of critical and commercial success that few groups or individuals can equal.

The group released three more albums between 2000 to 2004, adding a mix of recognizable songs, both breezy and serious, to De La's already deep catalog. Next came a multi-song collaboration with Blur frontman Damon Albarn's animated band the Gorillaz that produced a Grammy win for the hit "Feel Good Inc."

Most recently, Posdnuos and Dave worked with a French production duo on another fictional character-based album, "De La Soul's Plug 1 & Plug 2 presents ... First Serve." Hearing the voices of De La's recognizable frontmen, in character, rolling through plot-driven verses shows that they haven't lost a step lyrically and teases the potential of the full group's forthcoming albums.

With a studio album along with a band-backed live album promised by Posdnuos, De La Soul has been prolific in the studio recently, but he said the group is slowed by the fact that they can be their own worst critics.

"The reason you haven't heard a bombardment of music from us is because we're always trying to challenge ourselves," Posdnuos said. "We can do something we love and then, next thing you know, a week later we listen to it and start finding the cracks and the holes."

That perfectionism has allowed De La Soul -- all 40-somethings now with families at home -- to age gracefully in their performances and keep thoughts of retiring from hip-hop out of their heads.

"One thing I love about us is that we got a pulse on how we wanted to present ourselves and how we wanted to be way early in the game," Posdnuos said. "We're that group where 'Me, Myself and I,' regardless of when I was 17 or 42, it still means the same thing."

"The majority of our music is like that," he added. "We can be late 50s and still be singing 'Saturdays' and people will understand it."

By Barry Piser
Anchorage Daily News