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Concert Thu May 24 2012

De La Soul - Much More (Than A Classic Debut)

de-la-soul2.jpg

You know Miles Davis' On the Corner? The early '70s one with the HEAVY funk grooves and the crazy editing? And the cartoons? Like a Ralph Bakshi/Pedro Bell key party, that one is. Inside the sleeve, there's one set of cartoons with various caricatures of what I assume are Miles' ideas of stereotypical fan responses to his music. One guy is wearing a dashiki and pulling some sanctimonious body language. His word bubble says, "Me and Miles, we go way back...you know, Kind of Blue...." The implication, as I read it, is that this is the type of fan that can relate to an artist at their point of highest mass popularity. If a similar caricature for hip hop could be drawn today, the person might be saying, "Me and De La, we go way back...you know, 3 Feet High And Rising..."

Of course, you'll get no argument from me or any other hip hop fanatic that De La Soul's debut is one of the great rap albums of all time, but sometimes, it's hard to convince casual fans that De La Soul never stopped producing classic albums. But with precious few exceptions, De La Soul's story is one of constant artistic ascent, with each album topping the previous in terms of lyrical content, flow, message, you name it. And even if you still like the Prince Paul era the best, the band's production has never been less than stellar. I'd even go so far to say as 2004's The Grind Date, recorded 15 years after their debut might be the of the band's very best outings. So how'd they do it? And what are they up to now?

The trio of Posdnuos (Kevin Mercer), Trugoy/Dave (David Jolicoeur) and PA Pasemaster Mase (Vincent Mason) quickly turned away from their '80s-hippie look and style and reflected inward, constantly refining their flow and topics. The first two were concept albums tied together more by skits -- 3 Feet High a game show, De La Soul Is Dead a talking book -- than lyric connections. But with Buhloone Mindstate (their last with producer Prince Paul), album number three had a through-line running through every song, namely the issue of rap music voluntarily watering itself down to cross over to the pop market. The concept of a balloon -- "it might blow up, but it won't go pop" -- anchored the album's diverse topics and styles, and De La's lyrics got sharper and more complex. Their anti-Hardcore Rap stance (parodied on tracks like "Afro Connection (At High 5)" and "Ego Trippin' (Part 2)," was perfectly epitomized by Posdnous' line, "F*ck being hard/Posdnous is complicated!"

The next album, Stakes Is High, weighed in on the fate of the band, who were drifting out of top of the sales charts while simultaneously gaining in skills and respect from hip hop heads. Without Prince Paul in the studio, the sound was eerily stripped down, more minimalistically boom-bap than we're used to hearing them. But after a couple of close listens, the album rises to the top of the pile, thanks to enduring, heavy tracks like "Supa Emsees," "The Business," and the burning title track, courtesy Jay Dee (Dilla).

At the start of the 2000s, the group attempted a trilogy of records umbrella-titled Art Official Intelligence. Intended to show multiple sides of the group, only volumes 1 (the harder, more intellectual side) and 2 (more soulful) volumes arrived before Tommy Boy pulled the plug, not only on Volume 3 (supposedly an all-DJ set (?)), but on their relationship with the band. The trilogy's closer remains in the vaults, unreleased and maybe unfinished. However, despite some great lines and a few funny skits, these are the two I come back to least.

2004's The Grind Date brought a lot to the table. First, De La wrangled some world-class production talent for this album, including the late, lamented J. Dilla, as well as Madlib, Supa Dave West, and 9th Wonder, and the sound opens up immeasurably. Seriously, the beats, vamps, soul singer hooks, and crazy choral hooks on this disc are RIDICULOUS. Conceptually, the boys tackle a theme seldom heard in hip hop: growing older within hip hop. Like rock and punk and metal and most other modern genres, hip hop tends to favor the young, and getting to be king of the hill seldom requires enough climbing to tire your legs. De La, as they say on the record, have "been producing THROUGHOUT their careers," with 15 years of solid work behind them, and the next step, as always, is deeper, with their most complex and resonant lyrics and forms. Many of their lyrics read like abstract poetry (I think I even detect some free verse in there!) but when performed, they sound absolutely funky. With an interesting array of guest rappers (Ghostface Killah, MF Doom, and...Flava Flav?!?!) and a new relationship with Sanctuary Records, it seemed like the band was back on top.

Or maybe not. Following one of the better odds-and-sods records in hip hop (2006's Impossible Mission: TV Show Vol. 1 on Red Lion Entertainment), the band disappeared again. Newer records have been more infrequent, including an album tied in to the release of a pair of De La-designed Nike shoes (Are You In? Nike+ Original Run) in 2009. This year, Pos and Dave have released First Serve, a bona fide story album (more than skits, but less than a telenovella) in the style of Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves, and featuring the characters of Jacob "Pop Life" Barrow (Pos) and Deen Whitter (Dave) as young rappers trying to make their way through the cutthroat world of commercial hip hop. Why Mase wasn't allowed to come along on this trip is a mystery, but the De La Soul as a trio is clearly still built for touring, and still navigating hip hop's treacherous waters with wisdom, humor, and not a trace of bitterness. To quote a memorable line from The Grind Date, "The payoff's much sweeter than the payback/even the haystack needle wouldn't play that."

De La Soul perform live at The Shrine (2109 S. Wabash) on Friday, May 25. Tickets on sale here, doors 8 p.m.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

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