By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
After practically inventing the hip-hop skit (on the landmark 3 Feet High and Rising, released in 1989), then spending the next decade turning it upside down (with a series of the-party's-over records that few people actually remember), De La Soul had some serious steam to let off. For years--beginning with 1991's De La Soul Is Dead--the trio had, perhaps, taken itself too seriously, going too far to prove that the shiny, happy "D.A.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Sound, Y'all) Age" that dawned on 3 Feet High had been only part of the act.
So, when it came time to follow up 1996's Stakes Is High with a little somethin'-somethin' for a new millennium, the three members of De La Soul decided to take a new approach. They swallowed a bit of their own medicine, tickled their funny bones, and managed to come up with about the most ridiculous idea in hip-hop since Brian Wilson tried it out on the lost (for a reason) Sweet Insanity: a three-disc concept album on, um, nothing in particular.
"The whole trilogy thing really was just one big, dumb joke," laughs Posdnous, a.k.a. Kelvin Mercer, a.k.a. lead MC for said Long Island trio, now easing its way through a second decade of making music. "We would always hear about some rock [band] putting out this or that double album, so we'd be together, and I'd say, 'De La always does things different. Let's make a triple album.'"
And then they'd laugh. Hard.
But something clicked with Mercer. Seems he rather liked the idea. "I couldn't get it out of my head," he says, "so I approached the guys and told them we should do this for real, which they were all for once they thought about it.
"I mean, we always like to top ourselves," Mercer concludes. "This seemed like the best way to do it."
With that, Art Official Intelligence--all three discs of it--was born, though not without the usual drama. First, it was their longtime label, Tommy Boy Records, that balked at putting out a triple-disc set. (Thanks to the two-albums-a-year pace of DMX, hip-hop has found out more is much, much merrier.) Then, the members of De La (Mercer, Dave "Trugoy" Jolicoeur, Vince "DJ Maseo" Mason) themselves backed away from the idea when they couldn't actually finish the record. Now, four years, several delays, and some anguish later, the Art Official Intelligence series is now just that--three separate albums sharing a common title but focusing on different elements of the group's Native Tongues aesthetic. The concept album is now available only on the installment plan.
Industry machinations aside, this is still a trio of happy campers, not disgruntled has-beens annoyed that their scene got tarnished by the likes of Sean "Puffy" Combs. More important, they're old-school enough to remember when hip-hop was just supposed to be fun, not a manifesto for life. Even on its more introspective numbers like "All Good?" and "You Don't Wanna B.D.S", the first volume of Art Official Intelligence (and De La's fifth record), Mosaic Thump, is more like a Hallmark card than a ransom note. It's an ebullient piece of music, what power pop would sound like if it came from two turntables and three Long Island guys who have been rapping longer than most Jay-Z fans have been alive.
"[On] this album, we've mastered sonically what we want to sound like: not consciously club, but music that can be played there, as well as shit that will make people think," says Mercer, now 31 and a father. "It's our collage of art, a very beat-driven record, a different side to the De La coin."
Mosaic Thump is also an honestly flawed work, more of a free-your-ass-and-your-mind-will-follow party record, one that gets by with a little help from their friends (everyone from the Beastie Boys to Chaka Khan) and some fine old-school 808 samples. It's deliberately not the mind-blowing stuff of hip-hop dreams that Mercer, Trugoy, and Maseo first proposed when they teamed up with producer Prince Paul on 3 Feet, rhyming over snatches of Steely Dan and Hall and Oates. So maybe it's not phenomenal with a capital "P"; it's certainly quite a bit of fun. Which is a lot more than most rap records can offer these days.
That said, De La's not exactly resting on its collective laurels. Already working on No. 2--currently titled Mental Rinse--Mercer is pleased to report not only that things are moving faster, but that listeners should expect brand-new, decidedly old-style hip-hop in a matter of months (barring more label shenanigans). "It's definitely more lyric-based, more thought-provoking," Mercer says. "We just got Sinead O'Connor on board." That's a joke...right? "Nah, her record label asked us a few years ago if we wanted to collaborate, so we finally put this thing together," he says. "It's going to be great, I just know it." What doesn't excite Mercer so much is talk of the past, specifically of the 10th anniversary of '60s schlock-pop group The Turtles' lawsuit against the trio for its uncleared sample of "You Showed Me" on a skit from 3 Feet called "Transmission to Mars." Though it was a small matter at the time--and resolved amicably--De La Soul's then-high-profile status ("Me, Myself and I" was a top 40 hit) shed considerable light on the lucrative potential of "clearing" (i.e., buying) riffs, loops, and backing tracks. Soon enough, a once-casual affair turned into a serious, multimillion-dollar business. No one's ever really pointed a finger directly at the group, but Mercer carries quite a bit of the responsibility on his shoulders.