De La Soul isn't dead

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.

"What happened with us and Biz Markie [who was sued a year later for the use of a loop from Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)"] has introduced a whole new world to something that used to be a non-issue," he says. "I still can't believe how quickly it's gone from being an essential part of the music to this huge question of art vs. stealing; we just wanted to make music, ya know? This was never about money for us."

No, it's about respect, and Mercer, Jolicoeur and Mason are still fighting for it--if not musically, then in the way they create that music. "Sampling's going to be here forever, and it will be always there for us; it's elemental to our music," says Mercer. "For us, it's cool and challenging to be able to put on a good record, then dice it up and play with it; awe're not simply looping some bass line."

Mercer stops about two breaths away from taking a swipe at boastful, sample-free producers like Swizz Beatz and collects himself. "These South and West Coast artists who are going heavy on the synthesizer stuff--you're seeing cats find an easier way to make records and save money, but I don't think that makes them more 'artistic' than folks like us who sample. I mean, most rappers aren't musically inclined in the sense that they can play instruments, but can you honestly look at Q-Tip or Pete Rock or De La and say, 'Those cats have no skills?' Hell no."

Perhaps it's the struggle, then, that gives the trio its natural, congenial attitude; battling dwindling sales, heavy competition, and the heavy weight of the past, you'd think, to mangle their well-worn phrase, stakes would be high, too high. Instead, here are three fathers, three grown men spoofing The Wizard of Oz in the video for first single "Oooh," reshaping the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City" into an ice-cream-truck cute "Thru Ya City," even--and this could be the most humorous--praising Eminem, if only slightly. Mercer even switches gears on the sampling question, responding to the requisite Puff Daddy question with more of a punch line than a philosophy: "I'll tell you this: De La ain't never paying anyone a million dollars for no sample." He laughs. Hard. And that's all he has to say about it.

In fact, the only thing Mercer has left to say is, as always, not to count De La Soul out just yet. That his group will probably have little chance of properly following up such a gargantuan effort (at least in hip-hop terms) is of little concern to him or his bandmates; none of them has heard one good reason why the band shouldn't keep chipping away, much less retire. Mental Rinse is next, the still-untitled third part is in the works, the band has renewed its contract with Tommy Boy, and--you heard it here first--another record with Prince Paul is in the planning stages. "Believe me, we're still going to be here," Mercer says.

And, of course, he laughs.