Interview: De La Soul’s Posdnuos on Longevity & “And The Anonymous Nobody”

De La Soul are one of hip-hop’s greatest groups, and have now been in the game for nearly 30 years. They are considered pioneers of the genre and are also credited along with Native Tongues (a collective whom they are a part of) as the godfathers of alternative hip-hop and jazz rap.

The group is known for their electric sampling and their work with Prince Paul, who produced their first three albums. Unfortunately, at the time when De La Soul were creating music using sampling the regulation around the usage of samples was incredibly vague, and many did not get the proper clearance they would require today. This has subsequently made it very expensive to now clear these samples for digital use and has landed the group in a bit of trouble. Perhaps the most infamous incident was LA rock group The Turtles suing De La for their sample of You Showed Me for their track Transmitting Live From Mars.

De La Soul’s freshman LP 3 Feet High And Rising is considered one of the greatest albums of all time across genres, and it is still unavailable digitally to this day because of sample clearances.

Earlier this year, De La started a Kickstarter page to gauge fan interest for a new album, and help free them from a record label who seem not care that their music is being hidden from a new generation. The Kickstarter campaign was a wild success and fans were rewarded with their first album in 12 years in And The Anonymous Nobody. An album that just keeps growing on me, you can read the review here.

What’s even more amazing is De La Soul will be bringing their amazing new album to our shores in just a couple of weeks time.

In an industry known for beefs, how do three guys who became friends in high-school, still remain solidified as a unit and, more impressively, still making fresh and relevant music? It was a complete honour to speak on the longevity and camaraderie and much more with Kelvin Mercer, aka Plug One, aka the immortal Posdnuos.

I’m about the same age as your first album, so I haven’t had to experience the anticipation and guessing about what De La Soul would do next, until this album. How has it been received in your experience? 

The reception has been absolutely mind blowing, we have of course our fans who truly appreciate where you come from. And we have younger fans, who may not have known a lot of the stuff from the older albums, but they may have known us from Gorillaz and other features and they have taken to it quite well as well.

So far everything is great. We just looking now to get some new visuals out and just keep going.

The Grind Date for me, that is my staple De La album, that came out when I was in high school and that album got me through a lot. It was a really inspiring album for me, at that time in my life.

Oh wow man that’s dope.

It’s so rhyme heavy, and that’s what I was expecting from the new album. Was it a conscious effort to lay off the traditional 16 bars and just let the tracks flow naturally?

It wasn’t something that we sat down and spoke about, it’s kind of like the music that we were coming up with in these jam sessions and once we started putting pieces together it just felt natural to do it that way. It felt natural to be like ‘hey let’s try to sing more,’ like Yukimi (from Little Dragon) on Drawn. ‘Let her sing for as long as she want and then we come in.’ We just wanted to have this expression that we wanted to let go.

A lot of people who were very familiar with some of our earlier albums, like 3 Feet High And Rising and Buhloone Mindstate could feel that type of energy in it. Because it was a little bit more experimental those albums as opposed to the ones we got like Stakes Is High and the two AOI albums along with The Grind Date, they were more beat driven, you know like you said 16 bar-chorus. It was definitely cool to have this album musically dictate how we should try to present the rhymes in it, without necessarily worrying about where should we stick a chorus. We just let things flow the way they needed to flow.

It’s an incredible album and one of the few De La Soul albums available digitally. 

*Laughs* And the Anonymous Nobody and The Grind Date are probably the only albums you can get digitally. It was just unfortunate, we are still trying to move ahead and work this out with Warner Brothers, who are in ownership of the masters to the earlier albums, to hopefully turn it around.

Because we are constantly being asked by fans and listeners who come along and have gotten in-tune with our newer work and want to go back and listen to our older work, ‘where are those albums?’ It’s been hard, it’s been quite hard.

Hopefully something happens with it, but if it doesn’t, it might become one of those things like Woodstock where you were either there for De La Soul or you weren’t.

Yeah! It can definitely be looked at like that. I mean we have been blessed to have so many opportunities to come up with the newer stuff, but also the older stuff. We just performed at The White House for the president and the First Lady and they picked songs like The Bizzness from Stakes Is High, and they picked a song like Me Myself And I which is on 3 Feet High And Rising and Buddy which is also on our first album 3 Feet High And Rising. They are going to air that in a few weeks.

Then it looks like we may be a part of a parade where they want us to perform Me, Myself And I. So I think it allows people to hear this music that we have done and helps with our battle with the label to say, ‘hey this music is still relevant to people today.’ Not only the new music that has come out and has made headway with new listeners, but the old music people want to hear and feel too. Hopefully, we can try to work together and get it out there for them.

That would be amazing to be able to go back through it. What was it like being invited to The White House?

The First Family did this event called Love and Happiness where they wanted to invite some of the artists that they appreciated. We were invited along with Usher, Jill Scott, Janelle Monae, The Roots, Common, Yolanda Adams and a bunch of other different presenters like Bradley Cooper, it was really, really, amazing actually. To know that, this is music that they themselves appreciated. It’s kind of a bucket list thing to check off, you were on the president’s list (laughs).

On Right Back that you did with Slum Village, you said Keep all my awards and plaques in boxes/Which keeps my wall from saying I already got this,” How do you guys remain so humble? After nearly 30 years, and phenomenal success, where does the motivation and inspiration still come from if not driven by success or accolades?

I think at heart we see ourselves as just artists who are blessed to be known and blessed to travel and bless to have people come up to you and say ‘Yo your music changed our lives.’ But at the end of the day, we are still just normal guys who go home and change diapers, or help our kids with homework and be there for our wives. So you know, we really see ourselves as normal guys. A lot of times it’s funny to have our peers say ‘y’all are superstars.’ I love how Busta Rhymes he tries to make fun of us, ‘Yo man y’all just too polite, take what’s yours.’ I don’t know, it’s just who we are.

I think we all kind of set into it with each other. I think we were all naturally like that, and it was just great to see that through out the years no one took the role of being the big headed one, the one who wanted to lead the others to do a solo album or get his own riches. We just always try to be there for each other and help other people as much as we could. A lot of times I do feel that when we could have been creatively on the down-and-out we will have people who remember that, and they will be there for you. We’ve helped Common, and we’ve helped Mos Def and other people without putting them into say ‘deals’. We didn’t say like ‘Yo you gotta be signed to us for you to be on our music,’ that way they can turn around and become superstars in their own right and will always be there for us when we needed them.

I’m not saying we do it for that reason, because we always thought that we got something out of it as well, it’s in terms of we love what they presented as an artist and it inspired us and that’s why we allowed them to be on our music. But we never felt like someone had to return the favour. It’s just something natural in us I guess.

I guess that’s one of the things I have always admired about the group is the camaraderie between you guys. So many hip-hop groups split up or have internal beefs, or go solo but you guys have started connected and stayed mates this whole time.

Yeah, without question. I mean, we are brothers. We definitely go through stuff like brothers, we can’t stand each other at times, we hate each other, you know. One, two people can feel that one person, he needs to do better or he needs to be on time to the studio, we are like normal guys. But, in being normal guys we’re the normal guys who don’t have any alternative agendas.

At the end of the day we still love each other and we will protect each other. Like one brother can get on your nerves more than the next. I don’t smoke weed so when Mase is smoking weed and I don’t want my clothes smelling like weed, it pisses me off. But he has my back and I have his back, we are brothers, we’re family. So it’s not a business relationship, it’s truly a family.

That’s awesome man and it really shows in the music. And The Anonymous Nobody was crowdfunded, and I’ve just read you are trying to crowdfund a Native Tongues documentary. Is crowdfunding the future in the music world?

I definitely feel that it’s a great opportunity, it’s a great way for an artist to connect completely and sincerely with his or her or their fan bases, without a middle man. Half the time the middle men might be great business people, but they may not understand artistry. For older artists, like Eric B and Rakim or Big Daddy Kane, it will be great to see them feel the same way. We’ve talked about things like this, what we have done allows some of our other peers and even our elder statesmen to be like ‘hey this is a great way for me to connect directly with my fans and see if they will support.’

‘Cause you will always have that. You have this situation where a lot of fans will be like ‘whatever happened to these guys, we see that they are touring all the time, but can we hear some music from them?’ And a lot of times it’s because a lot of our older artists feel like no one wants to listen to their music. If I do something, my older listeners that grew up with me all they want do is reminisce on the old stuff and the newer kids don’t even want to hear anything from me. I think it’s a great way for people to find out that, you know what, your base is still there and you can get this to them without them waiting for it to come through a label. So It’s an excellent way to do it.

You guys have always been pioneers, even today with the crowdfunding and the new sound on the album.

Hip-hop is always evolving, and there are always different ways of creating and making business and presenting a project to someone. Once we figured out the right way to work for us, we jumped in immediately and got it going. Once we saw that it could work for us without it feeling like ‘De La Soul is begging for money’ or ‘wait a minute De La Soul has got money, why are they doing this?’ Once we understood how that environment worked at Kickstarter and what it could mean for us, we really jumped in and figured out the correct prizes and we put a lot of time into it.

We didn’t just think we can do this and throw everything up. We spent a few months kicking ideas and great ways to present the image to our fans and let them know that it will be all transparency. We really put a lot into it. There were a lot of hiccups that came with doing it but it was a great learning process and it was really great to have our fans respect that. We were doing our best to get this to them, so they were allowing some of the hiccups. They were very patient.

I remember the release date changed, but I didn’t get upset – we knew it was still coming.

Yeah definitely, without question. We just wanted to give you the best album, and with us being artists it was easier for us to promise our fans what we wanted to give them as artists. Whereas normally with a label we had the business guy being realistic, like ‘we have to clear the sample,’ or ‘we have to clear the features you have.’ You know because the features on the record, he or she might not want money, but their record label do and you have to haggle back and forth, it was things like that.

So that was a con of us putting out this album, we wanted you to have it so badly, and us as the artists we finished our job, but we had to respectfully understand that our lawyers and business partners had to come into play and make sure that we were well represented. And of course there are different featured artists on the album and their lawyers and business people had to do the same and their labels and blah, blah, blah. We had to do some work and hash and iron things out.

Well it was worth the wait, it’s a stand-out album this year across genres I reckon!

Wow, thank you so much man. That’s excellent to hear, honestly. We put a lot into it. We spent a lot of time crafting it. If it was up to us we would still be crafting it now *laughs* but we realised, ‘nah we got to put this out’ and we are very happy about it.

Where to from here? Is De La back? Are you guys going to continue to make music?

Without question, we are definitely looking to put out some remixes from this album, get working on some other projects as well and keeping the music coming. We feel creatively we can’t afford to take a another 12 year or so break from putting out music. We are definitely looking to keep the music just churning out, because we have tons and tons of it to give. All from just what we created from this project alone. We are looking forward to putting our more music.

So all the same vibe as the stuff with the Rhythm Roots Allstars?

Yeah, well like I said we have a lot more stuff where it may not necessarily be going back and recording new stuff with Rhythm Roots Allstars. But from all the material that we have that we recorded from the sessions, we can now just treat those sessions as samples and make songs out of them.

As well as this other project that we had and we’ve been wanting to do that we mentioned almost a year ago, with us and Pete Rock and DJ Premier. We talked a lot here and there, so people remembered how we were supposed to be doing a project with them as well called Premium Soul On The Rocks and we are looking forward to igniting that and getting that going as well. There are a lot of great things we want to do.

We are blessed to be guys in our late 40s able to make music that is considered fresh and respected. We don’t try to take the viewpoint that ‘OK we are these old guys and we need to go back to the way it was when we were 18-19,’ we don’t look at it like that. We just look at music is music and as long as we are being allowed to express ourselves, we are going to do what De La does.

Be sure to check out De La Soul’s new album And the Anonymous Nobody and catch them on their Australian tour in November.

Friday 11th Nov – Villa, Perth – Tickets 

Sunday 13th Nov – Beach Hotel, Byron Bay – Tickets

Friday 18th Nov – Greenwood Hotel, Sydney – Tickets

Thursday 17th Nov – Oh Hello Brisbane, Brisbane – Tickets

Sunday 20th Nov – Alumbra, Melbourne – Tickets

Image: Flickr