De La Soul
De La Soul
In spite of The Turtles' attempts to sue them to death, De La Soul is Dead remains simply the title of their second long player. Mark van Schaick talks samples and success with Maseo.
De La Soul have confused critics and thrilled audiences with their quirky and unpredictable approach to hip hop. They've also attracted the largest lawsuits for copyright infringement...
De La Soul's debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising was arguably one of the albums of '89. In its idiosyncratic mixture of hip hop, stolen samples and dialogue, it managed to intrigue and entertain in equal amounts. Through large numbers of well-chosen samples, relaxed rhythm tracks and a laid-back, often humorous outlook on the ways of the world, the music of De La Soul is uniquely distinctive in the genre of hip hop. Through last year's follow up, De La Soul is Dead, the group reacted against the "Daisy Age" philosophy of 3 Feet High and produced a sequel consistent in its ingenuity yet contrasting in its outlook.
Yet success aside, there was a high price to pay for their particular approach to making music: if one band has experienced the penalties of sampling more than most others, it is De La Soul. Their quirky debut single, 'Plug Tunin'' with its sample of Liberace, brought them instant success, but other samples brought them problems. The lift from Hall and Oates in 'Say No Go' brought them trouble, but this was nothing compared to the problems which befell the trio at the end of '89. The result of using an uncleared sample from The Turtles' 1969 song 'You Showed Me' should serve as a severe warning for the whole sampling movement, as the theft brought a lawsuit for $1.1m - the largest to date - against the group. The court cases are now over (settled out of court for a sum reported as being "in the low five figures") and the group as well as their US record label, Tommy Boy, have adopted a more cautious approach to releasing new material. As a result, four months passed between the completion and release of De La Soul is Dead, during which time the samples were cleared. Maseo, De La Soul's man behind the Technics turntables, has bitter memories of the legal wrangle.
"It was a load of bullshit on which I prefer not to look back", he says, shrugging his shoulders. "Especially the stuff with The Turtles. Luckily everything is cleared now, but these things wear you down. Right from the start I thought I won't participate in this. I have my pride, so take all the money you want, I don't want anything to do with it'. We dumped all samples at Tommy Boy and asked them to clear them. But initially they thought that 3 Feet High and Rising wouldn't be as successful as it eventually became, so they didn't bother to clear the sample on 'Transmitting Live From Mars'. That's the case with other companies, you know? But when the record was happening they found themselves in trouble, because The Turtles had recognised their track, had no money, and off we went. I remember that Tommy Boy came back to us and asked us whether we'd given them these samples to clear... In the end everything has been dealt with without further involvement from my side - I really wasn't in the mood to meet those Turtle guys or their lawyers."
De La Soul - or Kelvin 'Posdnous' Mercer, David 'Trugoy' Jolicoeur and Vincent 'Maseo' Mason Jr - are all in their early 20s and started working together about six years ago. Since that time they've indulged themselves in the delicate art of sampling - although in the early days they were limited to doing it using two domestic cassette decks. After endless dubbing, they stuck the track 'Plug Tunin'' together, which landed, thanks to the remixes of Stetsasonic member and producer Prince Paul Huston (see interview MT, February 1990), on the desks of various record company A&R departments. In the end it was Tommy Boy Records - who are also Stetsasonic's label - that picked them up. Interestingly, after two such diverse albums, the group's working methods have hardly changed.
"We always start a new track on my own equipment, at home", Maseo explains. "I swapped my four-track recorder with Prince Paul. He gave me his Ross machine and I gave him my Tascam, because it was impossible to record SMPTE on it - it was rather old. Apart from that I have an Alesis HR16 drum computer - a fantastic machine - an old Sequential Circuits drum computer and a small sampler, really a small pedal. And until I have more money for a real sampler that will have to do", he laughs. "I'd obviously love to get an Akai S950 or 1000, and a Tascam 688 eight-track recorder, because of the MIDI facilities. A Roland TR808 would be nice, along with a bunch more of those typical hip hop instruments.
"But then I find that too much, and too complicated, equipment detracts your attention from creativity. You're more of an engineer in that scenario and I don't like that. I want to be capable of recording my samples at home, so I don't have to take my records into the studio.
"Paul started out adding loads of stuff to our demos. And more. That's something which we adapted a bit from him, stick everything in a track which you can fit in and find out in the mix what you don't want to use anymore. During recording there's no limit - none. You find out what your limit is when you start mixing and really have to commit yourself. A lot of people say that we exaggerate with sampling, that we get ahead of ourselves. But because we get so engrossed in our music and because there are so many things we encounter which we want to sample in so many different ways, it's impossible for us to exaggerate. We don't force ourselves, everything comes together very spontaneously. Everything that we use comes back again, even if it's in a remix or something. Nothing is thrown away.
"It has happened that each of us would arrive with ten samples for the same track! We're the first ones in rap who've used 48 tracks, and I think that's great because we started with such simple equipment. It's more our spirit which filled those 48 tracks than our music, you know what I mean? That's another advantage of starting with basic equipment; when you arrive at the studio you lay down the basis which you've built up at home. You don't have to patch anything any more, plus you have your engineer who will help you when you start polishing things. And you can still mess about with some records on top."
With stories of artists like S' Express' Mark Moore taking nothing but records into the studio, I wondered how many records he usually takes in with him.
"That depends on the recording stage", he replies, "where we are that day. If there's only basic tracks, then I need a lot of records, but I do limit myself to things I've been listening to for a while - music which I've walked through.
"I have a large record collection which is growing very fast. Thirty-nine crates - I think that's quite a lot. They are our milk crates, and they're big, you know! And there's still so much that I want to have... I buy a lot of new things, also when I'm on tour I'm always searching in record shops. I like to keep up with the times, but I usually buy a whole lot in one go. Even if it's shit I still want to have it, just to find out what's currently happening. OK, all right, I refuse to buy MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice, I categorically refuse that. They have to give me that. Free. I won't buy that, but I do want to hear it. I think it's unlawful that you have to pay money for that."
In contrast to the spoof game show that appeared between tracks on Me Myself and I, the conversation that's interspersed between the music on De La Soul is Dead reflects the matter of fact way the band have of looking at their situation and their new-found fame - and the impossibility of pleasing every listener.
"If you asked me whether the new CD has been received as well as the first one, I could answer yes and no", says Maseo. "My mates, the younger listeners, like it. The older ones, the people who really loved the sound of Me, Myself and I and 'Say No Go' are a little disappointed, I think, but I don't care because they please me. Most people don't have the vibe they had for De La Soul in the early days, but there are also people who initially were holding back a bit and who are getting into us now. I think that especially the song 'A Roller Skating Jam Named "Saturdays"' has helped with that. You know, it's simply a challenge and I need that, I like working hard for recognition."
Maseo admits that Tommy Boy weren't particularly pleased when the first, obviously different tracks of De La Soul is Dead started to come out of the studio.
"There were a lot of discussions with Tommy Boy", he recalls, "but that's the same as with every record company. When something in a certain form is successful, they'll wring it out of the public until it's completely saturated. And that's not OK, of course. My idea is to be successful with something different every time. Leave one style to its own devices and carry on with another one. That's why our next record will be very different again.
"I refuse to buy MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice but I do want to hear it - I think it's unlawful that you have to pay money for that."
"In an ideal world a record company has faith in its artists. It supports them, stands behind their ideas and allows them to do what they feel they have to do. I won't say that Tommy Boy is against us, but.. . The reality is that Tommy Boy invested in De La Soul and what worked the first time, they want to see working again. But then, you won't get another 3 Feet High and Rising, that will never happen again. Even now I don't feel any pressure for a follow-up. I have to say that it's frustrating that there are bands who break through on the basis of one hit single, whilst the rest of their album is full of shit. They're not following up on a strong album. With all respect, Heavy D arrived because of 'Now That We've Found Love', which is simply a rework of an old hit with some hip samples and so on. The rest of their album isn't exactly worthless, it's nice, but it's completely the same as its predecessor. Apart from that hit, there's no difference - it's exactly the same Heavy D. And that happens with a lot of bands. I find that confusing and a bit frustrating."
It's convenient that all three members of De La Soul have known each other since their high school days because, whether they're in the early stages of recording demos or involved in recording or remixes in the studio, it means they work very smoothly together.
"We always use the system of a majority vote", says Maseo of their relationship. "Take for example the first single from De La Soul is Dead - we all wanted 'Ring Ring Ring' apart from Paul. He thought 'Swingalokate' was the best choice. I was still undecided between 'Ring' and 'Saturdays' but the way we work everybody had two choices, which always included 'Ring Ring Ring'. And if someone can argue their choice, what should you say against it? 'In the States Buddy' was our last single. It didn't do very much in Europe, but was pretty successful with us, the record had real street cred. And 'Ring' was different, it had a very different sound. I consider that the best reason for choosing it. So 'Ring Ring' was the first stroke, and 'Saturdays' was the knock-out punch. That was what we thought, but it didn't exactly work out like that. It didn't go badly, but it could have gone better. To really score these days, it appears as if you have to make an awful record. But that's not what we want - we don't want to adapt to the decade of wack music."
During the European leg of their current world tour, De La Soul expanded their line-up to include three female dancers. The limitations which arise from being a trio with two rappers, one DJ and a small technical crew, were solved with DAT, which supplied the basic tracks whilst Maseo's turntable took care of the overdubs.
"We encountered DAT for the first time when we did a festival where NWA also performed. They used DAT and were head and shoulders above the rest of the artists - including ourselves - so we started experimenting with DAT with our engineer Bob Powers. And it immediately worked well for us. Thanks to DAT we could finally arrange the different musical styles in our shows properly. The way we now perform 'Say No Go' and 'My Brother's a Basehead' is miles away from the album version. We stuck those two together extensively using Digidesign's Sound Tools. We edited everything with that. I don't know at all how' it works, but Bob told us everything about it, in order that we could come up with clearer ideas."
During the tour Maseo dragged his own studio along with him everywhere they went.
"I like to have my own stuff with me", he explains. "I like working on new tracks every moment of the day. As I said before - I record it and then find out in the studio what I want to use.
"I get frustrated when I've been too far away from my equipment for too long. Imagine that I meet up with loads of dope beats when we're in Europe. What should I do, remember them all? I prefer to record them."
It's courtesy of Prince Paul that Maseo, Posdnous and Trugoy are asked for work by other artists.
"Paul is our producer, of course, but he teaches us a lot. He isn't distant in the collaboration. With the most recent recordings he more or less became a fourth member of the band. His knowledge of the studio, acquired mainly though his work with Stetsasonic, has given us immense insight into the workings of a studio. There is still so much to learn... I never got telephone calls until this album was finished. I would have liked to, but I wasn't big enough - my name wouldn't have brought any more sales, that really was the bottom line. But now it's 'Maseo do you want to remix this?', 'Maseo do you want that?'... Before it was Paul who was asked for all the remixes and other productions because people thought that De La Soul owed everything to Prince Paul. But Paul kept saying 'This is a band, I've taught them everything I do, so they're perfectly capable of delivering good work themselves'."
De La Soul are currently on the Australian leg of their world tour but should be back in the studio to begin work on their third LP when they get home later this year. When they do you can be sure they'll have brought a whole new range of influences back to experiment with. But even as we speak, certain developments are beginning to show through - Maseo's interest in acoustic drums, for example.
"I really want to record live drums", he reveals. "I can't yet play a drum kit, but give me one-and-a-half years and I will, watch me."
Given that Stetsasonic have already used acoustic drums in hip hop, you could be forgiven for suspecting that the influence is rather close to home. In fact, it's closer than you might think.
"At school I played in a marching band, so I used only one drum. The drum kit which was there was always occupied of course, because everybody wanted to play on it..."