The Incomparable De La Soul



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Hip-Hop’s extensive history has included some impactful concept albums circling around a central theme while simultaneously telling a story. The legendary De La Soul delivered one in 1991 with De La Soul is dead. Twenty-one years later, two of De La’s members – Plug 1 (Posdnous) and Plug 2 (Dave) – deliver First Serve. The album takes two brothers, Deen and Jacob, and places them in Queens, NY in the late ‘90s as they try to achieve fame. The soundtrack is hugged by the production of French duo Chokolate and Khalid, as they tinker with different sounds to create an intricate backdrop for the tale. Life+Times sat down with all four collaborators as they serve up this new album. Will a movie follow? Only time will tell.

Life+Times: Can you explain what the concept of First Serve is all about?
: Basically we made a great album that consists of characters and telling a story about a group of two brothers from Queens trying to get on, trying to make it. So it goes through their whole story of them getting on, before they get on, whatever problems or goodness existed between that, to them getting on, success. It’s just a story, basically. So what you basically have is two members of De La Soul playing out characters. So it’s not like if it’s me and Dave leaving De La Soul and we’re making another group or taking a hiatus from De La Soul and just decide to do a group called First Serve. The project came first. The project was first and we acted out these characters and then after it was done, after everything was put together, we have to realize how we’re actually going to promote it. Could it be like how we did with The Gorillaz? Do you make a cartoon? Do you make a claymation thing? Well one of the ideas were, why don’t we physically play out these characters? So that’s what you have us doing. We’re physically playing out the characters that we put down on this album.

L+T: So this is technically a second concept album for you guys though. Wasn’t De La Soul Is Dead a concept album too?
Well I think a lot of different albums that we were blessed to be a part of can be a concept album, but I mean, it’s definitely not the first. Whether it’s people like ourselves or Prince Paul or even someone like The Roots who just recently did one [undun]. I just think that the uniqueness of it is the music and how the music sounds, how it feels, how it marries the story that’s being told. I mean it’s very warm. It’s not like a lot of music out today, which can still be good music but you know a lot of it is more technical – a little bit more cold or electro-ish. The music, that’s playing the background to the story. It’s very warm; it’s live instruments. So I mean it’s just something that’s not really done a lot in hip-hop outside of like of course like The Roots and a few others. It has a good feel to it. I truly feel like people will enjoy it if they give it a chance.

L+T: How autobiographical is the story to yourself and Dave?
: Um, none! I wouldn’t say it’s really… Hmm, nah, I wouldn’t say it at all. In the story existing, we can obviously pull from our own experiences. We can obviously pull from knowing about how it is to be on the road or to want to go home or not sure if the product you made is going to be accepted or you could feel like you want to not be in a group anymore. We can pull from all those emotions on our own but we weren’t trying to make an autobiography. We weren’t trying to make it like that at all.

L+T: You said sonically you’re grabbing all different elements. De La in general always pushed the envelope when it came to hip-hop. Did you feel that the timing was right, right now, to put out an album where you’re adding so many additional genres and sounds, especially given hip-hop’s current fascination with stuff like dub-step and other kind of electronic music?
: No I don’t think it was a timing issue. I really don’t. I just think it’s just what we felt. I mean like not to jump off First Serve at all, but I don’t think we when we made 3 Feet High and Rising we felt it was a timing issue. Like you know, “Nothing’s been done like this. Let’s do this.” So I think that just to be involved in this project and the music to come out as great as it did, along with the lyrics, it was just good that it came out that way and now it’s being presented. I don’t think we all thought at all – whether it was myself, Dave, or Chokolate and Khalid – we didn’t think to ourselves like they didn’t feel like they needed to make the music the way they did because of what was going on in the present and let’s do it like that. That’s just the way it came out.

L+T: Chokolate and Khalid, when you came into the project, what did you kind of aim to do production wise in mixing of the genres and stuff? What was kind of your step one in creating a soundscape for the project?
: The idea was to create a musical universe to tell a story. It’s just the very beginning of the process and the project. And with the music we made and the idea we had for the project, I think the only people to contact for this project and to work with were Dave & Pos from De La. The idea from the beginning was that. That’s what we had in mind when we started production.

L+T: Now the music overseas, especially hip-hop…they’re always experimenting with so many different sounds and it just sounds so different from the hip-hop that we’re used to over here. Did you aim to kind of bring that flavor when you were doing your production?
: That’s funny because the music we listen to is ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s music from the States. So maybe we want to bring the music back to thank the U.S. for all this music and produce an album with this intention. They were very fun and interesting thoughts and exciting times too. Because nobody in Europe produces music like that even now. It was like a present to the future, listening to it in 20 years.

: Yea I mean mainly a lot of music, definitely even from the genre of even rap over here is very, you know, following almost the trends of what’s going on in the States in terms of being a lot of keyboard driven and simple beats. So I mean definitely in what we did with this album, it’s definitely different in terms of even what’s going on over here as opposed to even what’s going on in the states.

L+T: Did you have any kind of reservations about putting this project out? In terms of hardcore De La fans…
: No! Not at all. I mean, I think a person who loves who De La can appreciate always where we’ve tried to just do different things and add different things. I mean we’ll have fans come up to us today and be like, “Yo, you know what? Buhloone Mindstate wasn’t my favorite album, but now I’ve learned to appreciate what it meant!” So it’s the same thing. I mean I can’t lie to you. I don’t think when we make De La Soul music we think about a De La fan. We’re thinking about just us implementing the experiences in the music we know and learned about and hopefully people appreciate it. You know we thought like that we wouldn’t know it, but De La fans would have appreciated what we did with The Gorillaz or what I did or what Dave could do with a beat as a rhyme or a feature in any music. So it wasn’t any reservations at all like that. It was just that when we were offered this, we looked at it and was like, “Yo, this could be something challenging, something cool to do!” and that’s why we did it.

L+T: Are you going to make a movie out of this? It sounds like it could be.
: I mean, people are asking! I mean, you never know! There’s a lot of things that could always come out of a great idea that started from just music and a story. So if it’s feeling like we could go that road, I’m sure there’s no one in this room right now that would oppose to it.

L+T: How did you guys decide what kind of characters that you were going to build? How did you decide who was going to play whom and what each person was going to go through?
: I don’t know, I think that’s one of the very first things we talk about when we started developing the idea of the story. We said, “Ok Pos, what’s your character, what’s his name?” and “Dave, what’s your character, what’s his name?” And obviously characteristics and the individual started being penned as well. We just wanted to pick opposites of ourselves. For my character, Deen Witter, he comes from a single-parent home and has a little bit of a drinking problem and a little bit boisterous and little bit out of control at times. You know I just wanted to pick everything that was kind of different from who I am as in real life Dave Jolicoeur. I barely drink. I just wanted to challenge myself too. You know honestly, I think what De La does is we get into a room full of people and we try to challenge them as well as ourselves and I think that that’s what we did. “Let me figure out everything opposite that I wouldn’t do and see if I could actually become that person.” And the guys, 2 & 4, they pushed us all with it. It definitely was, “Yeah go for it man, do that!” I think we have to do that in order to create something different. It would be easy just to play somebody who is close to who I am and just write rhymes like I would write. It was all about not only about being these people, acting like them but also thinking like them and writing like them. To have to talk about my solo-parent situation and how her struggles were or to deal with those situations of maybe having issues, I might have had drinking and so on and so forth, it’s a challenge. And I think we’re up to those challenges with everything that we do. So it was something cool to do and something that I think at this point of our careers, was the next thing to begin to act a little bit. On record though. We’re not looking to be in movies and all that stuff like that. I mean if this becomes that kind of a thing, that’s cool too but I think that was important to us to just try to do something that was even more challenging than what we’ve done in the past.

L+T: Are you going to make any more music videos for it?
: Yeah I mean music videos definitely. We have a video out now for the single, which is interesting. It’s really cool and playing out the characters. I’m saying you know Pop [Life] is a flashy dude, gold chains with rings, diamonds everywhere and just to see him in that and even you know I’m sure the guys look at him and say, “Wow! You’re totally…” I mean knowing him as Posdnous and seeing him become Pop Life is crazy. You know of course him looking at himself, I’m sure. I look in the mirror like who the hell is this dude Deen Witter? It’s fun, it’s cool and I think when we put that on film, that’s even more of a challenge to actually play these people out on TV. We did some television yesterday…well not TV, we did some radio which was recorded live as well. And just to see yourself play these people is interesting and it’s all about a challenge, man. I think that’s what music should become as well in addition to being creative and just investing ideas in your mind into lyrics, but also challenging yourself is important in music as well.

L+T: Yea and also, so much of hip-hop is so sad and emo these days, it’s good to see that you did a project where you’re having some fun.
: Well yeah, absolutely. I hate to say…this isn’t to point at anyone out there, but I think they’re all playing a bunch of characters anyway. So why not we jump into it? We’ve been ourselves and serious for so many years already…25 years going on…trying to invest who we are and being honest with ourselves on camera, on a record we have been De La Soul. I think it’s time we jump in and have some fun and become characters on a record as well so this is cool.