De La Soul (at left) and Rhymefest (right)
De La Soul (at left) and Rhymefest (right)

For a brief moment in the late 80s and early 90s the New York-based Native Tongues crew made braininess and political consciousness the coolest qualities in hip-hop culture—and then gangsta rap exploded and put an end to all that. There were a lot of great groups under the Native Tongues banner—A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep—but De La Soul were arguably the most fun. Though they addressed heavy social issues without hesitation (a Native Tongues trademark), the trio of Posdnuos, Maseo, and Trugoy did so with wry, self-deprecating humor and a laid-back vibe that almost made them sound like hippies. And the albums they recorded with producer Prince Paul (including their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, and 1991’s landmark De La Soul Is Dead) are among the most sonically adventurous in pop history. Last month Posdnuos and Trugoy, sans Maseo, dropped an album called First Serve (Duckdown)—the closest thing to a full-length De La Soul release in eight years—and the group is working on an album called You’re Welcome. For this week’s Artist on Artist, Pos (aka Kelvin Mercer) is interviewed by Chicago MC and activist Rhymefest, aka Che Smith. Smith came up a generation after De La, and his aesthetic is more gritty and blue-collar than hippie-dippy psychedelic. But his work—both as a solo artist and as a lyricist for Kanye’s early releases—has helped make their kind of social consciousness cool again. Plus he puts his money where his mouth is, and last year he made a valiant but unsuccessful run for City Council. De La Soul performs Fri 5/25 at the Shrine to celebrate the venue’s third anniversary. Miles Raymer

The song that caught my attention off First Serve, it was “Pop Life,” and in the beginning somebody was speaking in French in the intro, which I thought was dope. Was that one of the members of the group? No, that was actually Lucien [Revolucien], who’s been down with us, with the Native Tongues—I mean, if you remember, he’s our heart, that’s our peoples from day one, since we started the Native Tongues. So when we cut this in France, he was hanging out with us. That’s always been De La’s. . . . Whoever’s in the studio—yo, if you in the studio, man, you are gonna wind up on the record. Skit, somehow—you hang with us . . .

Now I’m listening to this song, and it’s got a feminine appeal to it. So the question is like, How does a rapper approach a song about femininity without sounding too much like Drake? Or express his vulnerability and sensitivity in a way that pleases the woman, but still keeps it real to hip-hop? How did you do that? I just think it’s about who you are as a person. I definitely love quality music, man, and that’s why I can even, for myself, look at someone like LL [Cool J], and be like, yo, LL is hip-hop. When he first came out and he could make a song like “I Need Love,” and I could still see that—but that’s a hip-hop dude expressing something that’s real. Someone can gig on him, but then turn around and be on his little land line back at the crib in 12th grade talking to the girl the same way. It’s a true part of who you are. So I mean, I’m hip-hop, so that’s how I’m going to express myself, in a sense, if I plan to marry that way to that song, as you said.

I think a lot of artists become conflicted when they say, OK, you have a heavy, masculine force in hip-hop, but the purchasing audience is mostly women. So a lot of artists may feel as though they have to capitulate to the female audience. So what you’re saying is, you just do it as it comes and you automatically have that energy? Honestly, man, that’s what De La has always been about. We would never be the ones who would be like, Yo, we can’t do this joint with Rhymefest unless he’s on the charts. It’s about, Yo, we can do this joint because we had a natural conversation. It makes me think about how we did “Peer Pressure” on the AOI Bionix album with B Real. I never smoked weed. Mason [aka Maseo, aka Vincent Mason] and B Real were smoking weed in front of me, and Mason hits B Real, like, puts the blunt in my face, like, “Peer pressure, Pos!” And I was like, “Yo! That’s a dope song!”

That’s how De La has always done things. We look at it as the artist or the feature is an instrument—it’s like, we don’t say, “Yo, we just wanna make a joint with Drake” because we wanna make a joint with Drake. It could be that the song itself spoke to us, like, Yo, we need to add some keys to that, yo, we need some scratches, yo, this song needs some Drake, or yo, this song needs Redman. You know, that’s how we usually handle it.

First Serve, “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along”

So OK, one thing I did want to say, man—real dope lyrics. “I’m a microphone fiend / Addicted to the concept of rolling with a team.” That was on the song “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along,” which I thought, those were really, really dope lyrics. But I got some questions about some things other than music. I wanted to ask you—you all been in a gang like, man, I would say over three decades. How do you keep your soul inspired to keep material fresh? Like, sometimes, over 30 years, you just say, Man, I’m over music. How do you keep from saying that? Yo, man, I love—we love what we do. And one thing that I love about my group is that we’re always learning new stuff. And for what we do, it isn’t like we’re athletes where, you know what, you get to a certain age and, you know, you’re the amazing Michael Jordan, you’re in your late 30s and you can’t do what you need to do. Like, we’re authors—me, even you, all of us, we’re all authors. There’s a lot of authors who sell these books and they’re, like, late 60s. It’s their minds just constantly reaching out for new inspiration, new music, new parts of life, new parts of seeing things that then inspire them to write. So I mean, that never stops.

I remember having a conversation at one of Common’s dinners that he had, and Heavy D was there, and even he was like at one point, Yo, you know, I don’t know if I want to do this no more, you know, make another album, because I just feel like I don’t have nothing else to write about. And he asked me how I feel, and I was like, Yo, I feel like I got too much to write about.

Can you recall any kind of five-heartbeats moment that you guys had and survived through? Man, there’s many. There’s many a time where I’m like, Yo, if I see this dude’s face one more time . . . [Laughs.] There’s many a day when it’s been that. But one thing, I think, with us, is that we truly came into this as friends. I’ve known Dave since we were like in fifth, sixth grade, you know what I’m sayin’? So growing up with each other, you learn more about each other. And even with Mase moving from Brooklyn at an early age and coming to Long Island, we grew up around each other.

There’s several great groups that we all know where, in knowing them, you realize, like, Yo, this person was trying to be a solo artist, that person is trying to be a solo artist, but they came together to make it. And then when one of them made it or got successful, then maybe the rifts and all that started. We always look at each other like, Yo, we can’t do this without each other. And even though, yeah, people always be like, “Yo, Pos, you can do a solo album,” or people say that to Dave or whatever, still we appreciate and love each other. So even the little squabbles we have, at the end of the day, it’s like I’m truly having a squabble with my blood brother. I’m never gonna disown him, I’m never gonna leave him—we just gotta talk through it.

And it’s interesting you say that, because you’re talking about your group, and your brothers and this and that—however, as you all have advanced and gone through hip-hop and life, I’m sure you all have families and women and children. How does that come into play, when their needs may not meet the needs of the group? It’s definitely come into play. But once again, in our situation, it’s cool that the women—or the woman, in my life, could be then best friends with, say, Mase’s wife. It’s like a connection with each other. My oldest daughter, she’s actual blood cousins with Mase’s kids, because I used to be with her mom. It’s like, we’re all really connected. So I mean, like—but you’re absolutely right, there still are times where you need to put in that time in the crib. You wanna go and do five days in the studio in LA, but then that’s gonna get in the way of, you know, your daughter’s recital—or this, that, and the third. And you just learn to work it out, and you become appreciative of how your family takes in consideration what you’re doing and learns how to deal with it.

Now Pos, y’all was rapping, and I knew about De La Soul before we knew about cell phones. You know what I’m saying? Like I know they had cell phones in the 70s, but didn’t nobody really know about that. We live in the future. How do you deal with fame in the future, where everything is a sound bite and the adults may know you, and they may get frantic, and they kids, “You don’t know who that is? You don’t who that is?” It’s a challenge that I love, that we love to meet. We’ve never been comfortable in settling for like, Yo, the people who know us is the people who know us. “Yo, let’s do this old-school hip-hop run.” We have always been about, as you said, trying to do the next thing, trying to be a part of the next thing, but in our way. Pairing up outside just the normal boundaries of where hip-hop has been, and do something like how we did with the Gorillaz, which then even got us a whole ‘nother family. We’ve always been open to all levels of music, doing things back in the day on the Judgment [Night] soundtrack with Teenage Fanclub—didn’t know those guys, but yo, it was like, let’s try it. And I think that really played a part in helping us to then gain, little by little, true fans.

I mean the biggest thing I always say to people is, a lot of times we can be taught that you only have like a 15-minute window, and that you need to grab all you can grab. Like, get this, feature on that, get this movie deal, try that, and then it winds up burning you out quicker. I’ve always been the one who thought like, Yo, have a slow burn like incense. ‘Cause even when incense stops burning, the smell is really still there, and it stays with you in the room. We’ve always tried to look at it like that and be like that.

I’ll tell you, and this is just me as an artist, I like N.W.A as much as I love De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane—it’s just I had access to all different types of hip-hop growing up. The imbalance in the way hip-hop is presented now—where do you see that taking hip-hop as a culture, and I guess to be more specific, do you think that imbalance will smother out the side that’s the least heard? There’s definitely a terrible imbalance. I mean, it’s funny how you mention all those groups, because that’s one thing you can even see from a touring standpoint. Our first major tour was the Nitro tour with LL, and it was us, Slick Rick, LL—with N.W.A. You know what I’m saying? I mean, Too Short was on the tour, Geto Boys. So you could have all these artists on one bill, as opposed to today, you know, you may have the Cash Money tour, you may have the Roc-a-Fella tour, you may have De La, Wale, Q-Tip—we’ll get together on the Rock the Bells tour—as opposed to having a mixture of music.

But there’s a big imbalance, there’s a level of people feeling like, OK, these artists haven’t been heard in a minute or haven’t been around in a minute, so these younger kids, this is what they want. No, these younger kids—this is only what you’re feeding them. And if that’s what you’re feeding them, a lot of times that’s all they gonna take. As opposed to if you asked them, they could tell you, “Nah, I know who this dude is, yeah, I know who that is, but I know him through my brother, but yeah, I know who they are.” There’s just a level of music that is being not represented or shown at all.

When they say “We’re gonna play a hip-hop night” on the radio station, what they do is, it seems as though they revert back to 90s hip-hop—they play that as opposed to playing new hip-hop that represents what the 90s hip-hop represented. So you’ll get a Slick Rick, a De La Soul, a Tribe Called Quest, but you may not get the Immortal Technique, or the Killer Mike, or the new hip-hop that represents what you all were representing then and what you are still representing now. They may not play the new De La Soul. It’s funny how you say that, because I can talk to people and even, like, Jazzy Jeff made a good point I remember one time to me as well, how you’ll have people—like, say, us, or the Rakims, or whoever can be like, “Well, why am I going to make an album?” Even people, my peers, they’re so into focusing on their youth—I mean, the average person my age, yo, I’m 42 years old. The average person is going to look and focus on when and how they had it when they was in college and how they was doing it, and the soundtrack of their lives. So they’ll take the Tribe record, the De La record, the Jungle Brothers record, but as opposed to, like, implementing, as you said, what we’re doing right now, it’s not about that being a soundtrack to their lives.

Because a lot of people, sometimes, find themselves not happy where they lives are right now. And crazy enough, not even that they’re necessarily going through bad times, but just because they’re older and they don’t have, you know, that physique they used to have where they could eat anything and not gain 20 pounds, or turn around and they had the girls they could smash anytime they want. Everyone wants to relive their youth, and they relive it through their soundtracks of that time—as opposed to looking at that artist and seeing that that artist has grown and will continue to grow, especially along with their support.

Do you think happiness makes your music not as good? Um, I can’t say that. I definitely do feel that a level of speaking upon what’s negative, speaking upon what needs to be dealt with—it could be what we naturally are attracted to. And that’s throughout our entire lives, even in any aspect of media. When we talk about—let’s look at the news. I’m sure you see it on your news station, and I can look on my local news—I mean, it’s really bad news. It ain’t good news. If news stations reported good news, the ratings would probably be bad. So I think it’s like that with music too.

Mind you, you can have even someone like PE [Public Enemy], and it was a blessing to have a group like that, that was reporting the ills of what the government tried to put on us as people. But I feel good that a De La Soul could’ve still come along and talked about something that was a little bit more happy, and a little easier to swallow, and still be respected. And that’s one thing, going back to what you said before, it was a balance. You had both. You could have someone like N.W.A talking from a street standpoint, but still was correct in saying, like, the cops was trying to fuck me up, and you could have De La Soul talking about, yo, escape, and you could have PE talking about what they’re talking about.

That’s true, but I think that to represent De La Soul as all happy would be a misnomer. When you look at songs—even if you go back to “Potholes in My Lawn,” there was always an element of conflict. I guess what I’m saying is, does personal happiness with no conflict—it seems as though some people would say, OK, when Mary J. Blige is in a relationship and she’s happy, her music is not as good. Do you think your personal happiness—and I guess I’m not talking about music, I’m talking about your personal happiness—throw your music down? For me, I honestly can’t say it does. Because for me, as a youth even into now, I always focused on trying my best to think of the newest thing to talk about, or the newest angle to approach a subject that’s been talked about already. That’s something that’s really been a part of me. But I definitely agree with what you’re saying. Sometimes when you wanna make sure your money’s right, when you wanna make sure you’re not in certain levels of ills, you turn around and focus so you can get out of them. But I mean, even when I spent a young part of my life in the Bronx growing up, I didn’t realize I had it bad because my parents gave me so much to see and to be a part of. And even by the time I moved to Long Island, once again, I was blessed to have so many amazing and great things around me. So I think that shaped the way I thought and how I could reach and try to imagine things.

Are you happy right now in life? Lovely. I’m definitely happy. Beautiful kids, man—without a doubt, I’m happy with where my life is. And I can always look at what could have been better, what I could’ve done better, but then I’ve never counted out the fact that I still have time to achieve it.

And I’m very happy—I gotta tell you personally—I’m very happy for you that you’re so happy in life right now. It’s really nothing better to hear than another black man that’s in music that’s been doing it for over 30 years to say that he’s the happiest he’s ever been. That makes my soul smile, brother, so I’m really happy about that. That’s real. Thank you, bro.

How do you feel when you go out with your family and people recognize who you are still, and you see the smile on your children’s face, or the pride on your girl’s face, when people know who their daddy is? Nah, it’s an amazing feeling. And it’s something that I’ve been going through since, what, we started when I was like 17, 18, from that point until now—so like every day of my life, someone could say it. And it’s said in such—especially in this last decade or so, it’s never nothing so crazy like, “Oh my God! Ahh!” It’s like, “Hey man, De La, what up?” or “Posdnuos,” you know? It’s really heartfelt. And it’s like, you can really reel it all in, as opposed to a bunch of screaming, they can’t think. It’s like they can really think and convey to me their thoughts and their love—and my kids seeing it from that level, it really helps them to see it from a clearer standpoint than just like pandemonium, which even turns them off. They can sit there and see, like, this guy or this girl, or this young boy who got to know me through “Stakes Is High” or maybe through Gorillaz, or someone of my age who got to know me from the first album, talk to me clearly, calmly, and spend that moment of holding my hand and telling me what I mean to them.

Do you support anybody politically? Are you a part of any political party? How do you feel about the presidential campaign in effect now? I mean, from where my life is, from what I try my best to teach my kids and what I’ve seen, at this point, definitely, I mean, Democratic is what’s the word for me. From where Obama is, I do feel like, you know, the amount of time Bush had in office to do what he needed to do, and along with maybe some of the things that were not so effective—policies that he put in play or supported that weren’t as effective for people that I see every day—to think that some man can come in and wave a magic wand and make it go away, I think that’s one thing unfortunately that a lot of people, whether black or white, need to get past.

They have to realize that we’re in this amazing age of technology where everything goes fast—we’re on the Internet now, where we can download Rhymefest songs real fast as opposed to walking out your house, getting on the bus, going to Uncle George to get it. I mean, no one does that no more. We think that everything in our lives has to be fast, and given to us fast, and I think he needs his next term to do what he needs to do.

So do you think—I mean, Barack Obama definitely had a big split in the black community with his recent announcement of support of gay marriage. Did that affect you at all? I mean, it seems as though black people as a group and America don’t support gay marriage. And for the first black president to come out and say, “OK, I support gay marriage”—did that hit you in a way? It didn’t hit me in nothing negative at all. It was like, wow, he stepped up and he really spoke hopefully what was true to him and he shared it. ‘Cause I do feel that it’s fair to know that someone—and we could be on this subject for hours, so I don’t really wanna go there, but put it like this. My oldest daughter, she’s gay. So I mean, like, I know the fact of good people being good people and bad people being bad people. And even a bad person gets a chance to clear his or her life up, and I think that a lot of times when you think of it from the standpoint of marriage, it’s like, Yo, why wouldn’t two people be blessed to have a union?

I understand where a book has been put into play, whether it’s the Bible or what have you, that makes people feel this way on the subject, or just. . . . Honestly a lot of times I feel there isn’t even anything in the book, in the Bible or whatever else, it’s a lot of things are just tradition. It’s just what you were taught. And so you were taught to think like this, opposed to then realizing that you can understand for yourself that this person is a good person—

When you found out your daughter was gay, did you have to evolve on that position? Not at all. For me, it was something that I already felt I knew about her, because that’s how I view my kids. And it was something for me that I’ve been blessed to have a lot of great people help me in my life steer me in the right direction, give me great business advice, give me great life advice. I’m not—I would never front for anyone. I grew up under the same understanding of, like, calling somebody a faggot or “Yo, get out of here” or “Ill, that’s whatever.” And for me to stand in front of my daughter’s face, she knows how true I am. I can be like, yo, I’m a straight man. My instincts or how I can feel about something of that nature would be like, “Yo, that’s not for me.” But I know that doesn’t make me turn around and say that person is going to hell, that person is not a good person, that person doesn’t deserve the same rights that I deserve.

Do you think that artists have a responsibility to community in a way that supersedes art? For example, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder are all artists who went outside of their art to do grassroots community efforts as well. Curtis Mayfield. Do you feel that rappers have or should have that same responsibility? It’s hard for me to say that they should be—you know, you should—but I really wish more would. You know what I’m sayin’? I really wish more would take the time to realize that, as opposed to realizing it a little too late, that who you are and what you’re giving—there are a lot of young and impressionable eyes that look at what you do. And just the fact that you could be a person that, since these people are listening religiously to what you say, you could give them information that could be food, and great levels of positiveness for their soul.

And I mean, like I said—I’ll say that all day to anyone—De La Soul has been given all this respect for being this group that talks about love, or this, that, and the third. I mean, man, don’t get it twisted. We talked about sex, we talk about having good times, we talkin’ bout fights we got into on “Pease Porridge.” We’re just normal people. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t think that someone should be forced to do it, but I definitely wish more artists definitely would do it. Because it would help our community. It would help our kids. Because they don’t listen to Obama—they listen to 50 and Drake. They actually do, and they’ll actually listen to Obama because Drake said so.

First Serve, The Goon Time Mixtape