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Doing As De La Does with Maseo

The past 20 years has been a turbulent battle for celebrated hip-hop collective, De La Soul, as they fought for the rights to own and distribute their music. However, as of March this year, that journey subsided, with the group’s music finally gaining an online occupancy on streaming platforms, allowing their fans across generations to relish in music that made a colossal stamp on hip-hop forever. Telling us the tale of it all is DJ Maseo, who sat down with us to speak on longevity, the celebrations, and the legacy of De La Soul.

“Mirror mirror on the wall, tell me mirror, what is wrong? Can it be my De La Clothes? Or is it just my De La Soul?”

These opening bars to New York hip-hop outfit, De La Soul’s, track, Me, Myself & I became a familiar and identifiable mumble that buzzed from my Uncle Sonny’s headphones when I was a kid. A DJ local to Bondi nightclubs in the late 2000s, Uncle Sonny enjoyed the classics – Grandmaster Flash, KC & The Sunshine Band, The Fugees. However, it’s the jaunty and iconic chopping and sampling of Funkadelic’s 1979 track (Not Just) Knee Deep, that introduces Me, Myself and I, which still imprints my memory 15 years later. With 34 years in the business, a renowned discography of music, and a lingering residency in hip-hop music and culture today, De La Soul have paved a path in hip-hop unlike any other. 

Known for their humorous social commentary, eclectic sampling and contributions to the ever-growing jazz rap and alternative hip-hop genre, De La have proven themselves as one of the most riveting acts in hip-hop history. Their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising immediately shot them into the spotlight, changing the group’s trajectory forever. However, only recently has their digital music presence been able to catch up to their ongoing presence as a group. Over the course of 20 years, De La Soul have been in the midst of an ownership battle, causing a delay in their ability to release music independently and distribute it on their own time. As such, their released music from 1989 to 2001 was almost unreachable. In a digital age where music can be accessed in numbered taps on a screen, or clicks of a mouse, this delay served as detrimental to De La’s yearning to connect and provide for their loyal fans. However, as of March, this all changed. The fight ceased, and the 6 albums they worked on over a span of 12 years, including their debut record, could finally live and exist on platforms where their fans could recount and rediscover the group’s entire catalogue of music. Amidst tireless back & forth and reworking of music, the group have been able to celebrate this monumental step, but also reflect on and cherish their time spent with fellow member, the late Trugoy the Dove.

Looking back on the years gone by, and recognising the overwhelming but fulfilling fight to ownership, we chatted with DJ Maseo of De La Soul, to walk us through the good times and the bad.

Hey, Maseo, how are you?
I’m good. Everything’s cool. 

Where are you zooming in from today?
I’m in Florida, at home.

How often do you head back to New York? Do you get a chance to be in your home state often?
Not much but I try to go more in the spring if I can.

What do you think is something that you’ll always love and appreciate about New York?
Honestly, the bodega breakfast, and White Castle. It’s unhealthy as shit, but it’s the best [laughs]. And the pizza. Those are the three things that New York actually specialises in, that I miss.

For sure, I’ve heard the food is top-tier. I’d like to say congratulations on the release of De La Soul’s backlog of music on digital streaming platforms – this is a massive movement. How does it feel knowing that this music that you’ve been sitting on, and that spans across 34 years is finally out there for the world to relisten to?
It’s an amazing feeling. It’s a great feeling. I’m glad it’s finally out there because it’s been a long journey of just trying to get it out, you know, and now it’s there, it’s surreal. It’s very bittersweet, but I’m glad everyone has it, and I’m glad I can continue on just educating and making more music to follow up with what people have now.

It must feel like a massive weight off your shoulders, especially moving from formats like vinyl to digital, you want to be able to make sure your music still has life.
You want to be part of all the new mediums in the fabric of the industry. This is what we do it for, for the most part. It’s like, we bake a cake, and we want to share it, but it’s hard having one on the shelf that people can’t get. So it’s a liberating feeling to know that the world got your masterpiece. This is what we love to do, you know, be able to get up and go to work, make more music and put it out.

And not only does it allow the OG fans and hip hop heads to relive the joy of this music, but it introduces a whole new generation of newcomers and hip hop lovers to it all. So did it change your perspective, knowing that this is going to be a keen reminder for others, and for some, it’s going to be an introduction to De La Soul?
Yeah, that’s the beauty. Knowing that it’s the first of its kind, that it’s a new introduction for so many, especially for the audience that longed to get it but couldn’t get it. We’ve spent 30+ years touring, and throughout touring, we were always blessed to be in front of a new generation, doing festivals around the world and performing, and knowing that people can’t get this – it’s a bit painful. But to know that the anticipation was there, it was more of a heart throb and an effort to get it out. And the blessing finally came through. The world has it. And it’s so surreal to be able to go on the streaming apps that I have, and see it there.

It would be an unexplainable feeling for sure. This re-release could almost feel reminiscent of the first time that you guys dropped these albums over the course of the 90s and the 2000s, did it feel that way for you? Like a new album had been dropped?
The very first time was the most innocent time where you didn’t know what was going to happen. I had no expectation of anything. 34 years down the line, I did have some sort of expectation. What we had to go through just to release it, being tainted by the music business and everything, you had to learn the intricacies and encounter the trials and tribulations behind the scenes in order to make it all possible. It’s a lot of work. I got to commend Reservoir Media who played a very big role in the administration of it all with us. Prince Paul our producer, my engineer Scotty, with all the reworks that we had to do to recreate the things we couldn’t get approved. A lot went into this.

I also understand that whilst the time of the release onto streaming platforms was incredibly celebratory, it also came post the passing of fellow member Trugoy the Dove or Dave. How do you think he would feel knowing that the music that you made together can finally breathe?
Oh, man. I know, he’s joyful, very joyful. Even in his transition, I know he’s joyful. 48 hours before he passed, we talked about a lot, he was excited about a lot. He wanted to do way more than what we knew he was capable of doing based on his condition,  but we were already preparing to get our show in a place where he didn’t have to do a lot, and still be impactful. So, honestly, we were getting ready. The celebration for De La was always on the stage and the music we made, the business stuff that we go through, family stuff we go through, the celebration is always on stage, and I’m gonna miss seeing him up there. I just started coming back outside myself. Did the Gorillaz show at Coachella and to not have my man there was hard, very hard. I hate to sound cliche, but it’s bittersweet. It’s very bittersweet to not have him there, also celebrating what we worked so hard to achieve. It’s tough.

Absolutely. This was something that he wanted just as much as you, and it’s important to note that he will always live through the music.
Man, if people really knew what we went through to get this far. Of course, he was ready. He was more than ready.

I want to shift the focus onto your 2016 album “and the Anonymous Nobody…” because I know that album was pretty monumental, both as a comeback, and because it was released independently through fan funding on Kickstarter. I feel like that is super telling of the dedication and the love that your fans have for the music. How did it feel to be able to release that album on your own terms?
It felt right and in some cases, a little daunting because of it being such a new thing. I wouldn’t say we were the first to do it, but to do it on such a prestigious level was a great feeling. The process was scary, knowing everything that was on the line to do it, you know, had it been an epic fail, our career could have been over. So it was a risk, but I will honestly say it was a calculated risk, where I can say, there was a good 75% chance of winning. With the power of the internet, and the fans that I know we have all over the internet, it’s kind of an abstract audience, that’s not even looking at mainstream culture like that. So it was a bit of a calculated risk. And 25% would have been a loss of not being able to live up to the responsibility. Everything that we presented, we lived up to. Even though we were late with it, we lived up to it. I’m glad the fans were happy with the body of work that they invested in, which was the main part of everything. Forget about only getting sent trade offs and shit like that. The main goal was to make a good album. To then turn around and even get nominated for a Grammy and all that shit, that was a great achievement. It was “pushing the limits”, as Dave would say.

I really admire the brotherhood that you all share together. I think even as a fan, from the outside looking in, you can tell that that’s what helped sustain the essence and longevity of De La Soul. What else has been able to keep the bond so strong?
Working through the problems we’ve had. Every family fights, every family has issues, and I say that with a lot of love and grace. It’s about working through family issues, and how we come out on the other side. It’s not what you go through; it’s how you come out of it. And it’s been a blessing that we’ve been able to come out on the other side, every time we had a bump in the road, you know? And it’s a brotherhood. The common goal has always been to be a group. And that group grew into a brotherhood. We’ve been together for 34 years, that’s longer than most marriages, you know. We’ve had some very tumultuous moments at times. But we’ve been blessed. I can only attribute that to a higher power.

I want to lead this idea of family and brotherhood into my next question, because I know that De La Soul was announced to be touring across America with Nas and Wu Tang Clan. That’s three massive powerhouse acts coming together to grace the same stage across America. Tell me about how that came about.
We’ve toured with Wu Tang in the past, and we’ve done shows with Nas, but that was always kind of in the cards. We did a tour with Wu Tang and Public Enemy, and Nas was on some of the dates, it was called ‘The Gods of Rap’ tour. That was about seven years ago. So it was all about trying to relive that moment, you know, because that was the first time we all toured together so we really got to share that friendly competition on stage. The entire tour was impactful because everybody was trying to do a great show, everybody was trying to kill it, and that’s where the friendly competition lies. We were the opening act for the tour. DJ Premier was with us, and the arena was always filled up. All of us had an audience to rock to; nobody was short a head. It was a very, very impactful time. And so, I think this upcoming tour is going to be about trying to relive those times. I mean, it’s gonna be kind of weird. You know, trying to do this without Dave is gonna be hard, but we’ll figure it out. The higher power will let us know what to do, we got this. If it goes well, I’m sure it’s gonna come around your way. It’s high time we get to Australia.

I think so too! I guess to lead into the end of the interview, I want to ask, what do you think has been the fondest memory that you’ve had as part of De La Soul this far?
There’s been so many, the beginning is always fun to think about. With Dave’s passing, it’s been a lot to talk about the beginning. We all remember those early innocent days and then seeing the different posts from the people from that same time period, in regards to Dave, the pictures they shared got me reflecting. The days at Calliope Studios, when we got out there to record for the first time, the time period of coming up with ‘Me, Myself & I’, and me and Paul being the only ones wanting to do that track. So many different, weird moments, the first time Black Sheep came around, the first time we met Jungle Brothers. The first time I ever was on an aeroplane was going to do a show with the Jungle Brothers. [laughs]

That’s crazy!
All those early days, all those moments, ex-girlfriends and all of that. [laughs]

The good and the bad [laughs]. I guess then to close, how do you want De La Soul to be remembered?
Truthfully, and unapologetically Black. A story of three Black men who stuck together.

Follow De La Soul here for more and revisit their iconic back catalogue here

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