Hip-hop heroes De La Soul celebrate their anniversary

De La Soul reveals the story behind hip-hop's most imaginative album.

Photograph: Courtesy the Agency Group

On a hot, sticky night in 1988, the three 19-year-olds who made up De La Soul were getting nervous. The trio was about to play its first-ever gig, at an Irving Plaza dance party called Payday, and the main act—Stetsasonic, Tommy Boy Records’ big draw—hadn’t shown up. But even as the band waited in the wings, its troupe of dancers clutching giant cue cards with lyrics written on them—De La Soul knew it was onto something special. “I remember that night clearly,” MC Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer to his mom) says today. “Being nervous and like, Wow, is this gonna go over well? But then we look into the crowd, and D.M.C. [of Run-D.M.C.] is in the front row! It was just amazing.”

Tommy Boy A&R man Dante Ross concurs: “The crowd started losing its collective mind.” After playing all their songs, the members of De La Soul stood in the bathroom wondering what to do next. “And then D.M.C. runs in and he’s like, 'Man, that shit was fuckin’ incredible! You gotta go back on! Do it again!’?” Mercer recalls, laughing. “Like I said, it was an amazing night.”

You could argue that De La Soul’s first NYC show was as important to music and popular culture as the Sex Pistols’ debut in Manchester, or Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride. Even if the trio didn’t invent a musical movement, its first album, 3 Feet High and Rising, changed hip-hop forever. To mark the 20th anniversary of that iconic disc, De La Soul is mounting the High and Rising tour, which features songs from all seven De La albums, a kick-ass brass section, special guests and a cooking-show comedy skit starring producer Prince Paul. The tour comes to the Nokia Theatre Times Square on August 13.

As Mercer puts it, “3 Feet High means something to people the way that Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder or Yellow Submarine by the Beatles does to me.” Does it ever feel weird to be held in that kind of esteem? “It is sometimes a little surreal for me to see someone have so much invested in something we did,” he acknowledges. “In our minds, 3 Feet wasn’t even meant to be what it turned out to be—we were just happy to make an album and to hear it on our radio station that was in our own town [Amityville, Long Island].”

It was a phenomenally successful record, making unlikely stars of a group of teens who giggled a lot and dressed in their dads’ old pants and Africa pendants. “Suddenly we’re on a tour with LL Cool J and Public Enemy, we’re ridin’ around the entire world with Slick Rick,” Mercer remembers. “It was just a lot, and it took a while for it to sink in.”

And all this grew out of a project that started as plain fun: “It was very natural, and we had Prince Paul right there with us making sure that nothing seeped in that made us think of rules.” Pos and Trugoy the Dove (Dave Jolicoeur) rapped about conversations with peacenik squirrels, B.O. and crack addiction. They made up their own language and revolutionized sampling, as P.A. Mase (Vincent Mason) got busy with breakbeats but also lifted riffs from Johnny Cash and Billy Joel. The whole record was sprinkled with silly game-show skits, largely inspired, Mercer says, by youthful days spent sneaking listens of his parents’ Richard Pryor albums.

“We had no idea it would become a movement,” Mercer says. (Remember ’90s copycats P.M. Dawn and Dream Warriors?) But two decades later, DLS and 3 Feet have had a clear effect on OutKast, Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz and all of the rappers at the forefront of today’s burgeoning mixtape scene.

There’s just one problem with De La Soul’s homecoming show next week. “It’s 21 years of having the same friends, and we didn’t burn any bridges—so we gotta deal with trying to get all these people in who want to come out and see us,” Mercer says. “Family, artists, people from our businesses—they all wanna be there. It’s a headache in a good way...but it is a headache.”

De La Soul plays the Nokia Theatre Times Square Aug 13.

Down with De La Soul

Contemporary hip-hop innovators give props.

Von Pea, Tanya Morgan
“Seeing them live made me want to go make music, perform again, run around the block 100 times, go have kids, climb a mountain, etc. It’s inspiring as hell.”

Talib Kweli
“I loved that the creativity was on display more than the props and trinkets. 3 Feet is such a monster, it made me feel like I was wasting my time trying to make music. But then it made me work harder.”

Double 0, Kidz in the Hall
“De La made timeless music. There isn’t a party that claims to play hip-hop that won’t play a De La record. They did it because they stayed true to who they were at the time, and it constantly reconnects with audiences. They laid the blueprint for groups like us.”

Naledge, Kidz in the Hall
3 Feet was a crazy contrast to the ruggedness that rap had at the time. Plus, it had so many social undertones that were weaved in music that sounded so pop and simplistic.”

Mick Boogie, DJ and Jay-Z collaborator
“In the cool, creative mixtape scene, De La were almost the inventors of the mash-up culture. They were sampling everything from Steely Dan to Hall and Oates. Not just the same James Brown and Zapp loops everyone else was using.”

The inside story from Posdnuos and more from the hip-hop innovators

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