De La Soul has always been an anomaly. When the group broke out in 1989 with the release of their classic album, 3 Feet High & Rising, they were more hippy than hardcore, flower-rocking rappers in an era dominated by Jordache and Kangol hats. They were outsiders, unlikely candidates for hip-hop legend status. And yet, coming up on three decades later, De La is now unarguably hip-hop's most enduring group. While once seemingly unshakeable groups have come and gone with the turning of each year, cut down by infighting or tragedy or a lack of public interest or all three, De La has simple continued moving. There have been no public beefs between its members - Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo - no retirement announcements later retracted, no desperate attempts to stay relevant in the mainstream by latching onto the New Hot Trend. They've simply lasted, endured. No, much more than simply endured. They've lasted because they've always continued to grow, to always challenge themselves, and when your fans love you because of how you can change, you're actually far stronger than those who might at first seem harder, more stable, inflexible.
It's more than just metaphor, more tangible that feel good talk, De La's emphasis on artistry and change can translate into raw numbers as well. At a time when rappers are increasingly turning to corporations to keep afloat, De La's recent KickStarter campaign has raised well over half-a-million dollars, over $600K as of writing this if you want specifics. How have they done it? As Pos explained when we spoke recently, "It's the difference between loving something and being inspired by it. Our listeners can feel like De La Soul can bring something different, and they want to support us in bringing this difference," he said. "In D'Angelo's album and Kendrick's album and J. Cole's album, people are feeling like they want to step away from what constitutes a 'hit record,' let me just talk from my heart and be honest. And that's helped open the gate with what we're trying to bring with this next album."
Once again De La is going left when the rest of the industry is going right. While other artists are trying to get into board meetings with Samsung, De La is turning away from labels and companies and towards their fans. While the industry is scrambling to close the doors on free music, last year De La gave away their entire discography for free. Why? As Pos explained, "We felt like, let's make this gesture, and it's come back ten fold in terms of how people were appreciative, they loved that, and they feel like we're there for them as well and them standing up for us."
While he's aware that some will view the Kickstarter campaign negatively, they've tried not to worry about the "people are going to think we're broke" angle, Pos views the campaign as something closer to a partnership with fans, a partnership that they've really been establishing for decades now, purposefully playing every show they could find, no matter how small or out of the way. Drive the extra hour to Worcester instead of just playing Boston? De La was on the way. Small college shows that similar groups would feel like they're too big for? De La Soul was there, because they wanted their fans to see that they were there, in the flesh, for them. So really, Kickstarter is only the latest manifestation of their career-long quest to build a true relationship with fans, decades long karma coming into internet fruition.
"We do love the fact that with Kickstarter we can connect directly with fans," said Pos. "Labels may love what we do, but ultimately they want input in our music. With Kickstarter, it's truly us. This is something from us, period. We're saying to fans, 'We can go on this journey together.' Musically, we can stretch ideas, lyrics, concepts, further."
And make no mistake, they really are going on a musical journey the likes of which I'd never really heard of. For almost a year now they've been inviting all sorts of musicians into the studio to simply jam and recording the results with no larger goal in mind than getting as much music down as possible.
"What we took the time to do is spend time recording with the band, having tons and tons of jam sessions," said Pos. "Musicians come in, friends of theirs, we realize we need someone to play strings, we try that. What I love is that everyone involved wasn't thinking from a hip-hop perspective, and that''s great. When Bob James did what he did, when James Brown did what he did, he wasn't doing it for hip-hop samples. That same vibe is what we want. They [the musicians] are bringing their love for country, jazz, blues, funk, anything that meshes together in the session. We felt like wow, we could actually take this county sounding guitar and add it to [these] rock drums and keys and make something new."
It's both an incredibly simple and staggeringly complex approach to making an album. In effect they're building their own sample library, creating their own crates to dig through, music they can pull from without worrying about clearing samples or fearing that someone else will use the same sample. It's theoretically a simple and direct solution to a complex problem, but it's also the most labor intensive way of creating new music imaginable. The group now has a staggering amount of hours of music - which they've come to refer to as "footage" once the parallels to filming and editing a movie began to pile up - and now the task is combing through that footage and re-assembling it, grabbing a horn riff from that session in October, combining it with that drum break from January, experimenting with placing that country western guitar riff from March and creating something new.
It's an approach that could only work with the help of countless people placing their egos to the side in service of a larger goal, and that's why De La is choosing to title the project, Anonymous Nobody, tentatively slated to drop this September. As Pos explained, "We're standing together to do something, to bring change. We feel like that's the thread that's run throughout the process, coming together to put egos aside, with fans, backers who came together, they're not trying to be known. they're trying to be a part of this growing organism that's trying to form creative music. I hope it continues, and I'm sure it will."
If the last 26 years are any indication, not only will De La continue, they're only going to continue to rise.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks on podcasts/radio/TV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]