De La Soul's Posdnuos unveils And the Anonymous Nobody
Before their whistle-stop UK tour this month, De La Soul's Posdnuos reminisces on discovering rap in his youth, the secret to the group’s endurance and Kickstarting their first full album since 2004.
“It’s been a while, it’s been a while…” Kelvin ‘Posdnuos’ Mercer acknowledges that a confluence of paralysing circumstances have delayed De La Soul’s full-blown return to a more conventional album format for some time; label issues, sample clearances and not least their own perfectionism. Although the Long Island trio has toured extensively and recorded in numerous formats in the 12 years since hitting us with their last full studio LP (The Grind Date), he alludes to a certain hesitance to go all out. Until now.
“I think we sometimes get stuck into trying to make something that might make us feel the way we did when we heard the first Stevie Wonder record,” he concedes. “We need to make room and just allow the fans or an objective listener to feel like that. I watched this documentary where Michael Jackson was saying every time he heard Thriller he’d think about things he could’ve done better. That’s how I look at my music; you continue to sculpt, but I understand my experience is different to the listener. We have so much music to give to you; we just need to start letting it out. Tonnes of stuff, man. It’s ridiculous. We’ve got to just... let it go.”
From its humble beginnings as a high school group that quietly observed and later became a uniquely integral part of hip-hop culture’s global rise, the influence of De La Soul cannot be overstated. Nearly 30 years into a career where so many peers rose and fell along the way, their exhilarating live shows remain pure fire. Pos attributes a decision they made (a quarter of a century ago) to escape the zeitgeist and torch the values of the band's earliest incarnation as the reason they're still standing today. Here, he reflects on the journey...
"We have so much music to give to you; we just need to start letting it out" – Pos
Let's go back to the beginning; what compelled you to pick up a microphone in the first place?
I’ve always been into music; from growing up, standing next to my father who’d play his doo-wop records, Motown 45s and all these different labels. He was – and still is – an excellent singer. He’d sing in church and I’d try to mimic him, but I couldn’t sing well at all. When hip-hop came across – and this was our music – it was like breakdancing, everyone did it. I guess the people who were really good stayed at it. I always loved to write. I was into comic books; my favourite class in school was English, where I could write stories. So when rapping came along, I felt like, ‘hey, I can write pretty well’ – stories like Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash or Kool Moe Dee were writing.
Me and Dave from De La were kind of closeted; we weren’t out in the park every week. By the time we came with De La Soul a lot of people were shocked; they didn’t know me for rhyming. They knew Mase for DJing. I really gravitated to it; writing and rhyming about things that weren’t necessarily in the timeline of where we were.
De La Soul is Dead is 25 tomorrow; have you found yourself looking back on that lately, whether out of necessity for the anniversary or any sort of inspiration for this new album? What's your take on its place in the band's catalogue now?
I look back on it a lot. I’m essentially still a big student of music, so I take the time to go back and look at what we’ve done at any given point of our career. I’ll think about what I could probably have done – or said – better. Then there’ll be moments of ‘wow, that was just right and it stood the test of time.’ To look back on De La Soul is Dead, it was an accomplished album in my mind. What we set out to do we did successfully. We planted the seed that we’re bigger than daisies and hippies, that we’re artists who want to continue to grow. The way we looked at it, death was an evolution from this plain to the next plain. It wasn’t a continuation of 3 Feet High and Rising. A lot of people at the time thought ‘well, there’s some great music on here but how could you depart from that?’
We meet people to this day who say ‘we didn’t know if it was necessarily smart at the time, but here it is, we still see you standing when a lot of other loved and respected groups are no longer here.’ It was the right thing to do. That’s why De La Soul Is Dead remains important to us. We were leaving a place where we could’ve comfortably stayed. We left it because we understood that at some point that visual would die and overshadow our talent – that moment where it’s not cool to have dreads, dashikis and peace no more. We needed an edge. So we said: ‘De La Soul as you knew it is outta here.’ We departed from it, and that’s why we’re still standing.
The tracklisting has finally been announced for the new album, so now we know who to expect. What’s driving it forward, musically and lyrically?
The new album is called And the Anonymous Nobody. It’s a really great record, man, I love it. I’m honestly not sure what it’ll do. Funnily enough, for me, that’s what’s so great about it. Previously with a record I’ve maybe had this feeling of ‘OK, so I know what this is going to do because it fits within this lane or fits with what’s going on.’ You can miscalculate. This time I’m not sure how the fans we’ve amassed over the years will take to every song, but I do feel like it’s quality music. There’s something here for everyone, quite honestly. In that regard, I put it near 3 Feet High and Rising. We didn’t know what it was going to do. Like that first album, once again, I feel the same way. We have fans that came along during Stakes is High and a lot of times just want us to do rhymes and beats, then we have fans who have a lot of love for the older stuff and perhaps miss the playing around. This has a good balance of all of those aspects.
Many of your guests could be considered unorthodox, even for a De La album. You've got Justin Hawkins on there, for example...
That, once again, is a big thing I love about this album. It would have been so easy to say, ‘Let’s put Common Sense, Talib Kweli and Mos Def on this record.’ We didn’t do that. Snoop’s on this one, 2 Chainz – nobody would have expected that, but when you hear the song you’ll get it. The idea there was: you’ve never seen 2 Chainz in this light. We always take care to marry the correct feel to each musician we choose to work with, so it doesn’t just come off as, ‘OK, we’re taking advantage of who this person is so we can sell some records.’ These are musicians who at the end of the day realise we’re all artists. In that realm alone, we can come into sync. So there’s a song with Usher, one with Jill Scott, another with Little Dragon. I personally feel we’ve struck on some amazing moments here, particularly with David Byrne from Talking Heads. It has these moments that feel magical.
What has your experience of crowdfunding this album with Kickstarter been? A machine tends to build up around a band when it reaches a certain status, has this project stripped some of that away?
We’re 100% hands on now; this has been a little overwhelming. When we first started putting together this record, we all – our group and some of the LA musicians that worked on it with us – knew of people at different labels who were interested to hear the music as it was coming out of us. But we had some concerns, like ‘how are we gonna play this for our friend over here at Interscope’ or wherever, when it doesn’t really fit a particular format. When we heard how these songs were coming out, they felt magical to us, but they perhaps wouldn’t translate in that world.
Take the track with David Byrne, it’s not like it has a 16 bar verse with a regular chorus. It changes up and goes into a whole different arrangement. There may be a situation where a label will say ‘that sounds amazing, but can you switch this and change that? Because we need this to work the way we present records.’ That’s when the whole crowdfunding thing came into play. We were like ‘let’s just give it straight to our fans who love us for the music we do and are willing to accept the fact that we’re trying to go against the machine. They’ll be there in our corner.’ We humbly thought we should be able to raise a certain amount of money, then we raised that amount within just a few hours. It’s truly a blessing.
You got two instalments in to your planned AOI trilogy before having to abandon the concept due to label issues. Is there any feeling in the group that there’s some unfinished business there?
Mase has been talking to me and Dave about it this past week; he’s been sending us beats that he’s still putting together – stuff that was done but just never finished. Unfortunately the third part never came out because when Tommy Boy ended and we got routed to other labels, we couldn’t just give them an instrumental album. So we had to leave the AOI thing out. We’re looking forward to putting that together, definitely.
In the last few years, A Tribe Called Quest have released a documentary and there was a feature film based around N.W.A.'s career... is the De La Soul story a film you’d like the world to see some day?
I feel like our lives are too boring! They’re not juicy enough to be on the screen. It’s funny though, I was talking to somebody about the N.W.A. film recently and they seemed shocked to hear that, within that movie we were there for a lot of that. A lot of the shows that you see in the movie, they were on the Nitro tour with us and LL Cool J. We were there when the cops tried to get ‘em in Detroit. As regards a film about our lives as De La Soul? There’s not enough rock’n’roll, drugs and sex, y’know what I’m saying? Not enough!
De La Soul and N.W.A. came from different coasts and – at least on record – offered very different perspectives. Did you get on?
Oh yeah, definitely. Me and Cube would go to the mall and bug out; I hung out with Ren. That said, we were absolutely on different sides of the spectrum as far as hip-hop went at that point. Regardless of that, we had a lot of fun with D.O.C. There were a lot of moments on that tour; they’re good guys. We’d all watch over each other.
I’m mindful that you lost your comrade Phife Dawg just over a month ago now and one of his last live performances was with you (ref Excursions). How do you reflect on his legacy and the way his life and contribution to music has been celebrated?
Us and Tribe, we came up together, and Phife was our brother. He was always engaging, on and offstage, and a real inspiration for us to perform. Even when Tribe were going through their unfortunate battles and breakups, he’d just come hang with us and do a couple of tracks. He’d be there for us and we’d be there for him. A month before he passed, he was onstage with us and we were talking to him about myself, Dave and Phonte from Little Brother being on his next solo album.
The music speaks for itself. There’s no need for me to tell you what Tribe means. You’ll get off the phone to me and a song by Tribe’s gonna be playing somewhere on the radio. As a brother, as a person who cared so much for others – that’s who Phife was; he was a really good dude. He could be cool and really hip, but then there were moments he’d drop his guard and show you a vulnerable side to him. That’s what I love about him.
You’re playing Manchester and Glasgow soon. It’s been a while since we’ve seen you in these parts – what can we expect from a De La Soul gig in 2016?
Pretty much the fundamentals of what we’ve been blessed to learn from those who came before us – taking the temperature of the crowd and making sure they have as much fun as possible. Treat it more than just them coming to see a show but make them a part of it. We’ve always tried our best to do that. Obviously with us having new music coming up, we’d like to introduce people to some of that. We’re still figuring out a show that’s going to consist of more of the new music when the album drops because that has more of a live band feel. We’re hoping to put that together. But this June we’re going to premiere some of the tracks we can with Mase playing them. That mixed up with the classics, and of course it’s the De La Soul is Dead anniversary... we’ve got to represent that.
You have a connection with Scottish indie rock royalty, collaborating with Teenage Fanclub on Fallin' all the way back in 1993. It seemed a very pure and fertile time for collaboration between emerging groups from completely different worlds; what’s your recollection of the experience?
The Judgment Night soundtrack is amazing. It was a lot of fun; we were told the whole concept of the soundtrack itself and thought it was really cool. The [producers] had kicked around a few names for us to possibly pair up with and when we came across Teenage Fanclub we really didn’t know a lot about them. We just thought ‘let’s do it with them.’ We just felt like that was a challenge and a learning experience in itself. Once we made that decision it all happened in such a graceful way in terms of us going there, meeting up with them – finding out that they’re fans of ours, so they’re a little taken aback. We were like, ‘Man, forget it, we just think of ourselves as musicians and people, let’s have some fun.’
So we messed around in the studio, and of course it comes to a joke where we’re all just sitting around, MTV's on in the background and Tom Petty’s video was playing for Free Fallin'. I just happened to say ‘Yo, that would be funny, to make a song out of this.’ Next thing you know, ding! Me and Dave were like, ‘let’s do this.’ We ran to the store, bought the CD, sampled his voice and Teenage Fanclub started to build up the music around it. We thought it’d be cool to keep Petty’s voice from the sample. The concept was: 'We can make this about a rapper falling off and have some fun with it.' We should give them a call when we get to Glasgow, that would be a moment!
De La Soul play Parklife, Heaton Park, Manchester on 12 Jun and Kelvingrove Bandstand on 25 Jun as part of the West End Festival 'Fiesta'. And the Anonymous Nobody is released on 26 Aug via AOI Records