De La Soul are firmly in the here-and-now with their brand new and the Anonymous Nobody..., their first studio album in more than a decade. It’s a crowd-funded extravaganza (with guest spots from 2 Chainz, Pete Rock, Damon Albarn, Snoop Dogg and many more) built from a custom collaboration with the Rhythm Roots All Stars, who provided untold hours of live recordings for De La Soul to sample and reassemble. They’ll perform at the Music Tastes Good festival in Long Beach on Sept. 25, and they speak now to Low End Theory’s DJ Nobody." /> L.A. Record


September 23rd, 2016 | Interviews

illustration by abraham jay torres

De La Soul will be forever remembered for both the unprecedented vision of their debut 3 Feet High And Rising and for the unprecedented lawsuit from the Turtles that followed, one of the first and highest-profile sampling suits in history. But that was a long time ago and De La Soul are firmly in the here-and-now with their brand new and the Anonymous Nobody…, their first studio album in more than a decade. It’s a crowd-funded extravaganza (with guest spots from 2 Chainz, Pete Rock, Damon Albarn, Snoop Dogg and many more) built from a custom collaboration with the Rhythm Roots All Stars, who provided untold hours of live recordings for De La Soul to sample and reassemble. They’ll perform at the Music Tastes Good festival in Long Beach on Sept. 25, and they speak now to Low End Theory’s DJ Nobody.

The ‘Trainwreck’ beat on Nobody is probably the beat that stood out to me the most—a really thick beat. I’ve always thought you had great taste in beats. I remember when Grind Date dropped, my friends and I were really tripping on how you updated your sound but still sounded like De La. How involved are you in looking for beats?
Mase: Always. I’m one of the main ones who’s either gonna come up with something or bring somebody to the table if I can’t come with something.
What do you look for in a track? What resonates when you’re trying to find a beat?
Mase: To be honest—I always lean on the discussions we have in between albums, when we’re going through a journey promoting the last album leading up to the next album. Throughout the journey, there’s always significant changes—things that are happening, new groups that are coming along, the industry … it’s almost been twelve years since we put out an album, so the industry had to change at least three or four times since then. And constantly connecting with those changes—always remaining to be students to the game we play, the business that we’re in and the art we like to create. You can never stop learning new things that lend to the new things you look to create. We’re not a group that tries to reminisce on yesteryear. Every new day presents a future. That’s how we move. We truly love we what do, so you just try and stay in tune to every facet of what’s going on. First and foremost, we’re music fans. It starts right there. Then to turn around and be music creators on a professional level … ‘OK, let me create what I wanna hear. Let me create what I like.’ More than anything, let me create what I like and let me take what I created and then compete in the profession that I’m in.
This time around instead of sampling you recorded a group called the Rhythm Roots All-Stars for three years. I was kinda shocked at the amount of time—is that how much time you felt was necessary to get what you wanted?
Mase: No—it was over a course of a brief four year period when it finally started to come to fruition. We have been pondering on this album and making music for a long time. But it was the Rhythm Roots who … here it is once again: these relationships we’ve developed over the course of our careers and coming up to the 20th anniversary of Three Feet High And Rising. Around that period—prior to that period—we had embarked upon the Rhythm Roots All-Stars, who was a band that was a part of the Scion promotions. Scion was promoting their new car around these musical events that they were doing, and they were having different singers and rappers show up to be a part of a program to perform with this particular band, who played the music exactly the way we recorded. They had us, they had Ghostface, they had a number of artists—MF Doom—but the event with us was eye-opening for us. We have always been wanting to try the live band thing, but we couldn’t ever quite pull it together and suss out the right musicians. So this particular soundcheck day was like the birth of our relationship with this band. When the 20th anniversary of Three Feet High came up, the idea of that … we started planning that with them. And over the course of our travels with that celebration, that led into a couple more years of traveling with them because of the backlash of the celebration—the backlash was so great, we were still doing more shows with the band. So talking about a discussion of creating and putting out a record, and Rhythm Roots too—their brand has begun to build pretty strong, rolling with us—and they were figuring out what they’d like to do to make a record. The main thing they kept coming up with was collaborating with us. And then with the genuine relationships building with everyone individually and collectively, we realized that we all got like minds about the direction of the music business, of music creativity … you had all pretty much shared the same insight as far as the pros and cons of what we see going on around us and how we think it could change. You know how everybody come up with their ideal situation of what they think to do to make some sort of difference? More and more these conversations kept coming up and bringing this project to fruition. We as a group had been looking at the change of the business and also the perspective we come from, which is … we always gonna sample, you know? It’s what we do. It’s a natural part of our creative process that’s evolved right up until now. But with all the legal issues that have existed around our previous catalog prior to Grind Date … certain things that either was not clear or based on the language that exists today or existed back then, it wasn’t meant for the digital outlet today. So trying to go back and cut deals and pretty much re-introduce a whole new contract just for the distribution media from today—it was coming up to be something very difficult to pursue. So and also looking at today’s world and making a record the way we traditionally make a record, sampling has become very big business. So as a group who’s consciously made a decision to go the independent route … what was always pretty significant to the way we recorded music was being able to have that strong financial support. From a label … or let’s just say from a company. Even when we did unofficial projects—I won’t call them albums, I’ll just call them projects. Like the Nike project—there was significant sampling on that record, but we had a corporation supporting the project to help fund some of the administration behind it. Here it is: some of the things I know the fans aren’t ever even really aware of. Especially behind the crowdfunding that we sourced, they think we got this big load of money. But the money is actually to sustain completing the project. No one really recognizes the relative expenses that go into it before even clearing samples. Like you make the song, mix the record and then you go to play the song for the entity you need to clear it from, and then it comes with an additional fee that you’re unaware of because now they have to name their price based on the composition you sampled from. So mind you, I just spent X dollars on my engineer, X dollars on the tape I recorded it to, X dollars on the studio session … everything already went into the time spent creating the song, and now you have to clear it. You can’t clear the composition until you actually use it. That’s just how it goes.
So the label has to hear how the sample is used before they determine how they’re gonna clear it?
Mase: Not only the label—the company you’re working with and the publishers you’re trying to clear it from. You don’t know who became a Christian between the time they made that record and the time you used it! They might have some convictions if you say ‘nigger’ too many times or a cuss word in the record—they might not let you use that at all. There have been those unwarranted scenarios that either made a record very expensive to clear or not even get cleared at all. And when you run into a dilemma of not getting a song cleared at all, now it’s back to the drawing board of making an entire new song.
Minus the sample.
Mase: Or making a whole new song altogether. And then as a group that made a decision to truly travel this independent route … we don’t look to inhibit the way we record, so we came up with the idea of recording these musicians. And sampling from them. As if they were records.
Without having to worry about legalities.
Mase: Absolutely. Some things off the jam sessions, you’ll hear outright loops. Some things were chopped up and made into new songs—like ‘Trainwreck.’ This was a beautiful challenge. A beautiful dynamic of approaching making music the way we like to make music without having all these legal constraints. The overall … just having the real freedom to make a record with no inihibitions whatsoever.
Do you think that’s the future of sample-based music? I know that there’s a lot more people making that sort of library thing available. Adrian Younge has one, the BadBadNotGood guys have one … I think that was actually used for one of those Drake songs, ‘Started From The Bottom.’
Mase: Not a bad idea! There’s still gonna be digging and sampling from records. You gotta implement the best of both worlds—what about that cat coming up who probably can’t afford musicians to play his jam session? Or to hire musicians? He’s still only got his record collection. There needs to be new ways of structuring the business around sampling—to make it a bit more complicit with the creative process without the legal issues that constantly exist. I think if we get a little more in depth with being fair with contract negotiations around sampling. For the most part, it’s still a significant way to create. R&B has copied what we’ve done in the hip-hop community. I’m not saying ‘we’ as De La—I’m saying the hip-hop community in general. It has evolved from how we create it. We did start from cutting up records back and forth to then putting it in devices and looping and building these collages of music, and then that’s going into chopping and manipulating the sounds from records to making entirely unique creations just off the sounds from the record. So sampling has evolved to a greater place creatively that deserves its respect. And not to look at is some cash cow, and we look like people who are stealing. I think people from the early days of just looping, the creators … we didn’t ever look at this with any malicious intent. We were learning the music business as we came in. It was common sense to me—if I’m using somebody’s stuff, I do feel they deserve to be compensated. But then again—don’t take away from me and my creation, that your creation plays a part of. Let’s find common ground where we can both financially survive off this.
I really feel that there should be some sort of blanket rule in regards to sampling. It is a genuine art form that’s been going on for so long. Even things people don’t realize—the average incidental music from any TV show will have like a hit from Funk Inc. The average person won’t hear that, but we notice: ‘Damn, I’m pretty sure Funk Inc. isn’t getting anything from that!’ It’s so part of normal music-making now to have a sample in it. I actually took a class with Mark Volman of the Turtles when I was in college and I got to ask him about that in class—the sample issue.
Mase: What did he say? I’m interested to know.
As I remember it, I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to ask you this face-to-face …’ His reply was he didn’t even know of the song, and he’s walking by his daughter’s bedroom and he hears the interlude with the sample. He’s totally surprised by it. He says he personally called either Prince Paul or someone in your management and he got … kinda dissed. Like ‘We thought you guys were already dead.’ And that was what prompted him to sue you guys.
Mase: Really? I don’t recall that. He definitely didn’t speak to Prince Paul. I know that for a fact. If somebody said that … I can’t say that was true or not true, you know? I can’t say that. What we heard back when the lawsuit … I didn’t know there was a lawsuit until it was coming across MTV. When I think back on it so many times, I go, ‘OK, this has been on Tommy Boy’s desk for a minute, and they’ve been keeping this quiet.’ If somebody disrespected them, it had to be somebody from the label. Because for the most part—the argument that stands strong on our end between us and Tommy Boy was, ‘Yo, we handed in all the samples to clear this album. You chose what you didn’t wanna clear.’ We still dealing with sample issues on that record to this day because of what Tommy Boy felt was minute. They felt like, ‘Oh, well, this little skit is not a full song so it’s kinda insignificant—we don’t feel we need to clear that. Who’s gonna really pay attention to that?’ At the same time, I’m gonna be honest: I get they logic on it, but it didn’t work out that way! Here it is: I’m new to the record business. All I’m doing it doing what I’m told, and handing in these sample clearances. So the argument is and has always been for some time … Tommy Boy would say we never handed in all the clearances. De La didn’t report this as a clearance. That’s what we would hear all the time. Now at that time with the Turtles, it was mentioned in the media it was a million-dollar lawsuit. We settled outta court for like a hundred thousand. Tommy Boy paid half and we paid half. And that’s the reason I think Tommy Boy’s argument is the way it is because they didn’t want to pay 100% of something they was negligent on. That’s what I believe—what me and the group believe. Now on the Turtles end, this is another thing we heard from the label—that they liked the record! They had liked the record. And if we wanted to lawsuit to go away … [we had] to make a record with them! Us as a group was like … you shoulda came at us like that in the first place! You giving me an ultimatum! What kind of shit is that? At this point, it’s like … your integrity gotta stand for something. Sue me, then! Fuck it! Sue me. And why even help you? You disrespect me like that—why help you bring your career back? Why do that? Why help? Why participate in that?
The irony is that a lot of the artists that hip-hop has sampled … I just don’t think people would care about them as much if they weren’t sampled! Would people really care about Bob James? No disrespect to Bob James—I’m just saying, those records aren’t records people are always talking about unless they’re brought up in sample conversations.
Mase: Yo—lemme tell you. Just like certain things in hip-hop we need to fight for, what it has been … what it has been until we came along? Groups like us or let alone that era came along—all that shit was buried history. George Clinton thanks all of us. I love George Clinton. He’s like my fucking uncle, seriously! When that man finally passes, I’ll probably be one of the main people bawlin’ over that casket. George Clinton thanked us, he thanked Dre, he thanked Snoop, he thanked EPMD, he thanked all of us for helping him revitalize something that was fading away in the 80s and 90s—because hip-hop came along! When hip-hop came along, all anybody really was touching was breakbeats and James Brown. It wasn’t til late 80s everybody started messing with the funk. The funk and the jazz came a little more prevalent in the late 80s and 90s. Before that it was the funk and the soul—the Stax collection, James Brown.
I feel like ‘Me Myself And I’ might be the first rap song that makes a P-funk loop famous. Did you ever feel you had an influence on the G-funk and the funk revival that came afterwards?
Mase: EPMD!
Ah—before you guys. Nice. It seems like there was this unspoken kinship between you guys out there and the strain of P-funk that Dre later turned into G-funk.
Mase: I look at the era and all of us around that time, we were all kinda in the same age bracket—maybe four or five years apart? We all was growing up on that. I get tired of separating the coasts, man. We all Black culture. We all grew up in a certain era, and it’s even way more prevalent now. Kids are kinda growing up on all the same shit—from hip-hop to pop music—just based on how the world got connected digitally. For our era, we were all growing up on that funk—it just became a little more prevalent in certain regions than it did in others. When it came to the essence of hip-hop, there was something in New York that sustains it to be the mecca because it was always something different coming out of New York—different from anything else that was happening, in New York or the rest of the world. If it was something new—if it was Ultramagnetic coming behind Big Daddy Kane with Juice Crew … Ultramagnetic was like what is this? This is lyrically insane! The beats—what the fuck is this? This is nothing like anything else going on around here! There was always a brand new flavor. Chubb Rock—who is this? What people fail to realize: yo, we love B.I.G. but what had fathered a lot of that B.I.G. was Chubb Rock.
He had almost the same sort of voice.
Mase: Same bravado. Chubb Rock’s era and Biggie’s era were just a little different. You get the different subject matter and creativity and style.
What do you think about today’s rap scene? Who are some of your favorites?
Mase: We listen to everybody, good and bad. I can say there’s some good singles out there. The artists I feel are really making that mark, they’re not really new anymore. But J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, the Game, Chance the Rapper, Maino … Fashawn.
I’m a big fan of 2 Chainz as well.
Mase: And 2 Chainz!
What inspired the collaborators on this record? Your taste in today’s music scene? People you always wanted to work with?
Mase: A little of both. Being fans of what they doing, and constantly paying attention to what’s going on and who you think is good. Everybody we’ve always worked with, we been fans of what they do. 2 Chainz—that’s Tity Boi. He’s nice! He always has been. I can read through what dudes are doing to either conform or let alone cater to a demographic they just grew up around.
I always thought that was awesome about 2 Chainz—he was Tity Boi for so long, and then he reinvented himself and changed up his subject matter and found success.
Mase: And at the same time, we reached out to him for a chorus and he was like, ‘Nah, I wanna rhyme!’
That’s so dope!
Mase: So what do you do with that!
Put him on the record. That’s so dope.
Mase: For so many years—for me, since 93 is when I start really connecting with rappers from the other coasts and regions. My thing is it has to be good, it has to be authentic. The best person I ever heard from New York that got on a hyphy beat was 50. There have been so many that tried it, but 50 was the one that rocked it to me.
He sounds great on those uptempo beats.
Mase: People may not fancy his subject matter yet alone the world of imagery—the imagery today is not really focused on somebody’s music. But the homie is an MC. Homie make really good records. I’m definitely one of the people who goes back to listen to the catalog when all the hype is over. He got some really great material. And he did what was necessary for the climate he put records out in. Ludacris—another one!
I always loved Luda.
Mase: I’m talking about artists with serious severe iconic mainstream pop success. But I can bring it back to an artistic level and say, ‘Yo, they’re really creative though—they really are MCs.’ They found their balance between creativity and business.
That’s respectable in its own right. Along with technical talent as well. There’s something to be appreciated with both. I have one last question—something I always wondered. When I was really young, like 13 or 14 when I first heard De La and Native Tongues and Tribe … the most distinguishing characteristic was how the voices were more conversational. In 88, Run DMC and a lot of New York groups were still in the HOO-HAH—really braggadocious, really forward. But the Native Tongues style seemed really casual.
Mase: I’m gonna attribute it to the music. The music was coming together from a melodic standpoint. We were challenging ourselves creatively and musically. Being a part of those sessions and watching the fellas write or discuss concepts based on how the music dictated the lyrical content or the cadence or the style—those are things I got to actually learn from being a part of the MCs in this ensemble. Not just Pos and Dave but Drez, Q-Tip, Mike G, Afrika, they all owned different styles individually in this melodic conversation. The music has always dictated that conversation, so to speak. And brought it to a different tone. I think a lot of rappers in the past … I can’t say I know this for a fact, but it just appears to me a lot of them wrote rhymes before they heard the music. So writing a cappella and coming from a certain mindset or a certain energy based on where you at emotionally at that time … writing without music kinda keeps it in one vein. When you refer to Run DMC, as iconic as they are and what they’ve done and where they derived from, what they done was kind of one dimensional. From our end, the music has always dictated that conversation you speak of.
My friends and I thought it was revolutionary. You didn’t have to just scream or be super loud.
Mase: And Pos is very very good at coming up with concepts. Very good concepts. And also implementing some kind of style. It would be interesting to see how Dave would twist the perspective of the concept. You can tell—there was always a certain behavior from our childhood. Pos was always on time. Pos was the first one at school, probably—before everybody. He’s all nerd, man. He’s a nerd! But all of that led to his greatness of how he writes—his punctuality, his ability to be a great poet and come up with different concepts. That’s why you hear the songs where Pos is first and Dave is last—you always hear it in that format cuz he’s the first one at the studio! But the beauty is Dave’s perspective. He completely can take the same narrative and twist it … Like ‘Trying People.’ They both have two different perspectives on the same subject. There’s a lot of songs like that. What’s crazy is that’s one were Dave goes first, too.
What is the name Anonymous Nobody a reference to? I think L.A. RECORD asked me to do this because I am Nobody. [We didn’t but it works!—ed.]
Mase: It’s a reference to everybody that selflessly lent themselves to this album to make it a great project.