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Work It Out 

15 years down the line, De La Soul is still shining, still grinding.

De La Soul: One of few '80s rap groups that still has - anything to say.
  • De La Soul: One of few '80s rap groups that still has anything to say.

A motley conglomeration of personalities has descended upon Miami's American Airlines Arena for a massive press conference on the eve of the MTV Video Music Awards. There are celebrity freaks (Victoria Gotti and her sons), flavor-of-the-month teeny poppers (Hilary Duff), rock-and-roll non-entities (Hoobastank), fledgling stars (Kanye West), and over-the-hill acts (New Edition). Scarce are the musicians who resonate beyond the here and now, whose names indicate a body of work that continues to wield broad influence.

De La Soul is among them. As one of the creators of bohemian rap, an ambitious and wildly creative alternative to the hardcore macho idioms that dominate hip-hop culture, the Long Island trio is a certified legend, the B-boy equivalent of Sonic Youth. A few key encounters during their jaunt around the press room confirm their importance. The face of MTV journalism, Kurt Loder, doesn't seem fazed (or truly interested) in the hubbub surrounding him, but he makes a point of walking over and talking with De La Soul, even as Yoko Ono passes by.

But for the most part, De La Soul is there to work like everybody else. They have a new album, Grind Date, to promote. They snap pictures and trade words with Dame Dash, Carl Thomas, and Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz, then spend five minutes chatting up radio broadcasters.

Two hours after arriving (and running into OutKast and BET Rap City host Big Tigger on the way out of the arena), De La Soul is back on the road. Maseo, the group's DJ, is en route to a sound check for their performance at an MTV block party. Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer and Dave "Trugoy" Jolicoeur take separate minivans back to the hotel they're staying at, to rest up for the block party and another sold-out performance with the Beastie Boys.

"Every time an album comes out, we stay traveling," says Mercer, as his chauffeured minivan hurtles down the freeway. They perform around the globe, he notes, from Europe to Australia, nurturing a worldwide underground audience that continues to support them. "We've been blessed to go places where we have loyal supporters of De La Soul, just because we'll go places that no one else will," he says.

By now, most fans realize that De La Soul is a decade removed from the insular "It might blow up but it won't go pop" stance that once defined the band. Ever since the highly underrated 1996 effort Stakes Is High, a dividing line between the freewheeling innovations of "golden era" hip-hop and the flossy hip-pop concoctions that now dominate pop culture, the group has unapologetically made records for the people. From the 2000 opus AOI: Mosaic Thump, with its panoply of guests, (Chaka Khan, Xzibit), to the just-released Grind Date, which includes a cameo from director Spike Lee (!), De La works hard to maintain a place among rap's current stars.

So far, they've succeeded: "Baby Phat," the lead single from their last album, AOI: Bionix, still gets play on MTV2, and Grind Date is generating a modest buzz in industry circles. Barring Chuck D. and KRS-One, both of whom are now better known as elder statesmen than cutting-edge artists, De La Soul, Dr. Dre, and LL Cool J are the only rap stars from the '80s who still matter. LL Cool J has his chiseled, lady-killing looks and B-movie career to help him; Dre sticks to making beats, letting younger, fresher protégés handle the microphone. All De La Soul has is good music.

"Three Feet High and Rising wasn't like anything that was out. It was on MTV, it was on Rap City, it was on everything possible," Mercer says. "Why not have that same drive and understanding now? It's not like I need to do it for money, it's just I'm not a liar, man. I won't sit here and say I make music to save people's lives. I make music because I love music. But I realized that 'Wow, I can make money off making music that I love.' So it is to make a living.'" That's not to say that De La Soul isn't a mentor. Since the classic single "Buddy," which introduced Native Tongues stars A Tribe Called Quest, the trio has continually supported new and emerging artists, from Common and Mos Def (Stakes Is High) to Devin the Dude (AOI: Bionix). Today, they're part of a resurgence in creative and thematically varied hip-hop.

"It's great to see Anthony Hamilton do a song with Jadakiss," says Jolicoeur. He cites Jadakiss's politically charged hit single "Why?" as proof that hip-hop is finally embracing new ideas beyond typical ho's-and-designer-clothes rhymes. "Would it have happened in 1996? Probably not. It would have been Mariah and Jadakiss."

Some of De La Soul's longtime fans have charged that the group has lost the freewheeling, eccentric touch of Three Feet High and Rising. For sure, Grind Date isn't as experimental as that classic debut. The ensuing 15 years have brought considerable changes in all three members' lives. For better or worse, De La Soul's recent output is the reflection of grown men, not talented teenagers. Each has a family now, and they've seen hip-hop become a multibillion-dollar business. But Grind Date is polished and sophisticated enough to be appreciated on its own terms, easily bumping from the bass bounce of "Verbal Clap" to "He Comes," a fleet-footed duet with Ghostface Killah. There's even a surprisingly unpredictable track, "Rock Co. Kane Flow," that finds Jolicoeur and Mercer trading stop-start verses with cutting-edge rap mathematician MF Doom. No, Grind Date is not Three Feet High and Rising or even Buhloone Mindstate. In reality, who would want it to be?

"In '88, we weren't conscious of what was going on. We were knuckleheads, we was young kids pulling jokes on each other," says Jolicoeur. "But in time, you've seen De La grow up. That's how it should be."

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