Ahead of the hip-hop veterans O2 Academy Leeds show, Confidential speaks with founding member Dave Jolicoeur
On the inner sleeve of De La Soul’s 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising, beside a cartoon strip about the group supposedly teleporting from Mars with their “clever mentor AKA Poppa Prince Paul” to the offices of Tommy Boy Records, is a photograph of hip-hop’s newest arrivals perched on a sofa creasing themselves with laughter.
No items of sportswear, gold chains or scowls to the camera are to be seen. The trio of Kelvin Mercer, VincentMason and Dave Jolicoeur go by nicknames from their high school in Amityville, Long Island – Posdnous, Maseo and Trugoy the Dove – and share a fondness for in-jokes, peace symbols, and asymmetrical hi-top fade haircuts. Where their contemporaries seemed braced for confrontation with America’s establishment or brimful of braggadocio, De La Soul’s sound is softer and their message more subtle, couched in the playful language of their own D.A.I.S.Y. Age (Da Inner Sound Y’All).
“We’ve been different ever since we were in school,” Dave Jolicoeur reflects. “We didn’t dress like anyone else and we had our own language so nobody would know what we were talking about, so it was natural that we’d do different things with our music too.”
The group themselves seemed irked by their media portrayal as hippies. The artwork for their second album, De La Soul Is Dead, featured a broken daisy flower pot, while the record itself was darker in tone – particularly the song Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa, about a girl taking revenge on her abusive father.
Subsequent albums saw the group incorporate a jazzier sound, enlist the likes of Gang Starr’s Guru, Chaka Khan, Busta Rhymes, and J-Dilla, and take the recording reigns from Prince Paul. By the release of 2004’s The Grind Date - a leaner and sharper album, ditching the group’s famous skits - their long-standing association with Tommy Boy and Warner music was no more.
3 Feet High and Rising might have become an instant classic – selling more than a million copies and yielding a string of hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic - but as the era of downloading and streaming dawned, De La Soul’s material was virtually invisible; their back catalogue for Tommy Boy and Warners officially withheld from services such as iTunes and YouTube for concern over publishing rights to the many songs they had sampled. The group tried to take matters into their own hands in 2014, giving away torrents of their first six albums free – much to the corporation’s consternation. Since then they have been trapped in limbo, to the group’s evident frustration.
“Of course we look at the numbers and think, ‘Man, only if’,” Dave Jolicoeur recently told me. “Some people say [giving away downloads] might have been the most genius thing to do and others might say it was the most foolish thing to do, but we could have earned so much if there were contracts and agreements that would adhere to how music is being purchased and listened to today. But for the most part there’s so many people, new fans, old fans, who just can’t get the music.
“When we put out our whole catalogue for obviously it wasn’t about the money, it wasn’t about what we could have earned. It was really about people don’t have their hands on our music, and there are a lot of young listening audiences who are searching for something that might sound good to them and they can’t hear it, they won’t hear it. So yeah, we think about the loss in regards to earning but I think the bigger loss is to almost feel you’ve been erased.”
It’s a measure of the esteem they’re still held in that a Kickstarter to fund the 2016 album De La Soul and the Anonymous Nobody raised six times its $110,000 aim within days. The tour for that album also happens to coincide with the group’s 30th anniversary. Looking back on an eventful three decades, Jolicoeur, now 48, reflects: “I often say, man, we’re doing something right, we’re still counting the years of being in this industry and doing what we’re most happy doing.
“Of course the reality is there’s been ups and downs, there’s been big celebrations of multi-platinum selling records and then there’s been moments where you chill and no one’s asking you to perform at their festival, but I think that in the middle of those peaks and valleys we’ve chosen the right things to do and as a group and a unit we’ve stuck to our guns in regards to what our message is, who we are as people, and what this culture means to us.”
“I think De La Soul is a group who’ve done the right thing and everything we can control in that category. We chose to turn our backs on the whole D.A.I.S.Y. Age, how we aligned ourselves with the Gorillaz, how we wanted to express ourselves from day one, whether it was talking about social issues, laughing at ourselves or just making the most obscure music that hip-hop ever heard, we just chose the right things to do.”
3 Feet High and Rising’s place in the US Library of Congress is particular source of pride for him. “To be considered to be put in your own back yard’s time capsule as one of the people or groups who stood out, made a difference, said something important that just resonated with people, to know that you’re in that time capsule is a great feeling, and know that you’ve been acknowledged in those high regards it’s a really good feeling to feel that you are historic.”
The battle over the rights to De La Soul’s back catalogue remains ongoing. Jolicoeur admitted progress regarding sampling clearance and rights has been slow but the group are committed to reclaiming their legacy. “We’re still stuck,” he said. "But the fight goes on.
"Who knows what might happen but if we don’t continue to fight we’ll never know, so the fight goes on.” Jack Evans