De La Soul has grown up, and so has their music

Trio still challenges the status quo in hip-hop

Music: In Concert/CDs

October 21, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

De La Soul isn't playing anymore.

The three grown men are well into their 30s now with kids, bills and responsibilities. The rap group's "D.A.I.S.Y. age" - which stood for Da Inner Sound Y'all and was the era when the trio trumpeted peace and love in a somewhat goofy, left-of-center style - has passed. The new album, The Grind Date, a fluid, hard-hitting set, reflects the change clearly. Brilliantly.

Back in the spring of '89 when De La Soul dropped its classic debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, the guys were "kids, playing around, innocent and joking," says Dave "Trugoy/Plug 2" Jolicoeur, one of the trio's lyric assassins and its chief brainstormer. (His partners, Vincent "Maseo" Mason and Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer, are unavailable.)

"After 16 years of being in the industry, you definitely catch some battle scars," the rapper says, calling from his Upper Marlboro home. "In some cases on the new record, you're hit with the anger. But then there are the pleasant moments. Hopefully, the listeners will have the room in themselves to accept the change."

Performing at the 9:30 Club tomorrow night, De La Soul is more direct this time. If you're longing to hear something light and trippy like the group's early classics - 1988's "Potholes In My Lawn," 1989's "Me, Myself and I," (De La's only No. 1 hit) or 1991's "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)" - then pick up last year's retrospective, Timeless: The Singles Collection. But for those interested in the Long Island trio's evolution, The Grind Date, which hit stores this month, is a gem: immediate, stripped and vibrantly raw. Even new hip-hop heads - those who may be too young to remember when the guys were mainstays on Yo! MTV Raps - would be drawn to the record. The Grind Date interrupts the critically well-received Art Official Intelligence series, which the group started in 2000 with the release of Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump. The record entered the Top 10 four years after its predecessor, Stakes Is High, quietly appeared.

"This time, we wanted to do a non-conceptual record, just a hip-hop record," says Jolicoeur, who's 36. "We just did it. There was no plan, nothing like that. The title is a play on blind date. You don't know who you're going to meet. And regardless of if you have a good or bad time, you still walk away with respect. With De La Soul, we don't know what to expect. We've been working so hard, but at least we can walk away with respect regardless of what happens in the industry or in hip-hop. It's the idea of working hard to find your destiny - whatever it is."

Sixteen years ago, it was hard to imagine that De La Soul (or rap itself) would be around today - fresh and relevant. The clever, colorful psychedelia of the group's early sound and image didn't fit into what was hip at the time: the sonic and lyrical barrage of Public Enemy, the violent gangsta rap of N.W.A. De La offered a decidedly gentler approach. Musically, the guys drew from an eclectic bag of sounds: bop, pop, reggae, funk and disco. Although the trio was so different from other popular hip-hop acts in the early '90s, De La caught on, and 3 Feet High and Rising went platinum.

"It was always about trying something different and new," Jolicoeur says. "That's where the De Las, the Queen Latifahs, the Tribe Called Quests came from. We wanted to try something different from what the Slick Ricks and Big Daddy Kanes were doing. Now you don't have that. If you have a Jay-Z, then record companies want 10 Jay-Zs. We're making great money in hip-hop but not great music."

Over the years as the longtime friends challenged their art, subsequent releases - De La Soul is Dead (1991), Buhloone Mindstate (1993), Stakes Is High (1996) - didn't match the sales of the debut. The group still garnered critical acclaim, though. And the trio's tour schedule never dipped. De La plays about 150 shows around the world every year.

"For me, the inspiration is challenging yourself outside of hip-hop and experiencing other things," Jolicoeur says. "You absorb different experiences as you travel. We travel all over the world, so it inspires us to write about something other than the 'hood and all you hear in hip-hop now."

At times, The Grind Date feels a bit defensive (even a tad self-righteous) as Jolicoeur and Mercer rap about MCs who add no richness to hip-hop ("Verbal Clap" and "Much More"). But even those moments are tolerable because the production is so tight. Throughout the record, the beats (courtesy of J-Dilla, 9th Wonder, Madlib) are catchy and gritty as De La touches on the baseness of materialism (the witty first single, "Shopping Bags (She Got From You)") and the need for communal pride and self-respect ("The Grind Date" and "Church").

"We pulled in people that are on the same vibe we're on - kinda melodic with a rough beat," Jolicoeur says. "The most important part of the music is that it has a melody; there's harmony. It's just good music."

Although Mercer is based in Atlanta and Mason in Florida, Jolicoeur, a father of a 15-year-old daughter, says the guys still manage to see each other regularly. In fact, the distance and lives apart invigorate the creative process for the group, giving the artists sharper lyrical perspectives.

"We love recording," Jolicoeur says. "But now as grown men with families, we want to generate a more positive outlook, something showing respect for the community and to women. Something fun too."

See De La Soul at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington, tomorrow night at 10. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit www.930.com or www.tickets.com.

Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.

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