3 Feet Underground

De La Soul rise from the dead yet again to rally all hip hop's oddballs and misfits

Mosaic Thump is De La's blueprint for how to preserve one's idiosyncrasies while maturing incrementally. Although De La are capable of intricate metaphorical flights, home truths are more their stock-in-trade. "If 'if' was a spliff/Man we'd all be hi-i-i-i-i-gh/But it's not, so sober up," says the MC who introduced himself to the world as Trugoy the Dove. Except now he has taken to calling himself "Dave." Not MC Dave even. Just Dave. A comical move, maybe, but not a whimsical one. (Guess you just reach an age where you'd prefer not to called by an inversion of your favorite food--yogurt.)

Similarly, although the first offering from Mosaic Thump, "Ooh," is as playful as your favorite moment in De La yore, few may hear it that way. This boisterous chant floats on a tinny Lalo Schifrin riff and is earmarked by gleefully discordant harmonies from Tha Funk Doctor Spock himself, Newark freelance troublemaker Redman. "Go ooh-ooh-ooh," Doc commands, whether you're "a fat chick gettin' your fuck on tonight" or "Wall Street niggas...up in the stands." The track displays De La's new attitude, both earthier and more accessible.

That's right--accessible, as in "pop." The Mosaic Thump groove is De La's most conventional to date, which says as much about how Timbaland and Swizz Beatz have diddled commercial conventions as it does about any tectonic shift in De La's aesthetic. "Your pop culture needs a diaper change," Pos gripes, but De La seem aware that the underground can be more sonically conservative than the flossy moneymakers they despise. And so they craft an electrofunk that owes elements of its bounce to both Erick Sermon and whatever one-shot pretty boy is on BET right now. Afraid of contemporary R&B? Then duck for cover before the crooned hooks performed by suave manly types on "U Can Do (Life)" and the Chaka Khan guest spot on "All Good?" Even sampling the Lovin' Spoonful, which might have seemed an indication of their expansive musical tastes long ago, might come off as a predictable act of recycling in the post-Puffy era.

Menagerie à trois: The three MCs of De La Soul
Menagerie à trois: The three MCs of De La Soul

The most telling thing here might be the guest MCs on show. De La Soul accumulate misfits ranging from Tash of Tha Alkaholiks and Freddie Foxxx to a pair of Beastie Boys and the inevitable, insufferable Busta Rhymes. The group has carved out a creative haven for all manner of crotchety but loving weirdoes. It's a camaraderie of spirit that was on full display at First Avenue.

"Ya'll mind if I get nekkid?" Maseo asked us as their set sweated on into its second hour.

"If you do, Biz'll do it," Pos egged him on.

True enough, after Mace proudly shed his blue polo shirt, baring his prodigious gut, Biz reappeared--shirtless, glistening, mammoth, gorgeous. Earlier, the Diabolical One had spun the theme from Cheers between sets, instigating a mass sing-along too unexpected to sound as corny as it might have. Now Biz displayed his true talent--his inability to sing--launching first into the dizzy "Vapors," then his greatest hit, "Just a Friend." With an atonal "Yooooooou, you got what I need..." he transformed himself into a living, bellowing manifestation of the freewheeling utopian impulse 3 Feet High and Rising once prophesied.

Mosaic Thump cherishes that impulse as well, but its makers realize it's not 1989 anymore. Generating an inclusive community based not on race, or skills, or cred, but on a willingness to put the most idiosyncratic crannies of your personality on public display is only the first part of the plan. The next is to recognize that the past is no longer an anecdotal lump to be recycled for a cheap cheer; it's the roots of the present. On Mosaic Thump, nostalgia yields to a continuity of experimentation. Biz was the man we had all come to see. But, maybe without realizing it even, De La Soul was the group that we needed to hear.

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