3 Feet Underground

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

Whatever anyone told you, they were there to see the Biz. Sure, both underground MCs Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli had their respective partisans. The New School's Most Likely to Succeed, Chicago rapper Common, generated a groundswell of support as well. And on paper, July 4's all-ages Spitkickers show at First Avenue was dedicated to promoting De La Soul's forthcoming album, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Tommy Boy). But whatever headliner provided our excuse to gather in the close, humidity-moistened huddle of the Main Room, we'd come for one reason: to bask in the gelatinous glow of the tone-deaf lump of goodwill known as the Diabolical Biz Markie.

I myself needed a heavy dose of the Biz, as I was recovering from an even heavier dose of the bizness swallowed the night before. The flawlessly vacuous professionalism of the Up in Smoke tour had rolled through the Target Center, and I was hung over from bingeing on the leftovers of hip-hop history. Eminem, the man of the moment, was shuffled off the stage before 9:00 p.m. to make way for his elders: poor, over-the-hill Ice Cube; and finally Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, who were introduced by a wack glocks-and-hoes video clip on the Jumbotron screen overhead. A bad move--when the duo walked out onstage, they shrank before our eyes, appearing smaller than life.

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

By the time we reached the dumb-ass NWA "reunion" finale, I felt like I'd stumbled into another damn Who tour, forced into the role of the Magic Mirror that reflects past glories upon aging stars worried they might not still be the fairest of them all. Then it occurred to me: What if an MC screams to throw your hands in the air, and you realize that you just don't care? No, I mean you really just don't care. Hip hop ain't in its teens anymore, and its concert conventions are beginning to calcify into clichés. I could have been at a Kiss show, the paying mass enveloping me could have been asked if we were "ready to rock," and the swelling response would have been just as rote.

Nostalgia is welling up in the underground, too. There's a palpable sense among baggy-jeaned newcomers that they've arrived too late and missed all the fun. Set the new Jurassic 5 disc against your old Flash records and you'll hear a self-conscious re-creation versus the spontaneous cheer of invention. This wistful sense undercut the Spitkickers show as well. Common's DJ threatened to "take us back into time to see where this hip-hop shit came from," and the MC himself appeared in a series of period costumes--fancy-threaded Seventies pimp, athletic-garbed b-boy, and so forth.

Even the spotlight placed on De La Soul seemed, at first glance, like another tribute to Back in the Day. The Long Island trio made the mistake of releasing a masterpiece on their first outing and, in its wake, spawned the cross-racial collegiate underground that shows like Spitkicker take for granted. Riding a herky-jerk beat that let its seams show, 1989's 3 Feet High and Rising sounded like a homey contrast to the masterful cacophony of Public Enemy or even the postmodern ease of the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. But as a serious hip-hop underground coalesced in De La's wake, tastemakers began to regiment the music's accepted styles--jazzy, minimalist, somber. The crew's Posdnous, Trugoy, and Maseo churned out an output that was too weird and sporadic to wind up as the soundtrack to Hip Hop: The College Years.

In hindsight, of course, each of their three followup albums revealed itself to be a classic. But that's just the point: You can't have hindsight until after the fact, and for a decade, De La Soul have been wedged between their need to tweak expectations and their fans' bent toward nostalgia. Which made their Spitkickers slot the ideal setting to counter the sentimental pull toward the past commonly accepted as history. After all, De La Soul had always kept a skeptical eye on hip-hop mythology. As Posdnous recently told The Onion, "With the golden age, there was as much negativity as positivity."

 

You want to take it back to the golden age? Let's take it back then. Way back. Back to the late Eighties, that moment of promise that the hip-hop nation idolizes the way Rolling Stone does the late Sixties. The Vibe History of Hip Hop pinpoints "The Pinnacle" as 1988, the year both PE's It Takes a Nation of Millions... and Yo! MTV Raps dropped. On 1997's Stakes Is High, De La glanced back at 1987, asking a number of old-school fans, "Where were you when you first heard Criminal Minded?" and creating a moving montage of voices recalling their first encounter with Boogie Down Productions.

Just as well that no one had asked 30-and-ups in the Mainroom that night where we were when we first heard 1989's 3 Feet High and Rising--how many variations of "In my dorm room" do you need to hear? For better or worse, that album was the siren call that led many of us suburban kids who had left hip hop behind for college and R.E.M. back to the beat. (It indoctrinated countless newcomers as well.) Hip hop had moved from the streets to the studio, a renaissance unknown to a gaggle of us who once thought Run-D.M.C. were on some serious shit. Unknown, that is, until De La taught us an unspoken secret of race relations: Black kids from the suburbs could be just as dorky as we were. "They" had grown up on the same Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, sampled the same Steely Dan records we were ashamed to bring to college with us, spoke in the same private language as any close-knit group of friends. For a solid two months, my friends and I rushed back from the dining hall every night and listened to the cassette in its entirety, deciphering its code.

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.

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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