De La Soul On '3 Feet High & Rising' 30th Anniversary, Working With DJ Premier, Ongoing Battle With Tommy Boy

Robert Adam Mayer 
De La Soul

It's a frigid Thursday night in New York City and the W Hotel serves as a refuge for one of hip-hop's most esteemed groups, De La Soul. After a contentious week -- which included a verbal tussle with their former label Tommy Boy over "unjust" contract terms regarding their back catalog -- De La's Maseo and Pos plop themselves on the fifth-floor studio couch to regain their strength.

What was supposed to be a celebratory week for the trio became a weary seven days consumed by drama. On Sunday (March 3), their 1989 debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, reached its 30th anniversary. Equipped with sharp wordplay, diverse samples and lush production by Prince Paul, 3 Feet High and Rising became an instant classic and in 2010, was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. Along with platinum sales, the album's funky single "Me, Myself and I" rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B Charts three decades ago.

"3 Feet High and Rising was the first baby, and it gave birth to so many other things," Maseo tells Billboard. "I’m very appreciative and thankful for that — the ups and downs. I’m truly thankful for the opportunity, especially when you think back at those times and how life was just going in general with your dream being this, and mind you for us it was platooning. It led up to 3 Feet High and Rising, and we were pretty content with that."

Not only did 3 Feet High and Rising place the group in a rarefied space musically, it also paved the way for more diverse and much deeper sampling: for better and for worse. Months after the album went gold, lawyers for 1960s classic rock group The Turtles filed a lawsuit against De La for using the first four bars of their 1968 song “You Showed Me” on the song "Transmitting Live From Mars." Though Da La managed to settle with the band, going forward, their discography was thrown into digital limbo due to worries about simliar legal action over samples.

After Warner Music acquired the catalog of Tommy Boy Records in 2002, fans were unable to buy or stream the group’s first six albums due to uncleared samples. To remedy the situation, on Valentine’s Day 2014, De La offered fans an opportunity to download their first seven albums for free.

"That’s how bad we wanted it out there,” says Maseo. “We even went to Warner to get the thing up. You guys do it first. By them feeling there were too many infractures around it, and rightfully so, I get their point. This was a mess."

Now, Tommy Boy founder and CEO, Tom Silverman, is back in possession of De La's catalog and according to the group, allegedly offered them a 90/10 split of the profits if he were to take their music to streaming services. Outraged by the rumored imbalanced percentages, De La issued a boycott on social media, which caught the eyes of Nas, Questlove, and Jay-Z, among many others.

"We’ve always been very respectful," Pos explains. "There have been times in the past where we straight up had an issue with how Tommy Boy was doing things. We’ve never, even at a young age, have tried to physically harm anyone up at the office. We’ve never had people try to run up there and do anything. That has been an issue sometimes in our career where we’re the nice guys."

So far, the boycott has worked in their favor. Not only did Jay-Z offer to not post their catalog on his streaming service TIDAL, but Tommy Boy opted to not post their music on Friday (March 1) after the backlash they received on social media.

On the cusp of their 30th anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising, Billboard spoke to De La Soul about their classic debut album, their favorite studio moments, their ongoing battle with Tommy Boy, Jay-Z's co-sign and more. Check out the interview below.

3 Feet High and Rising is 30 years old. Describe what that number means for you guys.

Maseo: 30 years and to still be here. 3 Feet High and Rising was the first baby and it gave birth to so many other things. I’m very appreciative and thankful for that. The ups and downs. I’m truly thankful for the opportunity, especially when you think back at those times and how life was just going in general with your dream being this, and mind you for us it was platooning. It led up to 3 Feet High and Rising and we were pretty content with that.

[Pos] was getting ready to head off to college, Dave was [heading to] architecture school, and I was getting ready to graduate and go to the military. But the opportunity kept coming back. Even with the idea of the second single, which was “Jenifa Taught Me” and “Potholes In My Lawn,” and doing the video behind that, we felt like we was in the game when it was on the radio with [DJ] Red Alert. That was good and that we could even have a relationship with Red, that was pretty much enough especially knowing what hip-hop was at that time. I was cool and content with how that transpired. The opportunity kept coming back all within that one and a half year span of when I was supposed to graduate and when I actually graduated. I wouldn’t change them times for nothing. It all led up to where we celebrate today and we can have this conversation.

Looking back, there’s a ton of classic records like “Jenifa” and “Me, Myself, and I.” What were some of your favorite studio sessions individually?

Pos: It’s hard to say, man. Any session while recording that album, it was truly a lot of fun. Like Mase was saying, we were really living our dream. The studio we were using to record that album was called Calliope Studios. It was a loft. It didn’t feel like a studio. Out the window you could see the Empire State Building. It felt like a home. It just was a real comfortable vibe and Prince Paul did a great job setting our mind up to just have fun. Outside of making sure we set up assignments of, “Today we’re going to work on this. Tomorrow, make sure you have some rhymes ready,” it was almost always spontaneity and having a good time. It was a great way to just walk up into the studio, so for me, it’s hard to pick a favorite day because they were all amazing.

Maseo: You never knew what was going to happen or who was going to show up. It would be moments where we’re working and Daddy O’s coming through or Keith Sweat is in the next room figuring out what he’s going to do. Milk and Giz. [MC] Lyte would come through.

Pos: She would come through on a day we’re doing a skit and she would wind up in the crowd yelling and doing something silly. The day Jungle came through, they just happen to come through on the day we were forming what would become “Buddy.” We didn’t plan for them to be one that record. That was just the day they came by and chilled. In the spirit of what Paul had placed in our minds, we were like, “Hey, you wanna get on this record?” If they had came the day before, they would have been on "Ghetto Thang.” It was just always a lot of fun.

Since you guys were 17-18 at the time, this all must have felt like a candy shop.

Maseo: A music candy shop. Definitely. Going from 4-track, to W cassettes, to playing with radio whites and putting samples up against speakers, to going to a 24-track studio, that was like, amazing. That was it.

Do you guys miss that? I know y’all have been in the studio with Pete Rock and DJ Premier, but do you miss that nostalgia?

Maseo: You could never recreate those innocent moments, but the reality of knowing you love to create, and you season that creating and now you get with others that have acquired as much success [feels beautiful.] I guess there’s somewhat of an innocence with marking a new territory with someone you admire. We couldn’t recreate those times because they were brand new.

Pos: We could always make new times.

Maseo: Absolutely, and that’s the beauty of always wanting to make music.

I heard you guys were in the studio with Premier the other night. How did that go? 

Maseo: I always heard about Preme’s creative process. I’ve been in the studio with him, but after that process. This time, I got to see him directly in that process. Preme’s process reminds me of an old jazz musician. He gotta be in the moment. He’s not the one to sit in his own scientifical world and then send you a batch. It has to be a relationship, it has to be a conversation, it has to be an overall development and collaboration. We’d be in the room together and feeling the energy of us as people. Preme banged out another classic, in my opinion. We’re waiting to hear what gets laid to it lyrically, but the music speaks for itself.

Pos: It’s dope because he’s literally one of those artists who are literally encoding the true moment into what now he’s doing. Me talking, Mase in there laughing, and he’s sitting there in the corner. He sees I’m nodding my head so he keeps going. It was really dope. It was magical.

Though this month is the 30th anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising, the word "bittersweet" has been floating around lately. Why bittersweet?

Pos: We’re blessed to still be here. We’re blessed to be able to be one of those groups where we’re celebrating the 30-year anniversary of an incredible piece of work and we’re a group that is actually still together. It’s not like we came back together and dusted off our hate for each other. We as a group have been together for more than 30 years and we have this piece of work that has been loved by the world.

Maseo: It shifted culture and it gave inspiration and gave a template for what a lot of other rappers were doing, especially the skits. I haven’t said this, they said this, the artists themselves. It’s in the library of Congress. It’s a part of American history. It’s one of the records that opened up a new business for lawyers in the world of sampling. It’s a historical piece. It has missed the relevant wave of the digital era. Moments and times where I look at people like Missy Elliott when she performed “Work It” maybe 15 years after it was out at a football game and it had a million plus downloads after she did that one performance. We have had more performances like that over the course of our career and we never had the opportunity to benefit from that media.

I actually want to jump into that. You guys made it known that in the download era, you weren’t able to thrive. Now that we’re in the streaming era with the new album coming, how do you guys look to prevent those previous missteps?

Maseo: Here’s the overall concern: due to the fact that it wasn’t able to come out then, how is it able to come out now and those infractures could still potentially come up? The samples and people coming out the woodworks. There’s someone who just came out recently. This is what continued to happen. We don’t know what Tommy Boy has cleared and not cleared and they’re looking to release this record recklessly on the administrative side, which would still be at a demise to us because based on how it’s been dealt with in the past, we paid 50 percent of whatever they choose to settle for.

I was listening to the Sway In the Morning interview and Mase, you said for the first three albums, y’all got “pennies” for royalties.

Maseo: Absolutely.

Pos: It was definitely a deal not in our favor. We’re young, we don’t know. The majority of this group, we didn’t have super hard lives growing up. Speaking for myself, coming from a middle class/working class household, if you have a label shoving $12,000 in front of myself at 17-18 year old kid...

Maseo: ... $13,000 advance.

Pos: There’s people who’d do one song for $13,000 and we did an entire album with 20 cuts. So you’re talking about, look, a bad deal that we accepted due to our lawyer saying this is the best it could be and we didn’t have a problem with it. But then I also say on our end, creatively where we were, we didn’t think to not put 12 songs on one record. We have a part to play in that, too.

Maseo: Being kids, though. Fuck all of that. We’re kids, man.

Would y’all blame youth and inexperience for taking such a bad deal at the time?

Maseo: We’re kids. People want to blame just like when you look at sports and they want to blame a player for losing their cool, but these are kids getting money. But let me take the line off that and put it back on this. We were kids, man. Someone was willing to invest in our dream. $13,000, or $2,000, at the end of the day, creatively, we’re allowed to do whatever the hell we want musically. What happens from what they do with it to when we’re making it, we don’t know this part.

Pos: We could turn around and be the ones who someone could say you’re sharing this little bit of seven drops of water Tommy Boy gave you to now have to come and split with the people you sampled. At least from the administrative aspect of this, we did share the information with Tommy Boy to clear this stuff. They chose not to clear it. At the time, there was no litmus test, there was no way to know if an album sounded like this, people don’t look like the average rappers that it was going to sell like this. There were people in front of us that were considered what hip-hop is and what was the standard that would sell records in the tri-state area.  

This record not only attached itself to black and brown youth, it attached itself to white, it attached itself to poor, higher class, middle class, people who didn’t even like hip-hop. It sold a lot of records and got a lot of people looking and listening. If you’re talking about in today’s world of streaming, well no. We’re older gentlemen and we’ve been through this enough times. With this Pete and Preme record for example, we went into it as a partnership with Mass Appeal and Nas, and we set things straight on how it’s supposed to be. Of course they can turn around as a company and be like, “watch sampling” and we can listen or not listen. But we are still partners in things as opposed to someone saying not saying nothing and giving you a fuckin’ nickel.

Maseo: Here’s the deal. Regardless of what he wants to give us, the type of business since Tommy Boy’s demise has been nothing but partnerships and better. Why would I do anything less? I know my value. And now, with the slap in the face of not even trying to come to the table, I think I deserve a lot more than that now. I was being more than fair then. What’s really fair now is ownership. That’s what’s really fair. The focus of this discussion is splits. Now we’re talking about ownership and splits.

Besides getting the wrong end of the deal, y’all had creative freedom. Looking back, would you guys have traded some of that creative freedom for a better percentage off those royalties?

Pos: I would say no because there was nowhere someone told us that that was the difference. Tommy Boy never stood in the way of our creative freedom.

Maseo: Made a few suggestions. Even down to when we delivered 3 Feet, they were loving this record. They said, “We don’t hear anything we could go to radio with.” And that was understandable from their standpoint. “We don’t really hear anything that the DJ could spin.” We all got their point, but the thing about that period of time, every artist struggled with not selling out. Understanding this, how could we make a radio record our way? It has to be genuine and honest.

A lot of the records that went on radio were organic and radio picked up on it coming out of the club and the street. It wasn’t the other way around, hence “Me, Myself and I,” which is still a torn feeling because Paul genuinely loved “Funkadelic” and I was always a stickler to use “Knee Deep.” Fellas wasn’t too keen about it. But in having that meeting with Tommy Boy, going to a Zulu Nation party at Hotel Amazon, Jazzy J throwing on “Knee Deep” in the club and everybody going crazy in there, and it’s one of my favorite records, I hit Dave and said, "That’s the one.”  I got a call out of nowhere from Paul and he said, “Bring those records to the studio.” We just started putting things together and I could see them in the back not too happy about this, but just letting it go how we normally let things go. Let the creative process happen.

Pos: I was a big fan of that record and even in my mind at that period of time, there were just certain things you shouldn’t touch. That’s such a masterpiece and you’re going to touch that? I just didn’t think taking “Knee Deep” was dope to me, but at the same time, me and Dave said we just wanna fuck off on the rhymes, we’re going to take Jungle Brothers’ cadence “Black Is Black” how they were rhyming, and fuck it off. God was having too much fun with us and said, “I’m going to make this your biggest record.”

In an interview with HipHopDX, Mase, you said that if it weren’t for Quest coming out and talking how he’s been talking, you guys probably would have remained mum regarding your current situation with Tommy Boy.

Pos: A lot of these people were hitting us directly because they were disappointed and concerned. You have one person who’s like, “Fuck that. I’m setting it off.”

Maseo: The trick is they want us to think we won’t ever make money in this. Let’s call it for what it is. The economic side of this is really unfair.

Pos: We’re saying this from a passion standpoint. It’s just being appalled from this bullshit. We’re not some 18-year-old weary guys who transformed into some broke ass middle class middle-aged dudes. We’ve been blessed to be out here making our money without the benefit of benefitting from our catalogue. We’ve been touring, merch, partnerships, sneakers, features, doing all types of stuff. Whether it’s the first to make an album with Nike. We’ve done so many things and keeping ourselves more than afloat.

Maseo: Grammy nomination without Tommy Boy. Let’s talk business here. My value next to his is much stronger. [Tom Silverman] folded. He’s just coming back. He has other businesses going on via sampling companies. That baffles me,too. Why do you wanna go into a business recklessly when you have another business that’s about sampling? Why repeat a behavior that we know has been damaging in the past? That’s the most underlying thing right now. There are still people who would potentially come out the woodworks, paying attention to what’s happening. There’s an asterisk next to our name when it comes to sampling.

We have been deemed copyright criminals. For argument’s sake, let’s say we accept the split. Why are we doing this with potential infractures? It’s not quite clear. His words exactly, “If somebody comes, we’ll deal with it exactly as we dealt with in the past.” And how was that? We settled with whatever we settled with out of court, whether it be a million dollars, $100,00, $50,000.

Pos: And that comes out of the ten percent given to us. I’m just personally trying to make sure you understand that I’m making this clear. I don’t necessarily know what Tommy Boy means in the scheme of things. I don’t give a fuck if they were Def Jam. What is wrong is wrong. If we were on Universal right now and they were talking the same shit, it would be the same energy and same argument. It’s just unfortunately they would have to understand, you just offered us a drip of water out of a money faucet. Hear me out. He literally offered us a drip, but what you have to understand sir is that it may baffle you “Why didn’t the n---er take the drip if water?” is because we’ve been surviving without the faucet on.

We literally, by the grace of our own wit, our own creativity, our own treating people fairly, where we can treat a gentleman like [Warner Music's senior vice president/head of urban marketing], Chris Atlas fairly when he was working at Tommy Boy to where years later he can make sure we get 2 Chainz on our album because he’s the head honcho at Def Jam. We’ve always treated people fairly, so those people always root for us. That’s why I’m not surprised people came out on our behalf. People are like, “Yo, this is De La. These are decent guys.”

Thirty years in the game and you have six albums under Tommy Boy, you’d think especially with what’s been going on the last few days that a sense of morality has to come in where Tom reaches out to have a conversation. Have there been any talks?

Pos: Like I said, man, personally I don’t want to make it seem like I’m attacking this dude. I don’t care about his morality. I’m concerned from a business standpoint trying to understand that in negotiating things, there’s a level of fairness and respect.

Maseo: Especially if you claim the relationship you claim to have with us. It’s clear to us we never had a relationship and he’s always going to do business that’s favorable to him. I did speak to him. I spoke to him a few hours before we did the first interview.

Pos: I didn’t want to talk to him. If he wanted to talk, I wanted him to step up and not be the person that [he] always seems to [be], because I felt he is the person who feels he can talk to us on a more personal standpoint without involving the legal.

Maseo: I was on the phone with legal when that happened, and when he realized that was going on, he got on the phone with his team, which was necessary. I wanted that. What I didn’t want was him being able to say he never spoke to us, because once it hits this and we hadn’t really spoken, based on the relationship he claims he has, he’s a good manipulator. He’s been doing this a long time. He gets you to believe he tried to reach out and try to come to some resolution or we never brought this to his attention. We’ve brought this to his attention. He’s been ignoring us for some time until it got to the final hour where he expected us to be on-board to make things smooth and dandy, and it’s just not.

We’ve been asking him to address these issues for a minute. It’s been up to the final hour when he really addressed this. When he finally addressed it, there were no changes on how he felt things needed to be. He used words like what’s “customary” and what’s “standard”? He can legally do what he wants. The issue that I raise is, in all of doing what you’re able to do, did you clear it? Did you clear the samples when you bought the catalogue back? Is it cleared? And what he said on the phone that if anything comes up, we will deal with it the way we’ve dealt with it in the past. And I know if that happens, we’re going to settle because we’re in the wrong. You notice I’m saying “we.” Why am I saying “we”? Because we suffer from that.  

What if by chance somebody just came in and tried to buy the catalog back?

Maseo: I hope that’s an option. I hope that’s possible. At this point, we don’t got nothing to lose. Like Pos said, we’ve been surviving without the faucet.

Pos: It’s just about us trying to stay on course. We’ve always been very respectful. There have been times in the past where we straight up had an issue with how Tommy Boy was doing things. We’ve never, even at a young age, have tried to physically harm anyone up at the office. We’ve never had people try to run up there and do anything. That has been an issue sometimes in our career where we’re the nice guys.

Loyalty is a motherfucker.

Pos: We’ve always tried to treat their company like it was our own.   

Maseo: All in all, man, we’ve done things with integrity. Even as children. We’ve apologized for our mistakes and we own our mistakes if there have been any tantrums along the way but there’s never been anything threatening. We deserve better than this, much better than this. There’s nothing to really say anymore. Let the story be told. We don’t mint this being the litmus test for things to come. Maybe this can change legislation. Who knows? This can’t happen to any other artist. It’s totally bigger than us. Let this be a lesson to any artist that’s out there if there’s any other artist that’s going through this, come out and speak out. We’re setting the tone. Let us know what’s up. Let’s figure out how to stop these culture vultures. I'm going to stop calling names, but it hurts that rich powerful dudes still get down like this greedy manner and think this is OK. 

With Jay-Z helping out on the Tidal front, he's someone that has the money to buy the catalog back for you guys, right? Wouldn't that be an option? 

Maseo: If someone’s willing to sell. The person has to be willing to sell at the same time. At this point, we see how it goes from here. All I could say is, our story is finally being told.

Pos: Our story is told, but it definitely ain’t over.

Maseo: If the fans want to help out from here on out, don’t press play until this thing is resolved. It’s gonna go up. Just don’t press play.