De La Soul Talk Finally Coming to Streaming and Digital Platforms: ‘It Felt Like We Were Being Erased From History’
The group's classic catalog is set to arrive on DSPs on March 3, following a 2021 deal with Reservoir Media.
De La Soul has made a career of being ahead of the pack. The legendary New York hip-hop trio’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, was beloved upon its 1989 release because of its hippy-esque, hyper-positive approach and unpredictable sampling, often being cited as the genesis of what’s referred to as “alternative hip-hop.” De La also co-founded the Native Tongues collective, alongside like-minded groups the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest, and kicked off what the group referred to as the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” (short for DA Inner Sound, Y’all) in rap – though they would move beyond that early sound and image in acclaimed subsequent releases like 1991’s De La Soul is Dead and 1996’s Stakes Is High.
So when music industry red tape and sample clearances prevented their all-time great catalog from becoming available on digital marketplaces and streaming services, their modern-day accessibility suffered in a way unfitting of De La’s massive legacy. Still, the trio continued to make their presence felt in other, less-conventional spaces.
In 2009, they connected with Nike to release Are You In?, an album that was part of the company’s Original Run series. Five years later, the group celebrated the 25th anniversary of 3 Feet High, by making nearly their entire catalog up to that point — six albums between 1988 and 2001 — available for free download, essentially bootlegging their own music. And in 2015, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their ninth album, the live band-backed …and the Anonymous Nobody. They’ve stayed busy on the road, while also making a huge crossover appearance on Gorillaz’ Grammy-winning 2005 smash “Feel Good Inc.,” and most recently scoring a major synch for their 3 Feet High single “The Magic Number” in the 2021 blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home.
But in 2021, the rights to De La Soul’s former label Tommy Boy were acquired by the music rights firm Reservoir Media — with whom the group secured a deal to retrieve their masters, finally giving them the ability to rerelease their music on their own terms. Now, their first six albums will all be available on streaming platforms (along with exclusive merch, vinyl, CDs and cassettes), via their label AOI, distributed by Chrysalis Records. The campaign starts on Jan. 13, with “The Magic Number” being made available for streaming and their website hosting a 7″ vinyl and cassette single for sale — and the group’s first six albums are scheduled to arrive in full on streaming on March 3.
Billboard spoke to two-thirds of the group, Posdnuos and Dave, about the path to getting control of their music, whether or not they think hip-hop is currently accommodating veteran artists, and their take on the 21 Savage and Nas debate over “relevance.”
What happened within the last year or two years that made it possible to finally reach the point where the albums are coming out?
Posdnuos: When the catalog got back in the hands of the original owner, Tom Silverman, he was in the process of clearing things and trying to get the music up. But he basically wanted for us to pay for old debts, that would have obviously been written off. That stalled it for the next three or something years after he got the music back. He wanted to put it back up, but we didn’t want to put it up until worked out a better deal.
I’m not trying to be correct and political; I wish that man no harm in his life. And I don’t mean physically, I mean in terms of his name. At one point, people could feel like that was being tarnished; there were a lot of fans who loved us and were disrespecting him in comments, and that wasn’t what we were trying to do at all. We just wanted to benefit from our work. It almost felt like we were being erased from history, because our music wasn’t up.
When Reservoir acquired it, they worked out what we needed to be worked out, which was great. But once it got into our hands, along with Reservoir assisting us, once again, there were a lot of samples and things that needed to be taken care of. It was long, but it wasn’t grueling. What’s great is that a lot of these owners, writers, and publishers were De La Soul fans, and they had publicly understood what was going on. They were happy to see that was in our hands now, and when we went to try to clear things, everyone pretty much came to the table to really work it out and get it done.
It was a long journey when we got to this point, but it was still a great journey to see that people were willing to help. People weren’t trying to make it that hard for us. And we got to really revisit a lot of the albums, which brought about a lot of great memories.
As outsiders, a lot of those conversations seem to focus on the ultimate goal of acquiring the masters. But for you guys, it sounds like acquiring the masters is where everything began, not where it started.
Dave: Yeah, it actually did begin at that point. You think that you own your stuff and that now it’s on cruise control, waiting for the checks to come in. But it is not that way at all. There’s a lot to do. Maybe you’re lucky and you don’t have to clear samples, maybe you don’t have to broker deals with different publishers, and there’s no one around to claim anything or to risk anything. But we had a job to do.
If we didn’t have the help of Reservoir, who picked up the project and is collaborating with us to do this release, I don’t know where we would turn to. It would have been even more work. So you do need collaborators, you do need help, you do need to rework back into the system and not necessarily be the lone commissioner of this project. You need allies, you need companies to work with, you need people to hire, and we learned a big lesson from that. It definitely wasn’t just, “We got our masters back!” It ain’t that.
With this music coming out again, you’ve got die-hard fans who’ve been around the whole time who are going to finally have it on streaming, as well as fans who have wanted to hear your music but didn’t have the opportunity because it wasn’t on DSPs, and people who have rarely known much about you at all. How do you plan to reach out to all these newer fans?
Posdnuos: We’re blessed to have people even feel that this is classic music, that it was very important to different references within the timeline of hip-hop. All I’m trying to say is that it’s still a part of what we were already doing. If we’re rolling with the Gorillaz, all those fans have been De La fans. If we never missed as one of the longest-touring groups in hip-hop from almost 15 years ago, we’re already seen as a generational group.
Our fans passed us down to their children. We always have people say, “I found out from you from my uncle, my brother, my moms.” So as much as our music needed to be up in this digital world, the people who were touched by our music made sure that it didn’t lose a beat in their life, and they made sure people around them learned about it.
In my DMs, a person was like, “Yo, after [“The Magic Number” appeared in Spider-Man: No Way Home], I couldn’t find it, then my grandfather pulled out his [record] and showed me.” I know my age, but I still feel like I’m cool as s–t, so this is weird that I could be a grandfather. [Laughs.] But it’s all coming together, and it’s great that the music that needs to be up [on streaming] will be there.
Usually, when we’re speaking about acts in hip-hop that have been out for a long time, we don’t even speak about them in terms of getting new fans; we just think about them in terms of catering to the fans that they’ve already had. Is finding new fans something that you guys find important?
Dave: I wouldn’t say important. But the opportunity for people to hear this thing regardless of what they know about it, and maybe inspire some kid that wants to be different or sound odd, and gain fans at the same time, it’s something that we appreciate and want to happen. It isn’t really about, “We got to do something for these people who’ve never heard our music,” it’s just that the exposure could open so much more. We want people to hear it, and maybe run off and do something amazing that’ll impress us, and it keeps going back and forth.
We’ve always talked about the lopsided aspect of hip-hop. I think hip-hop has a sound right now that needs balancing. It’s important to us that we create balance and pull people in and make this thing bigger and better. And if our music can be a part of that, then yeah, we’re trying to do that.
Over the past five to six years, there are more rappers in their mid-to-late 40s who are still making great music — whether it’s Hov, Nas, Busta. But I feel like your music had already matured considerably by the first Art Official Intelligence album in 2000. Rap has long been criticized for not respecting its veterans enough. Where do you think hip-hop is now in terms of respecting the artists who have actually paid their dues?
Posdnuos: I still think it has a ways to go. We learn from our own elders — when you really think about it, my elder was like a Melle Mel, he was maybe 17 when he started what he was doing. Now, in this friendly competition – when it was friendly, it was still about, “I’m better than you.” There’s a level of respect that sometimes is not really there fully. Because we just really gotta learn to respect ourselves, to respect each other, and didn’t respect the entire craft. But as a group, we’re blessed to be here.
I feel the majority of our music fits into something that feels timeless. There always will be a reason to say “One Love,” and you can hear all these great Bob Marley records. There’s always a reason to say “Fight the Power.” So these things that, unfortunately, still exist in the world, the music will be relevant to it. And I think that it’s the same with us. There’s always a level of understanding yourself, individualism, “Me, Myself, and I”; there’s a reason for those albums and those in those worlds to exist.
What I’ve actually loved and appreciated about some of the younger guys, they’re really honest and saying, “Even I don’t see myself talking about popping bottles, bugging out, and drinking lean when I’m 31.” They’re thinking of it like, “This s–t is just a way to get me to where I need to be. So when it’s over, all these business moves I made, I’m good.” But it is good when you can see those same people respect what has gotten them there.
I don’t think that hip-hop is the only victim. We use the internet all day long, and no one would necessarily care who created the internet. I think hip-hop is the same way. I tell younger kids, “When it comes to some street s–t, though, you respect who Al Capone is. That’s the same reason you should respect who Kool Herc is. These people helped create this tool that you use to better your life.”
Along with all of the incredible music you guys did for the first six albums, you guys have been responsible for a couple of my favorite moments in the past 10 years. One of them is when you guys basically bootlegged your own catalog. What was that experience like, and what did you learn from it that you can apply to this experience of putting it back out on streaming?
Posdnuos: I’m not sure what the other guys would say, but I didn’t really learn anything. It’s what I already knew. And I feel like I could say that about the rest of the group. We knew how much people wanted and needed this music. Without the music even being up, we were still blessed to be a group that was always afforded or awarded the opportunity to travel all over the world. Everywhere we go, there was people who are so grateful for us to be there, letting us know, “but d–n, where’s your music?”
And we were trying our best to explain to Warner, who was in control of our music at that point, “Yo, it’s really in your best interest, along with us, to figure this out.” Because people wanted it. They were mad. But what was great about it was it helped them to see the data, that “yo, we really should be working to get this s–t out.” So it wasn’t a learning experience (for us). It was helping other people who needed to know to learn that we were still valuable to this culture.
You guys also had the Kickstarter campaign for the album …and the Anonymous Nobody. What was that process like doing for the first time, and being able to connect with your fans directly versus working with a label?
Posdnuos: There were way more pros than cons. The cons, for me, were the phone calls that we spent working and figuring all that out man, they were long. And like you said, we’re men who have families and other responsibilities, along with just the responsibilities of being De La Soul. I almost felt — and I know Dave has said this as well — like, “Yo, are we begging for money?”
When we started this process of working on the album, we were working on a conventional De La album in the sense of producers getting us beats and we write rhymes over them. That was happening, and that album was going to be called You’re Welcome. But we just started working on this band project, and it just took on such a refreshing level to our creative psyche. Even friends of ours in the industry who happened to work at labels, they were like, “Yo, we’ll give you money for this.” So it wasn’t even like there wasn’t interest in putting out this album with labels. But it was a level of understanding that maybe we should put it out ourselves. So that took a lot of time to understand what Kickstarter was and how it’s being applied. It was a learning process, and it was fun learning it.
I feel weird asking this, just because you’re about to re-release six albums at once. But where are you guys with new music? You’ve spoken about the album with Primo and Pete Rock; I saw Prince Paul speak about work on a new De La album…
Posdnuos: We definitely have a lot of work to do. We definitely want to get something done with Paul. What Paul was just referring to was the work he was putting in and helping us with the older catalog. So it’s not like we were working on new projects, but we’ve all discussed that as well. With Premo and Pete Rock, it’s the same thing. We were so drawn into what to do with this [release of the older material]. And then if there’s times where if we don’t have a lot on our table, we were like, “Let’s get up.”
But maybe Preem had too much to do, or then Pete was running the world doing what he had to do. We were just so at a point – and I know De La is [at that point] – of just wanting it to sound the way it needs to sound. So we was willing to keep trying to put in the work to get the right music. We have a few, and we just need a few more. [sighs] I really want that to come out, God willing. Me and Preem actually spoke about two weeks ago when I was in New York. “Come through, let’s try to cook some stuff up.” So hopefully we can get that done soon. A Gangsta Grillz with Drama would hit too, I would love to do that. So there’s a lot of things that I would love to see done. With new music, for me, it’s always about new along with what’s classic, what’s timeless.
Funny enough, Yasiin was around us not too long ago, he was always saying that, “As a musician, I just always want to put music out. I want to put something to something.” I was like, “Yeah,” and I totally agree. That’s why you always see me pretty much [recording] out of the group. I’m always featuring on something else, keeping the pen sharp and my mind moving with doing music.
There was a big conversation recently about 21 Savage and Nas, and the idea of “relevance.” They already worked out any misunderstandings there may have been, and made a song together. But I think that De La is interesting, in the sense that the music has lived on, and you’ve also done things that have kept you relevant – whether it’s releasing all your music that I mentioned before, the Kickstarter campaign, or your song appearing in the Spider-Man movie. Should relevance be a conversation for older artists, or is it just something you’ve done well?
Posdnuos: Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, relevance will always be a conversation. But what is your checklist on why or what makes you relevant? My son is 17, and he has learned why Martin Luther King Jr. is relevant. But he can see a kid next to him from another culture, another race, who doesn’t find no relevance. They may know who he is, but they can just be like, “aight.” But does that stop Martin Luther King from being relevant? My son is perceived as African-American, but I understand why he immediately can click into it and some people won’t.
Same with music. I may see the name De La here and there, but that may not hold relevance to me, because I’m from the Bay, and they don’t mean something to me the way the OG E-40 means something to me. I could care less about sea moss when I was younger, I would never touch that s–t; now, I can’t go a day without my sea moss. [Laughs.]
Something can come into your life and you’ll be like, “D–n, I was really trying to like stay away from it. This is great.” I’ve had the biggest De La fans be like, “Yo, man, I can’t front, that [1993 album] Buhloone Mindstate, I wasn’t f–king with that when it came out.” And guess what? They can turn around now and be like, “now that I’m in my late 30s, this Buhloone Mindstate hits different now!” Things are meant to find people. I think that everything can stay in a place where it will hold its relevance to who it needs to hold it to. Some people will join in, some people will never join in, but you can’t let that s–t bother you, man.
The 21 thing was taken out of context, but a lot of young people try to shoot that gun at the OG, because the people who love the OG are so quick to down the young people on what they’re doing. But people around them are making them feel that since they’re young, what they’re doing doesn’t mean anything to the culture. And I feel that is 100% wrong. I didn’t sound like Kool G. Rap, I didn’t sound like Run-DMC. But you’re not going to tell me I didn’t know everything about Kool G. Rap and everyone else who was down with him, and I didn’t need someone trying to tell me to take my “Flower Power” s–t and get the f–k out the way. So you got to just kind of let these kids be who they are.
I do feel that a lot of the content can be poisonous; it can be unhealthy if that’s all you’re listening to. So if we have a problem with that, I as the OG shouldn’t have a problem talking with these younger kids and hanging with them. But to make them feel bad when they’re just using what they’re given? I’ve always grown up to be the type of person who is like, “Maybe I should have been did a better part, maybe Native Tongues should have been a better part.” I think that’s a better way to approach it, than to act like these kids landed from a whole ‘nother planet to f–k up hip-hop.
Looking back at your catalog and seeing that it’s about to come out again now, is there anything that you’ve done that you think would be seen differently if it dropped now versus when you dropped it before?
Dave: I think 3 Feet High and Rising, as much as people might claim it to be a hip-hop masterpiece – it’s a hip-hop masterpiece for the era in which it was released. I think the element of that time of what was taking place in music, hip-hop, and our culture, I think it welcomed that and opened up minds and spirits to see and try new different things. I think releasing 3 Feet High and Rising right now, even to maybe the age group that was listening back then, I think hip-hop as a whole just wouldn’t get it. I think hip-hop would possibly look at it as obnoxious, soft, that kind of thing.
But I think it’s also because where we’re at in hip-hop right now, hip-hop is about what you got on, who you’re impressing, what can you do, how much you got, how much you’re spending, and how much is in that bag that you got around you? I don’t think the impact of what 3 Feet High and Rising and what it meant back then would mean anything now. I feel like there are people who will get it, but I don’t know if there’s that acclaim to it in this day and age if it was something we’d never heard before.
I think the innocence that we had back then was brave, but we were in a time where innocence was so cool. Not sampling James Brown, but sampling Liberace; I think it was shocking [when] we came out [that] we sampled Liberace. I don’t know if it’d impact the same way [now].
I was thinking yesterday about something I think I’ve taken for granted with De La: How have you three stayed together all this time?
Dave: Man. It ain’t easy, but it’s the reality, it seems like. Even during the pandemic, I think there were talks of doing solo albums, or feeling like one person might want to record something at home and start working. There’s always been talk about stuff like that, Mace and Pos pushing me, like, “Yo, do a record.” We support each other in those ideas –, but at the same time, I think the magic really happens when it’s the three of us. I’m not trying to crack that formula, and I don’t think anyone else is, either.
When you get mad, and somebody blew your high, and maybe even somebody might feel disrespected – when those things happen, they’re real. We might not speak to each other for three weeks or months. But at the end of the day, when you’re craving that magic, that high that we get, you revert back to brothers and family. It’s like, “Yo, I think we need to talk about what happened.” For the sake of getting that feeling back, that’s really it. I think everybody could move on and do their own thing, and maybe not do their thing at all and just chill. But the magic happens with us three on the phone, in the same conversation, in the room together, in the studio, and hanging out on the tour bus. That’s where the magic happens, so that’s why we’re still here. We don’t want to interrupt that magic.
If a new group was asking you guys for advice on how to stay together, what would you say?
Dave: Fight, but remember that you’re fighting for the team. Even if you don’t agree, you’re fighting to get your point across for the team, not for you personally. Sometimes, we hold our tongue and we’re not as honest as we could be. One person is talking to someone else in the group, and they become allies. Taking one person’s problem and going to talk to his or her group of friends over here, and that becomes some sort of animosity.
Nah, man. I say this because many of my friends are people I know in the industry, and that’s how the breakups happen. Sometimes it’s about money, but then there’s an element of: We don’t get along because we haven’t been honest with each other. Get through that honesty, move on, and keep going – because it feels good going. Fight it out, get it all out, and come back knowing that you’re fighting for the team.