De La Soul’s Return: The Alternative Hip-Hop Legends Are Still Keeping It Weird

The Long Island trio discuss funding their first album since 2004 on Kickstarter, their rap legacy, and the importance of staying together as a tight-knit unit.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

What the hell is “alternative hip-hop?”

That’s a question to which there is no real answer—unless you define it as just an empty category description to make music critique easier for eggheads. But most “alternative” music emerged within a certain genre as that genre became dominated by commercial interests and rose to mainstream visibility. In rock, alternative music was borne out of ’80s college bands like R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü putting out albums and DIY touring while glossier bands like Bon Jovi and Van Halen stormed the charts. In hip-hop, the alternative side of the genre is more obscured. But if there is any such thing as “alternative hip-hop,” De La Soul personifies it in approach and aesthetic.

De La hasn’t released an official album since 2004’s The Grind Date, but the acclaimed trio from Long Island, New York, recently announced that they were returning to the studio for the first time in a decade and were looking to Kickstarter to fund the project. For Pos, Maseo, and Dave, it’s more than just an opportunity to get back in the saddle after a long hiatus; it’s a chance to take De La Soul to places they’ve never been.

“We found ourselves at a juncture where it was like, ‘How do we fund this record?’ and ‘How do we continue to move forward in promoting it, producing it and releasing it?’” Dave explains. “Options were on the table, we had offers from labels and investors and that wasn’t what we were particularly interested in.”

“Being involved in contracts and the responsibilities of those contracts was just something that we didn’t want to do,” he continues. “I feel like this project [has] a lot of character and life to it. The way we approached it—not wanting to use samples—and really trying to do something different artistically. It really needed the support of the people who understand and see our vision artistically. Those people are the fans. Kickstarter is one of those places where fans can get behind your idea and your point of view. We wanted to partner with our fans and get this creative project going.”

Why is it even necessary to declare something “alternative hip-hop?” All genre labels are mostly bullshit—but they can be necessary. “Alternative” came to be associated with artists who went against whatever was dominating the mainstream at any given time. In the case of hip-hop, acts like De La Soul emerged at a time when hip-hop’s popularity was exploding and the genre’s aesthetics were pretty tightly set. Adidas suits, baseball caps, gold chains, and four-finger rings were considered the norm and so many rhymers were either boasting about their mic skills, indulging their libido, or raging against the machine. De La Soul rapped about deodorant and talking fish, and in doing so, they made it okay for rappers to come from a more idiosyncratic place.

“Pos has said a couple of times if somebody makes a song about falling in love—why can’t we go further than that?” Dave says. “Falling in love is a great idea, but let’s go outside the box. Even when it’s good, it can probably be taken someplace else. Because people put us in that category and consider us ‘outside the box,’ we’ve always thought that way. We’ve always thought that there is more to say and dig and find and expand on.”

De La has built a devoted fanbase over the last 25 years on the strength of their consistently innovative and left-of-center approach on albums like De La Soul Is Dead and Stakes Is High. From their very first video (the classic “Me, Myself & I”) they made it clear that they weren’t interested in playing by any standard hip-hop rules. The Ultramagnetic MCs and the Jungle Brothers may have gotten there first, but they never had the visibility that Pos, Dave, and Maseo enjoyed early on—nor did they have the longevity De La managed to sustain. De La Soul is largely the reason why “alternative hip-hop” exists in any way, shape, or form. However one may feel about that term, it’s obvious that De La carved that lane and remained torchbearers for hip-hop’s quirky side.

In the wake of De La’s groundbreaking debut, 3 Feet High & Rising, a host of these outside the box hip-hop artists emerged to great critical acclaim and commercial success—like their fellow Native Tonguers A Tribe Called Quest, Southern rap innovators Outkast, Del the Funkee Homosapien, Digable Planets, and Arrested Development. The Beastie Boys were also a part of that vanguard. By the late ’80s, hip-hop was splintering into a variety of subsets—and while political rap superstars Public Enemy are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and gangsta godfathers N.W.A. have a biopic coming out this summer; De La’s impact is somewhat less heralded.

But they readily acknowledge that they take pride in being considered part of such a far-reaching and eclectic subgenre of artists.

“At times it’s uncomfortable when people place that banner in your hand and say, ‘You stand for this,’” Dave admits. “But I think we’re proud for waving that one. Outside of the box is not to say ‘weird’ or some people might even think we think we’re too good to be ‘inside the box.’ But for us, outside the box is a cool flag to wave. You’re thinking further and expounding on everything. When you’ve got a cool record and an idea someone came up with, to take it further and to its fullest potential is great. That’s something that I personally am proud of. Not something that we feel like we have to do; it’s just something that we do.”

“We’ve always had things that we chose to do as long as it’s creatively comfortable, regardless of the climate of the music industry,” Pos says, acknowledging that this latest endeavor has little to do with the state of the music biz and everything to do with the state of De La Soul creatively. “Everything is kind of controlled—whether it’s Clear Channel or what have you—along with the music companies controlling how music is put out. That didn’t really have anything to do with how we felt in terms of producing this album. We just wanted to be creative. And we felt that crowdfunding would be the best way to do it comfortably.”

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So many beloved ’90s-era hip-hop acts have been reuniting for tours or albums of late, but whereas Outkast’s 20th-anniversary shows were somewhat forced (according to mercurial member Andre 3000) and Wu-Tang Clan can’t seem to agree on anything regarding the group these days, De La Soul seems to be more in tune with each other and where they want the group to go at this point in its career. “We’ve been friends before De La Soul,” Pos states. “And being in De La Soul, you learn to respect each other’s space and understand each other’s faults as well as strengths. We’ve been blessed to be three individuals who don’t let ego run who we are as individuals. We can do things without each other but it’s with the respect and the support of the other members. We will support each other. I think that has a lot to do with it. Sometimes individuals have their own agenda and saw being a group as an approach to get them closer to their own agenda, as far as solo records or whatever.”

“I think a part of it is…those groups, at one point, there was a disconnect,” adds Dave. “Not to say a begrudging disconnect, but—the Wu has always had the opportunity to break apart and each member become a solo artist. And maybe that kind of gets in the way. Outkast obviously split and became solo artists; so did Tribe and so many others. We’ve never split and tried to be solo artists and then tried to come back together and do a feature as a unit again. It’s always been the unit. Through thick and thin, through good and bad—we’ve always been a unit. We could probably go out and do solo albums. I’m sure we can. But we don’t feel that. We’ve recorded solo records, but we don’t feel like that’s as important as the unit. So it kind of gives us a beautiful place to work with.”

A lot of hip-hop fans resent the overuse of subgenres. Hip-hop is hip-hop. But maybe believing that all hip-hop has to sit at the same table has stifled hip-hop. Perhaps if there had been, say, alternative hip-hop radio stations in the same way that there have been alternative rock stations, we’d have a broader idea of the genre’s scope and variety. It can all be hip-hop without having to all be in the same space. Regardless, De La Soul still making music their way is a great thing for fans of great music. And for any kids who like to write rhymes but don’t quite fit in with the “norm,” these guys are a great example of how to be as odd as you wanna be and still become a rap game legend. De La Soul is not dead.

And we should all be thankful for that.