De La Soul ushered in a jazz-influenced, intellectual take on rap 25 years ago. Now they're back with an innovative concept album.
First Serve: De La Soul do an about-face for rap concept album
Throughout their 25-year career, the rap luminaries De La Soul have become used to curve balls - both throwing them and being on the receiving end.
After ushering in a jazz-influenced, intellectual take on rap with their singles The Magic Number and Me, Myself and I from their 1989 debut album, Three Feet High and Rising, they quickly shied away from the spotlight to carve their own path.
The band's music has always been recognised for its quality and members Maseo, Dave and Posdnuos are some of the most consistently reliable figures in rap. Their recent output may have been somewhat slow - one album in the past decade - but their 2000 single All Good? with Chaka Khan and 2005's Feel Good Inc collaboration with Gorillaz both became worldwide hits.
The group are now returning with a typically left-field approach: a rap concept album, First Serve, where Dave and Posdnuos cast themselves as young rap alter egos, trying to make it in the music business.
Not only that, but the duo teamed up with a pair of French house producers, 2 & 4 (also known as Chokolate and Khalid) and recorded the album in Paris.
"We have a friend and he came to us one day and said there were these French DJ guys, and they wanna present an album to us," Dave recalls. "That's what I love about De La. We're the only group that could go to Paris, sit down with two French producers - two people we didn't even know, who don't speak the same language - and work on some music and come off with an album that's never been done before."
The rappers appear under the guise of cartoon alter egos named Deen Whitter and Jacob Barrow, who strive to get a shot at the big time.
Dave explains: "They wanted to do something that was movie-ish, or had a blaxploitation kind of vibe, 1970s, 1980s kinda, soul kind of feel. We just sat talking and worked it out; the story just started coming out right there and then and we wrote these stories to the music."
Dave's and Posdnuos's characters are the opposite of their own personalities, but they eventually relaxed into their fictional personas.
"Now we are playing the characters - something we initially didn't think we would do. They started to appear in our own lives a little bit more," Posdnuos says.
In the record's storyline, the characters meet some shady record company types, something De La Soul have long removed themselves from, since their 2002 split from then Warner Bros-affiliate Tommy Boy Records after six albums.
De La Soul remains untied to any label (First Serve comes out on a small French label) and Dave says they will "never ever" deal with another major record label.
He says: "Goodness gracious. You think slavery on a label back in 1989 was terrible? Now, labels want everything. They want ev-e-ry-thing, and so many people out there prove them wrong all day. People who know their own music and direction can do it themselves, why would any artist directly sign to any major label?"
That De La Soul have stayed true to their direction cannot be doubted; but as for the music industry as a whole, they're pretty unsure about its future.
"There's nothing, honestly, that sounds like the next wave," says Posdnuos. "It's like fast food. You get satisfied, but you get hungry again real quick, rather than if I sit you down and cook you a nice meal and you enjoy it."
Dave adds: "I listen to lots of old music - old soul, old jazz. I guess there's something about our ears, they're vintage. We can respect what people are doing nowadays, but these ears are vintage."
• De La Soul Presents: First Serve is out on April 4
Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE