Concept albums can be a tricky proposition. Some are made by musicians exploring the full
depths of their creative expression. These records can push boundaries and even forge new
genres. Some however, can be so loosely thought out and lazily pieced together that they can
destroy the artist’s credibility entirely.
Enter De La Soul... or should I say First Serve? The ground-breaking hip-hop group
have teamed up with French production duo Chokolate and Khalid for a record which
follows a fictional band (First Serve) making it in the music industry and all of the trials
and tribulations that go with it. In typical De La Soul fashion it’s a remarkably fun affair,
grooving past the many pitfalls which can make concept albums such a laborious concern.
|Just look how much fun they're having.|
were approached by the two producers, Chokolate and Khalid, from Paris maybe two and a
half years ago. They approached us and we heard music and thought it was kind of cool. It
would be something different in the interim of putting together the next De La project. We
thought why not let’s try it out? And that’s how it went down”.
The album sees Dave and fellow De La member Kelvin Melcer assume the roles of Deen
Witter and Jacob ‘Poplife’ Barrow respectively. Witter comes from a single-parent home,
while Poplife from a privileged background. The pair meet at school and connect over a
shared love of hip-hop.
Over the course of the record it becomes evident that these characters are extremely well
developed. The duo have even turned up to interviews in character. But when they were first
approached Dave admits they were staring down a blank canvas.
“We went into this album not knowing what we were going to do. We knew we were going
to tell a story of some sort. So it began and developed itself with the music. The music led us
to where the story went, the mood of the music, the vibe of the songs and then wrapping it
up around the concept of two guys starting to be this group. Then obviously there are tough
times, success, betrayal and so on and so forth. It definitely was conceptually a project that
we grew into and figured out along the way”.
The album itself contains some of the freshest sounding material to come from the De La
Soul posse in years. Songs like Must B the Music feature danceable groves and some of
their most natural flows since their 1989 classic 3 Feet High And Rising. Dave attributes this
reawakening to the fresh minds of their collaborators, Chokolate and Khalid.
“That’s what’s always cool about having an outside party or a newcomer or somebody that
you’ve never worked with before come into the picture. It definitely gives us the opportunity
to challenge ourselves in someone else’s world, in someone else’s space and then vice-
versa pull them into ours. It’s how we felt with the Gorillaz project. When we’re pulled into
something new and something different and not as safe as is in the De La environment it’s
always fun. It’s testing yourself and we’re all for that”.
With De La Soul celebrating their 25 year anniversary this year it is tempting to consider
that First Serve is an effort by the elder statesmen of hip-hop to reinvigorate their sound. But
Dave is of a different view, that experimentation can only make them a better band when the
next De La Soul record lands.
“This project is as we always do. Place a challenge in front of us and try in some way shape
or form to complete it, get it done and look back and say ‘OK love what we did. What can we
learn from it? Where can we build from it?’ And so on”.
“For us the 25 years really didn’t... we take our years as they come. When you celebrate
things like anniversaries or what have you, we kind of take those with a grain of salt. It’s
the people around us who are proud of what we do. For us 25 years is an accomplishment,
but at the same time there’s more work to be done and we’re just ready to keep it going. We
love doing this music, this hip hop thing and although it might take us 4 or 5 years to put out
a new release or put new music out, it’s enjoying the moment in between those releases, so
we’re having a good time doing it”.
De La Soul’s place in the hip hop echelons is an unusual one. Always set apart from
perceived legends of rap such as N.W.A., who staked their claim on the basis of being
gangsta, De La Soul have built their reputation on forward thinking experimentalism. As
such Dave was a little nonplussed when they were accused of mocking modern hip-hop stars
with the First Serve album.
“The landscape is cool and it’s growing. We came from a different era so were not going to
be able to adhere to the fashion or whatever. But when De La Soul do a project we’re making
a statement, we’re challenging hip hop. It had nothing to do with Kanye or Rick Ross or Puff
Daddy. We’re making an album about two people who don’t exist. When De La Soul do an
album they expect us to convey something, to make a statement”.