De La Soul duo return as First Serve
Two-thirds of rap legends De La Soul have returned after a long absence on a new concept album which sees them performing in the alter egos of a young band aiming for the big time.
In 1989, De La Soul's Posdnous, Dave and Maseo rewrote the rules of rap music with their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising. Now, Pos and Dave have returned with French producers Chokolate and Khalid in the form of First Serve, a fictional band making a break for the big time.
It was the Frenchmen, Paris-based Chokolate and Khalid, who approached the American rappers with the concept.
Having worked with UK dance artists Gorillaz on their 2006 single Feel Good Inc and more recently on their Plastic Beach album, Pos - whose real name is Kelvin Mercer - says he and Dave were keen on the idea of another music collaboration.
"Me and Dave thought what they were suggesting sounded cool," explains Pos. "That's what we and even Maseo have always been interested in - in terms of De La Soul, is the project itself.
"If it draws us in and if we have the time, we will do it."
The album's story follows wannabe rappers Jacob and Deen, from their daydreams in the basement of Deen's mum's house, through their meteoric rise and fall, to their jubilant reunion.
The name First Serve comes from the band's ethos "First come, first serve. Get what you deserve."
"Everyone loved it," said Pos.
Pos insists that rather than struggling to fit lyrics into the narrative arc, the tracks "unfolded naturally".
"At first they wanted maybe a black exploitation thing but then we settled on the story and from there it was just so simple."Disco samples
The album itself is unapologetically retro and upbeat with Pos and Dave's rhymes laid over old school samples and disco and funk beats.
It sounds, in comparison with the current crop of dark, truncated urban beat and electronic-sampled hip hop, a little old-fashioned.
Not necessarily a bad thing, as hip-hop fans will hear shades of classic 90s rap like the Jungle Brothers, Jurassic 5 and The Pharcyde.
But a concept album? Is there a worry that some fans will dismiss the album as a novelty?
"Not really," says Pos. "I think that when people heard about the project, if they know De La Soul, I hope they would think Del La are known for putting as much quality into what they do, regardless of whether its something serious like (1996 album) Stakes Is High or fun like 3 Feet High and Rising."
The rap concept album is, in of itself nothing new, the past couple of years has seen releases like Lupe Fiasco's The Cool and The Roots' Undun following rough narrative arcs.
"Even before that there was Prince Paul's Prince Among Thieves," agrees Pos.
Posdnous's memories of 3 Feet High And Rising
"I was critical of it back then, I never looked at it the way we were blessed to have fans look at it.
There were a lot of doubts when we were coming to the end of the recording process. Slick Rick's album dropped maybe a couple of months before us and KRS One's Boogie Down Productions had dropped his second album and there was all this amazing music and no litmus test to know if what we were doing was going to be accepted.
Before it even came out, even after it came out, I was like: 'Wow, I could have said this rhyme better, I could have flowed better.'
I just look at it with a different eye from a fan but the fun we had and the genuine moments were unmatchable.
It was a great time and period of learning, because we didn't know what we were doing."
"There's nothing new to it but I think it's still fresh, from a lyrical standpoint I think the content we gave each song, it still comes off a little refreshing."
Now more two decades separate the fictional characters of First Serve with De La Soul's debut in the music industry.
During that time, the world has seen the rise of the internet and social networking and a year-on-year fall in music sales, matched by the rise of digital music piracy.
"Would I want to be an artist today starting out, knowing what I know now?" says Pos. "Not necessarily because it's a lot harder.
"There's so much more technology that allows so many more people to be involved and the dream of getting signed by a label is no different than when we were coming up, but it's a little more bloody to be honest."
He adds: "With technology, a lot of music has to be free and labels want a share of merchandise, so it means a lot of artists sign up to 360 music deals.
"When we were coming up, they took a piece of the music but whatever we generated outside of that, that's what we got."
It has been nearly 25 years since the release of De La Soul's debut album. Dropping in the middle of the rise of the gangsta-rap of Ice T and NWA, 3 Feet High and Rising was a landmark, an oddity even, with its self-effacing humour and positivity - which even saw them unfairly labelled "hippies".
"A 360 deal"
A record label provides funding for an artist in return for a percentage of all income including sales, live performances and merchandise.
Their second album De La Soul Is Dead featured a smashed flowerpot on its cover.
With an eighth studio album ready for later in the year - their first for eight years - their legacy can be heard through bands and artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Arrested Development, Outkast and Common.
"It's great to hear," says Pos. "People will say, 'Your words and your music made me feel like I can do this and can do it this way. This is who I am, I'm not a person who stands in the street, I'm not always a person who's got to be bad, I want to tell jokes, I want to make music of all types.
'De La has done it, maybe I can do it.'"
De La Soul's Plug 1 & Plug 2 present... First Serve is released on 2 April.