There are some international acts – from Gomez to Lyrics Born and back – that you just can’t keep out of Australia for too long. The love is too great, the incentive to return too strong to ignore. De La Soul are definitely one of the finer examples, having performed to countless sold-out crowds and packed-out festivals here for over two decades. Simply put, it’s like this: even if you have never seen De La Soul live, there is a very good chance that somebody you know has.
It’s a relationship that is very much understood and appreciated by De La Soul themselves, who are returning yet again for some end-of-year club shows in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. For Kelvin ‘Posdnuos’ Mercer, one of the group’s two MCs, it’s a matter of mutual appreciation.
“We’ve been coming out to Australia since the late ’80s, all the way back when we had our first record out,” he says. “Australia responded to us immediately. We’ve always loved coming back, too, because the three of us really love to travel. Even though it’s so far away, and we could have easily travelled four or five hours instead to play somewhere on the [US] mainland, or even six hours over to somewhere in Europe, Australia has always made the choice to do those longer flights worth it. They make you feel like you’re at home even though you’re about as far away as you can possibly be.”
The last time Mercer, Dave Jolicoeur (AKA Trugoy the Dove) and Vincent ‘Maseo’ Mason embarked on one of these long hauls our way, they came twice within the space of a year. Not only did they perform as the opening act for Gorillaz’ first and only headline tour of Australia in 2010, they also did a run of their own headlining dates a matter of months later to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their classic second album, De La Soul Is Dead. Despite its legendary status in the world of hip hop – an honour also bestowed to their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising – Mercer insists that never in their wildest dreams could they have anticipated the reactions people have had to their music over the years.
“It really is nothing short of surreal,” he says, reflecting on the impact those anniversary shows had on him and his bandmates. “When I think back to certain songs, we were just going through the motions. Obviously, we were having a good time with it and everything, but when we’re performing songs like ‘Me Myself And I’ or ‘Say No Go’ I’ll start to realise just how much effort we really put into this music. There is a lot more to it than I had led myself to initially believe.
“The craziest thing about performing these songs for so long is people coming out to the shows and singing along to them years later, and then different people doing the same years after that. People that you can tell obviously weren’t even born when we first released these songs – they know the words! It’s just amazing. It makes you think back to when we first made those songs… you just have no idea where that process is going to lead.”
De La Soul have toured Australia – not to mention the world at large – in many ways, shapes and forms. They’ve taken their performances from the sweatiest of nightclubs to the grandest of theatres, from the streets of the CBD to the regional locations on Groovin The Moo, and in their traditional set-up or with a 13-piece backing band. It begs the question whether exploring so many kinds of performance has changed the way the group – and Mercer in particular – look at the original recordings.
“Oh, for sure! We’ve done TV shows where we’re just performing to a track, and when you’re watching things like that back you start to notice that the way you deliver the song now barely even resembles how you did it in the first place. Whenever we play ‘The Magic Number’ or ‘Eye Know’ or a song like that, you really start to notice the little differences. We’ll pronounce or say a word differently, or replace this word with that word. You change the kind of cadence of the song when you’re performing it live. We definitely notice those kinds of things.”
As somewhat of a heritage act in the realm of hip hop, De La Soul face a potential double-edged sword. Their classic 3 Feet High and De La Soul Is Dead albums have forever cemented their legacy in the annals of musical history. But it would certainly appear that there are some fans who live and die by those records, and who have received with scepticism any material that has come since. Thankfully, Mercer feels it’s a minority issue amongst the De La Soul audience.
“We see people before and during the show that will call out certain albums, or hold them up in the air – even a certain single might come up. I think we’ve mastered knowing where to take our performances, direction-wise. We’ll see or hear that one person is really here for one thing, and then see that this person is there for that, y’know? That’s the way that we’ve been doing it for years. In turn, we’ll also have people coming up to us and saying that they didn’t even know about [2004 album] The Grind Date; or they’ll be like, ‘You guys did an album with Nike? Let me get it!’ That’s where we’re at. We have a lot of fun with the crowd – even if they’re waiting for their moment, we still give them plenty of fun along the way. We include everyone that comes to our shows.”
Even still, Mercer goes out of his way to point out that he fully understands how and why fellow ‘heritage’ acts get frustrated with the weight of expectation placed on the particular era of the discography that the crowd is most interested in – particularly if those artists are doing their best to remain contemporary. He’s seen it happen too many times before, which is exactly why he works hard to keep both the band and the audience satisfied with the end product.
“Whether you’re a legendary artist, someone who’s been around for years – LL, Beastie Boys, whoever have you – or you’re somebody new, you have to entice your crowd. It doesn’t matter if it’s something old, something new – hell, it could just be a beat. The entire show is peaks and valleys – it’s up to you whether you want to start out with something they love or if you want to try out something brand new. It’s a matter of figuring out how you want to go about your attack on the crowd.”
BY DAVID JAMES YOUNG