The ninth track off De La Soul’s 1989 landmark debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, mixes and samples Sly and the Family Stone, Steely Dan, the Mad Lads, and that unforgettable whistled hook from Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” If “Eye Know” were to be released in the present day, the song would cost a fortune in royalties.
“Sampling is a great business, but it’s not the Wild, Wild West [of] the early Eighties, where everything was under the radar and you could just kind of let it go,” says De La Soul’s Posdnuos. “We never took it upon ourselves to care about the fact that there’s twenty samples in one record.” But by 1991, De La Soul found themselves being sued by two members of Sixties pop group the Turtles over a twelve-second snippet used in the song “Transmitting Live From Mars.” (The suit was eventually settled out of court.)
So while De La Soul’s early record catalog is highly revered, its presence is missing entirely from streaming services such as Spotify and iTunes. This isn’t by their decree. Posdnuos, along with fellow group members Dave and Maseo, are passionate about their fan base (even going as far as offering their entire discography for free online one day last February), but the red tape and legal woes that hover over these sample-heavy albums tie their hands.
“That is 100 percent why it hasn’t been a part of it,” Pos say of the music’s absence. “We’ve had people ask, ‘Why isn’t it on Spotify, why isn’t it here?’ and that in a nutshell is what the problem is.”
And so the Long Island trio (or “Strong Island,” as they’ve referred to it in the past) decided to sidestep any potential legal roadblocks while working on their eighth record, And the Anonymous Nobody, hiring session musicians to lay down days’ worth of material so that they could pick, slice, and sample cuts without running the risk of copyright infringement or baiting the “sample police.” In essence, De La Soul are sampling themselves.
No label backing, no problem: Since March 31, De La Soul have raised over triple their initial Kickstarter goal. The group went with crowdfunding this time around, which is allowing them to finance a record that completely represents themselves.
“We just felt that the way we wanted to create and craft this album wouldn’t work on a label, you know,” Pos explains. “A label would be happy to have us as a ‘legendary group’ and all that. But they would then have somebody assigned to us who’s trying to stuff [in] what’s new. We don’t work like that. It has to be a natural and organic marriage, as opposed to the formula of, ‘OK, you have this great record, De La Soul, let me shove Drake right there and let’s get Timbaland.’ We didn’t need anyone coming into the batter in the kitchen telling us that. So that’s another great reason why having our fans fund this through Kickstarter is a way of us really getting this level of creativity we wanted to put out to the public.”
De La Soul have always tended to act as innovators. As Dave so eloquently stated in their Kickstarter video, “They had to even, like, create a new kind of lawyer to sue us. All you sampling attorneys out there: You’re welcome!”
The Rhythm Roots Allstars are the band that’s been in and out of the studio with De La Soul for the past three years. Having met the group at a Scion event where hip-hop artists were paired with bands, De La Soul were initially wary of mixing up their classic flow.
“At first it was something like, ‘I don’t know about that. Someone is doing that already’ — like our brothers in this race of keeping hip-hop where it needs to be, the Roots. And the Fugees did that, or whatever, and we don’t want to mess with that,” Pos says regarding the inclusion of instrumentation. “And then it was like, ‘Let’s step out of our own comfort zone and try it!’ And when we tried it, we felt that immediate gratification of not being locked in to just what we recorded.”
A handful of marquee artists are featured on the album, including David Byrne, Damon Albarn, 2 Chainz, and Little Dragon. Pos equates the amount of material laid down to stumbling upon a factory of music. A vast majority of the recording was done at the classic Vox Studios in L.A., where De La Soul directed the Rhythm Roots Allstars in creating all different styles of music, ranging from jazz to country-western.
“We really encouraged the session musicians to not play like a loop, but to just feel it. Because in terms of a loop, we’ll come back to that. I really feel that in the beginning they didn’t realize that we wanted to sample them,” Pos says.
The unique design for how this album came to be not only excites De La but recalls their early days, when they were free to play and develop.
“This is really, really cool, because it feels like we’re just going through the normal, fun process of creating,” Pos says. “But this time, we’re creating from something we played a part in creating. I mean, it’s just been really fun, weird, different; and it’s kind of reminiscent of where we were on our first album, where there really were no rules that we were aware of and therefore that’s why we created 3 Feet High and Rising the way we did. And it’s sort of like this, too.”
The conception and recording of And the Anonymous Nobody has been a journey for De La Soul, not just in the way it was produced, but also in how the group has adapted and progressed throughout its 26-year career.
“Our great lawyers are doing their best to speak to the great people at Warner Bros., who are really keen on trying to help us get our product of existing catalog out,” says Pos. “It was just weary to realize that, wow, this is all because of sampling people and what they needed and what wasn’t worked out on a business standpoint for the artists that we sampled. And that made us gravitate to this project that we’re speaking about today. When we hand this in, pretty much 99.9 percent will be original music, outside of maybe a cut from Maceo [Parker] that we can throw in or a James Brown voice. It’s coming out amazing, and from a business standpoint we have less problems.”
For more information on And the Anonymous Nobody, visit De La Soul’s Kickstarter page through May 1.