Not dead yet
Hip-hop emerged as a rebellion against disco, but De La Soul's DJ Maseo tells Tracey Cooper, it wasn't all bad.
In the early days of hip-hop, way back in the 1970s, the music of a subculture was something of a reaction against the popular musical genre of the day, disco.
Fast forward 30-odd years and the rebels of yesteryear have become the mourners of today as the stars of the disco era succumb to the inevitable.
Although hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Big Daddy Kane, The Sugarhill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa and others were making their presence felt in the late 70s, disco still ruled the airwaves and Vincent Mason says it's taken him until now to realise how good some of the disco artists actually were.
Mason, aka Maseo, Pasemaster, Mase or Plug Three, is the DJ for De La Soul, the Grammy Award-winning New York hip-hop trio formed in 1987, and says while he was listening to early hip-hop when he was growing up in Brooklyn, disco was still huge and he didn't like it.
"I think coming up in the era that I've come up in, as a fan listening to hip-hop, it was a big rebellion against disco. And here it is in my adult years that I appreciate disco a whole lot more," he says.
"I was kind of distraught when Donna Summer passed away."
It's just one of many things which have changed since Mason, Kelvin Mercer and David Jude Jolicoeur first got together as De La Soul and produced their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising in 1989, introducing fans to their eclectic sampling and quirky lyrics through tracks such as Me Myself and I, The Magic Number, You Know and Buddy.
It's still considered one of hip-hop's best-ever albums.
But for Mason, the biggest change he's seen is in himself.
"I'm a fully fledged parent now," he says.
Even though he became a father about the same time 3 Feet High and Rising was being released, it's taken him a while to come to grips with the role, he says.
"I think I became a parent when I first started. Now I've got four children. My oldest son is 23, my second son is 19, he's in college, my third son, 15 in high school, my daughter is 12."
A 30-plus year career in music has given him "time to get certain things right", he says.
"This thing called parenting didn't come with a manual, you know."
For his kids, growing up with a famous parent can be crippling but Mason says they don't know any different.
"For the most part, this is kind of normal life for them, because they were born into me doing this. They do identify with it because they realise amongst their friends, none of their friends' parents do what I do."
One son, Tre, is making a name for himself on the football field - playing as a running back for Auburn University - while his daughter is showing the most interest in music.
"What's really been interesting to me lately is my 12-year-old daughter, she's the only one who is really creatively into music, so she's been listening to my stuff more lately and it's been interesting. My sons, they like certain songs and my two eldest sons began to appreciate it more the older that they got. I'm learning something from them about the music we made."
And the industry learned something from De La Soul, who quickly gained a reputation for quirky lyrics, fun style of performance and cross-over appeal.
3 Feet High and Rising was judged album of the year by NME magazine and De La Soul have been credited with influencing hip-hop artists such as the Black Eyed Peas, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def and others.
Their follow-up album, De La Soul is Dead (1991), spawned more hits, in particular the offbeat Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey), and their work with Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest on A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays.
It was also noted for speaking out against the increasingly violent direction hip-hop was taking at the time.
Mason says much of that was driven by the lives the artists were living at the time, and big corporations.
"I think there's been a significant number of artists, especially in the mainstream, that corporate infrastructure took more interest in and supported one type of hip-hop and that's been the gangster stuff more so than anything. There's always been other stuff in a much lighter nature," he says.
"For the most part, I think a lot of those artists have become more softer tone because they've become more successful and they're not living the way they used to live any more. When they produce their material, especially if you're talking about someone like 50 Cent or Jay-Z, their first albums reflect what was going on currently in their lives before they started making music, so that's what you got.
"As time moves along, people are living more comfortable, more successful, living more legitimate, you know, so you begin to have a lighter tone with the music, you know, less aggression. It's just a natural evolution that people just aspire to have anyway. That just comes with time and age and where your priorities are at."
Mason's priorities, he says, are to continue performing and recording a new album with De La Soul.
The group remains an item, he says, despite rumours De La Soul was indeed dead when Mercer and Jolicoeur teamed up - without Mason - on First Serve, a concept album with French DJs Chokolate and Khalid.
"That's just a project," he says.
"I think we're in the stage of the music business where collectively and individually we all have the ability to do individual projects just as well as what we do collectively. It's really not the group's project, it's the French guys' project. My guys were brought on board to play characters for a project that was built by some other guys. Obviously from a marketing standpoint it looks a little fishy, but that's only because the label is trying to do whatever they need to do to do business."
De La Soul has still been performing together while that was going on and Mason says it's what he always wanted to do and he intends to keep on doing it.
"When I decided that I wanted this to be my profession, this is what I intended doing for the rest of my life, so I might as well keep doing it until I can't do it any more," he says.
"When I'm looking at people like, you know, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder, I figure I can walk in the same footsteps. I still enjoy making music, performing it. I think that's going to always be in our nature until we can't do it any more."
Aside from music, it's family that drives Mason, something which can be a struggle as De La Soul spend up to eight months each year touring.
"Much as we enjoy the people, the people enjoy us so they keep bringing us back. We spend a lot of significant time on the road. So that time at home, it really is truly significant being with the family. It's still like trying to balance your career and family. We all take time away when we're not on the road and of course everybody's at home getting some family focus."
Taking the family with him on tour is not really an option, he says.
"Only when it's really feasible. Kids have got to go to school, my boys are into their sports, everybody has their lives."
The next few months for Mason and co include more performances, more recording and, perhaps most importantly, the US presidential election on November 6.
"Absolutely, I'm in the Obama camp," he says, "for a lot of reasons."
"We all have different reasons why we're in support of the Obama campaign. At the end of the day, for me, this might be the one and only chance we'll ever get a black president. You look at all the other presidents before him and it ain't much of a good pick after him, but I have to honestly say, in my own opinion, I do believe he's going to get a second term."
And after that?
"Obviously after his second term he can no longer be president. I hope Hillary runs again."
De La Soul perform in Whitianga at the CoroGold concert on December 30-31. For full details check out coromandelgold.co.nz.
DE LA SOUL ALBUMS
3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
Buhloone Mindstate (1993)
Stakes Is High (1996)
Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000)
AOI: Bionix (2001)
he Grind Date (2004)