The DJ from De La Soul talks about the making of "3 Feet High and Rising," Prince Paul, production, legal problems, and J. Dilla.

de la soul photo
De La Soul with Maseo on the right

DJ Maseo from De La Soul will headline Soul Sister's eighth annual Birthday Jam at Tipitina's tonight, and I interviewed him for a story that's up now at The New Orleans Advocate. We talked about more than page space in the paper would allow, so here is more of our conversation, starting with legal problems that have prevented any of the hip-hop trio's Warner Brothers releases from being made available on any of the digital platforms.

The story will always go back and forth. Tom Silverman will always say we didn’t hand in everything, which is a total lie. I don’t think, I know that the label chose not to clear some things because they thought certain things were insignificant like “Transmitting Live from Mars,” and that was a problem for us back then. The more successful the record became, the more ears were opening up to the genre. It also opened up a new business, which was sample clearing. Lawsuits were coming left and right on things that weren’t cleared. Once administration’s in Tommy Boy’s hands and they’re not clearing things properly, what am I supposed to do? As far as I know, the record is cleared. 

They do their deal with Warner Brothers, by not meeting their financial demands and meeting their debt, they lost catalogue and we were part of that. Warner Brothers looks at us and our documents and says Yo, this is all over the place. This is convoluted. What do we do with this? Either we sit on it and do nothing or we sell it. That’s the only thing I can assume. 

[When Mase--Vincent Mason--says "hand in everything," he means that Silverman, the head of Tommy Boy Records which signed De La Soul, contends that the group didn't turn in a complete list of samples on the album. When he mentions "Transmitting Live from Mars," he's referring to the 1991 lawsuit filed by The Turtles for the unauthorized use of "You Showed Me." ]

Prince Paul is credited with producing 3 Feet High and Rising, which Maseo says is right and wrong.

Paul’s most significant role was teaching us, allowing us to touch the equipment in the studio. Prior to that, we were forced to rely on some engineer who barely knew as much as we knew. Him adding different elements to the music brought it out more. I can’t sit here and say he didn’t do anything. He did a lot, but we did just as much work. We gave the producer role because he put us on, not really understanding what the title meant then. 

You know who the lyricists are, but you look at me and say, I’m just the DJ. It became a problem when I was trying to get work elsewhere. Why can’t I get work? After a while you figure it out. Someone says Yo, they think Prince Paul produced everything. Wait a minute, I’m the one responsible for “Me Myself and I.” We all produced it, but I put that together. There was stuff I did on my own, no different from Pos, no different from Dave. 

Much respect to the emcees in my group. This was the era when rappers knew what they wanted to rhyme to. It was a significant part of the production. They’re producers in their own way. My crew can definitely produce, just like Q-Tip can produce, just like Jungle Brothers can produce. Dres from Black Sheep can produce, although Mister Lawnge was the signature producer. It was a different era. Big Daddy Kane could produce. So could Biz. 

Now it’s all microwavable action now. (laughs) Everybody’s given a particular role. He does this. He does that. Once upon a time we were a group doing this.

I suggested that part of the significance of 3 Feet High and Rising is that it's one of hip-hop's great albums, and that before it, hip-hop was largely a singles genre.

The genre was still really basic and small. It was only a select few who were getting album deals. It was so single-driven because it was all about the success of the single leading to an album. A lot of people didn’t get that opportunity and weren’t in label situations that provided that kind of financing. 

There were a lot of great albums. Stetsasonic was doing great albums. LL Cool J was doing great albums. Public Enemy was doing great albums. Steady B did a great album. Salt-N-Pepa did great albums. Whodini did great albums. There’s the perception that hip-hop was singles-driven because you had to have that 12-inch, that feeler. Let’s see where it goes. I didn’t have an album deal until the label thought we were worthy. We did “Plug Tuning,” it went crazy at radio, did well at retail, and this is the era of no video. Just radio on Friday and Saturday night and campus radio on a Monday night. It was always leading up to the album.

I appreciate Mase's support for his contemporaries and their work, but I'm not buying. There are great songs on  those albums, but for me 3 Feet High and Rising is one of the first coherent, solid albums that is more than just a collection of songs. 

I've really enjoyed their free mixtape, Smell the D.A.I.S.Y., which features the group redoing lyrics from 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul is Dead, Stakes is High, and AOI: Mosaic Thump over beats from J Dilla, who they worked with in the '90s. It's still available for download on De La Soul's website.

It’s giving tribute to Dilla in our own way. Every year, a tremendous amount of people around the world celebrate his legacy, but they all do it the same way with a club night. A bunch of DJs play his music all night, which is great. But we felt like we needed to make some music that would contribute to his legacy and be part of the music that goes all around the world. That’s our history with Dilla anyway—in the studio. 

The music was stuff in Dilla’s vault, stuff that we had sat on along with a bunch of other emcees. We took it in the studio and make a mixtape of his music. The fellas did old lyrics from 3 Feet, De La’s Dead, Stakes is High and AOI: Mosaic Thump over that mixtape. Did the style a little different, the cadence a little different. It was more like remixing the old stuff. He’s highly missed.