Feb 04, 2011 12:00AM

De La Soul [Interview]

We talk to Pos about roller skating, buggin' out at Burger King and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sneakers.

Contrary to the name of their second, now twenty years old album, legendary hip-hop trio De La Soul are far from dead. They were in the country late last year, touring with Gorillaz. If you missed out on seeing them, you're in luck: they're back on our shores this February for Playground Weekender. In the lead up to the festival, De La Soul's Pos talks to us about roller skating, buggin' out at Burger King and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sneakers. In fact, a large chunk of our interview is spent discussing sneakers.

Joanna: This year is the 20th anniversary of your second album De La Soul Is Dead. Does that make you feel old?

Kelvin Mercer (Pos): We're just happy that we've got music that has gone on for this long and that people can still appreciate it. Last year was the 20th anniversary of our first album. And whenever an anniversary comes along people want to speak about our record and know about it and a lot of newcomers come along and want to find out about it and love it. It's a blessing.

Joanna: Do you think your earlier albums have relevance today?

Pos: Yeah, I do. In terms of the De La Soul Is Dead album, there's a song called 'Milled Pulled a Pistol on Santa', which is, like, one of my favourite songs ever. It's about a girl being molested by her father and I know that that happens, every day, in every city, in every country. And you know, even a song that was very big in Australia - 'Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)' ? lots of people can relate to that because its about people ringing you up and trying to get something out of you. I think there are a lot of great songs on that album that people can relate to. There's 'A Roller Skating Jam Called Saturdays', which is about going out on the weekend and having fun.

Joanna: 'A Roller Skating Jam Called Saturdays' is probably my favourite De La Soul song. It's the quintessential Native Tongue Posse song - a summer jam with happy vibes and no mention of bling, bitches and hoes. And the video clip for it is amazing. Do you go roller skating much these days?

Pos: Unfortunately no. I didn't even roller skate when I was younger that much, when it was a big thing in the seventies. I was always too busy trying to pick up girls, or something. But roller skating and that whole scene was a lot of fun. When creating that song, it had such a great feeling. Originally, I didn't even think it would be for De La Soul. I was making it for a group that myself, Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Vinia Mojica from Jungle Brothers and Russell Simmons were a part of. But I just thought, I love this so much and I want this to be part of the De La Soul album. I think it's become a song that a lot of people remember De La Soul for.

Joanna: Definitely. I'm a little sad to hear that you don't don a pair of roller skates all too often! I've heard that you wear a lot of sneakers though?

Pos: I do have a lot of shoes.

Joanna: Care to you give us an insight into your shoe collection?

Pos: I don't like to call it a shoe collection. I don't like to put them in a cabinet. I wear my shoes. I just have so many, so my older shoes, which I've had for over a decade, still look brand new because I wear so many shoes in rotation. I have a lot. I don't discriminate. It doesn't matter if it's Nike, Adidas, Puma, Vans; I love what I love. I love funky, incredible Japanese sneakers. The colour schemes are really cool over there. There may be sneakers that are made in the US or the UK that you can only buy in Japan because, you know, Nike might feel that Japanese men might be into those colour schemes. But Nike might feel that American women are into those same colour schemes. I love traveling to different countries and seeing a brand like Nike, which you're familiar with in your own country, and seeing what they feel works in another country. Because we're traveling and touring all the time, those are the things that we get to see. But yeah, I have tones of sneakers. But, like I said, I wear them; I don't hide them or take pictures of them or anything like that.

Joanna: When you were a kid, was there a shoe that you saw in a shop window that made you think, 'I'm going to start buying lots of shoes'?

Pos: It just sort of happened. The popular shoes when I was young were Pumas. All the cool cats were wearing Pumas. And then you've got hip-hop idols like Run DMC with his Adidas shell toes. But, you know, like any other kid I had shoes, and from a really young age I kept the boxes and I kept them fresh. But it wasn't like 'I'm going to start collecting shoes' because I did a lot of other things with my money. By the time I got into De La Soul and people started appreciating my music they started flooding me with them. Even though I was broke all the time, a lot of great companies wanted to facilitate me getting my fix of shoes. And before I know it, I've got a whole room full of shoes. Now I turn around and I've got a whole house full of shoes. It's bad. It's really quite ridiculous.

Joanna: Can you tell us about the De La Soul Dunk shoe? How did that collaboration come about?

Pos: We were in San Diego at the time performing at an event called Street Scene. But at the same time in San Diego they had this event called ASR, which had a lot of surfer and skater products. We all happened to be walking around the ASR convention and we stumbled across the skateboard portion of Nike. So we met those guys and we invited those people down to our show, and then this cool guy, Robbie Jeffers, came and chilled with us. Robbie Jeffers then asked all the people in his department, 'What do y'all think about making a shoe for De La Soul?' And everyone was ecstatic on it. So we exchanged numbers and he asked me for ideas. From them on we started speaking to different people, mainly this one gentleman, Chris Reed, who was helping us with the designs. We picked the colours; he helped us with the textures. It came out really cool and one of the dopest thing about our dunks is that our album cover is on the shoe and it's almost reflective. When you move it, our faces on the cover move. And that was actually a mistake. Originally we wanted to have a little area of Velcro and you could change the Velcro so you could have, say, the 3 Feet and Rising cover or you could have the De La Soul Is Dead cover. But the language barrier between Nike speaking to the manufacturers in China - they thought we wanted it over the entire shoe. So when the gentleman Chris Reed got the prototype back he was like 'Yo, they messed up but you may really like this mistake'. He emailed us pictures and we were like, 'That's amazing'. So we kept it.

Joanna: Did that shoe give you exposure to people who didn't know who De La Soul was?

Pos: Yeah, there were definitely a lot of people who didn't know De La Soul but knew the shoe. Quite honestly, our shoes became known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Dunks, because the hi-top ones that we made, the colours were very similar to what people considered to be the colours of those turtles. So a lot of people would be like 'I want those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Dunks' when they were actually talking about a De La Soul dunk.

Joanna: Were you ever annoyed that the turtles were stealing your limelight?

Pos: It was actually really funny. I'd be talking to a lot of people and they'd be like 'Yo, where did you get those Turtle Dunks from' and I'd be like, 'well, actually, it's a De La Soul dunk.' I think it's cool when people like something even if they don't necessarily know the origin.

Joanna: Totally. And there could be worse associations. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is great. I used to watch that show religiously. Anyway, because it's the 20th anniversary of De La Soul Is Dead and we're in the mood for nostalgia, tell me: did you ever have a day job at Burger King? I always picture you guys in goofy uniforms whenever I hear 'Bitties In The BK Lounge'.

Pos: Yeah. We all worked at Burger King actually.

Joanna: Do you have any funny stories?

Pos: Yeah. I saw a lot of crazy things in a fast food industry environment. Sometimes, instead of dumping out the shake mix the store manager would get all cheap and reuse the shake mix by putting it in the freezer. We would bug out sometimes and throw a pickle in the shake mix. People started putting mayonnaise in the shake mix. Then one day this kid pee'd in the shake mix.

Joanna: That's enough to put me off Burger King for life. Ok, because we're running out of time, here's a serious question: what do you think about the issue of music copyright? I know you guys use a lot of samples in your music. You even got sued once, by a group called The Turtles.

Pos: Sampling is a huge part of hip-hop culture. We were just growing up in a period where everyone in hip-hop was sampling. DJs are always cutting stuff up. The technology that was being created at the time was for sampling. 3 Feet and Rising samples Johnny Cash, soul records, and yeah, The Turtles. In terms of copyright, it's always been something that we've respected. If we want to sample stuff we have to pay, or get permission. But if you chop enough and loop enough and it's not clear and not recognizable as that original song - I think that's ok. So in a nutshell, if you do copy someone's music, you should pay for it. De La Soul has been trouble so many times. We've learnt our lesson over time. Especially with our first album, our label had to clear a lot of stuff.

Joanna: You must listen to a lot of different music if you sample Johnny Cash as well as The Turtles and soul records. What tunes have been pleasuring your ears of late?

Pos: I listen to everything. There hasn't been anything where I've been like 'Yo, this really speaks to me, this changes the way I look at music and takes me out of my body'. I got that vibe from Run DMC and A Tribe Called Quest. I haven't heard anything like that in a long time. But still, there are great records and lots of artists coming out that I love. I love The Roots. I'll listen to Rick Ross on the right day. I love The Kinks. I'm a hip-hop head, but I'm also a music lover.

De La Soul will be performing at the Playground Weekender festival, Wisemans Ferry, NSW. Tickets on sale from Playground Weekender.

Interview: Joanna Lowry