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De La Soul’s Maseo: ‘The dream became real life and kept going’

Two men perform on stage at a late-night talk show, with one DJ'ing behind turntables and the other rapping into a handheld microphone.
De La Soul / Facebook
Maseo (right) and Posdnuos of De La Soul performing on "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon."

It’s been a year of joy and pain for De La Soul. In February, David Jolicoeur (aka Trugoy the Dove) died of natural causes at the age of 54. Just a few weeks later, the influential rap group’s catalog finally landed on streaming services after years of legal wrangling.

Those topics and much, much more were on the mind of De La Soul’s Vincent "Maseo" Mason when he sat down to talk with Radio Milwaukee’s Dori Zori recently. In this wide-ranging interview, you’ll hear all about the group’s secret start, the very first album in Maseo’s massive vinyl collection, his all-time favorite Muppet and a whole lot more. Just hit the “Listen” button at the top of the page, check out the video version or read the full transcript below.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This is a super joy, I have to start by saying that, for you to talk to us here at Radio Milwaukee. I didn't get to meet you, but I think the last time you were in Milwaukee, you were a judge for the Miltown Beat Down. Do you remember that?

Yes I do. Yeah, that was a lot of fun.

That was a lot of fun. Do you do a lot of things like that in the community?

I haven't done it in a while, but when it presents itself, I do.

That was so special to have you here. Before we get started on talking about all the great things that's going on, I just want to start by saying I'm really sorry about the loss of your best, your bestie best. We really do appreciate you kind of rallying around and doing these interviews again.

Thank you. Appreciate it.

What I would like to start with is the DA.I.S.Y. Experience, the big exciting release show for your albums that turned into a beautiful celebration of life. I watched it live for all the hours it was on, and as a fan and a viewer it felt really incredible. Lots of emotions going on there as you were in that space. Have you watched it again? Was it all kind of a blur? How was it for you?

I haven't watched it again. It’s a little tough to watch. Yeah, a little bit. I catch some clips of the performances on the IG, but the whole program, nah, I haven't watched it.

As a fan though, it was really great to see just that stage getting filled with more and more friends there to celebrate. What was the energy in the room like that night?

The energy was beautiful. It's something I think, you know, we all in the room had said we hadn't really experienced in such a long time since we were kids at the same time. it was intended to be the release party but then ended up turning into obviously a memorial service for Dave. So it was like that scene in Beat Street, and the performance was like Wild Style Part Two, you know, like a combination of a scene in both of those movies. So, you know, it was a bittersweet moment.

Two men stand on stage in a large hall, one with his fist raised and the other speaking into a handheld microphone.
Chris Balestra
De La Soul / Facebook
The DA.I.S.Y. Experience celebrated De La Soul's music and the life of group member David Jolicoeur on March 2 in New York City.

So let's get into why we're really excited to do these interviews. Your catalog finally released on streaming March 3, the digital release. During that show, I think there was a point where maybe you thanked your lawyers for all the work that they had to go through to make this happen.

Yeah, I thank my lawyer, I thank everyone who participated in making this happen. Reservoir Media, everybody who was on board for the great cause of making sure this catalog got presented to the world.

When did the idea of presenting the catalog to the world start? Was it a long time ago?

We were pursuing it about 10 years ago, when it was under the umbrella of Tommy Boy. Went through some struggles, obviously, but once it got into the hands of Reservoir Media, things became a brighter day, a much brighter day.

With the struggles of getting samples and things like that cleared, I feel like there's a couple of tracks that changed just a little bit.

Last summer, [Prince] Paul, myself and Scotty [Hard], our engineer, we had to do some reworks to some of the things we couldn't clear. You do hear some minor alterations in some of the songs, so there are some things that are altered, there are some things that are missing because of legal ramifications.

What was the most exciting alteration that you got to make? Having things drop out from your original music, I feel like would be difficult as an artist. But was there anything that you got to put in and alter that you were actually really excited for?

I wasn't excited about altering anything. I wish in a perfect world we could have cleared, been able to clear everything. But certain things just were a little too astronomically expensive to clear, so we found other ways to rework it. I would rather leave it up to the audience to see if they could figure it out, you know? I obviously know the reworks, but I'm proud of the rework, what we were able to achieve, a lot of the nuances we were able to achieve. I'm sad that we had to omit some things.

The vinyl quickly arrived at my house, and my husband is a huge fan. He's a visual artist, and he credits his life pursuing art to two things: The Muppets and De La Soul.

All right. [laughs] I'll rock with that. I'm a Muppet fan, so big up to your husband. [laughs]

What is your favorite Muppet?

Oh, Kermit. Kermit’s my favorite. He's very humble, but he was in charge. [laughs]

He was a leader, not a boss, right?

Right. He definitely was an ordained leader.

Oh my gosh. Now I'm picturing a De La and Kermit collaboration.

You know, around that time between 3 Feet [High and Rising] and [De La Soul] Is Dead, I actually sampled the Muppet theme, but we couldn’t clear it. Jim Henson had just passed away around that time, and his estate was going through some stuff. So we had issues trying to clear the record, but it was a B-side to “Say No Go,” and it did leak around. It’s called “Double Huey Skit.” [laughs]

So if anyone downloaded that and burned it back in the day when it leaked, like that's gold, right?

Questlove has it. He plays it at parties. It’s funny.

Let's go back and talk about 3 Feet High and Rising, the debut album. Skits. The skits on that are so great. Where did the idea of putting skits on albums come from, or why was it important for De La to do that?

At the time, I didn't think we thought it was important. It was fun, and we were silly like that. I think the first time the skits started was when we were in my house, and we did “Strickly Dan Stuckie” on a cassette. I think it had a lot more to do with trying to use some samples at the time before other artists that were coming out around that time also. And just being silly, you know? They were coming out good. “Strickly Dan Stuckie” came out good, and then it was Paul who was like, “Yo, we kind of need to keep that going.” Then we started really crafting skits.

So they were actually crafted and not just the mic is on recording whatever?

Some things were crafted, and some things the mic was on. The “Strickly Dan Stuckie” skit ... the mic was on, we were trying to figure out what to do but then just ended up being silly. And whatever came to everyone's mind just landed on the tape, and we kept it that way. Once we played it back and you felt good about it and everybody in the room was laughing, it was like, “Yeah, that's the take. Let's just keep it. Keep that.”

I love it so much because it just kind of does almost put a listener and a fan in that moment, as much as we could be in the room with you and just kind of feel the vibe of what was going on when you were recording.

“Skip 2 My Loop” was another improv skit, but obviously when you go a little further to the game shows and stuff like that, that's pretty crafted.

Was there a moment that you remember, whether it was in the studio or out on tour, where you realized we really have something special going on here?

The moment I felt like we had something special going on was the summer of ’85, when we all connected pretty much for the first time. It was a secret for a long time. We were just friends working on stuff. It really sparked when Dave went to his cousin's house, and he recorded a rhyme on a cassette with a Synsonic drum machine and came back home with the tape. We all heard that tape, and we was like, “Yo, he really spit some rhymes.”

And then one day Pos pulled out a book of rhymes, and he spit some rhymes. We all had these beats just going, all different ideas we were sharing, and that's how we knew we had something amongst one another. And for a very long time it was a secret. It was a secret up until maybe a handful of friends knew by the time we actually got into a professional studio with Paul. It was a handful of friends that knew, but it was a secret for a very long time.

Was it hard to take something that was so personal and a secret and then kind of put it out there to more people and open yourself up to opinions?

Well, this is the world we're stepping into. So you're kind of expecting that in a lot of regards. But we knew we had something. It's just that time and era, you could have a few people discourage you, especially in that era of hip-hop. We were so fresh, so new, and here it is. Even for ourselves, we didn't quite see it to be a profession. It was just something that was a childhood hobby that turned into a profession, still not knowing it's turned into a profession.

But being able to work with somebody like Prince Paul, you know, it's achieving a childhood dream. But after the game is over, I'm looking to go back to real life. But the dream became real life and kept going, you know? So I feel blessed that all of that happened the way it happened.

Did people ask you, like, did they have an idea of what you were doing, and you just really truly kept it a secret or were you just doing your own thing in your own bubble?

Pos and Dave never really was those MC’s that rapped at parties. So no one had an inkling that could be even happening. I was definitely known for DJ’ing around parties and stuff like that, but no one knew I was in the studio. No one knew I was actually trying to create, you know, making hip-hop records.

Three men in a black-and-white photo look at the camera while seated on the ground.
De La Soul / Facebook
Vincent "Maseo" Mason, David "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur and Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer of De La Soul.

Do those old first recordings, those tapes, cassette tapes exist still? Do you know where they are?

Pos has the majority of them. He has all of those tapes pretty much, everything from “Plug Tunin’” on up, really. Little clips of stuff that was done even in Calliope Studios, you know, when we first started landing in the studio with Paul, he has everything.

Is he the collector?

Yeah, pretty much, pretty much. In that aspect, for sure. I'm the one with the records. [laughs]

Do you even have an idea of how many records you have?

Enough to have made my mother and my wife sick. And I still get records. [laughs]

Once you buy records like that, I don't think it ever leaves you.

No, it doesn't. Because there's so many different things to explore, you know? Especially traveling the world, I've been able to experience so many different cultures and styles of music that I bring home with me.

Do you even remember the first record or the first couple records that you had in your collection? I bet you do.

First record I ever bought was the Jackson 5 Christmas Album. That was the first record, and I lost it the same day. And I cried like a baby. [laughs]

How did you lose it?

I had to have been 9 years old around this time. I traveled downtown Brooklyn to Wiz Records and Tapes. [sings] “Nobody beats the Wiz.” I traveled downtown to Wiz Records and Tapes, bought the Christmas album, took the bus back home and left it on the bus. I cried like a baby. But my aunt then turned around and got it for me, like a couple of days before Christmas. She got me the album. I was like, “Oh man.” [laughs] But that's the first album I ever bought myself.

What kind of chores or work did you have to do to earn the bucks that bought that first album?

I used to sell fruit at a fruit stand down the street from my house — well, from the building I lived in. It was a fruit stand that used to be right outside of Junior High School 258 on the corner of Halsey and Marcy. And I used to help the guys sell fruit and vegetables, and across the street I would also sweep hair at the barbershop.

Is the barbershop still there?

I don't know. To be honest, I haven't been around there in a long time. I know the fruit stand’s not there for sure.

There’s probably something gross there, like a Starbucks.

Probably. [laughs]

Can we talk about Native Tongues for just a little bit?

Yeah, we can do that.

Having a group of friends come together that are like-minded is easy, right? Or you're blessed if you have that in your life. But then how open the group was as far as, you know, building it and members — did it start with Jungle Brothers?

Well, we all came in as separate groups, I guess, with the exception of Tribe at the time because Tribe didn't have a deal at the time. He was an honorary Jungle Brother. He went to high school with Mike G in Africa. So our relationship with them forged through the music business. We already had our separate things, but it was like we became friends behind this. I always say Native Tongues was kind of like the best thing that never happened. [laughs]

Besides the two great songs that we really done, which is “Buddy,” obviously, and doing our own thing with Jungle Brothers, we never did any more music technically after that — maybe one more Native record, which was on the Jungle Brothers album, which was called How You Want It I Got It. We never did a Native Tongues record on a Tribe album. Never ever.

Of course, with individual business decisions behind each group and whatever was happening personally between other individuals, it never continued like it could have. I think groups like Wu Tang actually have been able to forge a union as such where they were all able to make records collectively and individually together, you know?

Do you think today it's easier to do that because of the business model, or does the business model kind of always interrupt that a lot?

I don't think it was hard even back then. I think it's more personal than it is individual, you know, because of the business. I think some people's business decisions made it personal. Others could feel different about where they stand in their career at the moment. I can only speak for myself and the rest of my group knowing that any opportunity that came up to do Native Tongues, we was always pretty much with it.

Fifty Years of Hip-Hop on the Grammys. That was real fun to watch.

That was amazing. Hip-hop, 50 years old, the youngest genre in music being celebrated on a very prestigious platform. Boycotted us, and we boycotted them. [laughs] But it was beautiful to see. It was beautiful to be a part of. Unfortunately, I personally couldn't be there or Dave couldn't be there, but Pos was there to hold it down, and he looked amazing. He killed it. [laughs]

Everyone did so good. I heard Questlove had, like, 30 days or something to put that together. Is that true?

Yeah, that's about right. But when you're so well-versed on the music that you grew up on, that's kind of a drop in the bucket, you know? And I think one time or another, everybody on that stage had performed at a Roots picnic. So I don't think that was difficult in any way for him.

Not for him, the guy that can put together events that are memorable and iconic.

That was amazing to see, and what people don't really pay attention to is it was pretty much everyone who boycotted the Grammys 20, 30 years ago, you know? Yeah, 30 years ago. Everyone who boycotted the Grammys performed. Salt N Pepa, Jazzy Jeff, LL Cool J — that was the initial ones who boycotted the Grammys to begin with. That was awesome.

I heard you're headed out to the UK soon?

Pretty soon, yeah.

What you gonna do out there?

Make a little noise on stage. Make a little bit of noise on stage. [laughs]

Any plans to return to Milwaukee to make some noise here?

That would be great. We need to look into that. I don't see any problem doing that at all, you know? And there's also plans to put out more music. So if there's gonna be more music to put out, there's gonna be more performances. Let's get lined up with your top promoters out there, and let's get something going.

We will hook you up, and you always have a home stage here at Radio Milwaukee. We’ve got a pretty dope performance space downstairs.

Two last questions. With De La’s catalog on streaming now, do they give you statistics and numbers of how many new fans you've reached? How do you even gauge who's listening to De La now that didn’t before?

There's definitely been a much younger audience that's really been interested in learning De La for the first time. People from our era, sharing the music with their kids, and it's been a discussion over dinner, car rides, you know? So the constant comparison to this, that generation, our generation to this generation.

What's been pretty cool is coming back from my own kids because they haven't heard it all either unless I'm playing it on vinyl, and I'm not playing it in the house like that. I'm not playing it when I'm working with it all the time, you know? So they only knew a few things that was out there. Now that they got the entire catalog, they've been inspired. My kids been really inspired, their friends, all of that. They come looking at me like, “Pops, I didn’t know it was like that!” [laughs]

You have a new level of respect from your kids now.

Yeah, that’s been a good feeling. That's been a really great feeling. I'm like the cool O.G. on the block. [laughs]

You're like, “Finally. I've been kind of telling you this your whole life.”

Well, I haven't been telling them. I always had the personality of: If you know, you know. If you don’t, you'll eventually find out.

The last question that I love to ask, and I hope it's not too weird, but it's meant to be fun: What did your childhood smell like?

My childhood smell like? [laughs] Oh, man, this is gonna sound crazy, but I don't know, most people might get it. I'm gonna say what my mother and my grandmother would say: “You smell like outside.” [laughs] My childhood smells like outside.

Oh, I love that.

“Go take a shower. You smell like outside.” [laughs]

I do miss, like, being a kid and that's what you did. You were outside till dinner, and then you were lucky if you got to go outside after dinner for a couple hours.

I was outside until the street light came on. That was the rule. The street light came on, time to come inside.

You were talking about records before. How excited are you that vinyl has finally, like, I think the numbers for vinyl sales have outnumbered CD sales for the first time?

I think there's a nostalgia in vinyl. There's a nostalgia, a sound quality, especially in certain styles of music. I wouldn't imagine a drill record or a trap record being pressed on vinyl. I think nobody really cares, even the people who make that kind of music … it seems like that style of music pertains more to this digital era. It's just something with older music, there's an aesthetic, a sound, an essence with vinyl that has a more of an artistic connection.

I recently discovered that there was a very important piece of vinyl that was pressed that actually had three sides to it.

Would that be us? [laughs]

It blew my mind wide open. How did that even happen? I didn’t even know that was possible.

You’re talking about the single with “Me, Myself and I.”

I would commend Tommy Boy, at that time, coming with that idea. I think everybody was falling into the creative loop of De La, where everybody start coming with their own feel, their interpretation of what they felt like we are, what they think we would like. You know, just inspiring so many people to come with really quirky ideas, and that was one really cool idea Tommy Boy came with.

Even the album cover, the 3 Feet High and Rising album cover, which in the very beginning we were all against. But as time moved on, I got to appreciate it a whole lot. Especially when you look at the body of work that came around that time period, and you look at that cover versus all the other color covers out there, it's a pretty impactful cover. And it was a great interpretation of the music. That was two great things I would say Tommy Boy had in their pocket.

Everyone out there that's listening should go by vinyl.

Yeah! If you like nostalgia, go buy some vinyl.

If you like to hear music in its original form.

If you like music dated back from, I will honestly say 2000 and back, go get some vinyl.

Awesome. Maseo, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Likewise. Thanks for the love, I appreciate it as well, really.

We’ll see you in Milwaukee as soon as we can make that happen.

Yeah! Let’s do it.