Posdnuos Of De La Soul x Mellini Kantayya On Peaking Too Soon [Q&A + Exclusive Book Excerpt]
In Actor. Writer. Whatever(Essays On My Rise To The Top Of The Bottom Of The Entertainment Industry), a revealing collection about life as a New York City creative, Mellini Kantayya tells all about trying to "make it" in the big city. In an essay nestled in the second half of the book, "Did I Peak Too Soon?," Kantayya invokes the legendary De La Soul to illustrate her point about the potential dangers of reaching one's artistic zenith too early in a career. It may come as no surprise that she enlists the group given their platinum 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising. She lauds the youthful energy that emanates from the project, where an undeniably green Posdnuos, Maseo, and Trugoy were sort of running blind, shooting in the dark for their first studio experience, but pulled it together with producer Prince Paul for an impressive 24-track industry introduction. In the chapter, which is excerpted below for you to check out, she doesn't exactly go on to analyze the rest of De La's catalogue, but nevertheless hints at the possibility that they are an example of a group that came out with a bang and kept on banging. While the Native Tongues rhymers remained on the underground as mainstream sounds transitioned into the Puff and 'Pac era, they maintained a unique style that matured right along with their birthdays, all the way through this year. Kantayya spoke with Posdnuos (AKA Plug One) about 3 Feet High... for Soundtrack Series and he admits to a self-consciousness that appeared only after their first studio success:
Kantayya: ...in the language of critics, 3 Feet High and Rising was “experimental,” but to listeners it feels less like an experiment and more like play. Producer Prince Paul [Paul Huston] has reported that these were some of the most productive, creative, and entertaining sessions he ever worked on.What was your experience of working on that album when you were so young? Is it different from how you approach work now?
Posdnuos: The experience is unmatchable. It was our very first time putting music down in a professional studio. Up until that point, we rhymed into a mike we were holding in a corner of a room. It was our first time rhyming in a booth, first time mixing and pressing knobs on a mixing board, etcetera. Everything was magic as well as fun. The vibe of the studio—Calliope—felt like we were home—opposed to being in a sterile and cold studio environment, so that played a part in how we comfortably made music and came up with ideas while there. There were no rules because we didn’t know them. Now, we have just as much fun but there is a box we jump out of to be “out of the box.” We have a sense of when we make something it won’t be or will be liked or played by this or that person or radio station. We didn’t pay attention to that way back when.
Click through to read an exclusive excerpt of "Did I Peak Too Soon" -->
Perhaps that’s the challenge—and where Kantayya's discussion primarily focused on acting diverges from one that could be had about hip-hop—maintaining integrity as an artist as the zeitgeist shifts. De La provided a seemingly honest expression from the beginning and kept that eclectic, super-sampled, pre-conscious rap sound for years to come. While their most recent full-length project as a trio, 2004's The Grind Date,had a different feel from their first few albums, it still rings true to a specific moment in hip-hop history, if in no other way than calling out new-age rappers as vacuous and in constant pursuit of their 15 seconds of fame. In "Did I Peak Too Soon?," Kantayya talks about her first encounter with De La Soul and what it means to evolve as an actor/writer/whatever(/rapper/producer/etc... you get the idea) still trying to make her mark in an over-saturated industry. Check out the excerpt below and let us know what you think of her early-bird theory with De La Soul.
Then in college I heard 3 Feet High and Rising, the debut album of the hip-hop group De La Soul—a while after it was released, as it wasn’t played on local stations (my college station only played the alternative to “alternative” music). When the word of mouth finally got around to me, one listen was all it took. I was hooked. I listened to it nonstop, played it for friends who played it for friends; we danced in dorm rooms and drove around town with no particular destination because we didn’t want to turn the key and turn it off. Nothing angst-y here: it was a celebration and a revelation—not all substantive artists were melancholy, anguished, angry, or cimmerian. Some were smart and funny and liked to dance. That album was the first step from where I was to where I was going. Man, that album changed my life.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. In 2011 the Library of Congress inducted it into the National Recording Registry, stating the following:
"Bucking hip-hop’s increasing turn toward stark urban naturalism in the late 1980s, De La Soul released this upbeat and often humorous album to widespread acclaim in the U.S. and abroad. The trio—Kelvin Mercer (Posdnuos), David Jolicoeur (Trugoy) and Vincent Mason (DJ Maseo)—was ably assisted by producer Prince Paul (Paul Huston) who has reported that these were some of the most productive, creative and entertaining sessions he ever worked on. For the album, the group marshaled an astonishing range of samples that included not only soul and R&B classics by Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays, but also Steely Dan’s “Aja” and cuts by Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, Kraftwerk, Hall and Oates, and Liberace. Perhaps the most far-flung sample is a snippet of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the comics over the radio in 1945."
De La Soul plays these almost one hundred samples like master virtuosos on a Stradivarius, jazz greats scatting, or seasoned circus performers with ten plates spinning in the air. In the language of critics, the album was “experimental,” but it feels less like an experiment and more like play . . . little boys unsupervised in the backyard. And what emerges from that random romping is a bike ramp, a rocket, or perhaps a trip to the emergency room (well worth it, of course, because it was all great fun).
It feels like play because the musicians were children. Well, not children exactly, but teenagers: three kids having a good time in the studio. The result is idealistic, fun, wild, youthful—definitely youthful. It embodies that phase in our lives when everything is new and untried: “Let’s try this!” and “Why not?”
But when you get to a certain age, you know why not. You think about critics and audience and context. You think about the rules. You think about the bills. You worry about getting sued before you sample that album (3 Feet High and Rising changed the legal ramifications of sampling as well). There’s a freedom to youth. There’s play. That sense of play doesn’t get lost as Actor, Writer, Whatevers mature, but it does get tempered.
Excepted from Actor. Writer. Whatever. (essays on my rise to the top of the bottom of the entertainment industry) by Mellini Kantayya. ©Mellini Kantayya. Published by Ako Dako Press.