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In Their Own Words: De La Soul Reveals The Secret History Of 'Stakes Is High'
Okayplayer spoke to Posdnuos and Maseo about the making of one of their most beloved albums: 1996’s Stakes Is High.
This article has been handpicked from the Okayplayer editorial archives and included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative. The article has been edited for context to ensure its accuracy and relevance.
Originally published in July 2016. Interview conducted by Eddie "STATS" Houghton.
It's been more than 20 years and De La Soul's seminal album Stakes Is High still holds its own as not only a definitive work by the Long Island trio but a classic from that era. In their own words, Maseo and Posdnuos gave Okayplayer the inside scoop on the times and circumstances surrounding the record, the creative process behind specific songs, beefs with Naughty By Nature and Tupac, and how the album changed their lives, respectively.
As told to Eddie "STATS" Houghton.
On the beginning process of making Stakes is High.
Maseo: That record was a milestone, that record was do or die... I mean the whole energy around developing that record, it was a crucial place of not knowing if we was going to continue or we going to be forced to go get regular jobs and become common folk... because we came off of Buhloone Mindstate which didn’t have much success at all.
The change in the business was taking place. That was like a first major change for us. This was around the time all the indies was like, "We going corporate." Everybody was doing their mergers. Tommy Boy was kind of the last to do their merger. They closed. They were like, one leg in and out with Warner Brothers. There was things that they would put out with Warner Brothers and there was things they won't. They still had their hand independently in the game for a long time but this was a time where either labels was truly making that transition to go corporate and be a subsidiary of somebody major.
Posdnuos: Buhloone Mindstate wasn't really doing what we needed it to do. Us and Tribe [Called Quest] was on tour together and, of course, they were just on fire. We were all having great shows, but we both had the same manager, this was Rush Management, Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen. We recall Lyor Cohen sending us down at one of the shows. Tribe was closing and he was like, "Hey, I know your album isn't doing well... You all going to have to tighten your belts, you're going to have to get out and just do it when you’re on the road."
We had this album that... wasn't doing well and a lot of different music was changing. Even our fellow brothers, they hit a stride with their music and what they was doing. You got Wu-Tang coming out and all these acts. The music had just changed in a lot of respects and we changed in the direction we wanted to go. In a nutshell, when all is said and done after touring and doing whatever, when it came around to thinking about another album, another cycle, we were just a little disillusioned. We were just wasn't sure about what to do.
We started working on a few things with Prince Paul at the beginning, but a lot of the things that Paul was bringing to the table would be just a little too zany, still a little too funny and we really wasn't biting on any of it. We was like, "Yo, that's just not mentally where we are right now." Paul was just really understanding of it and he was doing what he needed to do with Gravediggaz at that moment anyway, and he was like, "Hey fellas, you know what? This should be the time where I just really move to the side and let you all just really control the bus, control the album."
On making the "Intro" and “"Itzsoweezee (Hot).”
Posdnuos: Basically, at one point, what became the intro to Stakes Is High was just a remix to "Eye Patch," so that's why the rhymes actually start off the same way I did on "Eye Patch."
We were just trying to think about, "How can we start Stakes Is High?" We was like, "Yo, let's try to do a collage of just people saying stuff," and then we was thinking like, "Yeah, let's maybe do like when the first time someone heard Criminal Minded." Then that's when we just start gathering up people. I just left a message on my phone and whoever would call I was like, "Yo, just let me know the first time you heard Criminal Minded." Everyone just started leaving messages and telling me when they heard it and so we had put it with that music.
Naughty By Nature was working on their new album and they had just started but they were doing something really cool, which was whatever song they had identified as a single, even that early within their recording process, they was like, "You know, let's try to remix this more." Tommy Boy was just trying to be very efficient in that manner. [An employee] from Tommy Boy had let me hear some of the first songs and it was like three, four songs. One of them was "Feel Me Flow." I was like, "Yo, this dope," and she was like, "Yo, why don't you try something?"
I tried something. I went home and, like, "Feel me flow," and that's when I came up with "Itzsoweezee." But after making it, I was just like, "Well, it just sounds like something that ... the song that Naughty has is already kind of like a radio record." This particular thing I made, it didn't seem like it would take it further so I just kind of sat on it. I was like, "Well, I don't know what to do with this," and then I let Dave hear it. Dave had heard it and he was like, "Man, you kidding me?" He was like, "Yo, I'll rhyme on it," because I couldn't hear myself rhyming on it and he was like ... I had already had my solo track for Stakes Is High, which was "Wonce Again Long Island" so he was like, "Yo, I don't have anything by myself. Let me take that." "Itzsoweezee" was the last track recorded.
On the making of “Pony Ride.”
Maseo: At this time we had put a studio in Dave's house and I was around when he was messing around with that particular track. He was just stopping and starting the record with the vinyl. You know how, when DJs do tricks and they'll break the record down. He tried that concept with the jazz sample and looped it like that and it came out pretty hot. When he did it, he was like, oh shit, that's pretty fucking dope. Catch that?
Then it just went from there. Truth Enola was an up and coming MC around our way. He's from Freeport but he was coming around our way with some other friends and he was a great inspiration too. New talent has always been a great landmark for us to do new material. It's that innocence that's always regarded with us. It's always a blessing... catching somebody who really loved us, really inspired to work with us, hoping they can get on through us or whatever. Here it is not really knowing how talented they really are.
On How Mos Def Influenced Pos.
Posdnuos: I've always been a person who looked at Mos and Common as like...I'm always a student. I've said it time and time again. Mos hanging around and being around that entire recording process pretty much coming in and out… I was studying them. I never miss a chance to be a student because of the fact that I'm trying to pose to people that I am this legendary teacher. I never gave a shit about none of that. I feel like Stakes Is High is where me as Pos really came into trying to perfect and get better at flowing. I was improving and doing what I needed to do from the first album up until the third album and how I wrote and how I could tell a story.
Dave has always been able to do the same thing and has such an amazing flow. For Stakes Is High that was one of the things for me that I wanted to focus on and I think that's what I tried to do on "Supa Emcees" and stuff like that. I wanted people to know that, "Yo, Pos can rhyme. He can emcee." Being around Mos and Common and them, they were just around and they really was like a battery for me to just be inspired by.
Mos was always around. Mind you, we always had that type of environment where it wasn't overpowered by these people being around but good vibes was always welcome, people was always welcome. Mos was one of them, whether Mos came through, Mos will come through with his brother, so someone like Medina Green would be hanging with us in the studio as well. That's how even in "Stakes Is High" we got the little dice game thing. We would all hang.
On the Rift with Naughty By Nature.
Posdnuos: The intro to "Stakes Is High" is where I said, "Stick to your Naughty By Nature and your cane, because the words that I post upon the wax is insane." I was just trying to say to someone like, "Yo, you stick to your way of how you get down ... because what I have, it'll get you beyond high. I'm just too potent." Instead of this saying, "You'll stick to your nature because you can't deal with my nature," or ... I just said, "Naughty By Nature," it sounded dope to say, kind of just playing on words. If someone was like, "I come sweeter than Jeru." I don't think Jeru [the damaja] would have been like, "Yo, you nicer than me?"
I didn't mean it at all in a disrespectful way. Mind you, like I said, that rhyme that was heard on Stakes Is High was written a year earlier. It was supposed to be a part of a remix. Unfortunately, after Stakes Is High came out, at some point, we realized that Naughty had a discrepancy, or maybe Treach, with that line. He thought that we were trying to diss. Mind you, we were so cool with Naughty and we were one of the first dudes, if not the first group, who put them on our show in North Carolina. We had just gained such a really cool relationship with each other, we just didn't take it seriously like it was going to go into anything bad. We was like, "Yo, whenever we run into them, we can just talk about it."
Funny enough, Vinny called and I told him everything, I spoke to them so I told them what it was. I said, "Yo, please let's get up," but we never wound up getting up. I think Mase saw Treach at New Music Seminar, I guess Treach ran into him on it. Once again, it was just something like Treach expressed to Mase he was upset about, but we thought we could work it out. Then, we did two shows that night, we did something at NYU and then a little bit later we ran right to the Palladium. We got on stage and was doing our performing and there were a bunch of people up front and they was just jamming with us and then they put their hand out as if they was going to slap fives. I went to clap to do five and next thing I know, someone's trying to pull me off stage.
I said, "Yo, what's going on?" I tried to pull my hand back and I see Treach coming up towards the same people, so it was his people. It was just unfortunate, it was truly a misunderstanding. As it can be, which is good, time went by and cats forgot all about it and us and Naughty we got our shit straight. Me and Treach talked about it and everything and it was just an unfortunate misunderstanding.
Maseo: There was definitely a misunderstanding that turned into a rift. Treach is my brother. I love him to this day. We’re all dealing with the transitions at this time. Everybody is a little sensitive and insecure about a whole lot. You’ve got your crew, your clique, here it is. He feels like he’s got to do something about it because his crew is saying one thing and the record really means something else.
Yeah, just a whole lot going on with the people having … Gaining success, losing success, at a crossroads with success, egos getting in the way, crew is in your ear, and we’re still pretty young. You’re at the crossroads of becoming a man and still dealing with ignorant shit coming from the block. I’m glad we got to a point of getting past that but we had the inner tragedy of having a little bit of beef for a minute.
I’ve talked to Treach. He was confused, disappointed and hurt. We really talked about it. I felt like even it wasn’t taken to any physicality, we could have gotten into it in private but the record was out there and so he felt he had to make it just as public as the record. We came at it but … We’re all at a better space today. Apologizing on both ends and that was a time in rap where there was a lot of pop shots being and taken and given all across the board throughout the entire genre.
On The Rift With Tupac.
Maseo: ‘Pac was mad at us for "Ego Tripping" [from Buhloone Mindstate]. I didn’t catch that. I just wanted the video done and I didn’t really catch what he took offense to. Because when 'Pac dissed us I’m like, “Where the fuck is that coming from?” It felt like he was on one. A couple of years later after his death, running into his sister, his sister was like, “My brother loved you all very much. He just couldn’t understand why you all did that video 'Ego Tripping.' It looked like you all was taking shots at him from the 'I Get Around' shit.” I went and looked at that shit and was like, you know what? He’s absolutely fucking right and I’m sorry. I wish I caught that shit. I ran into the video director a couple of years later and … I don’t know if he was pretending to me or not, but I did bring it to his attention. We had a long talk about it. He was once in the West Coast and we talked about the whole East-West thing and going from A to Z with it and when we finally got around it, talking about ‘Ego Tripping’ and what 'Pac thought, he was like, “Really? You all didn’t think that?” I didn’t see that. That wasn’t my intention.
On The title Stakes Is High and The Vocal Interlude.
Maseo: Man, it was just reflecting on really people’s everyday struggles, you know? Talking to a guy on the streets like … Those days when we would be out in front of Platinum Island studios, that’s where I would be. The record sounds so summery because we were always ... It was definitely peak of the spring and summer when we recorded these records and we were in downtown Manhattan at Platinum Island Studios right on roadway, so you’d come out on Broadway at a certain time of day, lunch hour and after work hours you’re bound to see everybody. From people from upper echelons to homeless people, so I just was kicking it with some homeless people and one person in particular person he was like, “Dude!” There’s obviously more sound bites but it’s just somebody who really got it hard right now, really got it bad right now. It looked real bad.
On the surface it’s like damn, this person is fucked. Not realizing that at some point this person was a child, this person had something happy or decent going on in their lives. Talking to the man, he was very intelligent, he was very smart. He had it all, and had lost it all. He was a victim of his own circumstances; he was explaining just ups and downs of life, what he was dealing with, even his own personal demons. His own personal demons brought such people in his life that even brought him to lower point.
At some point I know that everybody’s dealing with some sort of struggle and it doesn’t always have to connect with money. Because even the people with money, they’ve got way more stress … They’ve got the stress of keeping it. We were just trying to broad stroke how stakes is high for everybody on all levels, whether it was musically addressed or it was the homeless person we addressed, whether we talked about the upper echelons. Everybody had their own level of struggle, their own level of stakes being high at the point in time of their lives.
On Getting a J Dilla Beat For The Title Track.
Maseo: This is the first time we actually did a song in the name of the title of the album. It was something that Pos heard hanging with Q-Tip, playing this new beat tape from Dilla.
Now you know, they always had this weird relationship. Tip would play Pos some music, he would play all of us music, but Pos in particular, he would play him some music because Pos helped give ideas all the time. He was always like…Pos is always right. He was always coming up with concepts. That’s why all the records you would hear him rhyme the first, because he would have these concepts pretty much laid out, which would be really cool. He was just proactive like that.
Tip is playing this new beat for Pos from Dilla and based on the history that those two have, anytime Pos gave a head nod to some shit, Q-Tip ended up keeping the beat and try to make something out of it, so he tried to use reverse psychology on this particular one. "Stakes is High" came up on the beat, Pos kind of held back. He was like, “What do you think of this beat?” "Stakes Is High" beat playing and Pos was like, “It’s all right. It’s OK” but then secretly goes off in the corner and calls Dave was like, Yo! This is the fucking beat. This is it right here. I’ve got to figure out how to get it but this is it. Then went from that point on. Pos reaching out to Dilla separately.
Once he let the beat thing sit with Q-Tip for a little while and just never picked that beat. He was like, “Dilla, we need this beat.” But he made sure he got to Dilla without Tip knowing. Dilla was excited because here we are at this point in time where Dilla had already been seasoned in the game doing different things in the name of The Ummah, working with different artists but hadn’t did a De La Soul record. He had been dying to at least land something for the group.
The title “Stakes is High” was really birthed from Dave’s cousin Fudge, who passed away a couple of years ago. Fudge was murdered in Atlanta, he was a taxi driver. He got murdered but around this time, he was always like …we always credit him to be like a hip-hop analyst and he would always be very passionate. He would very passionate about his discussions. He almost appeared to be argumentative, but he would just be really passionate about his discussions with hip-hop. He would always say to us, he was like, “I don’t know what you all going through, but you all better do something. The stakes is really high for you right now. I’m trying to tell you stakes is high for De La right now.” He said, “I don’t know what the fuck you all think about …” and it was always the big thing that he would argue with Dave. Because Dave would be the real nonchalant one and not really proactive.
On the Gangsterism in Rap
Maseo: This was a time when rappers were really clinging to the media and this idea of this gangster shit — this whole Mafioso thing that was happening at the time. It was like … It was heartbreaking because we’re talking about Italian mobs who don’t like Black people and we’ve got rappers adopting this Mafioso ideology.
Even when it came to certain videos. It was like, Are you guys aware of what you’re doing? Because we’re actually glorifying a group people that don’t even like us. When it came to this gangster shit, dudes dressing like old school mafia. You know what made me really love 50 Cent? He took the name of a Black gangster. Freddie Foxxx, AKA Bumpy Knuckles, took the name of a Black gangster. What made me love Biggie [Smalls], even though the fucking character was fictitious, it was Black.
This was a real reality for me. I went to school in Bay Ridge. So to go from where I lived to school — going home was tough. It was rough. I got chased home many times by Italian white boys. I got my ass kicked a couple of times, too. It all was all part of the premise of just being Black. Like, "Nigga, get from around here."
I had an Italian friend that I would end up chilling with a couple of times and he and I were both naïve, because we were like fuck that. We’re friends. But then he would be in predicaments where he’s getting his ass kicked with me because he’s my friend. I’m not a racist but I knew clearly what I was… when I was in the street, what I was getting into and the kids that were kicking my ass, the adults that was allowing them to kick my ass. You tap into that. As beautiful as our neighborhood is, it’s gangster. It’s gangster as hell. I’ve been around there and if you aren’t with the right people, you will get dealt with. I understand rappers at this time got into all of this, but...those rappers should have challenged the media going like, “We’re not gangster rap, we’re just reality rap.
They should have kept bringing it back to that because a lot of cats did grow up in less fortunate situations that forced them to stick on a life of crime just to support their families. It don’t make you a gangster though. There’s certain things that push you to a limit when you’re hungry, but that doesn’t make you a gangster. Where I'm from, gangster shit is definitely organized crime. Just because you killed somebody don’t mean you a gangster.
On the Legacy of Stakes is High.
Maseo: It ended up, turning out being as successful as we needed it to be. It wasn’t really about record sales, although selling records is always a great thing. It sustains us monetarily and all that, but it was a statement that was way more important than the sales of the record and its statement. Let’s put it like this, the statement of the record, the response behind the statement let us know there’s a place in this music industry for us. That whether we sell 100,000 records or 100,000,000 records, De La has a significant place in this music business.
Edwin “STATS” Houghton is a noted music journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Okayplayer.com.