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Soul School

De La Soul is not dead. Sure, it's been a while since anyone has heard from the legendary rap trio, but the goodfellas from Long Island are back with a new label and a new album, and they're ready to teach the world a thing or two about hip-hop -- literally.

"It's a class that they do that the kids actually get credit for," says Posdnous, aka Kelvin Mercer, of a lecture he and the rest of his crew -- Dave "Trugoy" Jolicoeur and Vincent "Mase" Mason -- were asked to give at NYU. "The class has people come in and talk about their experiences, bad or good -- whether it's to try to understand what you do before you sign, or understanding points, or anything that they wanted to ask about the industry."

As hip-hop increasingly infiltrates academia, it's not surprising that professors would call upon such elder statesmen to drop some knowledge on a style they helped create. After all, De La has a grasp on the issues that face those interested in breaking into the industry. Whether discussing sample clearance (in a landmark case that made it necessary to clear all samples before an album could be released, the act was sued by the Turtles for use of part of the song "You Showed Me" on its debut, 3 Feet High and Rising) or the current industry shakedown that left the group without a label, the three are a repository of information.

Not to mention a wealth of talent. After releasing six studio albums that consistently set the standard for uncompromising originality, De La Soul returns with The Grind Date, its first release in three years and the first release on Sanctuary Urban, a division of London-based Sanctuary Records Group. With a joint-venture deal that allows De La to develop its AOI label, the act feels it is in a good place with Sanctuary. Beyoncé's dad, Matthew Knowles, is the president of Sanctuary Urban, and the group's members hope he can do what their former label, Tommy Boy Records, could not: make it clear that De La Soul is alive and kicking.

Remarkably, De La Soul has not gone gold since its sophomore effort, 1991's De La Soul Is Dead, was released. Despite universal critical acclaim, 2001's AOI : Bionix, sold less than 150,000 copies. At the time, Tommy Boy was in dire straits and not in a position to properly promote the group.

"When you have fans coming up to you, and not even knowing your album is out, that can be very frustrating," Pos says.

Tommy Boy, a prominent early supporter of hip-hop, which released such classics as Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," invariably dropped its hip-hop roster, leaving De La without a home.

"We were in a terrible position with the last album," Pos recalls. "Because of where the label was themselves, I think they just owed so much to the parent company, and they just stopped funding them. It's a little bit beyond bitter. It's sad for a company that has done so much for hip-hop."

Likewise, for a group that has done so much for the genre, it would be a shame if De La Soul's new joint doesn't get played alongside Nelly and Fabolous on mainstream radio. The Grind Date is a soulful affair from start to finish. Like the new releases from De La's stylistic descendants, the Roots and Talib Kweli, the album is a stripped-down effort, clocking in with just twelve tracks. Gone are the skits -- an innovation they helped pioneer -- which sounded fresh on 3 Feet and Rising but began to sound tired and stale on later recordings. The result is a record that is a rap rarity: all quality songs, no filler.

To flesh out the group's sound, De La Soul rejoined forces with the A-list producers who have been with them for the last couple of releases, Supa Dave West and Jay Dee. West produces five of the songs, including the title track, in which Pos spits this jab at Tommy Boy label head Tom Silverman: "They say the meek shall inherit the earth, but don't forget the poor shall inherit the debt/You can bet I got better things to do than that/I was a dick who got jerked by Tom and his boys."

Pos and company also enlisted some of today's rising beat-makers, such as Jake One, Madlib and Little Brother's 9th Wonder, whose styles were influenced by De La Soul's early Prince Paul-produced records. Understandably, when asked to collaborate, the young producers felt honored, if a bit intimidated.

"They asked us at one point, ŒIs there something in particular you want?'" Pos remembers. "We let them know: ŒJust do you.' Put together good music and let us listen to it. And then we'll tell you what we feel, as opposed to you trying to make what you think De La Soul wants to hear."

The end result is a combination that flows like the break of dawn. Madlib produced the first reggae-laced single, "Shopping Bags (She Got from You)," which features Sean Paul. Jake One delivered two songs ("Days of Our Lives," with Common, and "Rock Co. Kane Flow," with MF Doom) from a CD of beats that, according to Pos, was intended for another crew, like G-Unit. And 9th Wonder delivered a smooth gospel sound for "Church," which opens up with an introduction from longtime fan Spike Lee.

"Dave came up with the first line, which is him singing, 'Hey, yo, wake up!' a cappella," Pos explains. "And then the beat comes in after 'up.' Every time I heard it, it would remind me of School Daze, when Laurence Fishburne is screaming 'Wake up!' at the end of the movie. So I just suggested to him it could be cool to have Spike Lee do an introduction and have him say, 'Yo, wake up!'"

On the cut, Jolicoeur issues his own wake-up call to those blinded by materialism and thug posturing: "I don't really care to see your tattoos there/I'd rather see you graduate the school year/Black folks, go put a book in your face."

"'Church' is a song that reminds me of a Stakes Is High type of vibe," Pos notes. "I know growing up in my home, the slang words 'Let's take 'em to church' means let's show them right, let's teach them right."

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James Mayo

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