Three Feet High and Missing: Why De La Soul's albums aren't available online

By Mark Savage
BBC Music reporter

Image source, AOI / Kobalt
Image caption,
None of De La Soul's early albums are available to stream or download

As they release their first album in 10 years, De Le Soul explain why their classic records are missing from streaming services and download stores.

De La Soul's debut album 3 Feet High and Rising is a rap landmark: A free-thinking, kaleidoscopic record that expanded hip-hop's palette with goofy sketches, socially-conscious lyrics and samples from Johnny Cash and Steely Dan.

Songs like Eye Know and The Magic Number are classics, but you cannot stream them. Nor are they available on iTunes.

The same goes for the follow-up, De La Soul Is Dead, and almost all of the band's subsequent releases.

"It's really heart-wrenching," says Kelvin Mercer, aka Posdnuos, De La Soul's laid-back, loquacious spokesman.

"It's an unfortunate place we've been put in as a group."

The problem is all those samples - more than 70 on 3 Feet High and Rising alone. Even though the band's record label got clearance for most (but not all) of them in 1989, they failed to predict the rise of the internet.

"Our contracts on those early albums said specifically 'vinyl and cassette,'" explains Posdnuos. "The wording wasn't vague enough to lend itself to [new] music technology.

"So once the whole age of digital music came into play, new deals needed to be cut for those entire albums."

Image source, Rex Features
Image caption,
The band's feel-good hip-hop was built around the concept of the D.A.I.S.Y. age - an acronym for "da inner sound, y'all"

The master tapes are now owned by Warner Bros records who, the rapper says, have been reluctant to tackle the issue.

"They're like, 'Is it worth it?'" he says. "They've got to go through almost every song with a fine comb to make sure this sample or that sample was cleared. They just don't want to deal with it.

"Whenever we find someone who works there that's willing to help us, there'll be a change of the guard and a whole bunch of new people come in, and they don't know what's going on. It's been a very lengthy, draining process."

Posdnuos is particularly upset that new fans who discovered De La Soul through their collaboration with Gorillaz can only hear low-quality, unlicensed versions of the De La Soul's classic albums on YouTube, from which he earns nothing.

'Amazing process'

"Young people want to invest in who you are, and there's nothing around for them to invest in," he says.

"It's just something that we're trying to work out. Hopefully there'll be a light at the end of the tunnel."

While work on releasing De La Soul's back catalogue has stalled, the band are concentrating on the future.

On their new album, And The Anonymous Nobody, they even found a cunning way to circumvent copyright clearance: Recording brand new music with a live band and sampling that instead.

"It was just an amazing process," says Posdnuos. "We would have jam sessions going on for about 15 minutes. Out of those sessions, we would loop something, or chop something up, or manipulate something, so each session could morph into three different songs, or even four."

Image source, AOI / Kobalt
Image caption,
And The Anonymous Nobody, the band's eighth album, has already received rave reviews

In total, they recorded more than 200 hours of material, funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $600,000 (£462,600) from fans.

Investors were rewarded with a series of unusual incentives: Those who spent $30 got the album on a USB drive shaped like one of the members' heads; $7,500 earned someone a guest spot on the album; while $2,000 gave two lucky fans the chance to spend a day sneaker shopping with Posdnuos in New York.

"They were both from Australia," he says, still somewhat bewildered. "It was a lot of pressure for me because I was like, 'Wow, you're going to fly all that way on your own dime? From Australia? Just to hang out with me?'.

"I had to make sure these guys had a great time."

'Make it feel real'

Although the original reward only promised a signed pair of shoes, Posdnuos ended up calling in some favours - secretly arranging a meeting with fashion designer Jeff Staples, who designed a "very rare Nike Dunk called The Pigeon".

When the fan, an avid sneaker-collector himself, saw Staples, he started "shaking in his pants," Posdnuos recalls. "It was really hilarious."

Ultimately, those investors allowed De La Soul to make their most experimental album yet; from Here In After's chirpy Afro-funk to the avant garde pop of Drawn, which features Swedish band Little Dragon.

On Unfold, the trio rap using dialect from America's frontier days.

"We spent hours just looking through old Western slang to make it feel real," says Posdnuos.

"So when Dave [Jolicoeur, aka Trugoy] is rhyming about the card game, the dude's name is Tumbleweed Baker. A girl calls him TB and he's like, 'Don't call me TB, they'll think I'm a lunger.' And a lunger means a person who has tuberculosis. Stuff like that is really, really cool."

Image source, AOI / Kobalt
Image caption,
The band chose to release the album independently, despite being courted by several major labels

The record even has room for a space rock epic, Lord Intended, with vocals by Justin Hawkins of The Darkness (it was originally offered to Axl Rose and Lenny Kravitz) that lasts for seven squealing minutes.

"That's why we went the route of crowdfunding," says Posdnuos, "because a label would make us try to change songs to fit in a radio world.

"We felt someone would listen to the Little Dragon track, Drawn, and be like, 'This sounds amazing'. But on the third listen, when they turned on their record company brain, they would say, 'But there's no chorus, and you don't rap until the last two minutes of the song… Can you make a version where you rhyme earlier?'"

"And we were like, 'No! If people are given the chance to hear it in this form, they'll love it, because it feels right.

"That's what music is. We think back to certain groups where our minds were blown - like when we heard Grandmaster Flash and the message and realised, 'Wow, you don't have to just party when you rhyme - you can talk about something serious'; or when we heard Run DMC and thought, 'Oh wait a minute, you can rhyme with a rock record.'"

"If people are just given the chance to do what they need to do as an artist, it inspires and changes the game."

De La Soul And The Anonymous Nobody is out on 26 August via AOI / Kobalt Records.

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