Inside De La Soul's Experimental, Crowd-Funded Comeback Record

"That element of not knowing what you're doing ... it felt like '3 Feet High and Rising'"

Credit: Robbie Jeffers

"I don't want to sit here and say it's another 3 Feet High and Rising, I would never say that," says De La Soul's Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer about his group's upcoming eighth album, their first in 12 years. "But that element of not knowing what you're doing, like, it felt like 3 Feet High and Rising. Like, we walked in, we didn't know the rules."

The pioneering Long Island expressionist rap crew has come a long way from their 1989 debut, which turned hip-hop upside down with puzzling samples of learn-French records, delirious skits, out-of-this-atmosphere poetics and naughty noise. But for their first album in their 40s, And the Anonymous Nobody, De La aren't afraid to speed over the potholes on the road less traveled: Nobody will be the first album by a major rap group completely financed by crowd-funding site Kickstarter. The record was recorded with a live band, Los Angeles' Rhythm Roots All-Stars, and then manipulated later with producer Dave West. One song, the Little Dragon-assisted "Drawn," is an avant-indie opus full of plucked string counterpoints which goes nearly five minutes before anyone from this legendary rap group actually … raps.

"We couldn't do that on a regular label," says Posdnous. " How you gonna present them with a song like this? They may think it's beautiful but then it's like, 'Okay, so, there's no chorus. For maybe the first three minutes of the record, you’re nowhere to be found.'"

De La will be releasing the album under their newly minted AOI imprint. Physical and digital distribution will be handled by Kobalt, the label services company that has recently worked projects by Prince, Lenny Kravitz and Best Coast.

"The idea of signing [to] a label was a bit scary," says bandmate Dave Jolicoeur, who says they treated the Kickstarter campaign like a challenge. "We’ve been, obviously, on a label for about 20 years or so and then got moved and kicked around in the whole WEA system, and then ended up on Sanctuary. They really didn’t support that record [2004's The Grind Date]. So just the idea of putting our project and what we create in someone else’s hands … is a scary thing."

This exploratory, self-funded, self-released album comes after a monstrously successful Kickstarter campaign last March. The group's $110,000 goal was met within hours — and then met nearly six more times. The group had put together a imaginative line-up of "rewards" for donors: $30 got you the album loaded on a thumb drive shaped like one of the group members' heads, $350 got you a hand-written lyrics sheet, $7,500 let you appear on a skit on the album. The group put in hours of work getting all the tiers situated with their project manager, Brandon Hixon.

"We love the freedom. But with that freedom and trying to run this, there's a lot of responsibility that goes into it," says Posdnous. "Because, you know, sometimes, you just wanna be, like, 'Alright, look, but today I need to write. Yo, man. Like, we've been on the phone for two hours. I gotta go!'

"If you take the time, and put on your big boy pants and realize if I just put in a little bit of work to get this to our fans and listeners who want to hear good music, they will be there. … You could either go into your minibar and pay $10 for the little Pringles or just walk right outside to the bodega and get it for a dollar." 

The De La campaign was stocked with exclusive T-shirts, limited edition colored vinyl, and offers for video chats — not to mention the unmet (a $2,500 dinner with the group at soul food fusion mainstay Red Rooster went unclaimed) to the impossible (the idea for a sampler pre-loaded with the album ended up being scrapped). One of the more whimsical tiers, a $2,000 reward titled "Sneaker Pimpin," meant that two lucky fans got to spend the day shopping in New York with the group's resident sneakerhead, Posdnous.

"They were both from Australia, so I was just, like, honestly blown away," says Posdnous. "You're spending your money to fly from Australia just to hang out with me for a few hours?"

Though the original offer only promised a pair of signed sneakers and an afternoon hunting for kicks, Posdnous ended up calling in some favors to some sneaker companies for "parting gifts," and the crew ran into Jeff Staple, designer of the highly limited "Pigeon Dunks," whose rarity caused a small melee in 2005.

"I made a friend!" says Dave, who spent a day toy shopping in New York with a fan from Colorado. "He loves toys and stuff like that, but he just wanted to have a conversation. He wanted to talk and kick it and talk about music and hip-hop and pick my brain about everything De La. It was nice to see a fan use an opportunity to connect with an artist and really use it."

The record itself, like all their releases this side of the millennium, will feature a slew of guests, including, Damon Albarn, Usher, Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott, Pete Rock, Estelle, Roc Marciano and Justin Hawkins from the Darkness. 2 Chainz was suggested for a chorus and then he decided to rhyme. Though an attempt to grab Axl Rose never materialized, one of his fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Famers came through almost immediately.

"[There's] tons of tons of raw footage … of just jamming," says Posdnous … "We were going through a bunch of stuff. Just putting stuff in what was gonna be called the trash file. And so I made I point, 'Look at this song here, we can’t rhyme with this. This sound like something Talking Heads would be on,' and it was like, DINNNNG! Wait a minute, what if we got David Byrne to do this track?'

"He just did this amazing just humming and scatting over the beat. He said, 'I don't have the words yet but this is what I hear … Tell me what you think.' He's asking me for my opinions?! I'm like, 'You're fucking David Byrne! You shit on the track it's good!'"

The track, "Snoopies," is closer to their cosmopolitan genre-hopping with Gorillaz than their days in the Native Tongues of the Eighties. It constantly switches moods, mixing some Kraftwerkian bumps, psych-Dilla breakdowns and cut-up vocals with Byrne in the globalism philosopher mode of 1988's "Nothing But Flowers." Are the MCs whose most famous lines are meta-commentary about their place in hip-hop concerned where they'll fit in the landscape in 2016?

"I think we're comfortable in just feeling that we don't fit. … I think sometimes, the object that is all the way over there," says Posdnous, throwing his cellphone across the table, "you almost want to pay more attention, because the object's here, everyone's there. It's funny... We even at one point let Nas hear a bunch of tracks. And it was just dope how he was like, 'Yo man, this is like some avant-garde shit.'"