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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : De La Soul: Much of Excitement Is Gone

October 10, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — De La Soul arrived on the national scene five years ago with "3 Feet High and Rising," one of the most varied and playful rap albums ever produced. It fed omnivorously upon such varied--even incongruous--sources as '60s soul and '70s disco, and it went beyond the usual R & B foundations to craft rap songs out of materials borrowed from Steely Dan and psychedelic pop.

The Long Island trio's next move was to ditch the loopy sweetness that prevailed on "3 Feet High" and reveal a pronounced bitter streak on its disillusioned, dyspeptic 1991 follow-up, "De La Soul Is Dead."

Going from sweet to sour at least signaled a willingness to go to extremes and avoid repetition. With its most recent album, "Buhloone Mindstate," which came out a year ago, De La Soul settled into an in-between state in which the group's previously inventive studio production turned ordinary and the rhyming grew routine.

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In a 70-minute set Friday night at the Coach House, the three fancifully nicknamed band members--rappers Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer) and Trugoy the Dove (David Jolicoeur) and DJ Maseo (Vincent Mason Jr.)--weren't able to generate anything special either.

Of course, specialness often eludes live rappers, who have to leave their most alluring musical resource, an electronic collage of sounds, in the studio. De La Soul didn't augment its performance with supporting musicians, singers or dancers, choosing to play it the old-fashioned way, with all the beats and embellishments supplied by dual turntables.

Given the limitations of the format, De La Soul showed solid skills. Posdnuos (pronounced pos-di-noose) and Trugoy (that's "yogurt" spelled backward) don't have distinctive vocal hues or a knack for character-playing. But both voices came across clearly and their tandem work was as forceful and well-coordinated as Vince Lombardi's old Green Bay sweep.

The show's pacing kept the energy flowing, except for a couple of needlessly long lulls when the rappers engaged the crowd in a name-that-rap-tune contest and invited audience members to come on stage and take a shot at impromptu, "freestyle" rhyme-slinging. Six answered the call with unremarkable results as the segment went on for about 10 minutes.

Even so, De La Soul successfully answered the fundamental challenge of live rap, which is to keep the crowd on its feet and eager for any call-and-response hollering and shout-along refrains that might pop up.

While it met the basic requirements of sharp technique and maintaining a happily riled-up audience, De La Soul didn't make much of its time thematically. The trio left out its socially conscious raps, such as "Ghetto Than" and "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa" (about an outwardly upstanding citizen who drives his daughter to violence with his sexual abuse).

Instead, the themes that preoccupied De La Soul the most were its own standing in a rap universe, and the conflict between musical creativeness and the distracting blandishments of riches and fame. What came across most clearly, both in raps and between-songs declarations, was an anti-stardom ethic that's more common to punk rock than to hip-hop, where boasting of one's status and ability to "get paid" is commonplace.

While they performed several raps from "3 Feet High," Posdnuos and Trugoy seemed leery of their most successful album. "We hate this song," the rappers chanted as a lead-in to their debut album's biggest hit, the affirmative declaration of individuality, "Me Myself And I." The duo couldn't finish it without cracking up in laughter down the home stretch.

"We didn't come up here to boast that we're rap stars," Trugoy announced near the end of the show. "We're just three individuals who do what we love."

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That set the stage for an effectively taunting version of the show-closing "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)." In it, the rappers mocked people who want to fly in the orbit of stars, either opportunistically to further their own ambitions, or to bolster their egos with the perceived status derived from contact with the rich and famous.

While Trugoy's lead-in was idealistic, De La Soul's stance in "Ring Ring Ring"--and several others like it--is more than a little jaded and embittered, especially in light of the trio's hopeful debut album. But it's still a praiseworthy outlook to have. The lust for celebrity news and celebrity contact--and the growing dominance of media devoted to satisfying that lust--has grown keener than is healthy for a democracy founded on the notion that aristocracy and its privileges are inherently corrupt.

For performers like De La Soul, who attract the media spotlight, the challenge is to keep outside pressures and temptations from compromising the creative process. But with its creative balloon having deflated considerably on "Buhloone Mindstate," leaving it in danger of becoming just another rap act, this once-distinctive group has its work cut out for it.

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