De La’s Maseo champions DJs & dishes dirt

Hard-working hip hop DJs deserve more prominence, more credit and more respect. Maseo tells us why.

DJ Maseo began cutting up records across all five boroughs at age six, then started a band called De La Soul, where he’s rocked the wheels ever since. But you can’t say the rest is history. Even the biggest De La fans probably don’t know enough about this most affable and genuine of hip hop architects.

Luckily, Maseo (that’s Plug 3, to De La fam), who appears live at Tokyo tonight with Native Tongues cohort and Tribe Called Quest-er Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is at no loss for words about what he loves, hates and just don’t understand.

Darcy MacDonald: When you do a DJ set, what kind of aesthetic do you try to bring?
DJ Maseo: My first love has always been DJing, so it’s important for me to read the crowd and rock the crowd based on that reading. But the majority of the time I try to deliver pretty much everything that I grew up on, that inspired me to do what I do to this day, and educate the audience as I play. Normally, when I come through, there’s always like an anticipation of me playing the golden era. And I love playin’ it, don’t get it twisted, because that’s all the music I came up with, as far as records [De La Soul] made, and Tribe, and Jungle Brothers. But I’d even go a bit further and say Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy, Nice & Smooth, Das EFX, EPMD. I love playing that stuff! That was a big part of my upcoming. Then, I love my funk and soul — I’m a music head! I’ve been DJing since I was six years old, so I embody a lotta music.

I like some of the current stuff, too, but I only play that if it’s conducive to that type of audience.

DM: You mean people waiting for you to play Lady Gaga?
Maseo: I don’t take requests, and I think that’s some sucker-ass shit. I always tell the audience, like, if I play Lady Gaga, that’s on me. I’m never gonna do it on request, because the job of the DJ is the element of surprise. Now, if you wanna request, I suggest you go out to your car, call up the local radio station and make a request. Or go to, like, I dunno, a ’50s burger joint and put money in the jukebox. ‘Cause I’m not that guy.

Me and Shaheed, we share the same sentiments. We talk about this kinda thing all the time. It’s just so wack when someone comes at you like that. It’s always somebody really young who probably just turned 21 and came in the club the first time. They don’t even really know how to party yet. But I’ve learned a lot about how to study the crowd and work stuff into my set that eliminates the requests, and I think I learned that from Jazzy Jeff. He’s a very dynamic DJ that plays literally everything. I thought I played everything but I don’t compare to what he does.

DM: Who are some of the newer DJs you respect in the game right now?
Maseo: I’m honestly not really aware of that many “new DJs.” Everybody [that I know of] has already put in 10 years plus, that I have respect for. I don’t know that many of these guys, let alone half the guys out here DJing for new rappers. I don’t know who they are, because they’re not even DJs, you know? They’re just pressing a button, man.

So I don’t take interest because the artists themselves don’t even talk about their DJs like back in the day. The DJ was somebody you revered, because he was the backbone to the MC’s situation. From the early days, it was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It was Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. The DJ was the marquee dude.

Everybody I love and respect put in their time. The Beat Junkies are my favourite, from the West Coast. J Rocc, Rhettmatic, Mr. Choc, the whole crew. Shortcut. As I begin to think more and more, there’s a lot more on that list. People who continue to evolve. Kid Capri is still one of my favorite DJs. Next to Jeff, he’s the ultimate party rocker. That’s also because he got charisma on the mic. He knows how to engage the audience, and I think that’s a signature New York style of DJing that comes from the days of DJ Hollywood & Brucie B.

The music that is made today is not even conducive to turntablism. I think the only music that’s helping to bring back that style is dubstep. I don’t really care for dubstep, but I see the significance of what it does for the dancer and what it does for the DJ. I try to keep an open mind, though, because once upon a time we were those kids and everybody who was older than us hated what we did. When it comes to the point in your life where you don’t get it, where you can’t relate, it’s because maybe you’re not supposed to. But I think by being in it, and let alone me being a DJ who actually makes records, I feel like I have a better understanding because I still make records.

DM: To what degree were/are you involved in De La Soul production? As the DJ, did you work with Prince Paul, Dilla and subsequent producers closely?

Maseo: See, that’s this unfortunate misnomer, because Paul was moreso alongside us. This is no disrespect, because his work has been just as significant as everyone else in the group, but it’s just unfortunate that people assume that he’s done everything. If you really listen to Prince Paul’s solo stuff beside the De La records, you can totally hear the difference. Prince Paul played a big part in helping us deliver the humour in our music, the true innocence in our music, and being able to add things on to the music we were already working on to make it that much more. He didn’t actually produce “Plug Tunin’.” Pos produced it, brought the main thing to the table. I programmed the drums. And then Paul added certain things to it that definitely brought it more to life.

So it was always a collective effort. “Me Myself and I” was my record — I brought that to the table. “Say No Go” was Pos. “Ego Trippin’” was my record. “Ring Ring Ring” was Paul’s record, and we all built on that together. It’s unfortunate that people don’t truly know the significance of the work.

Early on, I think with the lack of education and titles, and you’re new in the game, you kinda give seniority to the person puttin’ you on without realizing. I didn’t realize how damaging that was until way later because here it was that nobody knew our work — I’m not in the credits, or if I am it’s coupled with the group. I don’t get notice for the production that I’ve done and I don’t get work outside the clique, so I gotta work that much harder to get my stuff out there.

I’ve taken an interest in wanting to expand [in production] because I’ve always been kinda exclusive to the group. And…put it like this: there was cheques coming to Paul before he even agreed to projects! I wanted that kinda, like, you know, leeway! (laughs)

I began to realize that I didn’t have that because in black and white, it wasn’t deemed Maseo. It was deemed Prince Paul. And when interviews like this come up, questions always come up about the past material. I hate to put Paul on blast like that, but it’s just the truth. It’s just the truth. And Paul never said he was the sole producer. People just assume that. But I do kinda fault him for not setting that record straight and letting assumptions go.
[But] the lack of knowledge back then when we was all just overzealous kids with a dream, and I think it applied in everybody’s camp, was a lesson to be learned, and all in all was just one to grow on.

DM: You have, really, one of the greatest smiles in hip hop, Mase. You’re always beaming up on stage at De La shows. Where does that love come from?
Maseo: (laughing) Thank you, man! Look, I grew up pretty rough, amongst hip hop. So to be living my childhood dream and doing it successfully, I appreciate it and I love it. Even when I’m on stage I kinda resort to my childhood with a lot of it, because this was the ultimate thing that made me happy through my struggle. I never knew it woulda turned into a profession! Especially with where it came from. We did whatever we wanted because we didn’t think this would ever be accepted. I went into it with a clean heart because a lot of shit around me was dysfunctional and this made me happy. Watching it grow, watching it break down barriers and cross over other ethnicities that don’t even speak the English language, you know…this shit is amazing. I actively live off hip hop culture and that is what made me who I am today — I just live and breathe it. But the simplistic way to say it is I just love it, I just love it. I coulda done many other things. Based on the statistics of a black man in America, they expected us all to be done by 25 — either dead or in jail. So I beat the stats, man! And I have no criminal record! ■
Maseo DJs on four turntables alongside (A Tribe Called Quest’s) Ali Shaheed Muhammad and residents Truspin and Goldenchild at Tokyo (3709 St-Laurent) tonight, Friday, Oct. 25, 10 p.m., $10

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