Flash. That pretty much sums up rap these days. We're talking designer labels, medallions and trainers the size of sofas. And let's not forget the cars, the women, and most important of all, the "crew" - the large retinue of gangster-types who watch over a rap star's every move. These are people who live in a world in which real life and fantasy collide, and humour rarely shows its face.
In some cases, the music seems incidental next to the antics of its protagonists. The multi-millionaire producer Puff Daddy has been hard to ignore lately, not least because of his brushes with the law. Gangland violence has also taken its toll; Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls are two of rap's more high- profile casualties, both gunned down on the street. With the same tabloid- baiting stories incessantly doing the rounds, American hip-hop has been hard to take seriously.
Which could make it a bad time, perhaps, for De La Soul (an act who reside at the tamer end of the scale) to make their comeback. Prior to the release of Stakes Is High, their last album that took a scathing view of the rap scene, the band announced they were going to split. Now they're on their way back with Art Official Intelligence, a new album that includes collaborations with Busta Rhymes, the Beastie Boys and Chaka Khan. That it is the first of a trilogy suggests that the group aren't ready to go out to pasture just yet.
"We decided that if Stakes Is High didn't do well we might as well bow out of the game gracefully. But it did OK for us," explains Mace, lying horizontal in the band's dressing room before a TV appearance. "We wanted to make sure people still wanted to hear us. We'd been in the game so long, we didn't know where we stood."
Despite being in their early thirties, De La Soul are seen as veterans of the hip-hop scene. They are one of those acts that everyone wants to work with, their name affording aspiring rap artists instant credibility.
This is because De La Soul were vital in the evolution of this troubled genre. At a time when rap seemed set to flounder amid charges of thuggery and anti-Semitism, these New Yorkers arrived with a more upbeat and positive sound that reflected a calmer philosophy.
Posdnous, Mace and Dave (he used to be known as Trugoy the Dove, though he's apparently seen sense) were three high-school friends from Long Island. Their first demo recordings attracted the attention of Stetsasonic's Prince Paul, who went on to produce the group's debut LP, 1989's 3 Feet High and Rising. Full of comic asides and quiz show-style interludes, the album revealed a playful invention that was sorely lacking in hip-hop at the time. Musically, it sampled everything from Steely Dan and Funkadelic to Curiosity Killed the Cat - they also had to settle out of court a suit from members of sixties pop group the Turtles for unauthorised sampling - and yielded the hit singles "Me Myself and I" and "The Magic Number". Along with the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul were also part of a loose organisation called Native Tongues, a hip-hop collective favouring eclectic samples and positive vibes. Theirs was a conspicuously quiet revolution that eschewed the usual braggadocio of hip-hop. The peace- loving lyrics prompted New York's Village Voice to call their album "the Sgt Pepper of hip-hop" and gave rise to the band's long- standing image as the hippies of hip-hop. It was a tag that they soon grew to dislike; the title of their follow-up LP De La Soul Is Dead made clear their position. …