Hive Five: De La Soul’s Guide to Making a Concept Record

De La Soul‘s latest album project, First Serve, is a concept album based around the group’s MCs Posdnuos and Dave playing the fictional characters Jacob “Pop Life” Barrow and Deen Whitter. While holed up in Whitter’s mom’s basement, the duo pitch for rap superstardom and sign to the less-than-reputable sounding Goon Town Records. With the project being quite the ruse, we coerced Dave into giving us a step-by-step guide to producing your own concept rap album should you find yourself bored and in your own mom’s basement.

1. Make It Up as You Go Along!

We made this album up as we went along! That’s how we’ve always recorded stuff since the Three Feet High & Rising days. We sat down with the producers [Chokalate and Khalid] and listened to the music; at first they wanted us to sort of do something with a blaxploitation movie content like hustlers or the streets or whatever, but that wasn’t pretty much our style. So we tapped into a storyline about two friends and the ups and downs and struggles in their relationship as they tried to make it in the music industry. I mean, when we record, we don’t take this on a professional level where we sit down and write stuff out and plot everything – we’re basically joking around the whole way.

2. Use Skits to Progress the Story

We see things around us — we don’t only hear them — and as far as De La, we’ve always kinda felt like albums can be flat. We did one album with just song after song, but with skits the project can be so much more developed, so for us we try to do little vignettes and little scenes between each song and use them to segue between each song.

3. Come Up With a Ridiculous Name

I’m Dean Whitter for this one. I wanted to have a name that to me represents where he would be from, like New York, and Queens if you wanna call it the extension of Long Island – it’s the place where rappers use their government name as an extension and turn it into their rap name, like Parrish Smith, Erick Sermon and Keith Murray. So with Deen Whitter, that was the first name that came out of my mouth and I was thinking of banks and money transactions and things of that dimension. And for Pos’s character, Jacob “Pop Life” Barrow, Pop Life was based off of a good friend of ours at high school. We always liked the name so we borrowed it.

4. Don’t Sweat Production Values

We keep things natural and have fun — it’s not always about perfection how something’s meant to sound from a technical point of view. In the past, and I remember specifically Bionix, I believe that album had one skit that had like 50 tracks from wind to dogs to footsteps. We really got into it when it came to the production of skits. But you’ve always got to have fun in the time and the moment.

5. Believe in Your World

You can’t be too cheesy and too bubblegum. I think if you believe in what you’re doing and develop the idea and have a belief in the character, as opposed to just following a scripted agenda, then you have a concept that works. I’m thinking of records like [The Beatles'] Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or a new identity like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. As long as you are believable and really into it and really become this character and live in this concept world, then it sounds creatively authentic and you win.

First Serve is out now. Check out “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along” below:

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