Tea Time with Maseo [Interview]
Vancouver, B.C. – As the longstanding and legendary DJ for De La Soul, Maseo has remained one of the most innovative and approachable people in the rap world – he’s probably got the best laugh, too. Although his life has changed, his commitment to music has not: his priorities may include family life, but certainly do not exclude making new music and bringing up others who do the same. HipHopCanada had the chance to sit down with the gentle musician just minutes after his evening nap, and thoroughly enjoyed laughing it up while getting some serious insights into his mind and his world.
HipHopCanada: You’ve been around in Vancouver a few times now, any impressions of the city?
Maseo: Very nice, very clean. Everybody’s very Canadian [laughs].
HipHopCanada: As a DJ, you support the storytelling of the MCs…do you feel that you have your own story to tell through the music?
Maseo: Ultimately, when we got in this collectively, the goal was to be a group so there was no hidden agenda to my approach. The music is always something that just had to connect well with the lyrics and vise versa. How it grabs the audience, that’s always something that just seems to be amazing to me. Not to sound selfish but I never made my music for anyone. It was always made for myself. Not even just my MCs and my group, but even other MCs and people I came up with in this business, for them to take a liking to my music and wanna rap or sing over it, has always been something that’s amazing. I think the people that perform on the music that I come up with are the first fans of my music, if they like it enough to take interest in writing something to it and wanna make it a little bit more tangible for the rest of the world. That’s something that’s overwhelming and amazing. I can’t even explain to you what I expect people to get out of it because I never expect anybody to ever really like it.
HipHopCanada: I’ve heard you talk in other interviews about a “New York record,” what do you mean by that, is there a specific regional sound that you connect with?
Maseo: A New York record is more of a feeling. I think I said that based on a particular artist that I’ve been working with lately; his name is Bill Ray. I believe his MC style embodies everything that a New York rapper is known for. I think the direction of a lot of artists, rappers in particular, is goal-driven based on what they can accomplish business-wise, so you’ve got New York artists not even really being innovative any more. And I think that’s more what I mean. The innovation. That’s gone awry. Where I think I’m working with a cat who’s ready to challenge the music, the music industry, himself, the art form in general. I think that’s what I mean when I say I’m getting a New York-based hip-hop record.
HipHopCanada: You’ve been in this biz for a long time, is there anything that you’ve started to tire of?
Maseo: There are some things I get tired of. Some things I love still. And I think the older I get – and that happens with every profession – with age come wisdom. I think along with that you begin to appreciate and see things that you haven’t seen when you were younger. I have definitely another level of appreciation for all this, especially to be 41 and still doing it with all kinds of significant things going in my life like children, grandchildren, all kinds of things like that.
HipHopCanada: Do you ever think about getting out of the industry?
Maseo: No I don’t think I have those moments. I love what I do as much as I love being with my family. I think having hip-hop is like having air. Can’t really breathe without it, to tell you the truth – one of the things that keeps me going, next to my family. You’re talking about a genre that’s maybe 30-35 years old, so you can bet your bottom dollar that hip-hop is all in my household, from my wife to my kids – I’m probably considered the coolest dad in the community!
HipHopCanada: Shit, I wish you were my dad! But moving on, what’s your ideal creative space when you get working on a project?
Maseo: My ideal creative space is my garage, it always has been. As far as creative head space, moments and times like this when I have a few days on the road, kind of by myself, just thinking about everything that’s going on. When you get that “me time” I think everybody gets – or should get – that time alone when you can actually assess everything that’s going on and things that you just like to implement as well. The time alone is always that ultimate creative time cause I’m sharing that time with nobody but myself.
HipHopCanada: I’ve gotta ask about the “Tea Time with Maseo” skit on the Loveage album…what was it like to work on that with Dan the Automator and Mike Patton?
Maseo: We were just hanging out. It wasn’t even like we were in the studio. Just hanging out, bugging the fuck out. I was actually on tour with Dan, Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, and we were on the 20th anniversary tour of Tommy Boy. And Bambaataa is Bambaataa you know, it’s like being with my grandfather – but everybody else had to warm up to each other. So by the time of the third day of the tour we was all just happy DJs, sharing music, talking shit, and one good night of drinking Dan just had a recorder going and he added me to the album with this crazy skit, just saying bullshit really.
HipHopCanada: You also toured with Gorillaz, that must have been pretty epic!
Maseo: I felt like I was on a high school musical. The entire time, and we toured with the Gorillaz for about a year and a half, doing that program, and the entire program I felt like I was in a performance art school. It was a lot of fun, met a lot of new people, everybody from different walks of life, different genres of music, it felt like a musical circus and every day was special. I think everybody always looked to bring their best performance every night, whether it was me laughing or whatever. People became family on that tour, it was another great milestone in my career. Second best tour, next to my first one ever in my career. My first one was with LL Cool J and it was the Nitro tour, and it had almost everybody in rap on that tour.
HipHopCanada: What advice would you give to young DJs starting out now, since it’s a whole other era than when you started out?
Maseo: First learn the music, embrace the music. Even the music you may not get into, just learn the music. I think a lot of people wanna get in this for the wrong reasons nowadays, some people see the quick buck. With all the software and everything that’s presented for DJing now it looks like it’s a quick buck to be made. At the same time you got others who wanna be celebrities as opposed to truly being an artist. I just say focus on the craft, focus on the music, learn the history. If you don’t love it, don’t do it. Don’t do it for the wrong reasons, do it for the right reasons. Cause you know, we already get a bad “rap.”
HipHopCanada: That was a dad joke, straight up!
Maseo: Everybody feels like this is some flea market shit and it isn’t. I’ve been DJing since I was six years old and it was something I gravitated to naturally. It’s truly just gotta be in your heart, in your soul. Remain a student, always keep trying to learn. I’m 41 and I’m still learning from cats who really embrace it and embody the culture and the art and make it their own, which is inspiring from somebody like me who comes from way back when and still look to do it in a significant way.
HipHopCanada: Any new projects you’d like to tell us about?
Maseo: I can’t tell you when the De La album is coming. Let me just speak on what I know people wanna hear and be honest. I have no clue because we never really put a time limit on art, but it’s coming. We always promised our fans that we would make more music as long as they continued to support us and the fans kept their promise. So we looking to make good on our word. I’m working on a solo project called DJ Conductor, and that’s just a project that I’m so into with wanting to implement the true art back to it. Not just the art of hip-hop but live instrumentation and all that, I’m truly just trying to send a message with that project because they’re taking music and art out of our school programs and I’m hoping that doing a series of these projects will open up an avenue for kids who are coming up who’s learning the drums, learning the piano, just looking for that vehicle to exploit their talent. I’ve always been that vessel, from the days of putting on Phife Dawg, Dres from Black Sheep, all your favorite rappers. Mos Def before he was Mos Def, you know what I’m saying? So I just look to be that vessel like some of our greats like George Clinton, like Afrika Bambaataa, I’m looking to carry that torch.
Interview conducted by Amalia Judith for HipHopCanada
Photography by Tyler Simpson for HipHopCanada