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De La Soul got me into rap. Ask around. This won’t be the last time you hear that sentiment. It could be that De La Soul’s unapologetic sampling of pop music icons like the Turtles, Hall & Oates, and Steely Dan—as opposed to only R&B—caught the ear of a much wider audience. It was certainly an appealing change of pace. Or it could be that up until De La, rap seemed coded specifically for ghetto youth, and intimidated white listeners. De La’s code, on the other hand, was unique and initially indecipherable to everybody, white or black. Or maybe it was just the Technicolor-pink packaging and neo-hippie imagery that De La later claimed was grafted on by the record label.

As for me, I had been keeping up with the curious hiphop trend ever since my older sisters started bringing home vinyl labeled “Sugar Hill.” Still, Run-D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash held no greater significance for me than Phil Collins or Michael Jackson. Then I heard “Plug Tunin’.” It was slow and meandering and confusing, yet somehow oddly familiar. When I finally saw the video for De La’s “Me Myself and I,” I realized what it was. Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and P.A. Pasemaster Mase were weirdos—maybe even geeks—who didn’t quite fit in. Struggling through my awkward adolescence, I identified immediately and have been a D.A.I.S.Y. Age disciple ever since.

Whatever your personal plot line, De La has given many people a reason to own at least one rap CD. De La has released four excellent albums, but owners of only 3 Feet High and Rising consider themselves fans—devoted ones at that. So when word came down that De La was giving a free concert at Nation, word spread all over town in a week, regardless of racial background or musical preference. I’ve never had so many white boys ask me about a show in my life.

One other thing about De La fans, however, besides their devotion, is their relative age. The “alternative” rap phase (from A Tribe Called Quest to Arrested Development down to straight-up hacks like PM Dawn and Me Phi Me), which De La unwittingly pioneered, has long passed. Its fans are just a little older. We have day jobs. This reality was painfully obvious by about midnight, when De La was onstage going strong while many in the audience were on their last legs, having been afoot since about 8 o’clock that evening, standing through what seemed like a festival’s worth of opening action.

It had been about three years since De La’s fourth album, Stakes Is High, came out. Because the three super-MCs are notoriously press-shy and rarely do cameo appearances, fans were long clamoring for word of a new project. Then rumor leaked out that their fifth—and possibly final—album would be a triple-CD set. At first, I was overjoyed. Then it occurred to me that no rap group, with the exception of the Wu-Tang Clan, a band that has nine-plus members, has been able to pull off even a double album successfully. Most attempts have been flat, some embarrassing.

Teetering on the edge of exhaustion, struggling to watch my favorite group get it on while weary cohorts complained and concertgoers walked out, I reckoned with an ugly concept: As regards De La, is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? What if their three CDs drag out like this show? What if three isn’t the magic number?

The night started off with the right vibe. The line outside Nation hooked around the corner, but when the doors opened, it filed in quickly enough. People didn’t have to buy tickets; they bought drinks instead. The energy was up. Anticipation was high. One of the show’s sponsors, either Salem cigarettes or Spin magazine, had decided to hand out free rave-style Glow Sticks and ropes to everyone. The crowd lit up—literally. If only we’d known then what all this would eventually lead to.

Nobody announced Biz Markie. The old-timer just stepped up to the tables and did what he does best: spin records (especially since he no longer seems to remember the words to his own songs). Biz’s record selection was excellent, as usual. He knows favorites. He gradually moved from old-school R&B to classic hiphop and into a surprisingly long but refreshing reggae set.

Biz stayed on the turntables as Black Indian, one-third of the local rap group Opus Akoben, stepped on stage. Local scenesters were curious to find out what Black Indian would do on his own. When they found out, they gradually went back to the business of buying alcohol and mingling. Biz rotated vinyl while Black Indian rhymed extemporaneously. There’s no question that Black can freestyle his ass off—probably for hours—but his performance lacked focus. He appeared more angry than ambitious, continuously dropping unnecessary “nigga”s and defensive District rhetoric. The set lagged.

Seemingly eons later, the lights went out and Pharoahe Monch climbed out of the darkness wearing a mining helmet and performing his underground classic “Stray Bullet.” Clearly, not everyone recognized the song immediately, but the gimmick was dramatic enough to get everyone’s attention. The crowd forgot the tedium that had passed before and got back into the spirit of the show.

Monch is at a curious point in his career. He’s been around a long time as a member of Organized Konfusion, but with virtually no commercial success whatsoever. Now, with his new album, Internal Affairs, he has exposed himself to an entirely different audience. He stayed true to his loyal fans by reciting a lot of his older groundbreaking verses, but satisfied new heads by finishing off with his contemporary hit, “Simon Says.” As the chorus instructs, the crowd got “the fuck up” all right, and the set closed out strong—short but sweet.

Dave Joliceur, aka De La Soul’s soft-spoken trouble man Trugoy the Dove, was late to the show—which is something he is known for. We waited patiently. In the meantime, De La DJ Mase turned Nation back into a disco, playing classic hiphop. The distraction worked, heads nodded, some people danced, but it didn’t erase the fact that a lot of time was passing.

I never realized exactly how many classic joints De La has produced until the group started pulling them out of nowhere. Because they are not currently touring off of released material, the De La kids did any song they wanted. They launched with “Buddy.” “A Roller Skating Jam Named (Saturdays)” and “Ego Trippin’ Part 2” were expected, but “Oodles of Oh’s” and “Pony Ride” came as a bit of a surprise. Noticeably omitted was “Me Myself and I,” a song that, even though it might be their biggest hit, they hate performing.

Somewhere along the line, an overly enthused patron thought it might be a good idea to toss a Glow Stick on stage. This maneuver set off a back-and-forth exchange of glowing yellow darts that went on all night—prompting Trugoy to repeatedly duck, cover his face, and utter, “Y’all throwin’ the shit too hard!” De La’s only recourse was to fire back. At one point, I’m certain it was Trugoy who hit me in the chest with one of those damn things.

For the most part, De La chose memorable cuts and tried energetically to keep up rapport with the audience. But the show wore on. People got tired. Many left. The trio attempted to do some new material off the forthcoming album, tentatively titled Art Official Intelligence. The songs sounded good, but a lack of familiarity turned the audience off further. Then the guys made a fatal and uncharacteristic error: They pulled several attractive women out of the audience and attempted to drum up audience support for a song whose chorus was something trivial like “Shake, shake your booty.” On top of that, they repeatedly stopped the song to either get the crowd to sing along or goad the girls to shake a bit more.

In the past, De La has recorded parodies of mainstream styles of music, and something tells me that this booty-shaking episode was some sort of joke. But it doesn’t matter. The audience lost interest, and it all went downhill from there. By 1 a.m., De La Soul was asking us, “Where my old-school heads at?” and the answer was all too clear: We’re in the back nodding off or peering at our watches through glazed eyes. My friends and I trudged out to the car as De La was performing “Stakes Is High,” the single from the last LP.

The next day on the Metro, I bumped into a younger cat who had also been at the show. He couldn’t believe that people like me were complaining about a show that was not only long, but also free. I had to admit that he had a point. In the past, I’ve paid $20 and $35 to see De La do a lot less, with nary a complaint from my lips.

He also mentioned that at the very end of the show, the aerial Glow Stick exchange erupted into an all-out war with De La hurtling the pseudo-weapons as aggressively as the audience did. I wish I’d stayed for that. Maybe I could’ve gotten Trugoy back. CP