I first fell in love with De La Soul when my friend Rob lent me a copy of De La Soul Is Dead in my junior year of high school. Before I’d heard that, 3 Feet High and Rising was a baffling masterpiece to me, something I knew enough to respect, but not to spin on a daily basis. The rapping was ultra-poetic, so stylish it seemed devoid of style, and it sat on top of the beats in a way that made it seem more like spoken word than what I knew at the time as emceeing. No one blesses the mic like the men of De La Soul, but it took me a minute to figure out what they were up to. Dead explained the mystery to me: These were three dudes who spent way too much time together, weaving inside jokes into their rhymes with no regard to mass appeal, and crafting an alternate universe all their own in the process.
To this day, I treat De La Soul Is Dead as the bible for band chemistry, hip-hop or otherwise. There is unabashed, goofy friendship in that record, a reverence for silliness and spontaneity that hip-hop hasn’t seen since (though last month’s First Serve comes damn close), and I was thrilled to see that same spirit materialize on stage at the Shrine. All in their early forties, and entering their twenty-fifth(!) year as a band, the men of De La Soul still ribbed each other and joked onstage like giddy wunderkinds at a high school talent show. Unlike more infamously infight-happy groups like Tribe and Wu-Tang, De La seemed to retain all the love and magic that made its initial stamp on the genre so poignant. At the Shrine’s third anniversary party, the trio’s whole oeuvre felt relevant, from “Saturdays,” to “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)” to “Oooh,” and I couldn’t spot a frown in the whole club.
All praise to Maseo—despite his confinement to the DJ booth (MacBooth? Can I coin it? Yes I can.), Vincent Mason might be the best performer of all three Plugs. When he busts loose, he goes stupid, breaking into comical robot dance routines and old-school hip-hop chants with the persona of a born hypeman. The classic De La carefreeness was palpable on Friday, with Plug Three admitting he'd smoked a joint before gracing the stage. You wouldn’t have guessed it. His energy, like Pos and Dave’s, was focused enough to carry the fully packed Shrine into the wee hours. Maseo closed the set with a pitch-perfect impression of his cackling intro to Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” I itched for the whole tune, as I did with his teaser of “Bitties in the BK Lounge,” but I left the club beyond satisfied. Happy birthday to the Shrine, and big thanks to De La for keeping real hip-hop alive. Let’s hope someone’s taking notes.