Once upon a time — about 20-plus years ago to be a bit more precise — two heavyweights were introduced to the burgeoning world of hip hop: De La Soul and Nike. One a rap group, the other a corporation, both wielding powerful influence on the evolution of a then young hip hop culture. De La Soul injected the sea of gangsta rap with forward-thinking rhymes and colorful beats, while Nike introduced equally colorful and progressive sneakers that became staples in every hip hop-a-holic’s wardrobe. After a few successful and well-suited collaborations between the two powerhouses in the past few years, De La Soul has debuted their latest, the fifth album in the Nike+ Original Run Series, titled Are You In? and available exclusively on iTunes. The 45-minute track, a collaboration with mashup duo Flosstradamus, is designed to flow with the pace of a seasoned runner. De La Soul’s Kelvin Mercer (a.k.a. Posdunous) talks sneakers, music, and the creative freedom of working with Nike as the group celebrates the 20th anniversary of their debut LP, 3 Feet High and Rising.
Nike is a brand that’s been affiliated with hip-hop from the beginning. What does it represent to you? What are your memories of Nike growing up? Nike was always a brand that was represented through those normal symbols you would see in childhood — from it being plastered in the Bronx when I was young, to just getting into hip-hop and seeing my brothers wearing it, and begging my mother to buy it. So it’s been a part of me, and I always knew it was something that you just needed to have. You could see the brand was always about being innovative. Outside of just being a gigantic corporation, they allow artists — whether they knew how to construct sneakers or paint — to be a part of the brand and bring that freshness.
You’ve already collaborated with Nike on two pairs of Dunks. Designing a sneaker for Nike is probably every hip hop kid’s dream. How excited were you to design for them? It was overwhelming. We were so stoked to do it, and then to have Chris Reed at Nike tell us that we could do anything. It was funny because normally, even in the studio with each other, somebody will make a joke and say, “We should do this,” and the reply would be, “Yeah, lets do it!” So it was similar to that, like “We should put our faces on the sneakers,” and the response would be, “Yo, lets do that!” Chris Reed allowed our minds to go where they needed to go.
How did you get involved with the Nike+ series from there? Just from doing the Dunk and meeting people who worked for Nike in different branches. They reached out to us to be a part of the One Hit Series, where we would perform at the finish line of the marathons that were going on with Digital Underground, Vanilla Ice, and other artists. You could run your marathon and pause to see a performance if you wanted, but we were the last group who would do a 45-minute set at the finish line. So I think from there our names went into this basket of options for the first vocalists who would be a part of the Original Run. They had already put together four different CDs, with just DJs or instrumental producers, and they wanted to step it up to get an actual group. I guess our name was at the top of the list, because I assume people appreciated what we did and we had already done several shows with Nike.
How is the 45-minute Nike track different from a purely De La Soul project? Honestly, it really wasn’t too different, because we’ve always been a group that made albums that connected as a whole. We never looked at a song as an individual song. When we took on the challenge it was like, whoa, we’ve got to make an album that runs only up to 45 minutes, and has all these peaks and valleys, which was cool to do. We had to make it flow with an actual workout, the way a runner would run. But we realized that normally people move to music that they like, so we didn’t see that there was that much difficulty — because when people want to be inspired, they usually run and get motivated by music they’re playing.
So the continuous 45-minute format wasn’t an issue at all during the recording process? No, because Nike allowed us to be De La. They told us to do what we needed do, put our normal creativity into it, and when we came back with a bunch of tracks, they had runners run to it and pick out the tracks they really felt motivated them, and were good for them to cool down to. We used those as core tracks, and then started building all the bridges around the tracks to create a great journey.
Last year you performed at Guerilla Union’s Rock The Bells tour. Was that your first big tour in a long time, and why’d you decide to perform at that point? Unfortunately, for a lot of people, when they don’t really hear from us or see us on the normal mediums like MTV or VH1, they really think we’ve been away from a long time. But what’s factual for De La Soul and a group like The Roots, is that we stay on the road more than any hip hop group, so doing the thing with Guerilla Union was nothing. We do gigantic festivals overseas in Australia, Asia, etc. Even right now, we’re getting ready to go on tour for a month. We stay on the road, so shows are nothing, they’re like the back of our hand. But we were really cool with Guerilla Union from the beginning, so we finally decided to commit to a summer and do Rock The Bells, because they really wanted us.
In addition to Nike+, what else are you working on this year? Can we expect a third pair of De La sneakers in the next few months? Before we were blessed to begin this project, we were working on our own album called You’re Welcome, and we’re looking to put that out later this year, because we don’t want to interrupt the Nike album. We’re also doing a 21-year anniversary tour, because this year is actually the anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising, while last year was just our 20 years of being together as a group.