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The Hippies of Hip-Hop: De La Soul

Formed in 1985, three-man jazz-rap group De La Soul has been dubbed "the hippies of hip-hop." Their debut album Three Feet High and Rising was a critical success, and the band continues to make upbeat music that focuses on the use of samples, jazz vamps and wordplay. (This interview originally aired Oct. 5, 2000.)

22:52

Other segments from the episode on September 1, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 1, 2005: Interview with Dave and Mase; Interview with Will Smith; Interview with Queen Latifah.

Transcript

DATE September 1, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Dave and Mase from De La Soul discuss their music
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The rap group De La Soul made its debut in 1989 with an album that went
against the grain of hard-core rap. That album, "3 Feet High and Rising," was
not only fun, it was funny. It sampled a wide range of music, from Liberace
to George Clinton, and even included comedy sketches. De La Soul helped form
Native Tongues, a loose alliance of New York-based alternative rappers,
including Queen Latifah, who we'll hear from later, A Tribe Called Quest, and
the Jungle Brothers. In 2000, I spoke with Dave and Mase of De La Soul. They
founded the group when they were still in high school and were discovered by
deejay and producer Prince Paul.

Let's start with a track from their debut album. This is "3 is the Magic
Number."

(Soundbite of "3 is the Magic Number")

Unidentified Man: That's De La Soul!

DE LA SOUL: (Singing) Three, that's the magic number. Three Yes, it is.
It's the magic number. Three. Somewhere in this hip-hop soul community was
born 3, Mase, Dave and me, and that's the magic number. What does it all
mean? Difficult preaching is Posdnuos' pleasure. Pleasure and preaching
start from the heart. Something that stimulates the music in my measure,
measure in my music, raised in three parts. Casually see but don't do like
the Soul, 'cause seeing and doing are actions of monkeys. Doing hip hop
hustle, no rock 'n' roll, unless your name's Brewster, 'cause Brewsters are
funky. Three. Parents let go 'cause there's magic in the air. Criticizing
rap shows that you're out of order. Stop, look and listen to the phrase Fred
Astaires and don't get offended while Mase do-si-do's your daughter. A
tri-camera rolls since our music's now set. Fly rhymes are stored on a DAISY
production. It stands for `Da Inner Sound Y'all' and y'all can bet that the
action's not a trick, but showing the function.

Everybody wants to be a deejay. Everybody wants to be an emcee. But being
speakers are the best and you don't have to guess. De La Soul posse consists
of three and that's the magic number.

Three.

This here piece of the pie is not...

GROSS: I asked Dave and Mase if they had any reservations about recording an
album that was so different from the hard-core rap that was popular at the
time.

DAVE (De La Soul): No, we weren't afraid. I mean, that's really where we
come from. That's what we knew.

MASE (De La Soul): Yeah.

DAVE: So that's what we knew to implement in our music.

MASE: It was an innocence. We paid no mind to what was happening on around
us. I mean, you know, the people that we admired and looked up to were the
Run-DMCs and the Public Enemys and the...

DAVE: L.L. Cool J.

MASE: ...L.L. Cool Js and KRS-Ones and, you know, none of these groups sound
anything alike, you know, everyone was doing their own thing, so to step into
the game or even try to introduce ourselves to the game was like, `OK, well,
we're bringing our own thing to light also.' And there was an innocence there
that, you know, paid no attention to fads, what was in, you know, what was
selling and what was not--what wasn't. It was just, you know, a couple of
kids just getting together and having a good time and just giving a product to
a company that had bigger plans for it, you know. And that's where it was
with us, though. I mean, to sit back and really analyze the situation and
say, `Wow. Are we going to make it? Is this going to be accepted?' or what
have you. That was no concern of ours.

GROSS: What's the range of reactions you got to that first CD, which was
filled with humor and irony and--we'll get to this later--with samples from
just all kinds of different music?

MASE: I mean, people loved what we did. I mean, I have to honestly say
that's my favorite and probably will be the best album that I felt like we've
ever done. Like I said, there weren't any boundaries, we were just some
young kids having a good time and people respected us for that. It was like,
`Wow. These guys aren't really, you know, afraid to give themselves 100
percent,' whether you thought it was childish, whether you thought it was
funny or whether you thought it was ingenious. It was just--you know, people
accepted it. It was always good to hear, you know, the toughest of the tough,
you know, the gangsters, the--you know, someone like a KRS-One at our first
release party, you know, like just praising us, like, `Wow. They are so--you
guys are incredible. This is crazy.' Or--it was good to see those people
that you know went out and bought records, you know, for years just loving
what we did. It was excellent.

GROSS: Did you think anything was misinterpreted?

DAVE: I think the only thing that maybe was misinterpreted was that people
kept classifying us to be hippies, you know. We didn't really have an
understanding of what that was all about, you know. It was cool...

GROSS: I wonder how much of that just came from the design on the album
jacket.

MASE: Yeah.

DAVE: It came from the design.

GROSS: 'Cause there's, like, daisies on it and...

MASE: Yeah, people misinterpreted the look, you know. I mean, I think people
thought that we were going out, trying to, I guess, advertise ourselves as,
you know, this fun-loving, you know, '60s hip-hop group. And I was born in
the late '60s. I knew nothing about, you know...

DAVE: I'm a '70s baby myself.

MASE: I think that's the only thing that kind of like got at us was, like,
you know, when it came down to publicity and advertising the record, people
always wanted us to take pictures with flowers and make sure you wear yellow
and lime green and, you know, I was like, you know, `Well, I want to wear
brown today,' you know, so it was that kind of a thing that was kind of a bit
annoying.

GROSS: The samples on that first CD included Steely Dan, Liberace, Otis
Redding, The Jarmels, who did "A Little Bit of Soap." "Stand By Me," I think,
is sampled on it, the Ben E. King record. There's a French language
instruction record. How did you know all these records?

DAVE: Parents' record collections.

MASE: Yeah.

DAVE: That's really what it was. I mean, I was kind of hung up in the
funk era and reggae era with my parents and my uncles and stuff.

MASE: And my parents were listening to Perry Como, Liberace...

GROSS: Really?

MASE: ...Sammy Davis Jr. and, you know, stuff like that.

DAVE: And Pos' parents have a real strong Southern background.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

MASE: Yes.

DAVE: So he listened to a lot of Otis Redding and...

MASE: Yeah.

DAVE: ...you know, a lot of stuff that was on this popular station called ABC
back in the day.

GROSS: The home of the good guys, yeah, right.

DAVE: Yeah.

MASE: Yeah.

DAVE: Where we got, you know...

MASE: And then, of course, Prince Paul, who collected stuff like
multiplication rock...

DAVE: Rock.

MASE: ...and Mickey Mouse records and, you know, all sorts of kiddie records
like that, so it just--you know, everybody bringing their forth into it made
"3 Feet High and Rising" what it was.

GROSS: So are these all records that you really liked even if you liked some
of them for being really bad--I mean, for just really being so awful that they
were fun?

MASE: Oh, yeah. I mean, you're always going to find something. You know,
it's not every record. I mean, there are a lot of records that are in our
crates that, you know, are just like, you know, just for one thing, but that
one thing makes it special. That Liberace record...

GROSS: Yeah.

MASE: I'm not going to sit here and say that I listen to Liberace all day
but, you know, some--that introduction was just incredible, you know, and that
worked for De La Soul. It was like, you know, that had to go on the record.

GROSS: I think we'd better hear the Liberace sample.

MASE: All right.

(Soundbite of "Plug Tunin'")

LIBERACE: And now for my next number, I'd like to return to the classics;
perhaps the most famous classic in all the world of music, world of music,
world of music, world of music.

DE LA SOUL: The first time around I didn't quite understand (unintelligible)
speak. Don't worry, we can fix that right now. So why don't you all just
grab your bags. Come on board, hoist the anchor and we'll be off. Plug one.
Plug two. Plug one. Plug two.

GROSS: That's from De La Soul's first CD, "3 Feet High and Rising." My
guests are two of the three members of the group, Dave and Mase.

So when you started sampling, I'm wondering if you started shopping for
records in a different way than you ever did before, just looking for cool
things to put on your own records?

MASE: What's so funny, the method of shopping for records was kind of like
really different. I mean, it's like that for a lot of hip-hop artists, we
sometimes are clueless of the artists and what music they play and what
instruments or what type of music it is. Sometimes we just--we're looking at
a couple of things. We're looking at the year. We're looking at what
instruments are being played. We're looking at the font on the record. If it
looks like it's psychedelic, that might have something different. If it looks
jazzy, it might have--you know, we're looking at a lot of other things more
than who the musician is and what the songs are, you know?

GROSS: After your first CD you were sued by The Turtles for sampling
something from one of their records. What was the outcome of the suit?

MASE: It was settled.

DAVE: Settled out of court.

MASE: It was settled out of court. Unfortunately what happened was the
record, "3 Feet High and Rising," was--there was a demand for it and the rush
was there to get it in stores. And, you know, we turned in all sample
information and what we sampled and what we needed cleared. And
unfortunately, the record label just didn't take its time out, you know, to
hash out all business prior to putting a record out. So the sample clearance
thing never happened. And the record obviously took off. And rightfully, you
know, The Turtles came back and, you know, sued us for, you know, not clearing
the sample. That's fine. That was cool. But we did settle it out of court
and all is well.

GROSS: My guests are Dave and Mase of De La Soul. More after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Back with Dave and Mase of the rap group De La Soul. Here's another
track from their first CD, "3 Feet High and Rising."

(Soundbite of "Eye Know")

DE LA SOUL: (Singing) Greetings, girl, and welcome to my world of phrase; I'm
right up to bat. It's a Daisy Age and you're about to walk top-stage, so wipe
you Lottos on the mat. Hip-hop love this is and don't mind when I quiz your
involvements before the sun, but clear your court 'cause this is a one-man
sport, and who's better for this than Plug One? Plug One.

You don't have to worry about me squashin' other deals 'cause they've already
been squooshed. Freeze a frame about moods the same which we can continue
right behind the bush. You'll stay with me. Eye know this but not because of
all my earthly treasures or regardless to the fact that I'm Posdnuos but
because....

Backup Singer: (Singing) I know I love you better.

GROSS: How do you think your experiences growing up in Amityville, Long
Island, which is a suburb of New York, compare to the experiences of some
urban rappers who ended up doing more, you know, hard-core kind of raps?

MASE: It's a different upbringing. I mean, Long Island, and especially
Amityville gave us the opportunity to not, you know, not be around maybe all
the inner-city elements, you know, school yard and, you know...

DAVE: And that was just back then.

MASE: Yeah.

DAVE: Nowadays in Long Island, it's not that much different from the inner
city.

MASE: Yeah, it's not that much different. But you know, whether you're
dealing with, you know, the next person on top of you in projects and, you
know, it's overcrowded or what have you. You know, we--you know, you had a
single-family home, your own bedroom, a big back yard to play in. And you
know, you did things like went to Tana Park(ph) and went fishing or, you know,
you...

DAVE: It's just room to be an individual, you know?

MASE: Yeah, room to breathe, room to get--you know, just to see different
things.

GROSS: Did you ever go through a phase of trying to pretend like you were
from, you know, an inner-city background?

MASE: No. Myself and Dave both lived in Brooklyn at one time.

DAVE: Yeah, I mean, it was a part of our lives regardless. We got the best
of both worlds, you know? We had the opportunity to see the grimy part and,
you know, appreciate, you know, getting out of the 'hood. You know, a lot of
rappers nowadays will represent the 'hood to the fullest and I'll be honest.
I don't want to represent the 'hood. I want to get out of the 'hood.

MASE: I want to get out of the 'hood.

DAVE: So it's, like, you know, we've seen the best of both worlds. And I
think it's important, you know, as a young black male to get to see both
worlds because you're going to have to be a part of it in life regardless,
you're going to be put in that position where people think that that's where
you're from anyway, so--and it's not a problem knowing--nor are we ashamed to
be a part of it, you know? It's just sickening when you hear those who act as
if that's the best place to be. I'm proud of being raised in Long Island part
of my life.

MASE: I think I'm doing the community a service by getting out.

DAVE: Yeah, right. And plus on top of that, I mean, now that we're fathers,
you know, Long Island is cool. It's not the best as it used to be, but it
just motivates me to know if my parents got me out of Brooklyn, then I can get
my kids out of Long Island. And that's all it's doing for us and has done for
us.

GROSS: I'm wondering if either of you had parents who were very political,
and not necessarily voting booth politics, but just in terms of having a kind
of political social analysis of class and race in America and if they talked
to you a lot about that.

DAVE: I think we grew up with parents who just, you know, had, you know,
moral backbone. It's like, you know, `I'm not sending my kid out in the
street looking any old way. I'm not going to send my kid out in the streets
or into school, you know, not knowing how to speak,' you know. I mean, yeah,
we heard curses around the house, but you know that that's where you kept it
and that's it. And if Mom or Dad cursed, it was Mom and Dad cursing. I
wasn't the one that's supposed to follow right behind or say it out in the
streets or say it to anyone else. You know, my parents were very strict, and,
you know, if we got out of line, you know, we got dealt with also. And, you
know, it doesn't necessarily take, you know, Mom and Dad in the household.
Perfect example is Mase. And it's like, you know, seeing how his mom was, and
Ms. Mason raised us: myself, Pos, you know. It's like, you know, when we
weren't at home with our parents, she was there making sure that we were in
order, you know. So I could imagine how it went down in his house.

MASE: I grew up in a single-parent home. You know, I come from a lot of the
struggle that these rappers talk about. I've been on welfare. I've lived
from house to house. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment putting milk on the
windowsill. And, you know, regardless of all the trials and tribulations I've
been through with my mom--my mother's my hero, you know. She struggled, and
she struggled to really provide a good life for me and my brother. She did
everything possible under the sun to make sure that we've had a pretty stable
life.

DAVE: You know, after they put food on the table, they made sure that you
held the fork the right away and, you know, you didn't just stuff your mouth
like a...

MASE: Instilled those values in my head.

DAVE: Yeah. That's kind of what molded us to be the people that we are
today.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

DAVE: Thanks for having us.

GROSS: Dave and Mase of De La Soul, recorded in 2000.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Will Smith discusses his career as a recording artist
and actor
TERRY GROSS, host:

Like De La Soul, Will Smith first became known for records that were more
comic than hard-core. Under the name Fresh Prince, he started recording with
DJ Jazzy Jeff in 1987, a year after they met in Philadelphia. Their second
record, released in 1988, "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper," went triple platinum
and featured the hit "Parents Just Don't Understand." It won the first Grammy
given in the best rap performance category. Smith soon started a TV series,
"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and went on to star in such films as "Six
Degrees of Separation," "Men in Black," "Independence Day," "Ali" and, most
recently, "Hitch." I spoke with Will Smith in 2001. Let's start with
"Parents Just Don't Understand."

(Soundbite of "Parents Just Don't Understand")

Mr. SMITH: (Rapping) You know, parents are the same no matter time nor place.
They don't understand that us kids are gonna make some mistakes. So to you,
all the kids all across the land, there's no need to argue, parents just don't
understand.

I remember one year my mom took me school shopping. It was me, my brother, my
mom, oh, my pop, and my little sister--all hopped in the car. We headed
downtown to the Gallery Mall. My mom started bugging with the clothes she
chose. I didn't say nothing at first, I just turned up my nose. She said,
`What's wrong? This shirt costs $20.' I said, `Mom, this shirt is plaid with
a butterfly collar.' The next half-hour was the same old thing, my mother
buying me clothes from 1963, and then she lost her mind and did the ultimate.
I asked her for Adidas and she bought me Zips. I said, `Mom, what are you
doing? You're ruining my rep.' She said, `You're only 16, you don't have a
rep yet.' I said, `Mom, let's put these clothes back, please.' She said,
`No, you go to school to learn, not for a fashion show.' I said, This
isn't...'

GROSS: That's the Fresh Prince, Will Smith.

Will Smith, how did you end up taking that direction in your early rap records
and going the self-deprecating route and admitting that you had a mother?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I know...

GROSS: I mean, most rap records don't admit they even have a mother.

Mr. SMITH: Well, really, I was coming out of the early years of rap music
where--which were less about being tough and more about parties. So, I mean,
it was still out--what I was doing was still sort of out of place, but I
actually--I was younger making rap records then a lot of the people that were
my peers in the rap world at that time, so I was basically an old-school
rapper in with a new-school crowd. So the style was based on--there was a guy
when I was coming up named Grandmaster Cas. And Grandmaster Cas used to make
his party rhymes, but it was always funny and his rhymes always had a comedic
edge to them. And, essentially, I created my entire style after Grandmaster
Cas, but, I mean, he was as rare as I was.

GROSS: Now did the persona on that record suit your real personality? I
mean, was your mother really taking you to the Gallery--the shopping mall in
Philadelphia--and buying you the wrong sneakers?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. She's really good at a lot of things, but the whole
combination of clothes with the shoes--yeah, she's--my mom wasn't like the
best at that. You're good at it, Mom, now. But--oh, wow, you're in
Philly--Right?--yeah, so my mom is going to be...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SMITH: OK. Yeah, Mom, you weren't great at it, but you were good. But
yes, it was tough some days, and it was even worse for my brother because then
after I was done with the stuff he had to wear it old. At least I got to wear
it new.

GROSS: Well, how would you wear the wrong clothes to school? I mean, when
you knew you were wearing clothes that you hated that your friends would hate,
too.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. That's--no, that was tough.

GROSS: It would make you look foolish. Yeah. What do you do so that you can
still not look foolish in spite of what you're wearing?

Mr. SMITH: You just--you know, you just hope that somebody else has worse
clothes than you, you know, so then you can ride them. And I was always
pretty funny, so that being funny was a pretty good defense because even if
someone had nicer clothes on me, I could make the crowd think that their
clothes were worse than mine just by the jokes.

GROSS: Like what? What would you say?

Mr. SMITH: Oh, God, anything. I remember when Haggar washable slacks came
out and that's, you know, if you called somebody's pants Haggar washable
reversible slacks, you know, and you just, you know, showed them flipping them
inside and out--they wear them one way on Monday and then flip them inside out
on Tuesday, you know--and it's like, you know, you act that out physically,
then you could generally make people laugh with that.

GROSS: Will Smith, recorded in 2001. We'll hear more of that interview in
the second half of the show as our hip-hop week continues. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Summertime")

Mr. SMITH: Drums, please!

Backup Singer: Summer, summer, summertime. Time to sit back and unwind.

Mr. SMITH: (Rapping) Here it is, a groove slightly transformed, just a bit of
a break from the norm, just a little something to break the monotony of all
that hard-core jams that has gotten to be a little bit out of control. It's
cool to dance, but what about a groove that soothes that moves romance? Give
me a soft, subtle mix, and if it ain't broke then don't try to fix it.

Backup Singer: Don't try to fix it.

Mr. SMITH: (Rapping) And think of the summers of the past. Adjust the bass
and let the Alpine blast. Pop in my CD and let it run a rhyme and put your
car on cruise and lay back, 'cause it's the summertime.

Backup Singer: Summer, summer, summertime. Time to sit back and unwind.
Time to sit back and unwind. Summer, summer, summertime. Time to sit back
and unwind.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of song)

QUEEN LATIFAH: Possy, Dovey?

POSDNOUS and TRUGOY THE DOVE: Yes, Mama?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Time to get up.

POSDNOUS and TRUGOY THE DOVE: Aww.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Hello. I'm Queen Latifah. How you doin'?

GROSS: You're listening to a track featuring De La Soul from Queen Latifah's
debut album "All Hail the Queen." Coming up, Queen Latifah talks about
rapping from a woman's point of view, and we continue our conversation with
Will Smith.

(Soundbite of song)

TRUGOY THE DOVE: (Rapping) Well, here comes the 'Goy.

QUEEN LATIFAH: 'Goy?

TRUGOY THE DOVE: (Rapping) The truth to the 'Goy, you know the one, that ate
up like boy. Stepping in a step, keeping with a kept, making an appearance
with a nod-your-head set. Lunatics, you lose 'cause the Plug Two's singing.
Peace to the negatives, nah, you make the weigh-in. Weigh-in, weigh-in, way
out of order. If you know you're better, you're better that you caught
a--wave the mighty peace sign higher than a kite. If you're feeling sick,
it's all right, it's fever night. Don't go do-si-do and dig in no potholes,
'cause if you do we call in March Patrol. It's no different from the verbal
last heard. Cayumbo is the ruler that's bond to the word. He's moving more
than three feet, jocking with the knee deep. Dove is gonna leave you with
tweet, tweet, tweet.

POSDNOUS: (Rapping) Next on the menu, we continue with the pasta dipped in
chocolate, served with lots of Twizzlers and honey, yum-yum-yummy. Lyrics I'm
flaunting is good for the tummy. Tiptoeing in, I proceed to the floors,
selling much records like a pimp mover. Excuse me, Mommy, Pos wins, 'cause
I'm the A to the Plug W-O-N.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's hip-hop week on FRESH AIR, and we've featuring interviews with some of
the most important deejays and rappers of the past 30 years. Let's get back
to our interview with Will Smith, which was recorded in 2001 after he made
"Ali." He first became famous for his rap records under the name DJ Jazzy
Jeff and the Fresh Prince. His rap success led to his TV series, "The Fresh
Prince of Bel-Air."

Now you weren't from a poor family. Your mother worked for the school board;
your father owned a refrigeration business. Did it feel like it would be more
authentic if you did rap records if you were poor? You know, 'cause sometimes
authenticity in rap has been equated with being poor and...

Mr. SMITH: Well, I mean, the neighborhood that I was from was, you know, a
working-class neighborhood. I mean, it was--we had our share of shootings and
drug dealers. So I mean, essentially, I am from the same type of neighborhood
that those people are from. I just had--I took a different approach. You
know, it wasn't something that I embraced. You know, I avoided the drug
dealers and avoided the dudes shooting craps on the corners and all of that.
It wasn't--it just wasn't something that I chose to embrace, but it was
definitely something that was a part of my neighborhood.

GROSS: No, I mean, you know, so many rap records are about standing up to the
police and, you know, some of yours are about standing up to your parents.

Mr. SMITH: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. You know, I mean, the thing is it's like that's just not
the aspect of my life that I try--or at that point that I was trying to
embrace. I mean, as far as the run-ins with the police, I mean, I was 17
years old with a red IROC, so I had plenty of run-ins...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SMITH: ...with the police and filed plenty of reports with Internal
Affairs and report and police and all that. I mean, the difference is that I
always took the intellectual approach to dealing with the police. I know what
the laws are. You know, police--you know, back then, the police, they had to
have their hats on when they pulled your cars over. So if a cop got out the
car and didn't have his hat on, I made sure he knew I knew he didn't have his
hat on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And how would you do that?

Mr. SMITH: Say, `Excuse me, sir, I do believe that your protocol dictates
that you have to have your hat on in order to pull me over, so you can go get
that.'

GROSS: And would they?

Mr. SMITH: More times than not, they would. They would call you a really bad
name, and then they would realize that you knew something if you knew that.
So their approach was a little less--it would still be--it would be more
verbally offensive, but a lot less potentially physically offensive.

GROSS: You're really good with rhymes, and your recordings tend to tell
interesting stories. I mean, they could almost be a sketch. Did you ever
write stories?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, when I was probably 12 years old or 13 years old, I used to
write stories about my friends and I would make them superheroes, and I would
sell them their story, you know, "Super-Terry," you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What powers do you want to give me?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, you know, that's what--we would talk about it. We'd figure
out what powers that you wanted to have and stuff like that. And then I would
write a story where the kids were superheroes and I'd, you know, sell them
for, you know, 50 cents or a dollar or something like that. But I was doing
that; probably 12 years old to about 14 years old, I was doing that. My
mother worked for the school board, and my grandmother was very much into
education, so we were always writing and creating stories or reading Bible
verses or--so, I mean, we were always doing something literary.

GROSS: Did you always have satisfied customers, or did your friends ever say,
`I don't like the story; I want my 50 cents back'?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I would never--we didn't do refunds, but we would rewrite
the story. You know, if you wanted a story adjustment, you know, I wasn't
above a rewrite.

GROSS: I guess that's good experience.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah, you know, you can't give the cheese back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So with your mother working for the school board, did she correct you
a lot if you used improper grammar...

Mr. SMITH: Oh, yeah, we were...

GROSS: ...or slang in your speech?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, we weren't allowed to use improper speech. You know, you
would run out of the house and say, `Yo, what's up? What y'all about to do?'
My mother say, `Oh, back in here. Back'--we would get on punishment for words
like `y'all.' And, you know, you'd be in the house in the middle of the
summer crying, and my grandmother would come up and say, `Baby, you know what
y'all is about.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did that irritate you or did you think, `Oh, I'm so glad that she's
teaching me proper speech'?

Mr. SMITH: You know--yeah, it was--you know, that was--yeah, at 12 years old,
`Oh, yeah, you know what? You're right, Grandma.'

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. SMITH: `Proper speech'--that's--no, it was tough. But that's--I mean,
that's something I've adapted in my life. I can't stop doing that to other
people and to my kids. But I mean, very early, I remember that. I mean, it
was just always important in my household to say things properly. I mean, in
my neighborhood, kids would say `lookeded.' And my grandmother hated that,
you know. You know, a kid say `Oh, he lookeded crazy.' Oh, man, my
grandmother hated that. And that was one that you'd almost get a 30-day
punishment for that one. If you said something lookeded like something, whoo!

GROSS: Do you feel bilingual?

Mr. SMITH: Well--you mean, bilingual in the sense of King's English and
Ebonics?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SMITH: (Laughs) Or English and Spanish?

GROSS: No, no.

Mr. SMITH: No, yeah, you know, there's a certain bilingual element that all
successful blacks have to have. You know, you have to be able to, you know,
speak to the head of IBM in a way that gives confidence and communicates a
sense of your commitment to excellence and perfection, and it all starts with
language. But at the same time, you gotta be able to relax and chill with
your friends.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SMITH: Oh, no, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Will Smith, recorded in 2001.

(Soundbite of "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It")

Mr. SMITH: (Rapping) On your mark, ready, set, let's go. Dance floor pro.
I know you know I go psycho. When my new joint hits, just can't sit, gotta
get jiggy wit it, that's it. Now, honey, honey, come ride, DKNY all up in my
eyes. You gotta Prada bag with alot a stuff in it, give it to your friend,
let's spin. Everybody's looking at me, glancin' the kid, wish you nig was
dancin' the jig here with this handsome kid. Ciga-cigar right behind from
Cuba-Cuba, I just bit it, it's for the look, I don't light it. Illway to amay
on the ance-day oor-flay, give it up jiggy make you feel like foreplay. Yo,
my cardio is infinite, Big Willy style's all in it. Gettin' jiggy wit it.

Backup Singers: Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na,
na.

Mr. SMITH: (Rapping) Gettin' jiggy wit it.

Backup Singers: Na, na, na, na, na, na, na....

GROSS: Coming up, Queen Latifah talks about rapping from a woman's point of
view. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Queen Latifah discusses her career as a rapper and
actress
TERRY GROSS, host:

Our next guest on hip-hop week is Queen Latifah. Her first CD was released in
1989 and established her image as an Afrocentric, independent woman who didn't
like the misogynistic bent of some fellow rappers. The strength that she
portrayed in her music carried over to her roles on TV and in the movies. She
was one of the stars of the TV series "Living Single" and has starred in such
films as "Set It Off," "Bringing Down the House," "Beauty Shop" and the
musical "Chicago," for which she received an Oscar nomination. I spoke with
Queen Latifah in 1999, after the publication of her autobiography, "Ladies
First," in which she described herself as `a young black woman from the inner
city who was making it despite the odds.' She wrote, `She's lived in housing
projects and in fine homes, hung out with drug dealers and with presidents.'

Let's start with her record "U.N.I.T.Y.," which, in 1994, won a Grammy, an
NAACP Image Award and a Soul Train Music Award.

(Soundbite of "U.N.I.T.Y")

Backup Singer #1: Oh, oh, U-N-I-T-Y, U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity. U-N-I-T-Y,
love a black man from infinity to infinity.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Who you callin' a bitch? Here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) You gotta let 'em know.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) You go, come on, here we go. Here we go, uh.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) You gotta let 'em know...

Backup Singer #1: Love a black woman from infinity to infinity.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) ...you ain't a bitch or a ho. Here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) You gotta let 'em know.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Come on, come on and here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Yeah, you gotta let 'em know...

Backup Singer #1: Love a black man from infinity to infinity.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) ...you ain't a bitch or a ho. Instinct leads me to
another flow. Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho, trying
to make a sister feel low, you know all of that gots to go. Now everybody
knows there's exceptions to this rule.

Backup Singer #1: Yeah.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) And I don't be getting mad when we playin'; it's
cool. But don't you be callin' me out my name. I bring wrath to those who
disrespect me like a dame. That's why I'm talkin'. One day I was walkin'
down the block. I had my cut-off shorts on, right, 'cause it was crazy hot.
I walked past these dudes. When they passed me, one of them felt my booty.
He was nasty.

Backup Singer #1: Yeah.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) I turned around red. Somebody was catching the
wrath. Then the little one said...

Backup Singer #2: Ha-ha, yeah, me, bitch.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) ...and laughed. 'Cause he was with his boys, he
tried to break fly. I punched him dead in his eye, said, `Who you callin' a
bitch?' Here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) You gotta let 'em know.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) You go. Come on, here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Yeah, you gotta let 'em know...

Backup Singer #1: Love a black woman from infinity to infinity.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) ...you ain't a bitch or a ho. Here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

GROSS: In this rap, you talk about what you don't like about `bitch' and `ho'
kind of language. Elaborate on that for me.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Laughs) Oh. You know, honestly, the record was really made
in response to--at the time, there were so many records coming out with, you
know, rappers calling women, you know, bitch this, ho that. And I just
thought it was, like, getting out of control and it was becoming a bit too
much. And I'm not saying that I don't, you know, use expletives when I'm
hanging out with my friends, you know, and, you know, I mean, we may say some
of those things, but we say it in joking. But when it's meant to be really
derogatory or to disrespect people constantly, you know, it just got to be too
much. And so I felt like saying something about it, you know?

GROSS: Did you feel that that language represented larger attitudes toward
women in the music world or the rap world or among your friends?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, I feel like they represent certain--well, definitely
some people use that word to apply to all women, you know, and it seems like
the word--I mean, I could call a guy an M-F, but it's not gonna be as harsh as
him calling me a bitch. There's a difference. It sounds worse and it feels
worse. You know what I mean? So I felt like, you know, it was time somebody
said something about it because it was just--it's still out of control. It's
still out of control, you know, but I think that that helped bring awareness
to it.

And the record wasn't so much about the word `bitch.' The record was
about--the first verse is about, you know, the respect and respecting a woman.
The second verse is about abuse, a woman being beaten by her man and finding
the strength to leave. And the third verse was about young girls, like, who
wanted to be tough, wanted to be gangsta B's. You know what I mean? I mean,
the record was really about a lot of different things. And the point of the
record was unity. Let's bring it all together. Let's put all this stupid
stuff to the side and let's be together, man. Let's stop pushing each other
away from each other and let's be down with each other.

GROSS: Now the first name that you rapped under was Princess of the Posse.
How did you decide on that name for yourself?

QUEEN LATIFAH: No, Latifah was my name. The Princess of the Posse was just
my little title, you know, because I was like the only girl in our crew. And
Ramsey was kind of like--Ramsey and DJ Mark the 45 King were like the heads of
the crew, you know, so to speak. They were like the heads of the crew, but I
was--I mean, I didn't go with either one of them, so I couldn't be like their
girlfriends or anything like that. So I just took the little--I was like
their little sister. So I took the Princess title.

GROSS: So what was it like being the only female in your posse?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I wasn't the only female, but I was the only female rapper.
It felt good. You know, I was cool with it. It was cool. We had a big old
family. We had a female deejay, this girl named Ginger G(ph). She used to
deejay. So she was the female deejay; I was the female rapper. And you know,
we had a couple of other people, you know, down with us, but that was it. And
it was actually a good experience for me, 'cause I got to be around guys and
see how they think and what they do, and they could be natural around me.
They didn't really hide anything, you know, in front of me because it wasn't
like I was their girlfriend, you know. I learned a lot.

And then, you know, I had them right there to help me practice. We all
practiced around each other. We would write and then we would bounce the
rhymes off of each other to see what the other person thought and get
constructive criticism. It was almost like a school for rap. It was real
good.

GROSS: How did you decide what you wanted your image to be?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I kind of just wanted it to not be like anybody else that was
already out. So you know, when the record company gave me some money to go
shopping, you know, to get clothes and stuff for my promo pictures, you know,
I didn't have a stylist, so they basically just gave me money to go shopping.
So I went and bought, you know, a couple of outfits. But then I was walking
down the street downtown in Newark called Halsey Street and I passed this
African store, and I had already decided my name was Queen Latifah by this
point. And then I was looking at some of the clothing and I liked the way
that the pants were made. It was like a drawstring thing. It was beautiful
embroidery. I saw this fabric and I asked the lady could she make me a suit,
basically, you know, a shirt and some pants and a hat to match, like a crown.
And she said she could do it, and she hooked it up for me and it came out real
cool. So I took my first promo pictures in it. And I was barefoot in these
pictures, squatting with this African suit on, and it was like, `Whoa, who is
this?' You know, my look was just automatically different from then on.

Plus I was more open-minded. I didn't have to just wear, you know, sweat suit
and a gold chain and--You know what I mean? Everybody was already wearing
that. I didn't want to be like everybody else. I wanted to be an individual.
So considering the fact that at that time there was a lot of pressure on South
Africa to free Nelson Mandela and for companies to divest, I was really
conscious at that time of what was going on in the black community and in the
world as an African-American. So that would--just fell right in line with it.

GROSS: And tell me about your name, Queen Latifah, not just Latifah but Queen
Latifah.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, initially the Queen was put on 'cause I didn't want to
be MC Latifah. Just back--goes back to not wanting to be like everyone else.
You know, MC Latifah didn't sound right to me. It sounded--and everybody was
MC something back in the day, so I just didn't want to be MC Latifah. I was
like, `Man, that sounds corny.' And I could have just left it at--my first
single just says Latifah, so I could have just been Latifah. But I felt like
I needed a little pre-name, a little, you know, something to go before that.
And so I was like I was writing down all of these possible--this list of
possible things and bouncing them off of my friend Ramsey, and I was like,
`What about Queen? What about Queen Latifah?' And he was like, `Yeah, that
sounds good. That sounds good.' My mother laughed at me, but, you know,
(laughs) he thought it sounded good.

GROSS: That's her job.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Oh, yeah, 'cause, you know, your 17-year-old daughter calls
herself Queen Latifah, you're going to likely crack up a little bit.

GROSS: When you started rapping, gangsta rap was very popular. Did you
relate to the stories of gangs and guns?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, we had gangs and guns, but not to the extent that they
did here in California. You know, it wasn't quite the same. You know,
California has a lot bigger--huge culture of gangs out here. And we had,
like, gangs but, see, gangs played out in Jersey and New York. They were no
longer--it was no longer cool to be in a gang. So if it wasn't cool, then you
didn't want to do it.

So--but I could relate to it, but I had no idea--and everybody wanted to down
gangsta rap when it came out, like, people who, you know, so-called gangsta
rap or whatever, they wanted to down it and say it was so negative and violent
and misogynistic and this and that, you know. But what it was was real. What
it did was inform the rest of the country of what was going on out here. And
that was, to me, very interesting because I had no idea what Crips and Bloods
were. I had no idea that, you know, there was this subculture going on in
California that we really didn't know about. So I mean, to me, the gangs kind
of--you know, the guys kind of informed you about it, the rappers. They let
you know what was going on.

GROSS: Now your father was a cop in Newark. And so I'm wondering how you
felt about the antagonism that was almost always expressed against cops in
gangsta rap.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, you know what? Cops here in California and cops in
Newark, New Jersey, are different cops. You know, you have bad cops
everywhere, unfortunately. That's the reality of it all. But to me, you
know, cops in New York and Jersey, it's like it's a good job. You know what I
mean? It's a city job or a state job. You got benefits. You get to carry a
gun. You know, you're not really trying to get killed. You're not trying to
go to war with the people. You're trying to, you know, solve crimes and
prevent crimes, but it's really just a good city job to a lot of people, and
that's the reality of it.

Out here it seems like they really take their policing seriously. I've never
seen an out-of-shape police officer in California, and that's kind of scary.
You know what I mean? It's like these guys really work on their bodies and
stay in shape like, you know, they're real serious about it, you know. And I
don't know, it's just weird. It's--there's a different kind of thing. And I
know my family is--but, you know, I got a lot of cops in my family, and I
would hate for anything to--any harm to ever come to them just because
somebody was anti-police. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

QUEEN LATIFAH: I think that's just as wrong as being a cop who brutalizes
people.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1999 interview with Queen Latifah. We'll hear
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1999 interview with Queen Latifah.

Your mother taught high school for about 18 years. Is she still teaching?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did you go to the high school where she taught?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Was that rough?

QUEEN LATIFAH: For three years, my sophomore through senior year.

GROSS: Was that odd, having your mother be a teacher in your school?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, it was odd when you're trying to cut class, yeah. It's
hard. (Laughs) You get busted too easily. Actually, I cut a lot, considering
she was in the building. No, it was cool because my mother is, like, that
teacher that everybody loves. Every student loves Ms. Owens. You know, Ms.
Owens is so cool. You know, you get pregnant, you go talk to Ms. Owens, `What
should I do?' you know. Somebody pressuring you to have sex, `What should I
do?' You know, any little problem--she had so many students come to her to
talk to her, guys and girls, that really respected her opinion and just loved
her and just felt like she was just so cool and down-to-earth and youthful,
you know, that they could relate to her and--but they could trust her as an
adult at the same time to help them with whatever situation they were in. It
was cool. You know, I got an extra coat of protection because she was my mom.

GROSS: What was your mother's reaction when you told her you were dropping
out of college and you were going to try to make it as a rapper?

QUEEN LATIFAH: You know what? My mother trusted me. I skipped anyway, so I
had a year to buy in my mind. You know what I mean? I was like, `OK, look,
I jumped a grade, you know, early in life so I could have this year off.' I
wasn't quitting college; I was just taking a break because I figured, you
know, the record--my first record started playing. The album was being worked
on. And I said, `OK, look, let me just dedicate--let me take a year off from
school and just really dedicate myself to this music career. If it doesn't
work, then I go back to school. I'll be 18.' You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

QUEEN LATIFAH: If it works, then I'm going to keep pursuing it and pushing it
and trying to build it. And luckily for me, it took off. You know, my first
album sold--almost went gold; it sold, like, over 400,000 copies, plus the
single sold pretty decently. And I toured a lot and, you know, I had a little
lucrative career going on to be, you know, all of 18 years old. And you know,
my mother was, you know, helping me out financially like, you know, to save my
money and put it in the right places. And so it worked.

GROSS: How old were when you started calling yourself Latifah?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I was eight.

GROSS: That's really young to decide you want to change your name. What made
you want to do that at such a young age?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I didn't want to change my name. It was kind of a nickname,
you know. Everybody did it. I was a follower. Don't you know? No, where
I'm from in Newark, it's like a lot of people pick up Muslim names. They
don't pick, you know, like, Pee-wee, necessarily, and Jojo and Junie and
Junior and--You know what I mean?

GROSS: Uh-huh.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Like I guess--I don't know, maybe there was like a big surge
of Islam in Newark, in the city of Newark basically, and that which is like
the Mecca of the area of Jersey where I'm from. So I think that, like, after
the riots in '67, probably when, you know, they had those--they had some riots
in Newark in '67, and then they built all of this public housing. They had
to, like, you know, give to the, you know, black people in Newark.

I think Islam may have been, like, bigger. It had gotten bigger, so we kind
of inherited all these names, 'cause a lot of people that, you know, lived
around me, older people had Muslim names. I don't even know if they were
Muslims, but they had Muslim names. I wasn't even Muslim. You know, I wasn't
Christian. I wasn't nothing yet, 'cause I really didn't choose till I was
about 11. But I just liked the name. It meant delicate and sensitive and
kind, and that was me on the inside, even though I was bigger than most of the
girls my age. I was really a sweetie-pie on the inside. And so that was
really reflective of me. And my brother and I and my cousins all picked our
names, so it just kind of worked like that.

GROSS: In one of your records, you say, `Latifah's on vacation; I'm just
plain old Dana today.' Do you often feel that way?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah. I do have to put Latifah on because--You know
what?--Latifah is me, but then she became bigger than me, you know, because
Queen Latifah is known in all these places, and everybody doesn't know what
Dana really does--you know, who Dana really is. So I have to give the, you
know, professional stuff a break and just be me sometimes, you know. And
that's when I just jump in my car and drive and go visit my people and all
that kind of stuff, you know. That was what that was about. You know, I'm
just--`Let's just be Dana today.'

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Thank you. I had a great, great time.

GROSS: Queen Latifah, recorded in 1999. Her latest CD is called "The Dana
Owens Album." Our hip-hop week concludes tomorrow.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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