De La Soul producer in conversation with the latest Bear Mountain signing...

DJ Maseo and Bill Ray go back a long way – a really long way, if anyone is counting. The genial De La Soul figure first hooked up with the New York born rapper over a decade ago, but the two instantly made a connection. At first, Bill Ray was a member of the De La Soul live crew, before becoming an integral part of Maseo’s Bear Mountain label.

The pair’s viral smash ‘No More Mumble Rap’ broke out last year, while Bill Ray’s stellar turn on Five Fingers Of Death marked him out as an MC to watch, someone with enough talent to balance underground acclaim and mainstream recognition.

“Billie and I hooked up about 15 years ago,” recalls Maseo, “we had been working on a bunch of music then, and throughout that time period. But the industry obviously changed a lot, the dynamics of the industry changed, and life - natural life - takes precedence as well, which kind of made us step back for a minute.”

“We’ve got great chemistry,” he continues. “That’s basically what it is. The chemistry is... I don’t even know how to explain it! We could do ten records today, seriously. And it won’t be like pressure, we will be laughing, we will be joking and we will just be doing music... like, the chemistry is there and it’s really dope.”

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We could do ten records today, seriously.

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Maseo is boundless in his appreciation for Bill Ray’s talents, having seen up close what the MC can do. For his part, the rapper is clearly enraptured by the producer’s support, with the pair releasing some crucial hip-hop cuts.

“I’m at my best, I kid you not, I’m at my best,” he says confidently.

Maseo jumps back into the conversation: “We’ve gotta be sitting on about 200 songs just recorded, you know. We are song makers, when we go pull out a song we’re gonna make a good song, you know what I mean? We’re gonna make a complete song, those are the kind of aesthetics to our artistic value – you’ve got to keep going and doing your push ups!”

“Some are my favourites,” muses Billy Ray. “I don’t like everything. I feel like if I’ve got to make 30 to get the one, I’ll make the 30. It only sharpens you - the more you do anything, the better you get at it. I just love doing it: there really is nothing better than to be creating music... Nothing, nothing.”

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Viral cut ‘NoMoreMumbleRap’ is a side-swipe at a number of new MCs with a certain style, but it’s meant as a positive statement – something that could only come from a duo who have grown with hip-hop throughout their lives.

“You can’t complain about the music if you’re not trying to make music to counteract what’s going on,” Maseo insists. “You sound bitter. We’d rather do something about it. It lends more to my soul by counteracting through making music and then going out to respectfully compete, because it is a competitive business we’re in. At the end of the day, instead of just complaining, we can just come out and compete. Just get out on the stage and just show how it’s done.”

Hip-hop sales now surpass that of rock internationally – there’s so much more to celebrate than to critique.

Maseo replies: “I mean, you would think that, but then you got a whole lot of people who take another approach to it. They’re about the here and now. They’re about just the fame and the fortune, and not really about the art. Fame and fortune and all that is great, but the art comes first.”

“If you’re going to complain about the art, you gotta do something about it,” he says. “You just can’t bitch. We’re not bitching no more. Actually ‘NoMoreMumbleRap’ is the last bit of bitching we’re doing. That’s it. The record is made. Out of our system. Now we’re really going to move on.”

Right now DJ Maseo is focussed on his work with Bill Ray, giving his talent the support it deserves. “If I happen to sign somebody else, that’ll be stars lining up, but right now we’re just focusing on what we’re doing,” he insists. “I’m such a stickler for creativity that I just don’t really wanna sign somebody to sign them. I’ve got to really feel that shit you know. I think that’ll be best right now. Especially what we’re up against business wise as well. You really have to be careful and micro-manage these projects right now. Especially if you want it to become something.”

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One MC that has caught Maseo’s eye, however, is the British artist Little Simz. “She really is that good,” he says, “but I can’t sign her, you know what I mean? Although I’m not prepared for her as a label, I’d rather help guide her to her situation and then we will be ready for her.”

“I would definitely record some music with her,” he continues. “As a producer, I would love to be in the studio and cook up something with her. Making music, it’s like playing in the sandbox with me, it’s like my playground. Creating music…that’s like who I am.”

Bill Ray agrees. “Everybody’s got a vision for you and when you’re trying to pay attention to everything everybody’s saying, and all that’s going on, you kind of lose your way. I’m from Harlem, I’m a street kid. We’re always looking at what he’s doing, what he’s doing…he’s doing good, we need to go that way, we need to go this way. At the end of the day I tell myself that all the time, but you live and you learn and now’s the time. God makes no mistakes. Now’s the time.”

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The third album is truly in support and respect of DJ culture...

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Eager to press forward, DJ Maseo is splitting his attention between the label and De La Soul. The legendary hip-hop trio are close to completely the final part of their Art Official Intelligence trilogy, with the album – due for release later in the year – due to have the sub-heading ‘De La Soul Soundsystem’.

“Obviously, I’m the soundsystem!” he laughs. “But also with the band. Embodying the band from a live perspective, me conducting the band, having the visuals as well. The third album is truly in support and respect of DJ culture. And that’s where the soundsystem idea comes from. I actually came up in that era. I didn’t come up in the turntablist era, I came up in the soundsystem era.”

“I mean, it’s who I am, so I’m not trying to deviate,” he continues. “That’s the big problem of what goes on in the music. People tend to deviate from who they are. That’s what I always loved about Prince. I always loved Prince, because no matter how things changed he never deviated from who he was. He stayed to the core of who he is and what he was about.”

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Maintaining their identity, De La Soul are eager to absorb fresh influences, new means of creating music. “I’m on it you know,” Maseo explains. “And in a way technologies have even evolved. In a way technology has brought me closer to a musician, so I’ve been learning more music theory. But then they are also able to have, based on technology, they are able to have a dialogue with me on hip-hop that they never had before, just because of what technology has introduced to us both to bridge the gap, so, I’m using it all man. I’m using every bit of what I’ve learned every time I make a new record.”

Another influence comes from De La Soul’s involvement in the Gorillaz world, with Damon Albarn’s wide-ranging output serving as a point of inspiration for the producer. “Yeah, just hanging out with him,” he explains. “I mean he’s like family, so being around him is a true privilege, because you get to learn more about a person than just what meets the eye and then you start to learn what makes their music their music.”

“It’s been a privilege, honestly to be around that guy and learn the things I’ve learnt, especially the way he connected the visuals with his music. He didn’t put himself on the front of the Gorillaz thing until recently.”

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I see a different purpose for what I’m doing...

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There’s a time for everything, of course, and this could well be Bill Ray’s time – especially if DJ Maseo has anything to do with it. “We’re gonna cross that threshold,” he says firmly. “We believe in him. I believe in him. And it’s fun again. It’s fun. I’m having fun. I really love it. I’m pushing – pushing! - on the door of 50 and I think like most people who reach this age start falling in love with the little things again… and I’m at that stage of my life.”

“I see a different purpose for what I’m doing. Here it is. When I was younger I didn’t even know, I was just doing it. I’m kind of vicariously living through him, you know what I mean? I see a lot of myself in him, we grew up the same. We have a lot in common. Trust me! He gets on my fucking nerves too! And I get on his nerves. It ain’t all rosy like that.”

“This is what I love about it,” replies Bill Ray. “I might be walking around somewhere, and some hot shit will come on my mind, and if he don’t answer his phone do you know how mad I’ll be? I’ll be like, yo I’m trying to tell you something and you won’t answer your phone?!”

It all draws back to a mutual love of hip-hop, that sense of advancing the art by progression. “There’s that friendly competition from our era where we’d look to make everybody better,” Maseo explains. “It ain’t like I’m trying to kill you – well, I guess I am! – but I want them to do well, too. And I feel like in retrospect they want me to do well, they don’t want to see me fail.”

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