De La Soul Celebrates a Quarter-Century of Hip-Hop: Concert Review

Matthew Allen
A buoyant party that made fans feel like family.

Guests Included Common, Q-Tip — and Maseo's P-Funk-loving Mom

It may have been an event honoring the 25th anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising, but De La Soul's show at Irving Plaza Tuesday was the farthest thing from one of those "play the album" nostalgia gigs that have become so common. Instead, the 70-minute set felt like a birthday party to which so many friends and relatives showed up that it had to be moved out of the backyard and into a club, with paying fans made honorary members of the family.

PHOTOS Tribeca: Nas, Alicia Keys Celebrate the Hip-Hop Album at the 'Time Is Illmatic' Premiere 

Those expecting to see the group reenact the album's game-show skits or hear them rap over Steely Dan samples were in for a surprise, as few songs from the 25-year-old masterpiece made their way onto the set list. There was no "Change in Speak," no French-tutorial sound bites, not even "The Magic Number." The D.A.I.S.Y. Age ended long ago, it seems, with De La Soul continuing as a living, creative entity even as their commercial presence has faded. The three men — identified, among other pseudonyms, as Maseo, Trugoy, and Posdnuos — refuse to recreate the playfully quirky sound of their debut, and in person songs from that album sound more like mainstream rap than the productions of onetime collaborator Prince Paul. Sound mixes emphasize thumping bass over Maseo's turntables; with the exception of a brief moment when everything went silent for a guitar lick from an Al Green tune, you'd have been hard pressed to identify what he was spinning. Downstage, the two MCs have moved on from their early, sometimes sing-songy delivery to a more conventional style.

But anyone doubting 3 Feet High and Rising's continued significance needed only to look at the rap celebrities who showed up Wednesday. "This group changed my life," enthused Common, who jumped onstage unannounced for a high-energy take on "The Bizness," the Stakes Is High cut he appeared on in 1996. Moving around the stage with triple the energy of his hosts, he looked as thrilled as if he were still that aspiring youth from Chicago's South Side.

"He knew all the routines," Trugoy said, remembering the 3 Feet fan who soon became a star in his own right. Q-Tip was equally animated later, dancing as he reprised his guest role on "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays.'"

("Saturdays" may have appeared on an album meant to dispel the group's "soft" image, 1991's De La Soul Is Dead, but here it was introduced by some audience teasing that was the night's strongest link to that early, just-playing-around vibe.)

The former Tribe Called Quest MC wrestled around the stage with Posdnuos for a while and indulged some inside jokes before getting serious to extol "the legacy, the genius" of the group. He then yielded the stage to yet another veteran of the Native Tongues tribe, Black Sheep's Dres, but around this point the mass of backstage guests grew almost impossible to contain.

STORY De La Soul Gives Away Entire Catalog for Free 

Maseo acknowledged a slew of family members in that spilling-over crowd, launching into a funny story about his uncle taking him to see Parliament-Funkadelic at the age of 6. "My mother said, 'you can curse tonight,'" he beamed, and before long Moms herself was center stage, dancing for a minute to "Flash Light."

"This is the first venue that De La Soul played," Posdnuos informed the crowd early on, but that didn't mean the group was interested in preserving the historic site. Midway through the night, during one of many (very unnecessary) pleas for enthusiasm, he insisted that listeners in the overpacked balcony should "jump so hard that this s--- falls down and kills somebody." They tried.

The rappers were getting hoarse by the time they delivered 3 Feet High's breakout hit, "Me Myself and I," but the crowd carried the melody for them. After proving they knew the lyrics to deep cuts peppering the set list, fans were clearly thrilled to hear the single that got this group's long career going.