De La Soul Finds a Pace Partner

Legendary Hip-Hop Trio Works Creatively With Nike for New SportMusic Release

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NEW YORK ( -- In 1993, Prince made a series of public appearances with the word "slave" scrawled across his cheek, a not-so-silent protest against the demands of his label, Warner Brothers Records. Since then, artists from Radiohead to The Eagles have eschewed the major players to release full-length albums, and now a group no less influential has followed suit. But they're not going it alone.

De La Soul

For its first collection of all-new music in five years, De La Soul worked with Nike to create a full-length, continuous running mix.

For their first collection of new material in half a decade, legendary hip-hop trio De La Soul chose to work with Nike instead of a Big Four record label or even an indie. For their new 44-minute workout LP, "Are You in?: Nike+ Original Run," arriving in the iTunes Store tomorrow, the 20-year music veterans said they were never looking for a brand to support them; they merely found a generous partner who also wanted to be a creative collaborator. Or vice versa.

"When an opportunity presents itself, and it's challenging, it's tasteful and it actually opens doors to new listeners, a new audience, we're up for it," founding member David Jude Jolicoeur, aka Trugoy the Dove, told Madison & Vine.

In past years, the group has helped design two signature versions of the Dunk SB shoe and performed at multiple Nike outdoor events.

While many marketers have been stepping into branded music, arguably few have managed to complete the circle like Nike has with its SportMusic albums. Featuring contributions from critical darlings like LCD Soundsystem, A-Trak and Crystal Method, the releases are designed to mimic the intensity arc of a workout, and they tie in with the successful Nike+ hardware, which tracks running stats on an iPod.

And, unlike most branded music today, the SportMusic albums sell for $9.99 apiece in the iTunes Music Store, making them an independent revenue stream for Nike and its artists.

Madison & Vine recently say down with Mr. Jolicoeur and the rest of De La Soul, Kelvin Mercer (aka Posdnuos) and Vincent Mason (aka Maseo), about Nike's guidance in constructing a running mix and how the hip-hop pioneers finally found a business relationship based on mutual respect.

M&V: Has this one been more challenging than other records because of the specific goals involved?

Mr. Jolicoeur: I think, you know, when you're given an idea, you take it at the surface to begin with, and, I think, off the top, we started doing songs that almost sounded like Nike commercials, and it's not what we wanted. It was good to hear their criticism: "It's not what we're looking for, we're looking for just De La music." OK cool, you want music that we do, you want us to be ourselves and hopefully make music that will inspire people to get their run on and enjoy the experience musically as well.

M&V: Were you guys worried that, once the rubber hit the road, so to speak, it just wasn't going to work as a running mix?

Mr. Mason: I started out watching workout tapes and stuff and listening to the music behind that, and I can honestly say there were like three songs that went in that direction that Nike was like "That's not it." So it was kind of good to get that spank on the hand, and it was more about De La just making music. ... When they gave it to their group of runners and people who exercised, a few songs came back more favorably. And we wanted that criticism, because we wanted to get it right, we wanted to meet the challenge. That's ultimately what it is, meeting the challenge of what people are looking for in this realm.

M&V: Could you compare the making of this album to experiences in the past when you have worked with record labels?

Mr. Jolicoeur: I think a big part of this is, of course, we all want to handle business. At the end of the day, you would never really sit down with a label and hear them say "OK, here's the challenge. Here's what we wanna do. Can you guys go in and accomplish it and let's see what comes out of it?" It's more or less, "You guys go be creative," and then, when you come back in, it's, "Nah, we don't like that. We want more of this."

[With Nike] it's more like a mesh of the minds and a mesh of the creative aspect of things. I think Nike approaches this on a creative level just as much as on a business level. And I think that's what's cool about it. We sit down with an objective and try to accomplish it. The objective of a record label is just selling records. I think they could almost care less about the creative aspect of it. So this is cool, you've got a company that creates. They design, they actually focus on an audience, and I think that's what De La is about as well. It's not what labels are about.

M&V: Would you guys ever do this again with a different brand?

Mr. Mercer: I'm just being honest. There's been times where we have been approached by different brands to do other things, but we quite honestly value our relationship with Nike, because we've done a lot of different things with them. I know people at Nike haven't held over our heads that we can't do other things. But the partnership we've had with them has grown and we continue to make a lot of friends here and even in this room. I'm not gonna lie, I wear all types of sneakers, we wear all types of clothing, but we do appreciate everyone here who has been helping us do this thing, this partnership, this album, this journey.

Mr. Jolicoeur: And it's not really like, "I like Nike over Adidas" or Adidas over Puma, I think it's the concept of the project, that's what lured us into doing it. It's not like I like the swish over the three stripes. I think whoever can present us with something that's challenging for De La, we're all for it. It's just that Nike, they approach things maybe like De La likes to approach things, so it works.

Mr. Mercer: We're not really ones to be like, "Well this worked with one apparel company, let's try it with the next one." De La has never really done anything like that. We've been more the type to be like, "We've done it once, and that's it."

M&V: Do you think you guys would have been skeptical if Nike approached you earlier on in your careers?

Mr. Mercer: Any company has their bottom line. You gotta make money to stay afloat, to stay alive. As we're saying, when you have a company that, beyond their bottom line, invests in a lifestyle and the people, that brings a level of fashion and understanding to their product, that's something that's really good, because that's how we are.

I mean, at the end of the day, it's not like we don't want to make money, but we're gonna make money in our creative way. And I think people appreciate that. People appreciate your brand. And these days, for a brand like De La [to work with] a brand like Nike, for us, that makes sense, because we didn't see them as this snooty, incredible gigantic company. We see them as this company that has been around for so long and has done so many great, innovative things, as we have tried to do in our career as a brand. Why not?

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