Anyone who has seen De La Soul's regular travelling roadshow of late, the one which takes the time-honoured two MCs and one DJ format and uses it to condense some truly innovative and era-defining tracks into another fairly pedestrian party jam, might have been unprepared for the sheer vigour and aural invention of this special anniversary set.
Staying true to the ethos of the Manchester International Festival, which debuted this first of a two-night residency by the New York trio, we were to witness a premiere event which likely won't be repeated any time soon. In the 20th-anniversary year of their first (and still most fondly-remembered) album, 3 Feet High and Rising, the group were accompanied by a pop orchestra of ten jazz-funk players for an event which was subtitled "20 Years High and Rising".
The difference this arrangement makes to their live sound is uncanny. Often unfairly portrayed as hippies by their contemporaries (probably due to a mixture of some flower-powered record sleeves, their sampling of classic 60s pop records and the use of the word "high" in the album's title), De La Soul stood revealed here as an old-fashioned soul revue outfit. It would be reductive to say that this is how all hip-hop should ideally be played, but it certainly works for this group; there were still samples and breakdowns and huge, room-shaking beats, but the addition of saxophone, trumpet, organ and percussion added an organic, joyful richness which seemed to lift the vocal performances through the roof.
It's been 20 years since their definitive album and 21 since they formed, as noted by one of their MCs Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer ("We old, y'all"). Neither the group nor their songs show their age, though – the joyful chorus of "Eye Know" ("I know I love you better") and easy summertime groove of "A Rollerskating Jam Named Saturdays" have already passed by when introductions are made – and further references to their age are tongue in cheek.
"You're still wearing the same jeans you was back then," is Mercer's opening line with special guest Prince Paul, producer of De La's first three albums and a member of well-remembered rap outfits Gravediggaz and Handsome Boy Modeling School; "you stayed in shape." There then follows an odd but amusing skit between the slim Paul and De La's generously proportioned decksman Vincent "Maseo" Mason, in which the pair dress in chef's outfits, stand behind a trestle table filled with pots and pans, and cook up "some big-time '89 meat, some world-class knock-'em-out meat"; in other words, haphazardly throwing together the beats of "The Magic Number" on a sampler. This might well be an in-joke, but they've probably earned it.
The band's backing allowed Mason to step away from the regular decks-and-effects routine, to join the others as an effective three-man MC team at the front of the stage. At these points, some of the live musical flourishes were among the richest highlights of the set, including a horn sustain through "Jenifa Taught Me" that sounded like a close cousin of the one in Prince's "Sexy MF", and some stabbing, JBs-style organ and sax during "Me, Myself and I".
Tribute was paid to Run DMC's Jam Master J, a significant influence, with a version of that group's "Rock Box", while confirmation that De La's career has continued beyond that seminal first album came with "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa" (Mercer's favourite song, he says, from his own favourite album, De La Soul is Dead) and the relatively recent "Feel Good Inc", a collaboration with Gorillaz. Most bands might seem galled by the fact that the majority of their glory days were two decades ago, but De La Soul remain gracious, enthusiastic and keen to celebrate the songs which made them what they are.