Spotlight: De La Soul – 3 Feet High And Rising

Has it really been 25 years? Yes. Yes, it has…

Although they’re very much an active rap act in the present day, there’s no doubting that De La Soul’s moment came at the first time of asking, when they released a debut album so striking, and so influential since, that everything that’s followed has inevitably been measured against it. But then, when you’re the guys behind the majesty of ‘3 Feet High And Rising’, you probably don’t mind that it’s seen as such a vital, foundational release of the ever-changing hip-hop firmament. And it’s a cornerstone now celebrating its 25th anniversary, having been first issued in March 1989.

As part of Clash’s regular Spotlight series, here Rapture & Verse columnist Matt Oliver takes a hippie trip down a multi-coloured memory lane to sample the D.A.I.S.Y. Age once more. Mind the potholes in the lawn as you set about transmitting from Mars, mister…

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‘Me, Myself And I’

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It has been described as “the most inventive, assured and playful debut in hip-hop history”, and had critics going as far as labelling it the “‘Sgt. Pepper’ of hip-hop”. 1989 bore criticals from the Beastie Boys, Boogie Down Productions and Native Tongues mates the Jungle Brothers. But, in wearing “black medallions, no gold”, De La Soul brought to you the anti-macho rap album that probably ushered in the cliché of hip-hop for those thinking that they don’t like hip-hop.

By having the confidence/gall to look and sound different, De La were branded as hippies, aligned to an all-in-together mentality, with a propensity to geek off and on ‘Tread Water’, spinning yarns about chattering zoo animals. Never mind the strides of social responsibility, ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ also willingly disclosed.

In a year when the 2 Live Crew and Ice-T were going for throats at different ends of the spectrum, the trio’s changing of the guard ran the risk of blunting industry ‘authenticity’, until it reached the point where they ironically dressed up their own death and felt they had to realign their agenda on the follow-up, ‘De La Soul Is Dead’.

Rhymers Posdnous and Trugoy weren’t exactly freestyling or running an abstract tongue (despite maintaining a personal humour), but had Long Island flows that weren’t concerned with the tight packaging of rhymes in strictly ordered bars. Its commercial appeal through timeless hooks is obvious – though not in the mould of other ’89 crossovers such as Tone Loc, Young MC or Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince – but it’s easy to forget how the UK took to it.

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‘Say No Go’

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‘3 Feet High…’ peaked at number 13 on the UK albums chart, spawning five top-30 singles, two of which went top 10. The same five singles did absolutely nothing on the US Billboard chart – even though ‘Me Myself And I’ dominated the various US dance/rap lists, it was pretty much a standalone success from this quintet.

Integrated by producer guru Prince Paul and diced lovely by DJ Pasemaster Mace, an absolute goldmine of samples are fashioned with natural flow and rhythm, rather than hacked out and plonked down (though not immune from those calling copyright foul). Hall & Oates, The Monkees, Ben E King, Liberace and Led Zeppelin are part of a toughness that belies the supposed tickling of a soft belly.

And, for better or worse, ‘3 Feet High…’ brought out the concept of the skit, a non-musical parallel plot (a goofy game show theme) throwing out (un)related interludes (e.g., hygiene-related titbits and downtime offcuts). Treated as simply part of the album process, the sideshows act as both an accentuation to the whole De La ‘experience’ and something resembling a set of variety show cutaways acting as segues from performance to performance. It’s also no surprise that this idiosyncrasy spawned a ‘3-sided single’ (‘Me, Myself And I’), a 12” with a flipside of dual grooves giving you a choice of tune depending on where you drop the needle.

Unusually, breakouts ‘Say No Go’, ‘Buddy’ and ‘Me Myself And I’ are all well down the tracklist, lending themselves to this idea of touring the whole De La museum before reaching its centrepieces. The whole Daisy Age/Native Tongues model of building a rap fraternity has proved to be a one of a kind; few since have managed to get a handle on the whole workshop-interchange-community sharing of ideas, instead settling for the self-branding of Mafias and Cartels.

A quarter of a century on and the endurance of ‘3 Feet High…’ persists as a true, towering hip-hop monument.

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Words: Matt Oliver

More Spotlight features – including recent pieces on Nas’s ‘Illmatic’ and Green Day’s ‘Dookie’ – can be found here.

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