De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising
Tommy Boy/Warner Bros., 1989
1989 was a year cast into turbulent hip-hop waters. These years weren’t turbulent as far as quality, but they were turbulent because of the ever-evolving scene. On the heels of Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, Ice-T’s Power and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, 1989 was engulfed in the evolving gangsta rap and mafioso scene. It was a unique and influential time for hip-hop, and yet not everyone was playing by this structure, because in March De La Soul released a debut that went against everything hip-hop music was experiencing at the time.
Resisting the confrontational and violent content of gangsta rap, De La Soul’s debut record 3 Feet High and Rising is sopping with positive and sun-filled tracks. Prince Paul’s production is layered in such a way where the beauty is immediate and fulfilling. Samples from Johnny Cash, The Monkees, The Rascals, Jefferson Starship, Steely Dan and James Brown help keep the record diverse and abundant with non-redundancy, and the group’s effort behind the mic feels like true collaboration and fun. De La Soul manages to pull off a broad range of emotion here, and whether it’s them feeling slap-happy with skits or downright preachy (“Me, Myself & I”), there’s something incredibly strong with their stance. Couple this with 3 Feet‘s sonic soundscape created by Paul and you now have a concept record pushing a whole new pillar of hip-hop music.
What’s most noticeable about 3 Feet is that it started a huge shift. For most it’s a record that truly marks the start of alternative rap. But to the most critical, 3 Feet High and Rising is a whole new class of hip-hop, with songs ranging from playful, to dance-laden, to inventive, and content that has now stood the test of time in the hip-hop sphere.
Understanding history is important because of how it can help to explain the present. However, this can be difficult if there is a lack of primary source material to analyze. Within the context of hip-hop, this isn’t as much of a problem because the culture originated in a time when recording was alive and well. This means that the albums, videos, artwork, fashion and dance moves that have been preserved over time can help piece together the rich, multi-layered history of hip-hop culture. Hailing from Amityville, a middle-class area of Long Island, De La Soul consists of Posdnuos, Dove and P.A., along with producer Prince Paul. Their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, is a hip-hop history lesson that bounces with well-placed rhymes, good vibes and a production style that changed hip-hop.
The album begins with a humorous skit that sounds like a classic game-show scenario as each “contestant” sets up who they are and what they’re about. De La is credited with having one of the first skits in the form most hip-hop heads would be used to hearing at this point. From there they launch into tracks such as “Magic Number,” “Can U Keep A Secret,” “Jenifa Taught Me” and “Potholes In My Lawn” as the group rhyme off each other with a certain buoyancy that can only be achieved within a group setting. This is not to say that De La lacks a message or a critical analysis of society. On “Ghetto Thang” they dissect the condition of life in urban America while also drawing upon a broader context of inequity. To be completely honest, typing out their lyrics right now will not do their words justice. Take my word for it and listen to them.
While Posdnuos, Dove and P.A. are busy dropping lyrical gems left and right, Prince Paul is busy laying down some of the most fun sample infused tracks you will hear. As we all know, the technology for making beats that we have in 2014 was non existent in 1989. Therefore, what Prince Paul accomplishes with his chopping, cutting and mixing with a small sampler is simply unreal. From a production standpoint, 3 Feet High and Rising is a testament to the art form that is making a beat. This record is so much fun to listen to as you can hear artists such as James Brown, Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, Sly & the Family Stone, Barry White and The Monkees everywhere and nowhere. One of the reasons I love so many older hip-hop records is that its fun to try and recognize the artists that are being sampled. This is a record that you can certainly do that with.
Released in 1989, the same time period as Straight Outta Compton, De La Soul’s debut record isn’t aggressive in the same way as some of the gangsta rap that was being consumed by predominantly white audiences. Instead, 3 Feet High and Rising feels like a celebration of life and represents the beauty of friendship and collaboration. There needs to be space to step back, have a good time, be with friends and appreciate the skill of rhyming and making beats so good that people suffer from whiplash. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising was and still is that type of record.