Happy 30th Anniversary to De La Soul’s debut album 3 Feet High and Rising, originally released March 3, 1989.
De La Soul explain themselves succinctly on “Brainwashed Follower.” “Weird guys” Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, and Vincent “P.A. Mase” Mason are confronted by Jeff, a grade-schooler who doubts their authenticity as rappers.
“Where are your dukey gold chains?” Jeff—voiced by Native Tongues comrade Chi-Ali—inquires. “Y'all are crazy. No chains, dag. Okay, where's your BMW? You're not supposed to walk. Where's your jeeps, your Maximas?...Don't you know you can't be def if you don't have no gold? Or a car, man? What’s up?... Where's your beepers? Why don't you have beepers? Everybody wears beepers. You have to have beepers to look down.”
The trio patiently explain to the kid that superficial symbols of status aren’t important if you enjoy the music. “It’s just that we don't deal with all that materialistic stuff, but we still got what it takes to please and supply our listeners, understand my man?” Pos declares.
This skit doesn’t actually appear on the original pressing of 3 Feet High and Rising. It’s technically a “C-side” to “Me Myself and I,” their most successful single. The song could only be played if you found the hidden groove while spinning the record’s B-side. This is fitting, because the idea that De La Soul would put something so straightforward on their debut album is borderline unfathomable.
Released 30 years ago, 3 Feet High and Rising was unlike anything that had been released before it. It was a strange and sprawling piece of work that was the product of four young men making the bold and brave statement that it was okay to be different in hip-hop.
It’s hard to oversell how 3 Feet High and Rising was borderline alien compared to anything that had been released before it. There had been other crews that were left of center, like Ultramagnetic MCs and the Jungle Brothers, (more on them in a sec), but De La Soul were positively indecipherable. Pos, Dove, and Mase, along with producer “Prince” Paul Huston came together to craft the definitive oddball hip-hop album that created the lane for others who wanted to “try something different.” And while making the album, Prince Paul encouraged De La to experiment as much possible, try new things, and not be afraid to make mistakes. It’s this wide-eyed and liberated attitude that give 3 Feet High and Rising a lot of its charm.
It made sense that they came together with the aforementioned Jungle Brothers and the fledgling group A Tribe Called Quest to form the groundbreaking Native Tongues clique. The crew became synonymous with outside-of-the-box thinking in regards to hip-hop music, and 3 Feet High and Rising is the foundation for their movement.
When I first heard 3 Feet High and Rising, I didn’t quite get “it.” I was 13, and the album was a bit too odd for me at the time. The group used obscure slang and their lyrics and skits seemed to be filled with in-jokes that were inscrutable except to those in their immediate crew. A classmate had to explain to me that “Potholes In My Lawn” was about people stealing their rhymes; I would have had no idea otherwise. Still, I’d dug the singles, especially the “Buddy” remix, which I’d gotten to know through its low-budget but madcap video. What a difference a couple of years made, as I revisited 3 Feet High right around the time that its successor De La Soul Is Dead (1991) surfaced, now more open to its idiosyncrasies and bizarre moments.
Much of the attention of 3 Feet High centers on its production, handled by Prince Paul. Specifically, it centers on the sample sources for the album. A lot of hip-hop artists mainly subsisted on samples from James Brown and Ultimate Beats and Breaks Records. De La Soul and Prince Paul were one of the first groups to utilize records from eclectic sources as the bricks and the mortar for their tracks. They sampled songs from relatively obscure artists like the Mad Lads and Cymande, and untouched musical ground like Steely Dan and Liberace. The album’s title is taken from a line in an early Johnny Cash song. The type of creativity that De La used on this album is functionally infeasible for a major label hip-hop release in 2019, due to the massive costs associated with the sample clearances. It’s one of the biggest reasons why Tommy Boy Records only recently worked out a deal to get the album onto streaming services.
As mentioned earlier, the album’s subject matter can be hard to decipher, but the group spends the album positioning themselves as rejecting the traditional definition of what it means to be a rapper. “Me Myself and I” remains the group’s anthem in that sense, expressing the importance of substance above traditional style, and how if the music dope, their dress doesn’t really matter. The point was hammered home in the video for the song, which was about rejecting the ultra-machismo driven image of what many associated with being a rapper. The group came to dislike the track, and for years prefaced live performances of it with chants of “We hate this song. We hate this song. We hate this song, but you love this song.”
For all the attention that 3 Feet High receives for the group’s abstract approach and their beats, Pos and Dove don’t get enough credit as innovative emcees. The two really experiment stylistically, crafting non-traditional rhyme schemes and patterns, switching deliveries and flows mid-song. They display this aptitude right from the get-go with their first single “Plug Tunin’,” and continue on songs like “Magic Number,” “Change in Speak,” “Living in a Full Time Era,” and “D.A.I.S.Y. Age.”
3 Feet High is also associated with the “D.A.I.S.Y.” image aka Da Inna Sound Y’all, first alluded to on songs like “Potholes” and further championed on “Me Myself and I.” Tommy Boy made this a central part of their marketing scheme for the group, often championing De La as “hippies.” De La noticeably bristles at the hippie label and the marketing scheme in general, and notoriously spent their tours getting into fights with locals who assumed that the group was soft because they were associated with “daisies.”
De La were among the best at the time in creating songs that concerned their love of the opposite sex, albeit in a reasonably inventive manner. “Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge)” is a fun and rollicking dedication to high school love. It’s an extremely unique composition complete with a plucky drum pattern, horn and vocal samples from Maggie Thrett’s “Soupy,” and an interlude featuring “Chopsticks” as played by Liberace.
“Eye Know” has the honor of being one of the best hip-hop love songs ever recorded, right up there with Tribe’s “Bonita Applebum” and “Electric Relaxation.” It’s an extremely sweet composition, complete with allusions to “bouquets of soul” and “De La Heaven.” Prince Paul put together one of the album’s most evocative tracks, mixing Steely Dan’s “Peg” with the horns from the Mad Lads’ “Make This Lady Mine” and the outro whistle from Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
“Buddy” is one of the earliest posse cuts, showcasing the first time the original members of Native Tongues rhymed together on a song. An ode to their love of the female body (a.k.a. “Buddy”), De La are joined by Afrika, Mike G, and Q-Tip, as they lay down their laid-back flows over a sample of Bo Diddley’s “Hit Or Miss.” The song’s “Native Tongue Decision” remix is another of their most beloved tracks, featuring an all-new beat bolstered by a sample of Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” and appearances from Monie Love and Queen Latifah, as well as Phife Dawg’s first recorded verse.
Occasionally De La delve into more serious territory on the album. “Say No Go” is one of the best anti-crack anthems ever recorded, with the group imaginatively repurposing vocals from Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” into a funky but haunting warning about the ravages of drug use. There are few rhymes about the dangers of crack cocaine as evocative as Pos’ description of “A baby is brought into a world of pits / And if it could've talked that soon in the delivery room/ It would've asked the nurse for a hit.”
“Ghetto Thang” is the album’s grimmest track, an unflinching look at poverty that grips the economically disadvantaged communities across the United States. The beat is murky, sounding like it’s a transmission from the deepest, darkest recesses of despair. Dove tries to explain the self-perpetuating cycle of hopelessness that residents in these communities face, rhyming, “Though confident they keep it kept, we know for fact / They lie like ghettos form, cause people lack / To see that they must all get out the ghetto hold / The truth they never told.”
Any discussion of 3 Feet High must mention the skits, which are frequent and prominent throughout the album. Skits are now largely considered a nuisance, skippable moments that interrupt the flow of the album. De La Soul and Prince Paul were some of the first to use skits on their albums, and one of the few crews to use them properly.
De La Soul came up with some on the fly. Prince Paul apparently came up with the game show-based skits that recur throughout the album during the album’s mastering period. Others, like “Can U Keep a Secret?”, featuring Prince Paul whispering phrases like, “Trugoy has dandruff” and “Dante is a scrub,” are as bizarre yet intriguing as anything on the album. “Take It Off,” De La’s parody/re-working of Krown Rulers’ “Kick The Ball,” targets consumerism and the use of fashion as status in hip-hop. The spoken word “Description” serves as a perfect transition to “Me Myself and I.”
“Transmitting Live From Mars” is notable for no other reason than the legal trouble it caused the group and Tommy Boy Records. The skit seems innocuous enough, with Prince Paul playing segments from a French language tutorial record over a sample of The Turtles’ “You Showed Me.” The problem arose when Tommy Boy failed to clear the sample with The Turtles, who then in turn sued the bejesus out of the label and the group. After asking for $2.5 million, The Turtles reportedly settled out of court for $1.7 million. It was one of the first prominent sample lawsuits, and set the stage for the eventual game-changing Gilbert O’Sullivan vs. Biz Markie case.
And there are a few mistakes. “De La Orgee” is an embarrassingly bad and self-explanatory misstep. It’s a minute and 15 seconds of interminable moaning by the entire Native Tongue crew and some female friends over a loop of Barry White’s “I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby.” The 41-second “I Can Do Anything (Delacratic),” where Dove declares his right to “hold two pieces of doo-doo in my hand” and “call everyone in that room a rubberneck,” is just pointlessly goofy.
3 Feet High still holds up as a towering artistic achievement for the group and hip-hop in general. It’s an extremely influential album, and it’s hard to imagine the evolution of abstract or even underground hip-hop without its existence. As mentioned above, De La came out of their experience with the album far less easy going and much more disillusioned. As a result, they followed it up with De La Soul is Dead, their explicit rejection of their “D.A.I.S.Y.”-centered image.
Even though De La Soul have been determined to prevent 3 Feet High and Rising from narrowly defining them as artists, the album is an essential component of their legacy, and the album that connected the most with their fans and other artists. Thirty years later, De La remain one of the best beloved groups in hip-hop music, with an unflinchingly loyal fanbase that follows them across the globe and supports their music whenever they choose to release an album. If this is the fruit that this album bore, then perhaps daisies really aren’t so bad.