If I had to cite one record as being responsible for making me a fan of the rap genre, it would be De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High And Rising, released on March 3, 1989. There were other hip hop songs I’d heard at that point that I liked, but overall, it still struck me as a novelty genre. 3 Feet High… was clearly a masterwork despite being a debut album, but it also worked as just a fun record to put on and sing along to.
I’ve said before that I was not an early adopter when it came to rap music, and this album was no exception. It was probably the mid-nineties before I heard it front to back and my initial reaction was, who has been keeping this from me? It was released a year after N.W.A‘s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy‘s …Nation Of Millions… but eschewed the whole gangster aesthetic, instead taking a positive, sometimes whimsical, often comedic approach to the music.
Prince Paul and Maseo are genius producers on this record, cutting more than seventy samples into the mix, from obvious choices like Funkadelic and The Ohio Players to pop music mainstays like Steely Dan and The Turtles to electronica vanguards Kraftwerk. In many ways, it was hearing samples from the likes of Eddie Murphy, Johnny Cash, and Hall & Oates that allowed me my first inroads into this album.
But once I moved past the novelty of playing “name-that-sample” 3 Feet High… revealed a lyrical depth and mastery from Trugoy, Posdnous, and, to a lesser extent, Maseo. The track above has an irresistible hook in its Hall & Oates sample, but it also spins one of the best anti-drug messages from the early hip-hop pantheon. “A Little Bit Of Soap” takes it’s title and hook from The Jarmels‘s track of the same name, but makes a humorous request of a malodorous acquaintance.
That’s another aspect that makes this album friendlier than a lot of the harder hip-hop that was being put out at the time: the group’s sense of humor. They’re widely credited with creating and introducing the “hip-hop skit” (which later became a staple of the rap industry) and their debut is framed by a wraparound skit in which the band members are participants on a quiz show where they must answer questions such as, “How many fibers are intertwined in a shredded wheat biscuit?” and, “How many times did that batmobile catch a flat?” The lightheartedness continues with the first cut, which samples (and takes its title from) the Schoolhouse Rock classic, “The Magic Number,” and continues throughout the record, complaining of biters leaving “Potholes On My Lawn” and taking a Mary Poppins-like stroll through a world of talking animals in “Tread Water.”
The album is massive, over an hour in length and including 24 tracks (too long for a single album release, it was designed for the burgeoning CD age), but every track contributes to the whole. Even a fifty second collage of songs referencing the word “rock,” a whispered accusation that “everybody in the world, you have dandruff” and the ridiculous “De La Orgee” (a send-up of the hyper-sexualized posturing of some of their contemporaries) have their place in this collection. It’s a massively ambitious undertaking, not only from the standpoint of the group and their producer, but also from the standpoint of the first time listener. Nearly thirty years on, there are few hip-hop heads who don’t know this record front to back, but for someone listening to it for the first time, it is a lot to cram into 67 minutes. The payoff is on repeat visits.
3 Feet High And Rising would represent De La Soul’s high point commercially, though their subsequent albums maintained the same level of excellence and critical acclaim, even through last year’s And The Anonymous Nobody, their ninth full-length studio album. I strongly recommend seeking out the two-disc reissue (it’s out there, though a little costlier than the original); though it’s not as vital as the initial release, it contains a number of excellent cuts not available elsewhere, such as the “Double Huey Skit” which is built entirely around its sample of The Muppet Show theme song.
My hope, when I write these commentaries on the records I grew up with, is that someone reading them will be inspired to go check out an album with which they’re unfamiliar. I know it’s a long shot that anyone out there doesn’t already have at least a passing familiarity with De La’s debut, but I’m hoping, maybe, someone reads this and goes to listen to it for the first time (or at least for the first time in a long time). If it has passed you by or if it has slipped your mind, I’m actually envious. This is one of those records where I would love to be able to hear the whole thing again for the first time.