Treble 100: No. 55, De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising

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De La Soul 3 Feet High and Rising Treble 100

America, land of opportunity, where a couple of small-town high school friends can find genuine happiness in a music studio and eventually create one of the world’s most beloved albums. America, land of capital, where the importance of said album is not just measured in message and style, but also in its litigious nature and the chilling effect it had on just about everything that followed. De La Soul were really just Fucking Around on 3 Feet High and Rising, and unfortunately they—and we along with them—Found Out.

I’m curious how many of rap’s early stars really set out to be stars. To a man, Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, and Vincent “Pasemaster Mase” Mason have all said they were just messing with words, contemporary musical tech, and their families’ eclectic musical tastes when they got a demo of a song they called “Plug Tunin’” in front of Amityville, New York schoolmate and Stetsasonic DJ “Prince Paul” Houston. From these humble beginnings bloomed the trio working together as De La Soul.

Their earliest origin stories included suggestions that they were live representations of alien microphone cables—Plugs One, Two, and Three—transmitting ideas from Mars that were centered around a philosophy called Da Inner Sound, Y’all, abbreviated to D.A.I.S.Y. Childish and fantastical? Sure! Yet the results comprised a playful alternative to rap’s already long-standing use as a tool for braggadocio and its growing late-1980s appeal to gangsters and activists. Alongside the like minds they found in A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, and others in the loose rap collective called Native Tongues, De La Soul were pioneers of Black joy.

Tommy Boy Records took a flyer on De La and Prince Paul’s work, its title 3 Feet High and Rising lifted from a Johnny Cash sample used in signature song “The Magic Number.” With a catalog and artist list snaking into forms of synth-driven dance music, the label made the fateful decision to involve London’s Grey Organisation in designing cover art and more for this debut LP. The imagery ended up leaning very heavily and literally on De La Soul’s references to the daisy, along with Day-Glo colors and images of the trio in their decidedly catch-as-catch-can wardrobe.

These visuals, and the wholly leftfield raps they supported, anachronistically pigeonholed De La Soul as rap’s hippies and the album as “psychedelic.” It’s a vibe they famously lashed out against on De La Soul is Dead two years later and have tried to make peace with up through today. It also undermined the legitimately important things you experience on 3 Feet High and Rising, the first of which is the birth of backpack rap. Unique for their time, De La Soul’s lyrics form an instruction manual on individualism: fun, personality, even self-care. Its chapters include heated discussions with talking animals instead of cops, and its scenes of casual sex often embrace innocence and romance and contraception.

The album has its gritty moments, but even these are delivered lovingly. “Ghetto Thang” uses rapid-fire imagery and loping sources like The Blackbyrds to comment on poverty, while “Say No Go” notoriously has Hall & Oates giving a party vibe to the war on drugs. De La’s summative imagination also bled into the then-new paradigm of the skit, as almost half of the tracks on here are musical or acted interludes. Yes, delete them and you still have a literate, nuanced 13-song yin to the belligerent 13-song yang of Licensed to Ill, with vocal interplay that approached the Beastie Boys’ bar and probably cleared it. Delete them, and you also take away the album’s Mouse Trap-game structure and moments to catch your breath.

Another really important thing 3 Feet High and Rising did was raise the tenets of DJ culture (turntablism, plunderphonics, what have you) to a critical and commercial peak reached by few others. I grew to love rap in the 1980s especially because of the sounds supporting it. DJ Kool Herc’s legacy of turntable crossfading, vinyl record scratching, and sampling techniques and technologies beginning a decade prior had filtered down from New York to me in Philadelphia on overlapping urban and Top 40 radio playlists. Lady B’s “Street Beat” mix show on Power 99, and the megamixes played in it and as independent singles, all constituted mad fucking science to me, an aural drip-feed of dopamine mollifying my undiagnosed ADHD.

As the decades have progressed, I think my tastes and preferences have shifted to better appreciate the use of these technologies as delivery systems of music (in the macro sense) and message (in the micro) across genres, from druggy digitized alt-rock to industrial-metal narratives to pure experimentalism. So I remain blown away by how Prince Paul’s production on 3 Feet High and Rising arranged his and De La Soul’s disparate sample sources to celebrate the universality of the groove.

James Brown was there, to be sure, but so were The Ohio Players and Average White Band. George Clinton appeared here years before Dr. Dre and The Chronic recentered P-Funk on the West Coast. Kraftwerk repped synth-pop, as synth-pop does for a lot of the old school, but Steely Dan also showed up and fit like a glove. The Fearless Four and other rappers bumped elbows with The Four Seasons. There was kids’ music and library music and stock music. Oh, and they sampled The Turtles, too.

The year 1989 was a watershed moment for electronic music production approaching the mainstream. For rap alone, 1989 was bookended by the last single from Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”) and the first song we’d hear from their follow-up Fear of a Black Planet (“Fight the Power”). 3 Feet High and Rising in March begat Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in July, which begat 3rd Bass’ The Cactus Album in November. All over, artists were increasing the density and complexity of sampling; producers, producers-as-DJs, and DJs-as-producers were becoming the big-name talent on album covers and on marquees.

With that, the third and final important thing to take away from 3 Feet High and Rising is how some of the worst-case music industry scenarios brought up in rhymes across the genre befell De La Soul. It starts with the album’s eighth track, “Transmitting Live from Mars,” including an uncleared sample from The Turtles’ 1969 single “You Showed Me.” Resolving that dispute exacted far greater systemic costs beyond the $1.7 million financial one. This was one of a small set of sampling cases that fundamentally changed the sound and, some would say, the vision of hip-hop. Just down the road, the cut-and-paste of The Bomb Squad would be replaced by the home-grown tracks of Timbaland; big-ticket sampling “haves” like Kanye West would be pitted against black market “have-nots” like DJ Shadow. It shifted how, and with what, rappers could create dynamic dialogues and sensations. It very likely altered what could be said on finished tracks, and how you’d respond to them.

More pressing for De La Soul as participants in the music business, the allure of streaming media called as their discography expanded into the 21st century. But Warner Bros. and Tommy Boy Records needed to obtain updated legal agreements for all of De La Soul’s samples on all of their releases before they could join the Spotifys of the world. Depending on whom you asked, the labels wouldn’t or couldn’t do the legwork. De La Soul lost out on years of discretionary income from 3 Feet High, De La Soul is Dead, Stakes is High and more. They couldn’t even put out updated CDs or vinyl for fear of lawsuits over lost, forgotten, incomplete, nonexistent, outdated, or handshake agreements. The catalog wasn’t deleted, but it may as well have been. 

Tommy Boy tried to hastily assemble a 2019 reissue and streaming plan, but De La Soul themselves asked fans to boycott it over a planned 90/10 revenue split in favor of the label. And after allies and corporate benefactors finally managed to consolidate De La’s music in their own name and spent a year tying up every sampladelic loose end they could find, the final injury added to insult: the death of Trugoy, Plug Two, denying him his deserved wealth just weeks before the band’s massive March 2023 re-entry into the marketplace. I hope all who sail in his ship get their cut.

It was weirdly enjoyable, the simple act of pushing a button on a modern media player so digital files of this LP could coo and laugh at me through my speakers. It’s good to have it back in the world’s racks and stacks, and the curiosity of its backstory (and the ripple effects from it) sent me deeper than De La Soul is Dead ever did into the band’s catalog. 3 Feet High and Rising gives us lessons in when “act first, apologize later” goes wrong, as well as how it sometimes takes an awful lot of money to make art other people want to spend money on. I suspect this is one of the more bittersweet albums we’ll honor as part of The Treble 100, its sound and history vital to us for both wonderful and horrible reasons. Yet it puts a smile on my face knowing that the timing of the resolution to this massive issue means that De La Soul’s flag flies particularly high during the current 50th anniversary celebration of hip-hop.

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