In 1989, hip hop at-large had found its generational titans. More specifically on the east coast: Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys were all no strangers to mainstream success, challenging expectations of modern music and delivering a whole new sound to the radio. Then also flying out of New York, came 3 Feet High and Rising, and with it the young trio of De La Soul, to take a rightful seat at that table.
Those three kids, along with producer Prince Paul (we’ll get to him) helped capture the zeitgeist in a way they themselves would never have anticipated. In a 2003 lecture by Prince Paul, he recalls being told the album would move 100,000 units, “if that”. Due to this, a lot of samples and production techniques used on this release could afford to be more diverse and layered, they felt they could take chances in this wheelhouse. What they didn’t know then, is how this newfound sense of voice, along with the shared ideology of their fellow contemporaries in the Native Tongues movement, would ultimately inspire the new generation of beat-makers everywhere.
‘I say, children, what does it all mean?’
‘The Magic Number’ is iconic… and that’s not by accident. Trugoy the Dove and Posdnous meander their way through a vibrant explanation of themselves and their abilities equipped with a wonderfully casual tone, over what would become their amiable stylings of sample-meshing and tight drum loops. I would bore you to death naming every single sample on this record, but the breadth of inspirations is truly something to behold and absolutely paramount as to why this release holds up thirty years later. In the same vein, the lyrics introduce various key concepts the two emcees draw from – the affinity for three, the D.A.I.S.Y age – keeping this an essential track even in their wider collected work.
‘Jenifa Taught Me’ talks through a first time romantic encounter back in their school days. Slightly awkward and manic is the composition, and it couldn’t fit the topic any more if it tried. “‘I love Daisies’ read her shirt” is the second reference to the D.A.I.S.Y age De La Soul wanted to usher in, to promote love and peace within hip hop culture and beyond. The album’s aesthetic right down to the distinctive and memorable cover art is encompassing of this sentiment; it’s so much more than a quirk or a catchphrase.
‘Eye Know’ may win out as catchiest track on this whole project and that’s no easy feat. From the beautifully implemented Otis Redding whistling sample from ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’ to the masterfully crafted rhymes pitting Pos and Dove’s wits against a potential love interest, there’s a real jovial nature to this one, as the two trade off pitching themselves. The Steely Dan sample of ‘Peg,’ used as the hook, might have landed them in hot water, but it absolutely completes the song and truly matches the intention of feeling. It’s nigh-on impossible not to enjoy yourself amidst this song, it’s a joy.
Despite the welcoming and affectionate nature of this album, there’s a point to be made on ‘Potholes In My Lawn’ that isn’t all too friendly. These “potholes” in the garden they built and nurtured are symptomatic of a bigger problem in the hip hop world, which is style-biting and diminishing hard work. Pos sings “I’ve found that it’s not wise to leave my garden untended/ ’cause eyes have now pardoned all laws of privacy.” The track pulls you through some swift scratch work, distorted vocal clips and even some yodelling as it fights its case. This seems incredibly tongue-in-cheek considering the subject matter here; you’re being dared to even try and imitate this.
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On ‘Say No Go’ we delve further into the mettle of the trio. Over a blend of jazzy instrumentation and a carefully chosen Hall and Oates sample, ‘(I Can’t Go For That),’ they discuss the “zombies” of the war on drugs. “Now I never fancied Nancy, but the statement she made held a plate of weight” is a reference to Nancy Reagan’s outreach slogan of ‘Just Say No’, while Posdnous didn’t necessarily always agree with her viewpoints.
“For my next number, I’d like to return to the classics,” speaks Liberace in the sample clip that opens this number. ‘Plug Tunin’ (Last Chance to Comprehend)’ is a remix track of a prior 12″ release by the group that, in hindsight, is maybe the most important thing they ever did and appears later to close the album. That original cut was what had captured the ear of Prince Paul initially, drawing him to want to produce for De La, and without whom the album would sound immeasurably different. Both versions are statement tracks for “Plug 1” and “Plug 2” (Pos and Dove respectively) nicknamed so for their cable positions on the soundboard. They flow their way with vigour and spirit into a clear cut example of jazz rap and its ethos.
The intricate and textured ‘Me, Myself and I’ is an anthem of self-expression, continuing with the message of being oneself to the nth degree and shining despite whatever preconceived opinions anyone has of you. Dove and Pos question their appearances as they attempt to make sense of why anybody would think De La Soul is anything other than authentically themselves.
3 Feet High and Rising is a celebration of music, and a labour of love. Every bit as raw and honest as you’d want, with an unyielding sense of flair and humour, as well as some of the most compact and wonderfully creative production work you’re likely to hear. Thirty years on and the work of the trio (and Paul) is still acclaimed in all corners of the hip-hop world. With its truly timeless craftsmanship and contagious attitude, this album is fondly remembered with the same heart it championed above all, and is an intrinsic part of the Golden Era of the genre. Three truly is the magic number.