Despite hip-hop culture’s extensive history and the seemingly endless number of people who have contributed to it, complete originality is nearly nonexistent. There are plenty of original artists and original works, but the nature of the medium dictates that most records will share common characteristics. A rap record must have songs with structured beats, among other things, and because of this, those who don’t pay attention cannot tell the difference between Public Enemy and Organized Konfusion. The trends that develop amongst artists do not help, because there have been countless threads of trends that have been created and resurrected throughout the ages.
With these thoughts in mind, there are a handful of rap records that are absolutely unique landmarks on the historical map. This arises through adaptation of the medium of rap music to the artist’s sensibilities, and the fact is that some people are simply more creative than others. The now legendary trio De La Soul, assisted heavily by Prince Paul, formed a creative team in 1989 that is still unmatched in the annals of rap history. Their debut album, “3 Feet High and Rising,” is a classic in every sense of the word. It is innovative, musically perfect, and unbelievably fun. In a time when even the finest artists were being restricted by the traditional concept of what a rap album should be, they broke all the rules and released a record that has still never been equaled.
There are twenty-seven tracks on “3 Feet High and Rising,” and not one second is wasted. The framing idea of the album is revealed in the intro, which exhibits a rather ridiculous game show that asks questions such as “how many fibers are intertwined in a shredded wheat biscuit,” which introduces the playful essence of the album. This theme is returned to at various points throughout. The first “traditional” song follows, an understated gem called “The Magic Number.” It doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense at first, but the rhymes are remarkably complex considering the tone of the record:
“Difficult preaching is Posdnous’ pleasure
Pleasure and preaching starts in the heart
Something that stimulates the music in the measure
Measure and the music brings in three parts
Casually see but don’t do like the Soul
â€˜Cause seeing and doing are actions for monkeys”
The hook is somewhere between rapping and singing, and it is executed flawlessly. De La Soul is not restrained by tradition, so the chorus is nearly as lengthy as the two verses, and is not nearly as repetitive as most. Prince Paul’s fingerprints are visible already, as bizarre vocal samples float around the track in strategic places. Paul produced some excellent music for Stetsasonic, but nothing prepared the masses for his work here with De La. “3 Feet High and Rising” is a sonic collage of epic proportions, and he incorporates everything from â€˜60s psychedelic music to French language instructional tapes into his masterpiece. His work one year earlier on Stetasonic’s “In Full Gear” seems utterly pedestrian compared to this.
Though De La Soul is generally considered one of the great groups, Posdnous and Trugoy are never mentioned in the same breath as other lyricists. This is understandable because unlike Rakim or Kool G Rap they have not defined or influenced the accepted definition of an emcee. On the first three De La Soul records, they engage so well with Prince Paul’s music that they cannot stand out. “Change in Speak” follows “The Magic Number” and provides ample evidence of this, as the horn loop on the hook is chopped up underneath the verses, masking their words very slightly. The beat slides effortlessly between the hook and the verses, and again the minor details make the song great. A vocal sample of a grunt is used throughout, and the tambourines in the background add a dash of depth to the track.
The contributions of P.A. Maseo, the resident DJ, are not immediately noticeable. He has just as much an influence on the success of the record as anyone, however. One of the best moments on “3 Feet High and Rising” is “Cool Breeze on the Rocks,” a stunning 48 second song consisting of Mase mixing various instances of musicians saying “rock” on wax. Considering that there is no original music on the track, Mase does some tremendous work in bringing the various elements together, and the result is one of the very best displays of turntable magic available. Considering how well the artists involve meshed during the creation of this album, I would imagine that they all had an influence on each other, which would explain the cohesiveness of the work as a whole despite such a variety of elements. The liner notes list various different combinations of the four artists mixing and arranging each song, so the actual process really was a group of people putting differences aside and collaborating to make something that was far better than just the sum of the parts.
Despite the fact that the structure of this record is quite madly scattered, there is an astonishing collection of classic songs that are formed in a more usual manner. On the second half of the disc alone, there is a collection of truly wonderful music, with essential songs scattered in between clever musical interludes. “Potholes in My Lawn” is the first of these, a lighthearted and disguised look at paranoia of theft complete with a strange yodeling loop, which is something that could only be successful on an album such as this. “Plug Tunin’ (Last Chance to Comprehend)” is one of the heavier productions, as Prince Paul stamps the track with somber horns amongst other, more melodic samples. An additional version, the original 12” song, has been tacked on at the end as well. Posdnous adds his own touch to the song in the first two verses:
“Flock to the preacher called Pos
Let him be the stir to the style of your stew
Sit while the kid of the Plug form aroma
Then grab a Daisy to sip your favorite brew
Lettin’ this soul fire be your first prior
But don’t let the kick drum stub your big toe
See that the three will be your thread
But like my man Chuck D said, ‘What a brother know’
Dance while I play and the cue cards sway
From my flower girls China and Jette
The button is pressed in ’89 we’ll start the panic
From De La Soul and a Prince from Stet”
Another pure classic arrives two tracks later with “Buddy,” a collaboration with A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers. The beat is among Prince Paul’s very best, a laid-back groove with sublime drums, and the entire crew’s chemistry is on full display. A few minutes later, “Me, Myself, and I” allows Posdnous and Trugoy to begin ego tripping with some bragging time that for once is deserved. The beat is powerfully jazzy, a funky track that has the will to elevate any gloomy mood. Above all, as with everything else on this record, the tone is playful and the music is clearly a result of some friends having fun in the studio.
In the golden age of rap, artists did not need to worry nearly as much about sample laws. “3 Feet High and Rising” is perhaps the best example of what was possible when unrestrained by clearance fees, because a vast array of music of all kinds was lifted for use De La Soul’s debut. Due to this freedom, Prince Paul and De La Soul have access to an unlimited catalogue of music, and they take full advantage of it. Each track is constructed with sometimes countless samples layered upon each other, and this causes a remarkably crowded feeling that takes many, many listens to fully sort out. The samples used all sound pleasant, so nothing is even remotely abrasive. Certain songs are almost criminally simple and catchy, such as “Jenifa (Taught Me),” which is fittingly interrupted by the strangest of interludes. Here, a revolving door of samples is used, none of which occur at the same time, so the impression is that of a cyclical trip through Prince Paul’s crates. Songs like this are the absolute peak of hip-hop creativity, which outsiders fail to understand because of the reliance on other people’s work.
Unfortunately, “3 Feet High and Rising” played a significant part in establishing stricter sample laws in the United States. A bizarre skit entitled “Transmitting Live From Mars” caught some attention when the group that originated the sample took legal action, which was a severe blow to the art of sampling. This is too bad, because while some rely on sampling because of laziness, De La Soul crafted a masterful album on the concept of sampling, and the potential for others to follow was effectively ruined in the early nineties. It seems paradoxical that one of the most unique and creative albums in rap history was made using heavy sampling, but it’s the truth.
In keeping with the jumbled collection of musical samples, the rhymes from the Plugs are just as varied, and much of the lyrics are mischievous in a manner that is almost childish. There are a couple of songs about teenage love whose tone recalls the carefree sentiments of schoolyard crushes. “Ghetto Thang” discusses the â€˜hood as only De La can. “Tread Water” is an adventure with some of God’s creatures, starring Mr. Crocodile, Mr. Squirrel, Mr. Fish, and Mr. Monkey. Here, among other things, the underlying message given the group is to “always look to the positive and never drop your head.” Above all else, this line, uttered by Trugoy, embodies the spirit of this album.
During one’s first listen, there comes a time after which the observer will become prepared for, and even expecting, anything. Due to the density of this album’s soundscapes and the energetic feeling it exudes, this does not change when revisiting it. Because of the fact that no one can memorize every corner of “3 Feet High and Rising,” every trip becomes a wild adventure, a plunge down rap music’s version of the rabbit hole. And because there is not a sour note or word to be found, each listen is a refreshingly positive experience that no rap music fan should be without. The unrestrained happiness of the creation process that resulted in this record is vividly evident in every snippet of old music that Prince Paul revitalizes and every word that the Plugs utter. This is four legends at their very best, and I cannot recommend something more highly than the magical “3 Feet High and Rising.”