De La Soul ~ 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)

Posted on September 23, 2012

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This album was one of the true school’s sweetest flavors. Along with other legendary groups like Public Enemy and Ultramagnetic MC’s, Long Island trio De La Soul embodied the best traits of the Golden Era. With their airy rhythms, abstract rhyme schemes and 60’s flower power imagery, De La blazed their own trail, and took musical risks that would be unheard of today.

Representing Amityville, Long Island, De La Soul was unlike any act Hip Hop had seen or heard before. The group was composed of three transplants from New York City, who found one another partly through music, but mainly through a unique kinship, that would unite them as one, and keep them that way through the next few decades. MC’s Posdnous a.k.a. Plug 1 (Kelvin Mercer) and Trugoy the Dove a.k.a. Plug 2 (David Jolicoeur) were born in The Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively, and after their families moved to Long Island when they were both kids, the two of them would meet as adolescents in the early 80’s. A short time later, while attending Amityville High School, Pos and Trugoy met Brooklyn native Vincent Mason, who would assume the name Pasemaster Mase, and become both their DJ, and Plug 3 of the De La machine. After performing in various crews, the trio came together as De La Soul in 1985, and through a combination of obscure samples, offbeat sensibilities, lyrical irreverence, sociopolitical depth, and latter-day flower power, the teens created a distinctive template that separated them from virtually every other rap act in existence.

While working with De La Soul, Pasemaster Mase did double duty as the DJ for Long Island emcee Gangster B, who was signed to a label owned by Amityville High School music teacher Everett Collins. This connection proved pivotal for De La, as it led to Mase meeting Prince Paul, an Amityville High alum commissioned by Collins to program a track for Gangster B. In 1986, Mase presented a rough cut of the group’s track “Plug Tunin” to Paul, followed by a formal introduction to Pos and Trugoy. Paul, who’d felt creatively stifled in his work with Brooklyn Hip Hop band Stetsasonic, found a perfect outlet for his talents with De La, and at the suggestion of Rod Houston, an employee at Stet’s label Tommy Boy Records, Prince Paul played the group’s demo for Tommy Boy president Monica Lynch. Lynch agreed to produce two 12-inch singles for De La in 1988: “Plug Tunin” b/w “Freedom Of Speak” and “Jenifa (Taught Me)” b/w “Potholes In My Lawn”, and after building palpable buzz through these singles, Tommy Boy gave the group an album deal. De La Soul and Prince Paul hit New York’s Calliope Studios in the fall of ’88 to cut De La’s debut album, and in early 1989, the four of them ushered Hip Hop into the “Daisy Age”, with the superb full-length 3 Feet High and Rising.

3 Feet High and Rising was the first of many brilliant and adventurous concoctions from De La Soul and Prince Paul. The inner booklet of the album contains a comic strip detailing the arrival of Plug 1 (Posdnous), Plug 2 (Trugoy the Dove) and Plug 3 (Pasemaster Mase) from Mars, summoned by their mad mentor Prince Paul to work on Project: 3 Feet High and Rising. The album itself is built around a game show concept, with recording engineer Al Watts as the host, and Pos, Trugoy, Mase, and Paul as the contestants. After the humorous “Intro”, where each contestant is introduced and Watts lays the ground rules, the folkish opener “The Magic Number” begins. This cut unveils the free spirit vibes and sample collage templates that became De La staples in the years to come, with Mase scratching word breaks from myriad sources, Pos and Dove theorizing on the power of 3, and Prince Paul merging a whimsical melody with the drums from Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge”. The experimenting continues on “Change In Speak”, a funky cut where Pos and Trugoy play word games as Paul combines samples from The Mad Lads (horns and vocals from “No Strings Attached”) and Cymande (the drums and melody from “Bra”). The interlude track “Cool Breeze On The Rocks” utilizes samples from a small horde of artists, from old school Hip Hop (Fearless Four, Run DMC) to the Golden Era (MC Lyte, Public Enemy) to pop and rock and roll (Michael Jackson, Jefferson Starship); and ends with contestant #1 from the game show being stumped by Al Watts’ questions. The songs resume with “Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge)”, a cautionary sex tale where Dove and Pos swerve with a willing female, not knowing she’s the neighborhood jump-off, as Paul unravels a layered track built partially on Lyn Collins ’”Think (About It)”. “Ghetto Thang” has a slick shuffle derived (in part) from The Blackbyrds’ “Rock Creek Park”, and sounds like a companion piece to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Description Of A Fool”, where Plugs 1 and 2 tell us stories from the naked city, of the warped values and foolish ways displayed daily by average people, and the injurious fallout from their life decisions. “Eye Know” is a thumper that predates Arrested Development’s 1992 joint “Natural”, where Pos and Dove whisper sweet nothings to the girls they’ve chosen, over a beautifully blended Prince Paul instrumental, that draws from Otis Redding, The Mad Lads, Sly & the Family Stone, and Steely Dan in the same motion. The 50-second soliloquy “A Little Bit Of Soap” speaks to those with hygiene issues, and has Pos addressing these putrid souls over a sample of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. And a brief game show interlude, where game show contestant #2 fails to answer Al Watts’ questions, leads into “Tread Water”, an animal planet banger where Pos and Dove encounter creatures big and small in their travels, with a bottom-heavy People’s Choice loop supporting their tales.

To their credit, De La Soul keeps their story angles fresh and inventive throughout 3 Feet High and Rising. “Potholes In My Lawn” could rock a few city blocks, due partly to a well-filtered morsel of Melvin Bliss’ often sampled “Synthetic Substitution”; and this cut is a clever allegory on inferior emcees and rap hacks, with Posdnous and Trugoy the Dove ridding their gardens of style-stealing poseurs. “Say No Go”, one of the album’s biggest hits, works the body and the mind: the body through Posdnous and Prince Paul’s expert arranging of loops from The Turtles, Sly Stone, Hall and Oates, and the Detroit Emeralds into a full-tilt boogie track, and the mind through Pos and Dove’s musings on drug abuse, which address the matter in metaphorical terms. “Plug Tunin” is a glib comment on how ahead of the curve De La Soul was, where De La uses a rumbling, old soul backdrop to give lag-behinds a chance to catch up to them. “De La Orgee” injects a moment of lust into the mix, through a sex party interlude filled with orgasmic moans and set to a Barry White loop. The Native Tongues Family is in effect on the boom bap classic “Buddy”, one of the best posse cuts in rap history, where Pos and Dove flow in tandem with Afrika Baby Bam and Mike G (of the Jungle Brothers), and the butter-voiced Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest), over the blissful twilight clop supplied by Posdnous and Prince Paul. “Description” is a brief burner (1 minute, 24 seconds) where Plugs 1, 2, and 3, along with Q-Tip and Prince Paul flex simple, self-descriptive flows, over a dope sample of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Poet”. “Me Myself And I”, the first official single from the album, salutes the group’s individuality, and their refusal to conform to anyone’s rules. Over a kinetic sample of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep”, De La analyzes the ridicule they receive for being themselves, show pride in their unique style, and create the perfect anthem for odd ducks everywhere. For anyone thinking De La Soul were soft flower children, “This Is A Recording 4 Living In A Fulltime Era (L.I.F.E.)” offers ample evidence to the contrary. This cut has a rugged underground bounce the hardest emcee would clamor to rock to, and which Pos and Dove flow over with poker-faced style and flair, as Pasemaster Mase spatters scratches across the hook. And the hollowed-out “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” brings the album to a glorious conclusion, with Pos and Dove sporting off-and-on flows over a sparse, wall-shaking drum kit and small melodic bits.

You’d be hard pressed to find a rap album as complete as 3 Feet High and Rising, and this is due primarily to the talents and diligence of its principals. Posdnous and Trugoy the Dove possess excellent chemistry and multi-faceted rhyme schematics that draw as much attention and wonder as their flavorful beats. Pasemaster Mase doesn’t talk much on this set, but he speaks volumes with his hands, revealing his own personality through his turntable techniques. And producer Prince Paul orchestrates this set brilliantly. Paul’s beats and melodies fit all of De La’s moods and subjects. But, also, Prince Paul proves to be the prefect mentor to De La. With his bizarre sense of humor, skit-writing skills, and musical talents, Paul was the perfect production complement to De La Soul, and just the man to help shape their artistic vision.

3 Feet High and Rising was a critical and commercial smash when it dropped; spawning a gold single (“Me Myself And I”) en route to selling well over 1 million copies in the United States. The album’s originality was lauded by music pundits across many genres, with Spin magazine voting it as one of the 100 greatest albums released between 1985 and 2005, and Rolling Stone selecting it as one of the 500 greatest albums of all-time. In the years following this album, De La Soul would captivate the rap world with uncompromising artistry and many stellar albums; and the bond De La formed at Amityville High School in 1985 would carry them well into the 21st Century, even as their contemporaries disbanded over money and personal differences. Though their mainstream popularity waned as gangsta rap took hold in the mid 1990’s, De La Soul still left an imprint by influencing a number of alternative rap acts, from Arrested Development to Black Eyed Peas. 3 Feet High and Rising is a breathtaking album, that still sounds like it’s fresh out of the mastering lab, and it’s a must have for anyone that appreciates true school rap in particular, or good music in general.

To listen to 3 Feet High and Rising, click here.

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