Classic Album: De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising
On their debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising, Long Island trio De La Soul forged a vibrant new template for hip-hop, radically different from the macho posturing of their contemporaries. Forty years on from its release, Neil Crossley charts the creation of a suburban-inspired masterpiece…
On 6 April 2011, the US Library of Congress unveiled a list of 25 recordings, drawn up the previous year, that it deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” in informing or reflecting life in the United States. The list, known as the National Recording Registry, is compiled annually and spans a rich and diverse cultural heritage. Entries on the 2010 list include the 1911-1914 cylinder recordings of the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, who inhabited the remote cliff country of Northern California; the haunting 1927 recording of gospel blues song Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground by Blind Willie Johnson; and the 1969 album Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.
Positioned right at the end of the list is the 1989 debut album 3 Feet High And Rising by three teenagers from Long Island called De La Soul, which was acclaimed by the Library of Congress for “its astonishing range of samples”. On the album, De La Soul unleashed a playful, witty and hugely innovative sound that was light years away from the prevailing hardcore sound of their contemporaries. The album would shake up the hip-hop community. Three decades on from its release, 3 Feet High And Rising remains a universally recognised masterpiece.
Sound of The Suburbs
As creative environments go, the suburbs of Amityville, Long Island where the three members of De La Soul grew up, are a world away from the streets of New York and Los Angeles that spawned many of their contemporaries. Instead of inner-city block parties, it was suburban bedrooms where Kelvin ‘Posdnuos’ Mercer, Dave ‘Trugoy The Dove’ Jolicoeur, and Vincent ‘Pasemaster Mase’ Mason began experimenting with new sounds.
Right from the start, it was clear that De La Soul were different. Theirs was a kooky, insular world, as reflected in their choice of stage names. The press kit for 3 Feet High And Rising offered explanations of these for the benefit of bewildered journalists: Trugoy, when reversed, spells yogurt, because Jolicoeur liked yogurt, while Posdnuos was an inversion of Mercer’s DJ name, Sound-Sop.
‘Our parents moved us into a world of boredom. It allowed our imaginations to go wherever they wanted’
The trio met at the Amityville Memorial High School and formed De La Soul in 1987. While all were born in New York – Posdnuos and Trugoy in Brooklyn and Mase in the Bronx – their parents joined the exodus of black families from the city to the suburbs in the 1970s and 80s. “Our parents moved us into a world of boredom,’’ Mase told The New York Times in August 2000. “It allowed our imaginations to go wherever they wanted.’’
The proximity to New York enabled them to spend time in the capital of hip-hop, while giving them space to develop a singular, innovative style on Long Island. “It allowed us to see what was going on in New York City,’’ Mase continued, “and then bring our own ideas to the table, because we didn’t always have a lot of outside influence.’’
Familial Crate Digging
De La Soul would become renowned for their lush and eclectic sample-scapes. When it came to sourcing music, nothing was out of bounds. As well as seeking out rarities, the trio were not shy of looking to the mainstream. “At my school, which was a mixture of black and white kids, we would rap over Annie Lennox or Steve Miller,” Posdnuos told The Guardian in 2014. “They weren’t the coolest, but our love for them was genuine.”
Central to the band’s development were the rare records that they plundered from their parents’ record collections. It was this thirst for familial cratedigging that led to the creation of the track that would ignite their careers. In late 1986, the trio started working up a live routine, performing over the backbeat of Impeach The President, a 1973 single by funk band The Honey Drippers. The drum pattern has become one of the most sampled beats in hip-hop, R&B and jazz. But it took the addition of another sample to really kick De La Soul’s new track into life. “Somehow, we started to make a conceptual song,” Mase told Vibe magazine in August 2018, “but it really didn’t become much of anything until Pos found a sample.”
The sample that Posdnuos found was from his father’s copy of Written On The Wall, a 1965 single by funk-soul band The Invitations, released on the DynoVoice Records label. It would form the instrumental backbone of the new track, which the trio entitled Plug Tunin.
Like many young producers without the means to buy expensive samplers, Posdnuos adopted a pioneering sampling technique using dual cassette decks, creating pause-tape beats to then build up loops. Posdnuos’ sample transformed Plug Tunin, and Mase bolstered it even further with an additional drum track.
De La Soul Arrangers, production assistance
Prince Paul Arranger, mixing, production
Trugoy The Dove Arranger
Sue Fisher Engineer
Bob Coulter Engineer
Al Watts Mixing
Jungle Brothers Performers
Main production credits:
Prince Paul Producer
De La Soul Producers
Calliope Studios, New York
14 March, 1989
“Hey, all you kids out there! Welcome to 3 Feet High And Rising. Now, here’s what we do. The following contestants, how are you doing, contestants?” And so begins the opening skit on the opening track of the album, setting up the game show concept and the gleeful, kooky vibe that will pervade throughout.
2 THE MAGIC NUMBER
3 Is A Magic Number by Schoolhouse Rock and Five Feet High And Rising by Johnny Cash are among the samples on this classic track, which hinges on a sample of John Bonham’s drum into for The Crunge by Led Zeppelin. Released as a single in 1990, it still sounds powerful and relevant three decades on.
3 CHANGE IN SPEAK
This track blends the syncopated drums from Cymande’s Bra with the horns from The Mad Lads’ No Strings Attached. “There was a record I found that had a whole bunch of great songs from the Mad Lads on it,” Posdnuos told Rolling Stone. “Then we just decided to put the Bra song from Cymande on it, we just started mashing things.”
4 COOL BREEZE ON THE ROCKS
Barely a second passes without the sonic landscape shifting in this rich and frenetic compendium of samples, skits and scratching. “Cool breeze/ Rock that shit homie/ Gotta/ Rock/ Lyte as a rock/ A-a-a-a-a-as a rock”. Michael Jackson’s Rock With You and Ashford & Simpson’s Solid are among the plethora of tracks sampled.
5 CAN U KEEP A SECRET
The New Birth track Birth Day forms the backbone of this short skit-like song. It’s like a surreal, self-effacing riposte to the assured bravado of gangsta rap. Trugoy recalls that the recording of this track was a high point. “We had 15 or more people at our sessions at all times and we were always thinking, ‘Let’s utilise voices, let’s utilise personalities’.”
6 JENIFA TAUGHT ME – DERWIN’S REVENGE
There’s a gloriously unbridled feel to this track, an end-of-innocence tale of teen lust built on a sample from Northern Soul staple Soupy, a 1965 hit on DynoVoice for Maggie Thrett. ‘The downstairs, where we met,’ begins Posdnuos, ‘I brought records, she cassettes/ Lost the breaks, found her shape/ Jenifa, oh Jeny’. A sample highlight has to be Liberace’s rendition of Chopsticks, which kicks in at 1:59.
7 GHETTO THANG
A warm, lolloping groove intros this track, which shines a light on the profound social problems of inner-city communities across the US. The track is from the trio’s earlier sessions, before they signed to Tommy Boy Records. “It wound up becoming a song that talked about things that happen in the ghettos of America,” Posdnuos told Rolling Stone in 2009. Samples include Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk and Funky President (People It’s Bad) by James Brown.
8 TRANSMITTING LIVE FROM MARS
The original concept for the album was that Mase, Posdnuos and Trugoy were transmitting live from Mars. This idea was ditched, but the title was used for this skit. This is the track that features a sample of You Showed Me by The Turtles, which resulted in a $1.7m copyright-infringement lawsuit, prompting new legislation restricting the use of samples.
9 EYE KNOW
A whistle sample from Otis Redding’s Dock Of The Bay and guitar, keyboard and vocal samples from Steely Dan’s Peg feature on this upbeat love song, which reached No.14 when released as a single in the UK. The track was also used as background music for Match Of The Day 2 from 2004 to 2008.
10 TAKE IT OFF
“There was a song out there at the time called Kick The Ball and it used the same Headhunters beat,” recalled Trugoy of the inspiration behind Take It Off. “So we basically mimicked the sound of their single and, instead of saying ‘kick the ball’, we said ‘take it off’ and thought about all the cliché hip-hop stuff that people should just change and find some individualism or some of their own personality, as opposed to falling in line with what hip-hop was supposed to be.”
11 A LITTLE BIT OF SOAP
Sampled from the The Jarmels’ 1961 hit of the same name, written by Bert Russell, in De La Soul’s hands the meaning of the song is flipped to hone in on someone’s body odour. “Before you even put on your silk shirt and fat gold rope/ Please take your big ass to the bathroom/ And please use/ A little bit of soap”.
12 TREAD WATER
An infectious upbeat groove frames the most socially conscious track on the album, a prophetic take on the environmental devastation wreaked by humans on the planet. Carefree vocal humming adds a wry quality.
13 POTHOLES IN MY LAWN
Rarely has yodelling been used more innovatively than on this track, the second single from the album, which became a big R&B hit. De La Soul also sampled a jaw harp, from Parliament’s 1970 track Little Ole Country Boy, among others. “We’d take records along to the studio,” Posdnuos told The Guardian in 2014, “and say, ‘We need you to loop this portion of Magic Mountain by Eric Burdon and War. We’re going to rap over it and add a bunch of sounds’. And that ended up being Potholes In My Lawn.”
14 SAY NO GO
Crack cocaine addiction is the focus of this track, which heavily samples the bass, drums and titular vocal of the Hall & Oates hit I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do). Lyrically, it gets straight to the point. “Now let’s get right on down to the skit/ A baby is brought into a world of pits/ And if it could’ve talked that soon/ In the delivery room/ It would’ve asked the nurse for a hit.”
15 DO AS DE LA DOES
As the recording of 3 Feet High And Rising continued, an increasing number of people would turn up at the studio. “Everyone was there that day,” recalled Posdnuos. “Our sessions became notorious and people would say, ‘Let me go through there, because if I go through there I’ll wind up on the record’. That day, Red Alert, MC Lyte were there, so we all jumped in the booth and started call and response in the silliest way we could.”
16 PLUG TUNIN
A remixed version of the debut single. “That was an important record, because it sorta signed how we were gonna approach writing rhymes, in terms of style,” Trugoy told Rolling Stone in 2009. “What’s really cool about that record is the pattern and the cadence of the rhymes.”
17 DE LA ORGEE
Barry White’s I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby forms the backdrop here. “De La Orgee came about because our producer, Prince Paul, had this Barry White record with Barry moaning all the way through,” Posdnuos told Melody Maker. “So the three of us got into the booth and started moaning, and then we got everybody else who was hanging around to come in too.”
18 BUDDY (Featuring Jungle Brothers & Q-Tip)
There’s a joyous feel to this track, as reflected in the video, which features the band, friends and relatives dancing and joking, while holding aloft placards with key words from the lyrics. The track is renowned for featuring the major members of the Native Tongues posse, including Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers and Queen Latifah.
De La Soul’s core ethos of peace and friendship is evident on this track, which samples Poet a track from Sly And The Family Stone’s 1971 album There’s A Riot Going On. It’s a slow, sparse, chugging groove, with the occasional liberal flourish of snare and a monotone vocal delivery. ‘I’m Plug One,’ raps Posdnuos. ‘I’m 19 years young/ I love peace/ Well at least/ I think we need some’.
20 ME MYSELF AND I
Fuelled by a powerful sample of Funkadelic’s (Not Just) Knee Deep, this first single from the album hit No.1 in the US and R&B charts and sparked De La Soul’s crossover into the mainstream market. The track addresses the band’s frustration with being labelled as ‘hippies’, which they addressed with their typically dry humour.
21 THIS IS A RECORDING 4 LIVING IN A FULLTIME ERA
‘This is a recording’ is the line delivered and repeated with a sense of urgency at the start of this track, which samples Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals. There’s a real drive and texture to the track, with surges of guitar and scratching adding potency at 0:52 and keyboard pads opening the song up at 1:10.
22 I CAN DO ANYTHING
The final skit on the album sets its sights on the concept of democracy, reeling off a succession of absurdist notions. “If I want to I could jump off this building (It’s Delacratic)/ I could hold two pieces of doo-doo in my hand (It’s Delacratic)/ I could call everybody in that room a rubberneck (It’s Delacratic)/ Come on, please?”
23 D.A.I.S.Y. AGE
De La Soul coined this phrase – an acronym standing for ‘da inner sound y’all’ – to imply a more optimistic and altruistic side of rap. There’s a deep funk groove at play here, with scratching and staccato snare rhythm, which broadens out when the fluid bass enters at 0:47. Samples include My World by The Rascals and School Boy Crush by Average White Band.
24 PLUG TUNIN (12″ version)
De La Soul’s willingness to plunder the mainstream for samples is reflected in their choice of Billy Joel’s Stiletto as a sample on this, their original 12-inch single release. Other samples include Written On The Wall, a 1965 single by The Invitations, which completely elevates the track.
In The Studio
There comes a point in most artists’ development when a champion with industry clout spots potential and takes them to the next level. For De La Soul, that moment came when they met Paul ‘Prince Paul’ Hudson, leader and producer with New York rap outfit Stetsasonic. It was Mase who played Plug Tunin to Prince Paul, and the response was immediate. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’,” Prince Paul told HipHop.com. “It was very stripped down. It still had the main loop, though it wasn’t really arranged that well. But just to hear the potential!”
Prince Paul asked Mase to bring the rest of the band to the studio the next day. By the time they arrived, he had taken the pause-tape version and added his own sonic magic. “I took it, overdubbed it, added other samples, and rearranged it,” he told Complex magazine in 2011. “I played it for them and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy’.”
‘We always felt that individualism and creativity and expressing it was most important’
Prince Paul took the band to re-record the track at Calliope Studios in New York. He enlisted the help of Daddy-O from Stetsasonic, who took the resulting demo tape to Tommy Boy Records in New York. Tommy Boy’s president Monica Lynch was quick to spot its potential. “It was one of those things where you thought, ‘This is either going to be a landmark or it won’t even make a dent in the consciousness’,” she told The Source magazine.
Lynch’s instincts were flawless. She signed the band and the label pressed up Plug Tunin on 12-inch vinyl. Their debut single was soon receiving heavy rotation on underground hip-hop stations and crossing over into the mainstream market. In an era when hip-hop was fuelled by rage and machismo, De La Soul had created a kaleidoscopic sound that was groundbreaking and eclectic. “The best word to describe that song is a word that was in the hip-hop parlance of the day – ‘dusted’,” Lynch told The Source. “It was abstract, so different from the visceral, literal kind of hip-hop that was dominant back then.”
Fuelled by their success, De La Soul and Prince Paul returned to Calliope Studios in late 1988 to record the debut album that would become 3 Feet High And Rising. Over a two-month period, the trio were given free rein to flex their creativity and exploit the potential of these new ‘dusted’ sounds. “At home, we did these dusty old demo tapes using one little Casio sampler that could only fit in two samples at a time,” Posdnuos told The Washington Post in a 1989 interview. “Once we got in the studio, we found that we could work the equipment in, and it just brought forth more ideas.”
From the outset, Prince Paul encouraged the trio to seek out the vinyl delights within their parents’ record collections. “We combined our collections,” he told journalist Gino Sorcinelli in 2008. “We more or less gathered what our families listened to and had collected over the years. Pos had a deep collection. His dad had some really obscure records, which helped us out a lot.”
The band would take these records to the studio and loop portions of them. Posdnuos told The Guardian in 2014 that the band made the entire album for $13,000 using just a Casio RZ-1 drum machine/sampler and an Eventide harmonizer. This enabled them to match songs that had different pitches. “We could put Daryl Hall’s voice over a Sly And The Family Stone record. It was absolutely amazing.”
The ideas flowed quickly, with the band encouraging each other to stretch themselves creatively. The Hall and Oates song I Can’t Go For That became the anti-drugs track Say No Go; Eye Know took a line from the Steely Dan song Peg, bolstered by some whistling from Otis Redding along the way; while the album’s big single Me, Myself And I featured the trio rapping over a Funkadelic loop in the style of the Jungle Brothers.
Skits And Samples
De La Soul set new standards for sampling and spanned funk, soul, pop, jazz, reggae and psychedelia. Across the album’s 24 tracks, they created a sonic collage, culling sounds from sources as diverse as Liberace, Michael Jackson, a scratchy French language instruction record and 70s soul rhythm tracks. “It was playful, childlike and fun,” Posdnuos recalled. “We’d dip into psychedelia or jazz. We’d slow down Eddie Murphy’s voice and add a car screeching or us yodelling.”
‘That’s what we wanted hip-hop to be… one of those genres that doesn’t fade out when whatever’s new is hot.’
All samples were presented in ingenious and innovative ways. The trio didn’t simply use these samples as hooks or beats, but in the words of John Bush of AllMusic: “as split-second fills and in-jokes that made some tracks sound more like DJ records”.
They also pioneered the use of skits, running dialogues between songs, all woven together across the album in a quirky television game show concept. It was a groundbreaking approach. Lyrically, too, they were totally unique. While artists such as N.W.A embraced the violence of gangsta rap and Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs rapped about materialism, De La Soul songs such as Eye Know and The Magic Number conveyed a blissful spirit of peace and amiability, a style that became known as ‘conscious rap’.
A Legendary Legacy
3 Feet High And Rising was released on 3 March 1989 to universal critical acclaim. Rolling Stone declared that the album was “one of the most original rap records ever to come down the pike, the inventive, playful 3 Feet High And Rising stands staid rap conventions on their def ear.” The Village Voice called the album “The Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop”, while the NME described it as “one of the greatest albums ever made”.
“We always wanted to be one of those acts that can be considered part of a legendary legacy,” Trugoy told Rolling Stone in 2009. “I remember back in the day, saying it’s so cool that The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie… are still played. That’s what we wanted hip-hop to be… one of those genres that doesn’t fade out when whatever’s new is hot.
“We felt like, if we wanted to look the way we looked and touch on topics we did, we shouldn’t be fearful of doing it just because it was the boasting, bragging, gold chain era. We always felt that individualism and creativity and expressing it was most important.”