In 1959, Johnny Cash released the single ‘Five Feet High and Rising’ - a track which took inspiration from the infamous 1937 Mississippi flood, where water levels rose one and a half metres. The Man in Black could never have imagined that this catastrophic event experienced by him and his family would inspire the debut album of a hip-hop trio from Long Island 30 years later. From ‘Five Feet High and Rising’, De La Soul descended to 3 Feet High and Rising. There’s no rising water here though, just three young rising rappers (aged just 18, 19 and 20!) about to be catapulted into stardom. This incredible debut album, released on Tommy Boy Records on the 3rd of March 1989, was about to revolutionise the world of rap.
When De La Soul burst onto the scene, they had an aesthetic that was well ahead of their time: no 24-carat gold chains around their neck, no SUVs with tinted windows parked in front of their houses (or their parents’ houses, for that matter), no AK-47s and no scantily-clad models lounging by the pool in their music videos. Instead, De La Soul’s style was all about colourful t-shirts and baggy jeans dotted with flowers and Peace & Love signs. They looked nothing like the major rappers of the time! There were a variety of rappers in the media, from those involved with what Chuck D labelled ‘the black CNN’ (Public Enemy, KRS-One), to those that focused on ghetto violence (N.W.A.), as well as those who championed humour (L.L. Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie) and commercial heavyweights (MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice). De La Soul, however, had developed a style that was uniquely their own.
Prince Paul: the George Martin of De La Soul ?
Amityville, Long Island isn’t only known for the famous massacre which occurred there (and which was immortalised in an equally famous horror film series), but for being the multicultural suburb where Bronx-native Kevin « Posdnuos » Mercer met two kids from Brooklyn, Dave « Trugoy the Dove » Jolicoeur and Vincent « Maseo » Mason. However, in high school, it wasn’t just music they loved. ‘We were all definitely about sneakers and what was the hottest new jacket’, revealed Trugoy in a 2013 interview with the magazine Wax Poetics. Surrounded by their parents’ worn-out Motown records and rap pioneers like Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Romantic 5, which their seniors played on repeat, they quickly became familiar with all manner of sounds.
Paul Edward Huston (aka Prince Paul) soon came across the demo they were working on, and there’s no question that 3 Feet High and Rising just wouldn’t have hit the same without his input. An Amityville native, the producer (who wasn’t all that much older than them) was already a local star thanks to the success of his band Stetsasonic, who by this point had released two albums on Tommy Boy (On Fire in 1986 and In Full Gear in 1988). Prince Paul re-recorded the demo, which ended up passing through the hands of the decade’s leading DJs, Red Alert and Marley Marl, both of whom were making headlines in the rap scene. ‘Them playing our track ‘Plug Tunin’’ was the ultimate achievement for us. We were happy with just that!’ confessed the trio. They never imagined they would reach the heights they went on to reach, and neither did the Tommy Boy label. They signed De La Soul on the advice of Prince Paul and sent them off to record their first album, completely unaware of what they would become.
De La Soul - Eye Know (Official Music Video) [HD] ft. Otis ReddingDeLaSoulVEVO
100 % sample !
Calliope, the Manhattan studio where 3 Feet High and Rising was produced, was unlike any other recording studio around. Modest and warm, much like the vibe given off by the album, it would become a sanctuary for other groups similar to De La Soul (A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers). The trio and Prince Paul shared the same vision: to do things ‘differently’ and go against the mainstream. A sort-of concept album, this first release took the form of a radio game show where hilarious sketches and strange sequences were interspersed with songs that have since become classics (the singles ‘Me Myself and I’, ‘Say No Go’, ‘Buddy’ and ‘The Magic Number’).
However, the real showstopper here is the samples, both in terms of their astronomical quantity (there are over 200!) and their eclecticism. It’s nothing short of a miracle that they managed to produce such a cohesive album by sticking Serge Gainsbourg in with Johnny Cash, Steely Dan, James Brown, the Turtles, Hall & Oates, Syl Johnson, the Monkees, Cymande, Lynn Collins, Steve Miller Band, Sly And The Family Stone, Bo Diddley, Billy Joel, the Bar-Kays and an Eddie Murphy sketch! Especially so, considering these samples were taken from records that their own generation didn’t really listen to at the time. De La Soul clearly dug through libraries, second-hand record shops and their parents’ and neighbours’ record collections to produce this record. Tommy Boy was convinced they would remain an underground group, and so the label was fairly lax with their requests to use all these samples. The only other album to rival this was Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, an equally pioneering record which was released four months after 3 Feet High and Rising.
The Daisy Age
The lyrics in De La Soul’s debut album didn’t contain an ounce of chauvinism. Far from it indeed, they projected an otherwise positive attitude combining silliness, pacifism, feminism and Afrocentrism. In fact, some people described them as the ‘hippies of hip-hop’. But De La Soul was far from the only band to adopt this optimistic attitude, with the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and Queen Latifah also joining this funky, upbeat rap party. Less stereotypical and more intellectual, these bands came together to form a collective called Native Tongues, a movement that carved out a unique niche within the rap scene. Posdnuos, Trugoy and Maseo termed this philosophy the ‘D.A.I.S.Y. Age’ (Da inner sound, y’all). However, with tracks like ‘Ghetto Thang’, the trio still afforded themselves the creative freedom to address the misery of life in the ghettos, just to make it crystal clear that they weren’t totally disconnected from the reality of the world around them.
3 Feet High and Rising was so successful that it went gold in a matter of months. It became a huge hit, even internationally. All this commotion, unsurprisingly, attracted the attention of lawyers working for the many sampled artists. It wasn’t long before the Turtles’ lawyer raised his concerns. De La Soul hadn’t obtained sample clearance for the few seconds of the Californian band’s ‘You Showed Me’ that had been used on the track ‘Transmitting Live From Mars’. The result was a $1.7 million copyright infringement case that was eventually settled out of court.
De La Soul is dead ! Long live De La Soul !
It took Posdnuos, Trugoy and Maseo two years to recover from the legal, critical and social frenzy that followed 3 Feet High and Rising. Frustrated with being known as the ‘hippies of hip-hop’, they tackled their second album head-on, entitling it De La Soul is Dead. Better yet, they chose to adorn the album cover with a pot of dead flowers! This record confirmed the trio had true talent. However, the Turtles affair would follow them for years to come. When music went digital, Warner—then owner of Tommy Boy—didn’t want to shell out to make De La Soul’s debut album available for streaming. In 2011, 3 Feet High and Rising had the honour of being added to the Library of Congress National Registry of Recordings, a collection of sound recordings preserved by the Library of Congress. However, it wasn’t until 2021 (when Reservoir acquired Tommy Boy Music and made an agreement with AOI, De La Soul’s label), that 3 Feet High and Rising was finally made available for streaming, as was De La Soul Is Dead (1991), Buhloone Mindstate (1993), Stakes Is High (1996), Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000) et AOI: Bionix (2001).