Twenty-five years ago today (March 3), De La Soul’s seminal debut LP, “3 Feet High and Rising,” was released. Widely-regarded as one of the best records of its era, and now almost universally praised, it’s among the finest projects spawned by the Native Tongue-affiliated acts and still holds up as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. In its day, it was so fresh and new. It sounded like nothing else out there.
Parse your memory and try to remember hip-hop in the year 1989. On one end of the spectrum are acts like Public Enemy, K.R.S. One and N.W.A., serious rappers set on becoming anchors of what would eventually morph into the street CNN. On the other end, new jack swing is the sound of urban radio, Kwame is wearing polka dots, LL Cool J has gone commercial and Young MC and Hammer, respectively, are the Flo Rida and Pitbull of their generation. Rap is desperately missing something that speaks for the middle— not too aggressive, but not soft either— and that’s what De La Soul is. They’re the beginning of hip-hop’s middle class.
Hailing from Long Island, group members Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove and Maseo met in high school and went on to impress local producer Prince Paul— a member of Stetsasonic— who circulated their demo tape and got them buzzing in the rap industry scene. They landed a deal with Tommy Boy Records, and with Prince Paul behind the boards, convened in Brooklyn’s Calliope Studios to work on “3 Feet High and Rising.” A veritable how-to guide on hip-hop sampling, the album would plumb dozens of genres for its sonic palette— rock, jazz, funk, etc.— and spawn classic cuts like “Me, Myself and I” and “Buddy” (the original and remix). If hip-hop was in need of a something different, “3 Feet High and Rising” was definitely it for it was playful, thoughtful, worldly and comedic. Moreover, it was a brash introduction of the D.A.I.S.Y. age. De La Soul’s way of letting everyone know that rap’s free-thinking set was finally here.
The album opens with a skit featuring the members of the group as contestants on a Jeopardy-like game show. We’re introduced to De La Soul as a bunch of jokesters. First impressions are everything, and it’s obvious they don’t take themselves too seriously. That’s good.
“The Magic Number”
Sets forth the De La Soul agenda and affirms the group as a trio. “Fly rhymes are stored on a D.A.I.S.Y. production/ It stands for ‘Da Inner Sound Y’all’ and y’all can bet/ That the action’s not a trick, but showing the function,” Pos spits, spelling out the acronym, D.A.I.S.Y. Perhaps because of daisies and their symbolic affiliation with sixties counterculture, De La would go on to be labeled as the first hip-hop hippies. Rappers with open minds. A novel concept.
“Change In Speak”
A crafty blend of the feel-good horns from the Mad Lads “No Strings Attached” and the syncopated drums from Cymande’s “Bra,” give De La ample space to set forth their peace-first, no beef, mantra. Just a good jam with good vibes.
“Cool Breeze On The Rocks”
A continuation of the album’s game show theme, which finds a variety of classic records being cut up by Maseo, but no answers to the original questions set forth getting answered. The saga continues.
“Can U Keep A Secret”
A short skit-like song over a sample of the New Birth’s “Got To Get A Knutt,” wherein each of the members whisper embarrassing secrets about each other. And nobody is excluded, either. Even Dante Ross, the group’s A&R at the time, is repeatedly called a scrub at the end. Hilarious.
“Janifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge)”
Who is Janifa? What is Janifa? Could be a person, could also be part of a person (hint, hint). That double-entendre notwithstanding, “Janifa Taught Me” is a playful story about each member having sex for the first time, and reminds us of the great golden age of hip-hop, when storytelling was such a huge part of the music. It’s sorely missed.
One of the rare moments on the album that deals with issues of poverty, “Ghetto Thang” explores the seedier side of hood life. “Infested are the halls, also the brains/ Daddy’s broken down from ghetto pains/ Mommy’s flying high, the truth is shown/ The kids are all alone,” Trugoy spits. In a sense, it’s De La’s attempt at explaining something they can’t ignore. They may look outside their surroundings for inspiration, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of what’s going on.
“Transmitting Live From Mars”
A French language lesson merged with a loop culled from The Turtles “You Showed Me.” This short interlude led to a $1.7 million copyright-infringement lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court. But it also set a precedent, and is one of the reasons why the group’s catalog is still not legally available through digital retailers. There are too many samples on the album, Warner Brothers— which owns Tommy Boy Records’ catalog— does not want to go through the legwork to re-clear them all for digital rights. To combat that, on Valentine’s Day the group made all their music available for free via their website.
The opening guitar riff from the Mad Lads’ “Make This Young Lady Mine” provides the cheerful backing track for Pos and Trugoy to kick something in the ear of the ladies they’re mackin’ on. Again, more references to the D.A.I.S.Y. age. And who wouldn’t want to get with these easy-going casanovas?
“Take It Off”
A breakbeat-driven interlude which finds De La imploring people to take off whatever cool fashion item it is they’re wearing. It’s here where you can find the group admonishing hip-hop’s social mores, the rampant commercialism and brand-allegiance that was already holding sway. A 25-year career built on non-conformity and rejecting bullshit finds its genesis right here.
“A Little Bit Of Soap”
A short song where Pos implores his competitor to, well, take a shower. And don’t forget the soap!
A crocodile, fish, monkey, and squirrel— what do they all have in common? They’re all featured in “Tread Water,” characters on whom the story’s narrative arc is built. And that’s that De La’s music is instrumental in their lives, and that it helps them keep going even when the odds are stacked against them. A true children’s story, set to a hip-hop beat. They may have been smoking something when they wrote this.
“Potholes In My Lawn”
A song ostensibly about other rappers stealing De La’s rhymes, “Potholes In My Lawn” was the group’s second single and only a minor hit, reaching No. 22 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart. Reverence for the cut has certainly grown since then. In 2004, via NASA rover, it became the first rap song to be played on Mars. Maybe it wasn’t a big hit here, but on other planets, hey…
“Say No Go”
A great example of how De La Soul weaved many samples into one track. Just peep the samples: “I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)” by The Turtles; “Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms)” by Detroit Emeralds; “Crossword Puzzle” by Sly Stone; “Best of My Love by The Emotions and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates. And yet they’re all fused together to create something truly original. These are sonic collages— tracks made from found sounds, pieces of art in their own right— and listening to them is like hearing a lesson in music history.
“Do As De La Does”
“If you like to drink some soda, let me hear you say Coca-Cola!” That’s the command here, an obvious holdover from the days when MC meant move the crowd.
“Plug Tunin’ (Last Chance To Comprehend)”
De La Soul’s first single and rumor has it the cut that originally caught the attention of Prince Paul (an updated mix, with different lyrics and the drums featured more prominently, is featured here on the LP, as is the original). “Plug Tunin” alluded to the group members monikers— Plug One and Plug Two, respectively— which referred to the microphones each member rhymed into (Pos was one, Trugoy was two). This slang is participle in a world they created around their group, which was uniquely De La’s and belonged to no else but them. It was very cool and extremely influential.
“De La Orgee”
Simulated sex while Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” plays in the background. Nasty!
The original version featured the Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip, and while it’s a solid record, the remix, which sees De La recruiting Queen Latifah and Monie Love, is a certified hip-hop classic. Although the remix isn’t on “3 Feet High and Rising,” it’s difficult not to acknowledge its legacy as one of the greatest posse cuts of all time. It’s popularity, reaching No. 2 on the Rap Singles chart, effectively announced the Native Tongues as a formidable rap crew.
A short introductory piece, featuring guest lyrics from Q-Tip as well as from De La’s backup dancers. Also, there’s a rare appearance by third member Maseo, who doesn’t often rap. “Me be Plug Three, or Baby Huey/I eat up, all ketchup, for its tendency,” he rhymes. Obviously, deejaying is more Maseo’s thing.
“Me, Myself and I”
The song that put De La Soul on the map, reaching No. 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. “Me, Myself And I” is built on a sample of “(Not Just) Knee Deep” by Funkadelic, and finds the group firing back at critics in the scene, who had issues with their hippie swag. “Now you tease my Plug One style, and my Plug One spectacles/ You say Plug One and Two are hippies, no we’re not, thats pure plug bull,” Pos rhymes. The tune has been a rallying cry for people who just want to do their own thing and not be judged ever since.
“This is a Recording for Living in a Fulltime Era (L.I.F.E.)”
One of the best songs on the LP, the tune finds De La Soul hitting back yet again. Pos and Trugoy cement their relationship and let critics know that they stand together, bringing the D.A.I.S.Y. age style to the table. Also, a really great example of how the group would use very intricate poetic rhyme schemes to hammer home their points. Throughout the album they rarely hew to standard 4/4 rhyme conventions— typically what you might think of when you think of rapping— but here is one of the most most glaring example. De La were amazing writers.
“I Can Do Anything (Delacratic)”
Over a beatbox (remember that?), some crafty options for what being a Delacrat might entail.
As if De La hadn’t hammered their point home yet, they come back with one more song— a last hurrah, if you will— just to hammer home what they’re all about. They’re repping Amityville, Long Island and represent is a form of expression that comes from deep within the soul. D.A.I.S.Y. stands for “Da Inner Sound Ya’ll.” It comes from within, and don’t forget it.
“Plug Tunin’ (12″ version)”
The original 12″ version features lyrics that are much more complex and rhymes schemes more intricate, which allows that there may have been a small chance that the group was encouraged to dial back the intensity for the official single. Which one is better? That’s a tough question to answer. It makes the album even that much better, that there are both version present to choose from.