The Daisy Age, Huge Growth and Potholes in My Lawn
IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for De La Soul’s 1989 masterpiece, 3 Feet High and Rising/ALL IMAGES/PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images
De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising: Its Place in Hip-Hop’s Golden Era, Sheer Brilliance and Lack of Online Availability
MANY have their opinions regarding Hip-Hop’s ‘golden period’…
and when it was at its most potent. Every year sees some brilliant Hip-Hop albums and modern stars like Kendrick Lamar are doing brilliant things and pushing the genre to new heights. I am amazed that Hip-Hop continues to produce such majesty and can hit remarkable peaks. Whilst there is a great collective of artists doing their own thing and producing sensational work; I feel the masters really laid down the rules and produced the yardstick back in 1988/1989. There were fantastic Hip-Hop albums prior to 1988. Go back to 1986 and Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell arrived in 1986 and it was a bold move for the third record. Run-D.M.C. were on a hot streak already but few could have seen Raising Hell come along. Produced by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons; it was Rubin’s love of Metal and Rap that created a tougher, tauter and more explosive album. Not only is there a reinvention of Aerosmith’s Walk This Way but the palette of sounds is amazing! There are a tonne of drum loops and heavy beats; so many layers that made it a guide and bar for Hip-Hop albums to follow. Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full arrived the following year and the album was recorded inexpensively and quickly. Again…Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records made a push and signed them to Island Records.
Rakim wrote the songs in about an hour while listening to the beat; he recorded the lyrics in a booth and read the lyrics from a piece of paper. The duo worked in forty-eight-hour shifts and completed the record in a week. There was no calculation and precision: the duo was putting together sounds that felt right and natural. The reviews and praise that came in for Paid in Full were extraordinary:
“Paid in Full was released during what became known as the golden age hip hop era. In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Sasha Frere-Jones called it "one of hip-hop's perfect records", while Alex Ogg considered it to be the duo's magnum opus in his book The Men Behind Def Jam. Rakim's rapping on the album set a blueprint for future rappers and helped secure East Coast hip hop's reputation for innovative lyrical technique. Author William Cobb stated in To the Break of Dawn that his rapping had "stepped outside" of the preceding era of old school hip hop and that while the vocabulary and lyrical dexterity of newer rappers had improved, it was "nowhere near what Rakim introduced to the genre". The New York Times' Dimitri Ehrlich, who described the album as "an artistic and commercial benchmark", credited Rakim for helping "give birth to a musical genre" and leading "a quiet musical revolution, introducing a soft-spoken rapping style". Allmusic's Steve Huey declared Paid in Full one of hip-hop's most influential albums and "essential listening" for those interested in the genre's "basic musical foundations". MTV ranked it at number one in "The Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time", stating it raised the standards of hip-hop "both sonically and poetically" and described it as "captivating, profound, innovative and instantly influential". The album is broken down track-by-track by Rakim in Brian Coleman's book Check the Technique”
To me, this album was one of the first seed planted in the minds of De La Soul. 1988 would have a profound impact as, off of the back of the growing tide, Public Enemy, N.W.A. and Eric B. & Rakim produced ground-breaking and seismic records. Eric B. & Rakim released Follow the Leader and, as would be common of the other icons of the year; sampling and splicing sounds helped elevate their potent and powerful messages to new heights. Paid in Full was crammed with great sounds but its follow-up was a slicker, tighter and more consistent album. N.W.A. released the incendiary and explosive Straight Outta Compton that, whilst rallying against corruption, racism and suppression; there were a tonne of samples. It is seen as one of the most important Hip-Hop records regarding pushing the genre forward and opened eyes in 1988. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, whilst less sweary, was another charged and titanic album whose clever and eclectic use of samples helped to spotlight augment some incredible messages. 1988 was a phenomenal year for Hip-Hop and, with lesser-celebrated albums like He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper (DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince) helping to create an epic and evolving scene, it would inspire those who arrived in 1989. This was the start of a terrific boom for Hip-Hop and the duel pillars of Public Enemy and N.W.A. put out these socially aware and skilful albums that married serious and inspiring lyrics with a kaleidoscope of sounds.
1989 was defined by two especially great Hip-Hop records: Paul’s Boutique and 3 Feet High and Rising. There are rumours that Beastie Boys and De Le Soul were in each other’s company and the former heard the latter’s new album. Beastie Boys, hearing the insane and vast samples on 3 Feet High and Rising, despaired and knew they had to up their game. Beastie Boys were in-exile and suffered mixed reviews after their debut album. They would receive puzzled looks and muted reviews when Paul’s Boutique was released in 1989 – few knew what to expect and how to handle such a complex and ambitious record. Whilst Paul’s Boutique seems to have similar traits to records like Paid in Full and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; 3 Feet High and Rising was a different beast and signified a more peaceful and less confrontational style of Hip-Hop. The record was the first of three collaborations between De La Soul and producer Prince Paul and is seen as one of the greatest Hip-Hop albums ever. It has the same depth and variety as previous works of genius but its messages are rooted in peace, fun and something less potent. Completely different, lyrically, to the work of N.W.A. and Public Enemy; it was another bold shift in Hip-Hop and helped spearhead a ‘Flower Power’/’Daisy Age’ style of Hip-Hop.
Again, the spread of positive opinion was amazing to see:
“It is listed on Rolling Stones' 200 Essential Rock Records and The Source's 100 Best Rap Albums (both of which are unordered). When Village Voice held its annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1989, 3 Feet High and Rising was ranked at #1, outdistancing its nearest opponent (Neil Young's Freedom) by 21 votes and 260 points. It was also listed on the Rolling Stone's The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Released amid the 1989 boom in gangsta rap, which gravitated towards hardcore, confrontational, violent lyrics, De La Soul's uniquely positive style made them an oddity beginning with the first single, "Me, Myself and I". Their positivity meant many observers labeled them a "hippie" group, based on their declaration of the "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" (da inner sound, y'all). Sampling artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Hall & Oates, Steely Dan and The Turtles, 3 Feet High and Rising is often viewed as the stylistic beginning of 1990s alternative hip hop (and especially jazz rap).
"An inevitable development in the class history of rap, [De La Soul is] new wave to Public Enemy's punk," wrote critic Robert Christgau in his Village Voice review of 3 Feet High and Rising: "Their music is maddeningly disjunct, and a few of the 24-cuts-in-67-minutes (too long for vinyl) are self-indulgent, arch. But their music is also radically unlike any rap you or anybody else has ever heard — inspirations include the Jarmels and a learn-it-yourself French record. And for all their kiddie consciousness, junk-culture arcana, and suburban in-jokes, they're in the new tradition — you can dance to them, which counts for plenty when disjunction is your problem."
Rolling Stone magazine gave the album three stars and concluded that it was "(o)ne 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"”
Artists like Macy Gray and James Lavelle have been inspired by the risks, experimentation and sheer wonder of 3 Feet High and Rising. Not to mention, of course, all the Hip-Hop artists who would try and follow De La Soul’s masterpiece!
IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul in 1989
I want to end by bringing in a great piece that sort of ties together some important aspects regarding the album. It looks at 3 Feet High and Rising in the context of those ‘golden years’ (1988/1989 to 1991/1992; that start came in 1986…) and how it managed to transform Hip-Hop. It also mentions one of the biggest issues regarding the record: the fact it is unavailable to stream online. Some say it was De La Soul who screwed up – singing a contract that meant their music would not be available electronic – but it is a shame the only way one can hear this epochal creation is through physical sale. That is no bad thing but its absence online has been noted by the band themselves who regret this. This Pitchfork article looks at 3 Feet High and Rising and how it followed such gems like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back:
“Consider that in the preceding 12 months, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Straight Outta Compton, Critical Beatdown, Lyte As a Rock, and In Full Gear had made a massive impact in hip-hop. All of these records commanded attention, wore their sizable ambitions on their jackets. But while their New School peers stood tall, offering righteousness (Public Enemy), rebellion (N.W.A.), street wisdom (MC Lyte), style-war futurism (Ultramagnetic MC’s) and crowd-pleasing showmanship (Stetsasonic) to hip-hop’s expanding audiences, De La Soul were the quiet kids lingering at the edge of the cipher, withdrawn and a little mysterious, conversing in coded language meant to distance themselves from all the big personalities jockeying for position around them”.
IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul on Long Island in 1989/PHOTO CREDIT: Janette Beckman
One of the biggest differences between the world of West Coast artists who seemed to offer a brand of Hip-Hop that was striking, rallying and had anger at its heart – then there was De La Soul:
“But the narrative of the album is still framed by a tired contrast between the rise of N.W.A. and the West Coast gangsta rap and that of De La Soul and the Native Tongues’ ”completely unthreatening” “message of positivity.” De La never asked to be the saviors of hip-hop, much less to answer for all the supposed pathologies that critics wanted to put on Black masculinity and Black popular culture. Instead, De La Soul defined their outsiderness through a weird, wild, and wholly self-referential creativity. Their MC names were “Sounds Op” and “Yogurt” spelled backwards. Their album would be full of inside jokes, invented slang (“A phrase called talk” was their rhyme style, “Public Speaker” was a dope emcee, “Buddy” was a hot body, and “Strictly Dan Stuckie” meant “awesome”), and an odd mix of preoccupations ranging from TV to Aesop’s fables to Luden’s cough drops to, of course, sex”.
It is amusing to think of the stark contrasts between Hip-Hop artists battling police, being put down by politicians and having to experience violence and hatred.
On one of my favourite cuts from 3 Feet High and Rising; De La Soul spoke about a suburban battle that was less to do with gun violence and border disputes and more concerned with neighbourhood disputes – Potholes in My Lawn, one suspects, was a story of De La Soul’s place in Hip-Hop and how their peers viewed them:
“The Black suburban imagination of Long Island rappers offered a distinctive kind of street romance and horror. Public Enemy rapped about cruising the boulevards in muscle cars, their adrenaline amping up their politics of provocation. De La Soul’s second single, “Potholes In My Lawn,” was a battle rhyme refracted through the brutal status consciousness of the ‘burbs. De La played the family on the block coming into success, only to be met with the envious rage of the Joneses next door. Trugoy complained, “I don’t ask for a barbed wire fence, B, but my dwellin’ is swellin’.” Meanwhile, imitating wannabes lurked in the bushes. These rhyme-biting rappers took the form of vermin leaving unsightly craters all over the front yard. The crew repatched the potholes with daisies. Individuality trumped suburban conformity”.
During recording, there was this quest to put denser sounds together and throw more ambition into the lyrics. A lot of the songs on 3 Feet High and Rising concerned juvenile topics yet there was no lack of intelligence and originality from De La Soul. Genius tracks like The Magic Number – band philosophy and their personal mantras – captivated and remain hugely popular to this day.
One of the hardest things De La Soul had to face after 3 Feet High and Rising arrived was a backlash. Many threatened physical violence and the band were seen as soft hippies and not as credible and purposeful as their Hip-Hop peers.
“If Black complexity had been the meta-message lost in De La’s big crossover, abstraction, abjection, and humor were the winning trifecta of 3 Feet High and Rising. The skits and interludes poked fun at more of their obsessions—funky smells (“A Little Bit of Soap”), fashion trends (“Take It Off”), and porn flicks (“De la Orgee”). The funniest featured hip-hop party-starters veering off script (“Do As De La Does”). The game show skit might have been a transferral of rap’s meritocratic competition into something absurd—no one wins but the audience: Were you not entertained?”...De La Soul were making a point about the power of culture to mobilize people to action or immobilize them with fear. It was an idea they explored more explicitly on their fable, “Tread Water”.
3 Feet High and Rising followed those monumental, sample-heavy records like Straight Outta Compton and Paid in Full but took a more humorous and easy-going nature – whilst not skimping on the genius, scope and skill! One wonders whether we could ever see an album like this again because of sampling clearance and legalities:
“Today’s debate over sampling is mostly mind-numbingly narrow, shaped largely by big-money concerns that are ahistorical, anti-cultural, and anti-creative. The current regime rewards the least creative class—lawyers and capitalists—while destroying cultural practices of passing on. Post-hip-hop intellectual property law rests on racialized ideas of originality, and preserves the vampire profits of publishing outfits like Bridgeport Music, that sue sampling producers while preventing artists like George Clinton from sharing their music with next-generation musicians, and large corporations like Warner Brothers that continue to disenfranchise Black genius”.
There have been some big albums that employed samples but nothing, since the turn of the century at least, that have had the same effect and range as 3 Feet High and Rising. You would think it would be easier to sample work and get clearance but it seems there is even more litigious barrier and problems facing those who want to create their own 3 Feet High and Rising. One big tragedy is we might not see 3 Feet High online anytime soon. This article explains why De La Soul’s early work cannot be found on sites such as Spotify:
“The influential trio’s 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising is widely considered a masterpiece of the rap genre but, along with follow-up De La Soul is Dead, is unable to appear in digital form because of the many samples the band used.
MC Kelvin Mercer, known by his alias Posdnuos, described finding out that the group’s early contracts were for vinyl and cassette only as “really heart-wrenching”.
“It’s an unfortunate place we’ve been put in as a group,” he told the BBC. “Our contracts on those early albums said specifically ‘vinyl and cassette’. The wording wasn’t vague enough to lend itself to music technology”...
De La Soul heavily sampled an eclectic range of artists from James Brown and Michael Jackson to Smokey Robinson and Johnny Cash. Their record label got legal permission for most of them back when the band first began but in order to stream or download these songs, new deals must be cut for the albums.
The only hope of hearing them online now rests with Warner Bros, who owns the tapes. Sadly, according to Posdnuos, they “just don’t want to deal with it” due to the time involved in carefully going through each song to check every sample is cleared. The lengthy process has been “draining” and further hindered by staff changes, he said”.
One reason why Hip-Hop masterpieces like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 3 Feet High and Rising are so important is not just because of the messages and the fact it highlights problems affecting the black population in America – there have not been that many similar British Hip-Hop albums or scene – but the way music is spliced together. You get to hear about the struggles and problems that afflict sectors of U.S. society overlooked but, in the process, disparate artists and genres and woven together and this brings that music to new generations. Pitchfork’s article explains:
“Pos’s production on “Eye Know” put Steely Dan into conversation with Otis Redding and the Mad Lads, his work on “Say No Go” Hall and Oates with the Detroit Emeralds. The musical chorus of “Potholes in My Lawn” pointed not only to Parliament’s 1970 debut Osmium, but to the African American roots of country and western music...
IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul, circa 1990/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Together, the sampled sounds of the Jarmels, the Blackbyrds, the New Birth, and even white artists like Led Zeppelin, Bob Dorough, and Billy Joel, make a strong case that all of American pop is African-American pop, from which everyone has been borrowing. Sampling—De La Soul sampling Parliament, Obama sampling Lincoln, Melania sampling Michelle—is nothing less than the American pastime, the creative reuse of history amid the tension between erasure and emergence that is central to the struggle for the republic. No one can ever do it as big as De La Soul did”.
Hip-Hop has not seen such a golden and productive time since the late-1980s and a lot can be learned from albums like 3 Feet High and Rising. Maybe more modern Hip-Hop artists like Eminem and Dr. Dre helped provide the genre another exciting burst in the late-1990s/early-2000s but nothing like the world saw in the late-1980s. Some might say things started with Run-D.M.C. in 1986 or Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full the year after. It is clear the explosive during 1988 – with Public Enemy and N.W.A. - propelled a sample-heavy reaction from De La Soul. It was a peaceful and colourful alternative to the rather sharp and political albums from some quarters. It garnered some criticism and heat from certain quarters – feeling De La Soul were wet and opposed to Hip-Hop’s ideals – but it was a stunning progression and evolution in Hip-Hop. Even through there is a notable 3 Feet High and Rising-shaped hole in the streaming marketplace few can deny the genius and legacy of this 1989...
WORK of brilliance.