De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising at Thirty
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Why Its Anniversary on 3rd March Will Be a Bittersweet Thing
MAYBE I am getting a bit ahead of myself...
IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
but there is only eight days until we get to mark De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising’s thirtieth anniversary. I think this year is a big one because we get to celebrate albums like 3 Feet High and Rising: those that came along and made such an impact upon release. I wanted to focus on the album because I remember it when I was a child. I was only five at the time of its introduction but I was amazed by the sheer energy and inventiveness through the album. It is played like a concept album built around a fictional game-show that rolls through the album. There are skits and interjections that take you by surprise; shorter numbers and slightly longer ones. The standout song, The Magic Number, is an instant classic and has a chorus that lodges in the head right away. There are twenty-four songs on the album and it does act like this sort of narrative. There is the general theme of a game-show and this great blend of humour and great rhymes. The album was the introduction from De La Soul and stunned critics. In 1989, Hip-Hop was still defined by a sense of anger and protest. Black Americans were being overlooked and pushed aside and Hip-Hop groups were keen to address this through music. Albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Public Enemy, 1988) and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton (1988) were fuelled by anger and the need for change.
1988’s Hip-Hop best was defined by artists addressing subjects such as police corruption and social injustice but, rather than being heavy-handed, the music was sophisticated and detailed. There was this central heat and passion but the compositions themselves were being elevated by an array of samples. It is hard to think of any other genre aside from Hip-Hop (Rap) that uses samples in such a way. A few Pop albums have and Electronic acts like DJ Shadow have done it but, when it comes to sampling and opening the vinyl crate, Hip-Hop has always led the charge. We get to mark Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique later in the year – another album overloaded with samples and incredible sounds. De La Soul were not to be outdone when it came to sonic ambition and, when 3 Feet High and Rising came out, people were picking out the samples – there were around two-hundred on the record. The reason (or one of them) why De La Soul’s debut resonated was because of the tones and attitude. Against the grain of a more aggressive and charged style of Hip-Hop, De La Soul arrived with this ‘Daisy Age’ sound that looked for peace, humour and a sense of mischief. Many Hip-Hop faithful attacked De La Soul and felt they betrayed the core.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
One of the reasons why the thirtieth anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising should be marked is because of its style and approach. De La Soul could have followed their peers and produced a work that sounded like Straight Outta Compton or Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full (1987). How many Hip-Hop records today have the same wonder and energy as De La Soul’s debut?! It is a masterpiece of texture, quality and ambition. Skits talked about funny smells (A Little Bit of Soap), sex (De La Orgee) and Potholes in My Lawn. Even if the band did face attacks and protest when they embarked on a national tour, the critical reception was warmer and less judgmental. Contemporaries were kind but retrospective acclaim has been just as warm. AllMusic assessed the album in these terms:
“...Thinly disguised under a layer of humor, their lyrical themes ranged from true love ("Eye Know") to the destructive power of drugs ("Say No Go") to Daisy Age philosophy ("Tread Water") to sex ("Buddy"). Prince Paul (from Stetsasonic) and DJ Pasemaster Mase led the way on the production end, with dozens of samples from all sorts of left-field artists -- including Johnny Cash, the Mad Lads, Steely Dan, Public Enemy, Hall & Oates, and the Turtles. The pair didn't just use those samples as hooks or drumbreaks -- like most hip-hop producers had in the past -- but as split-second fills and in-jokes that made some tracks sound more like DJ records. Even "Potholes on My Lawn," which samples a mouth harp and yodeling (for the chorus, no less), became a big R&B hit. If it was easy to believe the revolution was here from listening to the rapping and production on Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, with De La Soul the Daisy Age seemed to promise a new era of positivity in hip-hop”.
IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul circa 1990/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The sheer genius and originality of De La Soul’s 1989 breakthrough should be given a lot of love as it turns thirty. It should act as a guidance to new artists who want to break away from familiar and tired sounds and embrace a much more experimental and colourful palette. One of the reasons why I think there is a slightly sad reason we mark thirty years of 3 Feet High and Rising is the samples used throughout. A great Pitchfork piece examined the album last year and spoke about De La Soul’s minds being opened to samples:
“What they all heard in it was an unprecedented assemblage of sound. Four years before, Marley Marl had accidentally unlocked the power of the sampler—a technology that allowed time to be captured and manipulated. The sampler vaulted hip-hop out of its inferiority complex. Now it too could meet the sonic ambitions of rock, funk, jazz, and soul. Like their peers, Prince Paul and De La Soul set about using it to build a world.
Along with their Native Tongues peers, they were as generative as sunshine, spawning fertile new scenes around the world, including LA’s True School, the Bay Area’s indie underground, Atlanta’s Dungeon Family, Detroit’s network of Dilla and his acolytes, and subsequent generations of self-identified indie rappers, including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common. More broadly, 3 Feet High and Rising helped secure a new alignment of hardcore street heads with an emerging global audience of fans, the foundation of the soon-to-be-named “hip-hop nation.” Thirty years later, it remains one most influential records of the storied class of 1988-89”.
There are videos and articles dedicated to the samples used on the album’s tracks. It is mind-blowing seeing all these wonderful and disparate sounds being mixed together to create something genuinely fresh and unique. I feel Hip-Hop records of the mid/late-1980s were so revered and acclaimed is because of the way they mixed samples in. I am not saying the albums would lack popularity were it not for the samples but it was a big consideration. Although there are multiple reasons why 3 Feet High and Rising is such a treasure and wonderful work but it also sounds like a relic of the past. De La Soul found themselves in legal trouble as they had not cleared all the samples used on the album – a reason why one cannot find 3 Feet High and Rising on Spotify is because of contract stipulations and a fear of legal reprisals. I have written about sampling in music a few times but I feel we can never return to that golden age of Hip-Hop (1986-1991-ish) where artists could create these musical conversations. Look at all the greatest Hip-Hop albums and you can detect these great snatches and samples adding to the songs. If De La Soul struggled to get clearance back in 1989 and were in trouble for not checking everything off, today there would be this impossible mountain to climb! I love 3 Feet High and Rising because it is stuffed with so many unconnected sounds that, when in the same song, sound right and wonderful.
IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul on Long Island in 1989/PHOTO CREDIT: Janette Beckman
I do feel we could make an album like this today but the rules regarding copyright and samples is so tough and uncompromising. If you use samples in music then you are able to have artists conversing and mixing together. New listeners will be intrigued and seek out the original records. At a time when playlists on Spotify dominate and the market is primed at the new and cool, how easy is it for young listeners to discover older sound and riffle through vinyl boxes?! Records like 3 Feet High and Rising introduced me to songs/artists I had never heard before and I was blown away by the notion a single song could be so packed and layered. The Pitchfork article talks about today’s sampling morals:
“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.
By contrast, the processes of sampling and layering on 3 Feet High and Rising and other hip-hop classics of that era demonstrate the opposite: expansively, giddily democratic—Delacratic, even—values”.
It is clear politicians steal speeches from others and there is a lot of recycling. Why does music have to be so strict and relentless strict when celebrities and politicians can get away with a lack of originality?! There has always been a culture in music of passing down sounds through the ages. A lot of Rock artists of the 1970s – such as Led Zeppelin – took from the Blues and brought them to new generations. Today, we have Pop artists revisiting the 1980s and 1990s and, throughout time, you can hear this family tree being unfurled and blossoming. Musicians can mimic older sounds and genres but things are much trickier when it comes to using original music – getting permission to use another artist’s work. Maybe it was the fact The Turtles sued De La Soul after 3 Feet High and Rising was released – they used four bars of their song, You Showed Me – that led to tougher restrictions and accessibility. I feel it would be near-impossible for a Hip-Hop group or artist to make their own version of 3 Feet High and Rising. De La Soul wanted to challenge people and open their minds; they wanted to create something astonishing and take Hip-Hop in a new direction. Today, one would struggle to get a vinyl copy of the album – it is available expensively but not common your high-street record shops – and you will not get it on Spotify. It is a shame we have this dazzling record that changed Hip-Hop and, if you want to emulate it, it wouldn’t be possible.
Music should be aware of people using samples without permission but we have got to a stage when it is so expensive and hard to use a sample many people are not bothering to even try. Against all the sadness and regret of the past thirty years, we must take away the positives from De La Soul’s debut album. It was a change of direction for Hip-Hop and De La Soul would face violence and offence when they took their music on the road. Critics knew something special had been created and, thirty years later, no other act has produced a debut as staggering and accomplished as 3 Feet High and Rising. I think we should all mark its anniversary and radio stations should play these incredible songs. The fact we cannot get it on streaming sites and it is hard to buy the vinyl should not deter investigation and curiosity. De La Soul changed the Hip-Hop world and brought a rare vein of positivity through. A madcap-yet-hugely-controlled album created comedy and skits; it brought so many different samples together and blew away listeners in 1989. I do hope that, before too long, the music industry looks at the way samples are protected and makes it easier for artists to get permission. If we can see another album like 3 Feet High and Rising arrive then who knows where...
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
MUSIC can head.