Producer and visionary “Prince Paul” Huston once told “Rolling Stone” that there would come a time in hip hop when you wouldn’t be able to blind the kids with flash, when hopefully we’d all choose mind-expanding substance over generic thug posing and pointless arrogance. If that revolution ever comes, Prince Paul and De La Soul’s masterpiece may finally get its due.
Released in 1989, 3 Feet High And Rising was actually expected to have single-handedly sparked the upheaval itself. It was a great and funny party album that secretly had something to say.
Endlessly inventive, relentlessly positive, it was a record densely packed with laid back, but impressive wordplay and an astounding assortment of samples. With everything from standard P-Funk and James Brown to unthinkable frontiers of Johnny Cash, Hall and Oates and yes, even yodeling, it was a debut that sounded like nothing else, then or now.
Hailing from Long Island, the trio of Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove and DJ Pasemaster Mase had formed De La Soul while in high school. The threesome soon became associated with New York’s loose confederation of progressive rappers and DJs, Native Tongues, whose ranks included Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and Afrika Bambaataa.
Production master Prince Paul had already established himself as a MC with New York act Stetsasonic before he convinced Tommy Boy to let him take the young, idealistic rappers into the studio.
Picking up where Public Enemy’s legendary Bomb Squad had left off with the heavily layered production of the 1988 classic, “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back,” Huston and Mase began raiding obscure records. Anything seemed fair game; bits of a French lesson for “Transmitting Live From the Moon” and other rap albums, ’60s rock, pop and soul for the sonic montage of “Cool Breeze on The Rocks.”
In terms of sheer eclecticism it is rivaled only by the Beastie Boys’ own 1989 contribution to forward-thinking alt-rap, “Paul’s Boutique.”
While most rappers were content with just stealing George Clinton’s grooves, De La went one step further, grabbing Dr. Funkenstein’s absurdist wit and psychedelic imagination as well as his funky beats. The group’s humor was irrepressible, spilling over from every track into what became the very first hip hop skit, here in the form of a goofy game show that keeps popping up throughout the record.
Other comedy highlights include “A Little Bit Of Soap,” a tirade against body odor; the bizarre audience chant “Do As de la Does” and the Native Tongues sex jam “Buddy,” which featured a very young Q-Tip busting out before Tribe had released a record.
But the boys had a message too, proclaiming the beginning of “the Daisy Age,” a new period of positivity and hopeful optimism for hip-hop’s potential. The record didn’t ignore the urban problems that traditionally fed hardcore its material, it just refused to glorify them.
“Ghetto Thang” and “Say No Go” dealt with issues without preaching or ranting, “The Magic Number” and “Me Myself and I” quickly promoted the group’s sunny outlook without sounding excessively sappy and were still bouncy enough to be club hits. Meanwhile “Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge)” and “Eye Know” were honest, almost touching love songs that veered clear of the banes of most of today’s rap; cheap sentiment and sexism.
Sorry to say of course that “the Daisy Age” was short lived. De La never was quite comfortable with Tommy Boy’s day-glow flower artwork for the album and when the press started labeling the group neo-hippies, the boys took outright offense.
There were accusations of pandering towards a mainstream white audience and as the ’90s opened progressive rap took a backseat as gangster exploded. Ironically the white kids were more entranced with the brutal voyeurism and macho posing that gangster provided than they ever were by the intelligence and suburban goofiness of the Soul.
On their next album De La Soul Is Dead they’d take a turn toward dark material. The cover featured a cracked flowerpot complete with wilted daisies. So much for optimism.