3 Feet High And Rising opens with a skit. A quiz show. Comedy names, comedy voices, quirky catchphrases. I’m pretty sure they weren’t stoned, but it played right to our stoned sense of humour. It was a bit weird, but by the time you’d hit Can You Keep A Secret?, halfway through side one, you were well and truly in their world.
The press called De La Soul hippies, and pronounced the album, “the first psychedelic rap record”, but its foundations were actually sunk deep in hip hop history. While made up of myriad samples, James Brown grunts juxtaposed anarchically with Liberace, way, way, too many to mention, the vast majority of them were established breaks. They also referenced hip hop classics, and tracks by fellow Tommy Boy label mates. Cues came from Double Dee & Steinski, and the tough, live drum-machine jams were a nod to Jazzy Jay and Russell Simmons. This was the stuff that I’d spent my teens pushbutton recording while listening to Tim Westwood on pirate radio station LWR. Lyrically, however, De La were something completely different. Flying in the face of “gangsta rap” – the fierce braggadocio machismo of Schoolly D, and Public Enemy even. The clever, cryptic wordplay, full of in-jokes, while it dealt with ghetto life, was firmly focused on friendship. Community. A poetry portfolio of love and understanding, underlined by the artwork of day-glo, hand-drawn flowers.
They threw away profanity. Using a “garden tool” rather than a “hoe”. They threw away their gold. Instead sporting leather medallions, peace signs and maps of Africa. The track, Take It Off, urged us to bin our designer brands, forget fashion, and be proud of who we really were. Spreading knowledge through nonsense poetry, like Tread Water’s fable. What they really wanted was to do away with all negative cliches and stereotypes. To buck a broken system. There were coded disses in the detail – Potholes In My Lawn was a warning aimed at biters – but the bigger picture was not about pointing fingers, rather finding solutions. Safe sex was promoted in terms of Jimi’s and Jeni’s being buddies. Say No Go was an anti-crack polemic paired with a beat plundered from perennial pop party-starter, Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go For That. Me, Myself & I was a P-Funk pilfering paean to individuality. Eye Know, though, was the one for me. It just exuded such positivity. It fit perfectly with the then vibe of E and unity. Publications like The NME printed stories about the trio dropping acid on stage, which turned out to be a hoax, but further encouraged ravers to embrace the D.A.I.S.Y. Age. Da Inner Sound Y`all. Even without the media bullshit the music matched the chemically enhanced optimism of `89. Its magpie-like collaged construction mirroring a cultural and racial melting pot brought together by the desire to dance all night long.
I was at University, in Leeds, when the album came out. Living on a pittance, I did that thing of skipping lunches to save enough money to buy a few records at the end of each month. These would be titles that I’d scribble down while listening to John Peel. Songs by The Smiths, indie groups like Dinosaur Jr., local heroes The Wedding Present, and also hip hip by artists such as EPMD and Boogie Down Productions / KRS-One. I’d shop for these in stores such as Crash, on Woodhouse Lane, and Jumbo in the Merrion Centre. The cool kids, all of whom were in the years above, were rocking a strict uniform of steel-toed Doc Martin’s, black MA-1 flight jackets, and vintage 501s. A pudding bowl short back and sides, often pushed, waxed, into a quiff, for both boys and girls. In the summer of `88 I’d gone home to London, and with my hipper younger sister visited Nicky Holloway’s Trip. I returned in the autumn, having grown my hair, dressed in beaten up Converse and a baggy striped sweatshirt… and man did I stick out. De La Soul were part of a larger collective, Native Tongues, which also included A Tribe Called Quest, and The Jungle Brothers – who I was already a big fan of, but then they’d made a house record hadn’t they. Rapping over Todd Terry.*
3 Feet High And Rising sounds totally timeless, because it was packed to the brim, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. The sampledelia of Transmission From Mars, for example, predated trip hop, the music of Edan, Gak Sato, and Major Force. Jazzed by juice harp and yodeling, De La flew their freak flag long before Tranquility Bass’ mercurial Mike Kandel. Their wicked witty rhymes must surely have been a big influence on people like Blackalicious, the Californian Solesides / Quannum Projects crew. While the LP referenced its roots, pioneers like The Last Poets, in its gusto for change it drew up blueprints that have lasted for over 3 decades… and counting.
Written for David Jolicoeur, Trugoy The Dove.
*I think this started out as a DJ Red Alert radio skit / jingle.
8 thoughts on “3 Feet High And Rising”
Ha. I saw DLS when they played at The Union in Leeds. Packed to the rafters. Slightly mired by a mate having his ticket stolen outside so he couldn’t come in. Saw a few bands in that odd venue, but has proven the most memorable. Thanks for the remind Rob. X
Carl, when were you in Leeds? I’m guessing that you`re a good few years younger than me : )
Ah, from 1989-92. Law student. Boddington & Chestnut Avenue, up from Hyde Park Cinema! You?
86-89 – just missed you : ) Boddington, then somewhere in Headlingly – we were so smashed for the whole year that I can’t remember the road name – then Ash Grove (someone had added an H in brackets) – like you just across the road from the Hyde Park Cinema – man I loved that place : )
Haha. Brilliant. C86 era. That Takeaway Pizza place on the corner, near the cinema was perfect for ravenous munchies, Love Hash Grove. X
Carl – Was the Headinglay happening by then
I was in Sheffield 89 – 92 but my girlfriend was in Leeds until 94 so that was our Friday hangout as opened late & served Molson in Bottles. Morales played around then !!
Hmm, don’t think so. Must have opened just after I left ??
I didn’t discover this album until like, 6 years ago. but it still makes me feel like I was a teenager in the 80’s. how do they do that?