Sunday, December 9, 2007

[021] 3 Feet High And Rising

Album: 3 Feet High And Rising
Artist: De La Soul
Release Date: August 1988 [Germany], March 1989 [US]
Label: Tommy Boy
Producers: Prince Paul & De La Soul

“How many feathers are on a Purdue chicken?
How many fibers are intertwined on a shredded wheat biscuit?
What does 'Touche et Lele Pu' mean?
How many times did the Batmobile catch a flat?”
- from “Intro”

When I was working on my original Cut Shallow music blog back in 2001, I decided to do write-ups of old albums as well as new releases, and one of the first classics I wrote about was De La Soul’s debut, 3 Feet High & Rising. I likened it to a carnival funhouse, with every warped track playing the part of another of the wacky themed rooms in the house, and I still feel that this is a great way to look at this kaleidoscopic example of pure genius. The quartet of De La Soul and “The Mentor”, producer Prince Paul were so ahead of their time that I almost put this album at #1 on this list – it’s that good – as I feel that no artist has ever topped it in terms of balance of complete originality and accessibility. In fact, no one has even bothered, and that’s why it falls to where it is now. Its influence has been minimized over the years because any aspiring MC or producer would (or should) feel insignificant in the presence of the overabundance of ideas present here; there’s enough crammed into these 67 minutes to last for at least a couple more albums, but De La just couldn’t do that. Their brains moved too fast, and by the next album, De La Soul Is Dead (#73), they had changed direction already. Even looking ahead at the following two albums, they each have their own distinct aural signature, and the four together form one of the greatest creative runs in the history of music, one that I’d argue is the greatest in Hip-Hop, and on a level with The Beatles from 1965 to 1970, or The Rolling Stones from 1968 to 1972, or Radiohead from 1995 to 2001. But back to the matter at hand – in order to be pushed towards that run, De La Soul and Prince Paul had to make an album so adventurous that it could never be followed, and they did. Oh yeah, by the way, the members of De La Soul were like 19 at the time. What were you doing when you were than young??

3 Feet High & Rising is one of a handful of essential records that illustrate that the most important musical development of the last 30 years, from an equipment and arrangement standpoint, is the evolution of sampling through the use of the Technics turntable and the digital sampler. One of my most distinct memories from childhood is an MTV News report featuring an interview with De La Soul, and a tour through the De La basement in the suburb of Amityville, NY, showing DJ P.A. Mase (aka Plug 3) explaining how he cut and looped samples on his digital sampler. Of course, watching Mase hit some buttons, and hearing this album for the first time – and the second, and the 396th – are two very different experiences. I don’t know where Mase and Prince Paul found all these bizarre samples, but I’d have to assume, because of the variety, that they definitely raided some bargain bins. “Transmitting Live From Mars” drops a piece of a French lesson, “The Magic Number” features what sounds like a Fisher Price xylophone over the beat from Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge”, “Jenifa Taught Me” probably contains some sixties garage nugget, and “Potholes In My Lawn” has some jews-harp. You can even see below, in the 3 Feet High press video, Prince Paul sampling a funky breakbeat off of a Disney record, and the magic kingdom of “Plug Tunin’” sounds like it came from the imagination of a hyper-active kid on a sugar-rush comedown. And that’s just the beginning of the tapestry they quilted.

You couldn’t make a track like “Cool Breeze On The Rocks” now, with its 20-or-so well-known samples all in about 40 seconds, because you’d be paying royalties for the rest of your career. The best songs on the album flaunt their obvious samples because that’s the point of sampling – if you’re going to go through the trouble, then make it mean something. “Eye Know” was sculpted into Hip-Hop’s first truly great love song, a sun-kissed ballad built from a reconstructed Steely Dan groove, highlighted by Otis Redding’s whistling from “Dock Of The Bay”. The irrepressible funk of “Say No Go” enters as a sort of sequel to Public Enemy’s “Night Of The Living Baseheads” (Writer Robert Christgau commented that De La were the New Wave to P.E.'s Punk), but the song’s hard anti-drug message, one of the best of the era, is candy-coated with a choice sample of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That”, lifting it above the white noise of Nancy Reagan’s futile campaign, concluding that, “I heard that shoving is worse than pushing, but I’d rather know a shover than a pusher cuz a pusher’s a jerk.” The breakthrough hit “Me Myself And I” rides Funkadelic’s “Not Just (Knee Deep)” so hard that it woke the rest of the world up like the album’s day-glo cover, and there’s definitely no shortage of deep soul cuts in their collection, snatching up the bubbling guitar on “Change In Speak”, the piano on “Tread Water”, and the horns on “Potholes”. The hard times exposé of “Ghetto Thang” and the Native Tongues posse cut “Buddy” glide on smooth disco bass, and even as “De La Orgee” is a joke more than anything else, De La still knowingly drop the needle on some Barry White just like anyone else trying to get that booty.

It’s into this wonderland of found sound that De La Soul birth character and slang never heard before or since; you need a glossary when you listen, or a lot of time to figure it all out. They threw up peace signs and spoke of daisies, so people mistakenly labelled them hippies, though they very clearly state in “Me Myself And I” that they’re not hippies, and that kind of talk is “pure plug bull”. Of course, even after all these years, I still haven’t figured out why they call themselves ‘Plugs’. The daisies were actually in reference to “D.A.I.S.Y.”, which stood for “Da Inner Sound, Y’all”, and for certain these were words that were coming from no other place at the time. The rhymes of Posdnuos (Plug 1) and Trugoy the Dove (Plug 2) were as thick as can be with metaphors and similes, tossing off simple bits of genius like “She was known as a garden tool” (Hoe, get it?). I think when something is “Dan Stuckie”, that means it’s excellent. “Buddy” is their catch-all term for booty, sort of. And they also have an obsession with Luden’s cough drops, which were really popular in the late 80’s, at least here on Long Island (cherry was my favorite; you could get them at the school store); for a crash course, proceed to “Can U Keep A Secret”, in which they also inform you that you have dandruff.

This alternate dimension is filled with a zoo of characters like Dante the Scrub, Jenifa (the garden tool), Derwin the piano-banging nerd, the lasagna-loving Guido, plus the whole Native Tongues posse, like the Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest; the cartoon of “Tread Water” alone features De La’s animal acquaintances Mr. Crocodile, Mr. Squirrel, Mr. Fish, & Mr. Monkey – a veritable Hanna Barbara take on Reservoir Dogs. Then there’s the 3 Feet High & Rising game show, which is pretty much the first series of skits on any Hip-Hop album. We all know how that went; De La is unfortunately now responsible for all those times you reached for the skip button on your CD player in the past 18 years, but at the time, it was revolutionary and funny as hell. I sometimes wonder if fans actually went so far as to answer the four quiz-show questions, cut out the proofs-of-purchase – ruining their album sleeves in the process – and send them off to Tommy Boy’s offices, care of: the infamous Dante the Scrub. If anyone did, then it’s a testament to how immersive and inclusive 3 Feet High & Rising is; a new world to explore and make new friends, one that’s psychedelic without the use of chemical aids. I only wish that someone in Hip-Hop had managed to repeat this high level of accomplishment, but another part of me is thankful that De La Soul still stands above so many others, still unchallenged in a multitude of ways, shapes, and forms. It’s been a long 18 years, but just like it says in the liner cartoon, I’m still ‘deeply engrossed and flabbergasted by your music’, De La Soul. And no matter what music you make now, keep making it, because somehow, it’ll always be cut from the same cloth as 3 Feet High & Rising.

01. "Intro" [interlude]
02. "The Magic Number"
03. "Change In Speak"
04. "Cool Breeze On The Rocks" [interlude]
- Contestant #1 skit [interlude]
05. "Can U Keep A Secret" [interlude]
06. "Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge)"
07. "Ghetto Thang"
08. "Transmitting Live From Mars" [interlude]
09. "Eye Know"
10. "Take It Off" [interlude]
11. "A Little Bit Of Soap" [interlude]
- Contestant #2 skit [interlude]
12. "Tread Water"
13. "Potholes In My Lawn"
14. "Say No Go"
15. "Do As De La Does" [interlude]
- Contestant #3 skit [interlude]
16. "Plug Tunin' (Last Chance To Comprehend)"
17. "De La Orgee" [interlude]
18. "Buddy" [feat. Jungle Brothers & Q-Tip]
19. "Description" [interlude]
20. "Me Myself And I"
- Contestant #4 skit [interlude]
21. "This Is A Recording 4 Living In A Fulltime Era (L.I.F.E.)"
22. "I Can Do Anything (Delacratic)" [interlude]
23. "D.A.I.S.Y. Age"
- Outro skit [interlude]
24. "Plug Tunin'" [Original 12" Version]

3 Feet High And Rising press kit video

"Say No Go" [video]

"Buddy" [remix - video]

"Me Myself And I" [single version - video]

- BONUS: "The Magic Number" [remix - video]
- BONUS: "Ghetto Thang" [audio]
- BONUS: "Eye Know" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Eye Know" [audio]
- BONUS: "Potholes In My Lawn" [video]
- BONUS: "Buddy (Native Tongues Remix)" [feat. Jungle Bros., Q-Tip, Phife, Monie Love & Queen Latifah - audio]
- BONUS: "Me Myself And I" [live on the Arsenio Hall Show, 1989]
- BONUS: "Me Myself And I" [live at the 2007 Pitchfork Festival, Chicago, 07.07]
Not the greatest clip, but it gives you an idea of how good these guys still are on stage. If they come to your town, go at all costs, cuz it's sure to be a party.

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