Counterbalance No. 77: De La Soul – ‘3 Feet High and Rising’

De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising
Tommy Boy

Mendelsohn: I’ve been pointing out the lack of hip-hop on the Great List almost since we started this little project. For a genre that so captured the general public’s ear and seeped into almost every facet of the music business over the last three decades, hip-hop is sorely underrepresented on this list. We are at number 77 and only now are we getting to our second rap record. Two, Klinger! Two out of 77. That’s the same number of jazz records we’ve talked about and nobody—nobody—likes jazz. The list may not be racist, but it is definitely rockist.

As much as I have bitched and moaned, you would think that I’d be all gung-ho about tackling De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. The truth is, this record never made it very high on my personal list. I think this record deserves its place, if not much higher—the production and word-smithery is second to none and all of it is undeniably catchy. The one question burning in the back of my mind: why were these guys so obsessed with how they and other people looked and smelled? Half this record is devoted to rhymes about personal hygiene and fashion choice. Did no one shower in 1989?

Klinger: Well, the end of the Reagan era left a generation adrift, and as you know hygiene is the first casualty of . . . Wait a minute, Mendelsohn, don’t get me distracted here. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that you don’t love this album. Let me go on record here that I love literally every second of 3 Feet High and Rising. Literally. Every. Second.

Yes, I’m aware of what some people might call “short-comings”. The silly skit that helped set a most unfortunate precedent in the hip-hop community. The frequent use of short interstitial pieces that feel more like sketches than actual songs. The documentation of what may well be the worst fake Australian accent in the history of the human voice. But it just doesn’t matter. I put this album on and I’m right there with it the whole way through. We’ve been talking quite a bit about joy lately, surprisingly enough, and there’s such an overriding sense of joy throughout this album that I can’t help getting swept away by it. If that means looking less than critically at the album, then that’s just what I’m going to do. Now excuse me while I listen to “Buddy” again.

Mendelsohn: I don’t really have a problem with any of the “short-comings”. Do I wish the silly skit hadn’t become a staple of hip-hop? Yeah, I do. Rappers, stick to rapping. I never understood why a rapper, who has an obvious skill set in one specific area of word-working, would have to go messing with trying to be funny. I’m not going to hold it against De La, they did more than enough good on this record to tip the scales in their favor. The truth is, 3 Feet High and Rising was a couple of years before my time and by the time I found my way to hip-hop via the Beastie Boys and the Pharcyde, De La Soul was just another group in the alternative hip hop group game, not the game-changer. So my issue is contextual and not related to the material. Had I seen De La change the game, I might have a completely different opinion. But if you are going to go listen to “Buddy” again, turn that up. Huge fan of the Jungle Brothers.

Klinger: Well, change the game they did, Mendelsohn. Or so it seemed to me at the time. I first heard 3 Feet High and Rising when I was in college. Prior to that I had begun developing an appreciation for hip-hop, but it always seemed to be an arm’s length away from me. As much as I liked, say, Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions or, uh, Ice-T’s Power, I sort of felt the divide when I listened. This was the first hip-hop album where I didn’t feel like a tourist. How could I when the album was chockablock with samples from across the entire spectrum, from Schoolhouse Rock to Steely Dan? And of course the lyrics were unlike anything I had heard before in any genre. They were surreal and funny and at times downright goofy. Even the names they chose—Trugoy is famously yogurt spelled backwards, and I can’t remember exactly where Posdnous comes from, but I fully support it nonetheless.

But even talking this way about De La Soul makes me start to understand how you felt talking about Paul Simon’s Graceland—by dissecting it too much, I feel like I’m in danger of squashing the fun out of it. Of course then I start to understand how De La Soul might have felt after releasing this album and having everyone try to tease out some bigger story from the album (and of course give them guff about being “hippies”). No surprise that their next album, De La Soul Is Dead, is a good bit crankier than this one. And of course after that the laws all changed and the late ’80s sample-fest was over once and for all. But for one brief shining moment, there was the DAISY Age.

Mendelsohn: Even I’m a little offended just hearing De La Soul referred to as “hippies”. And for what? Their records didn’t dwell on violence or gang life, they stayed mostly away from political messages and social issues, and they weren’t particularly interested in changing the world. They were just looking to have a little fun, and rap about some lighthearted material like getting lucky and the finer points of personal hygiene. I’m down with that. I like those things. I understand that De La Soul stood in stark contrast to groups like Public Enemy and Ice T, but the hippie tag seems unwarranted. Hippies don’t bathe, and when they are coherent enough to stand they tend to shout proselytizing things at people in suits. Hey, here’s an idea. Instead of complaining that you are drowning in student debt, maybe you shouldn’t have taken eight years to get that degree in sculpture and interpretative dance and pursued something more conducive to getting a real job. Also take a shower. Why do hippies refuse to shower, Klinger? Why?

Wait. What were we just talking about?

Klinger: We were talking about how you need to stop watching The O’Reilly Factor. Or, if you’d rather we can talk about sampling, a field in which De La Soul were clearly pioneers. But in this case I’d rather not focus on sampling from the artistic standpoint (although feel free if you are so moved) or the legal/ethical ramifications (ditto). I’d rather look at sampling’s neurological effects. Here’s why:

Prepping for this column, I was driving around with my wife listening to this album when the song “Eye Know” came on. She’s not the biggest hip-hop fan in the best of circumstances, but she said “Eye Know” was just about causing her brain to itch. It turns out the sample of Otis Redding—the short whistling phrase from “Dock of the Bay”—wasn’t reaching the conclusion that her brain was telling her to expect. And she couldn’t finish it off in her head because it was a loop that kept repeating on itself. She didn’t experience a similar problem with the other sample the song is based on (Steely Dan’s “Peg”) because that ended at a spot that let her mind complete the melody. Maybe that explains why crappier hip-hop songs that use entire riffs from recognizable songs (MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”) became much bigger hits—they didn’t mess with anyone’s neurons and synapses and such. I’m no brain doctor, but it seems to me someone could do a study.

Mendelsohn: I think if anybody should be given money to do a study about listening to music, it should be us. Call the President and frame it as some sort of bailout or as a possible source of alternative energy. I see where you are going with your argument, but I don’t think it is necessarily true. Both “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby” were released after “Eye Know”, and both of those former songs may be viewed more as a pop novelty than as hip hop. It also took Vanilla Ice, a white performer playing traditionally black music, to really break the new genre upon a mass audience. I think I just inadvertently compared Vanilla Ice to Elvis.

Klinger: Well you wouldn’t be the first, although you are quite likely the last. And I think you’re missing my point. I’m not saying that people consciously chose Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em over 3 Feet High and Rising (although I think you’re really underestimating how seriously those alleged novelties were taken when they first came out). Anyway, I’m beginning to think I’m way too close to this album to assess it without getting all nostalgic and whatnot. As a matter of fact, I still get a thrill when I discover a song that De La samples on this album (and yes, I know that they’re all listed on the Internet nowadays—a thrill’s a thrill.). So I’m going to leave the final analysis to you, Mendelsohn. 1). What has made this album a consistent critics’ darling? 2). What is this album’s impact on current hip-hop? 3). How many fibers are intertwined in a shredded wheat biscuit? and 4). Will this album retain its standing as more hip-hop albums make their way into the canon?

Mendelsohn: I think the answers to your first two and last question are all intertwined. With 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul offered up a new way to look at a tired genre that had seemed to have run its course while at the same time lending a deeper credence to the movement by injecting a little feel good flavor. It’s like if the hip-hop tree — which up until then had consisted primarily of a couple of flimsy branches and one thick one labeled Public Enemy — had suddenly blossomed into a very brightly colored bush, sporting an alluring fragrance.

Also, as we’ve noted many times before, reinvention goes a long way in cementing cache with the criterati. Plus, the album was smart and well-put-together. The thrill you get from picking out the samples translates well for critical acclaim and it showed that Prince Paul and De La Soul respected the greats in the music establishment (just not enough to pay for their samples). De La Soul’s influence, for better (any of those smart, young MCs operating today) or worse (the Black Eyed Peas), reigns supreme having pushed so-called alternative hip-hop to the fore-front of the genre and allowing it to branch out even further. Looking back through the years, De La Soul will always be pointed to as one of the fore-bearers of hip hop’s rise to upper echelons of the music world. For that reason alone, I don’t see 3 Feet High and Rising falling in the ranks. If anything, as more hip hop pushes into the upper reaches of the list, I would hope that De La Soul would do as the album title suggests and keep on rising.

The answer to question three is 42. Even Dante the Scrub knows that.