Friday, September 18, 2009

September 18: De La Soul, "3 Feet High And Rising"

Artist: De La Soul
Album: 3 Feet High And Rising
Year: 1989
Label: Tommy Boy

For a number of reasons, one of the most difficult things to achieve within the hip hop genre is longevity. With the ever changing trends and styles within the genre, it is hard to stay relevant over time; and in a group environment, it is nearly impossible to keep the group intact due to the allure of solo projects or simply conflicts within the membership. Having performed together for more than twenty years, Long Island, New York based trio, De La Soul stand in strong defiance to this trend. Continuing to make their own, unique brand of conscious hip hop music, there are few groups that demand the high level of long running respect as that given to De La Soul . Combining classic samples and beats with some of the most original and concise rhymes ever, De La Soul have influenced literally every emcee that came after their debut record. Releasing an album just about every other year, De La Soul's catalog is impressive, rarely revealing anything resembling a sub-standard track. However, when it comes to their finest work, unquestionably their greatest achievement lies within their landmark 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, and it is absolutely one of the most important albums ever recorded.

The album title itself appears to be a direct to the Johnny Cash song, "Five Feet High And Rising," as Cash sings, " high's the water, Mama?/it's three feet high and rising..." This is further supported by the fact that the Cash song is sampled on the albums' opening song, "The Magic Number." There are some who claim that the title is actually a reference to drug abuse, but it is far harder to support this argument, and the group has consistently declined to comment on this interpretation. Regardless of the title's origin, the album represents the first of the groups' collaboration with legendary producer Prince Paul. Originally a member of seminal group, Stetsasonic, Prince Paul has worked with everyone from 3rd Bass to Sean Lennon to producing a track for the Spongebob Squarepants Movie. It is very much Prince Paul's musical diversity that sets his work with De La Soul aside from the rest of their catalog, and the chemistry between the four is absolutely amazing. Along with the trio of emcees and Prince Paul, the final element that makes the group and album so fantastic is the top notch turntable work of DJ Pasemaster Mase. The way he is able to take the collective musical ideas and fuse them together into a single, cohesive unit is truly stunning to experience. It was, in fact Mase who pulled samples from Cash, The Turtles, and countless other previously "off limits" genres and artists, and his pioneering efforts stand as some of the most important in the progression of the hip hop genre. The shared musical diversity as well as the overall laid back and more conscious approach is what has caused many people to see De La Soul as almost hip hop hippies, and further sets them aside from the rest of the genre.

The way in which Prince Paul and DJ Pasemaster Mace intertwine the wide range of music samples is often nothing short of stunning. Seamlessly mixing together artists ranging from Hall & Oates and Kraftwerk to more standard hip hop sample sources like Sly & The Family Stone and James Brown. Easily some of the most interesting and original samples are when the production duo manage to perfectly place riffs from The Monkees and even a progression from Liberace within the songs on 3 Feet High And Rising. It goes without saying that the musical courage of Prince Paul and Pacemaster Mace remain largely unmatched, and it is clear throughout this album that there is no genre off limits, and it is one of the key aspects that makes the music so extraordinary. The group opens 3 Feet High And Rising with what can only be seen as an extremely blatant reference to Schoolhouse Rocks with the song, "The Magic Number." Rhyming over the looped opening drum beats from Led Zeppelin's "The Crunge," the song perfectly represents De La Soul's clever, conscious rhymes, as well as their fun loving, not-too-serious self perception. This freewheeling approach to their music is what caused most people to place them as the polar opposites of Public Enemy, and the contrast in styles helps to show the true diversity that was achievable within the hip hop genre.

One of the most amazing aspects of the rhymes found on 3 Feet High And Rising is De La Soul's unrivaled ability in delivering subtly sensual rhymes. While there are some tracks where the group is far more direct in the sexual connotations within their rhymes, all three emcees also display an uncanny talent for writing some of the most creative and clever allusions ever. Quickly introducing their muse, "Jenny," De La Soul spends a good deal of the rest of the album speaking of her virtues as well as, as they put it, what Jenny "taught me." Later on the album, Q-Tip joins the group for a handful of tracks, and he fits in perfectly with the group, continuing the wonderfully subtle, yet undeniably erotic rhymes. It is very much this softer, more laid back approach that sets De La Soul far apart from their peers, and the concentration on the lyrics over aggression or swearing makes their albums absolutely timeless. After listening to 3 Feet High And Rising, one can easily hear where groups from Digable Planets to Talib Kweli took much of their sound and style. However, De La Soul presents amazing lyrical diversity, as this is not a group that only writes about their love lives. With staggeringly powerful tracks like, "Ghetto Thing" and the anti-drug abuse song, "Say No Go" clearly show that this group places just as much meaning on making social observations as they do on social interaction. It is also the manner in which the three emcees interact that makes the songs so phenomenal. Clearly not a competition between the three, the trio truly work as a team, and the resulting moods and rhymes remain among the most fantastic in history.

Standing in stark contrast to the "gangsta" style that was coming into fashion, De La Soul's debut in many ways gave "permission" for hip hop artists to pursue their own, unique style of rhyming, regardless of content or approach. In every sense of the word, one would truly be hard pressed to find as diverse a hip hop record as one can experience on De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising. Pulling from sources that had never even been imagined within the confines of the hip hop genre, De La Soul, DJ Masemaster Mace, and producer Prince Paul blew the doors open and truly paved the way for nearly every hip hop group that followed. From country to classical and even yodeling, there is truly no sound or style that the group deems as "unacceptable" or "unusable" within their unique hip hop approach. Delivering rhymes in a more relaxed, almost jovial nature became the groups' trademark, and their dedication to avoiding swear words at all costs serves as their confirmation for the title of being one of the "founders" of conscious hip hop. Powered by the chart topping single, "Me, Myself, and I," the album was a massive, worldwide success and instantly catapulted the group to the upper echelons of the hip hop community. To this day, De La Soul remain one of the most highly revered hip hop groups in history, and this is in large part due to the massive influence of their phenomenal 1989 debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising.

Standout tracks: "The Magic Number," "Eye Know," and "Me, Myself, And I."

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