Friday, December 24, 2010

December 24: De La Soul, "The Magic Number"

Artist: De La Soul
Song: "The Magic Number"
Album: 3 Feet High And Rising
Year: 1989

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Though it is often overlooked due to the explosion of new sounds that came from the rock-based styles of music, the late 1980's and early 1990's also provided one of the most diverse times within the hip-hop genre.  Groups like Run-DMC and N.W.A. had already set the standards, and there were countless "copycat" acts attempting to work their way up the charts, and yet at the same time, there were  a handful of emerging artists who were trying to prove that hip-hop knew no limits.  Many of the most unforgettable and influential acts in hip-hop history came into their own during this era, and few were more impressive or unexpected than the New York-based trio know as De La Soul.  With their wild blend of funk, psychedelic, and often inexplicable sounds along with their brilliant rhyming, many hailed them as the "future" of hip-hop music, and countless bands that followed can be seen as being heavily influenced by their sound.  Wasting no time in establishing themselves as one of the premier acts in all of hip-hop, their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, stands today as one of the greatest albums in hip-hop history, and the diversity in sound and style found on the album remains unparalleled.  Though each track on the record is absolutely fantastic, few songs better define the group and their extraordinary ability than one finds in De La Soul's 1989 single, "The Magic Number."

In quite literally every sense, De La Soul ignored all of the norms and limits that had been placed on hip-hop in general, and their overall musical knowledge and diversity is highlighted here in the wide range of samples that one can hear on the song.  While it may seem like a "generic" hip-hop drum loop, if one listens a bit closer, it is instantly obvious that the drum break used here is actually a sample of Led Zeppelin's, "The Crunge."  There is also a vocal sample from Johnny Cash's, "Five Feet High And Rising," and this is also the source of the albums' name.  Mixed in with these rather unorthodox samples, one can also hear James Brown's, "Funky Drummer, Syl Johnson's, "Different Strokes," and even comedian Eddie Murphy doing, "Hit By A Car."  Obviously, this is all in play along with the most well-known sample on the song, as "The Magic Number" is based around and upon the song of the same name from the classic television series, Schoolhouse Rocks!  The way in which the legendary Prince Paul mixes all of these sounds together to make the track is nothing short of stunning, and there is not another song anywhere in music history that has a similar sound or feel.  The funky, groovy feel to "The Magic Number" gives the song a light-hearted feel, and this was certainly a stark contrast to the rising sound of "gangsta" rap at the time.  Furthermore, as the lead track on the album, it set the tone for the record, as well as De La Soul's career, and "The Magic Number" is as close to hip-hop perfection as one will find anywhere.

Yet, as fantastic as the musical arrangement is on "The Magic Number," it is the vocal work from De La Soul that made them legends, and their extraordinary level of talent is as good here as anywhere else in their career.  The trio of Posdnuos, Trugoy The Dove, and Pasemaster Mase stands today as one of the greatest hip-hop crews ever, and the way in which they play off one anothers' rhymes defines everything that is great about hip-hop in general.  While each of the three emcees has their own, distinctive style, the way in which they blend together is where the "magic" of De La Soul as a group lives, with each member clearly caring more about the end product than they are about stealing the spotlight.  This helps "The Magic Number" to attain a far lighter and almost fun mood, and the song remains as much of a breath of fresh air today as it did when it was first released.  Even with this more positive mood, the emcees instantly prove that they are without question some of the most talented in history, as the way in which they twist words and drop wild references in their rhymes remains unrivaled to this day.  Whether they are calling out nostalgia like Punky Brewster or pontificating on the fact that celebrities should not be role models, the groups' rhymes are as diverse as their sound, and it is this exceptional level of quality, combined with the diversity that makes De La Soul, and specifically "The Magic Number" such important parts of music history.

Even more than twenty years later, De La Soul's 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, remains the most original and adventurous album in all of hip-hop history.  From the eclectic range of samples used throughout the album to the unrivaled rhymes and themes on the tracks, the group ignored everything that had been set as "law" in the hip-hop community and truly made the album that they thought best represented their sound.  This commitment to their own vision yielded stunning results, and one can see a number of sub-genres of hip-hop that formed in the following years as a result of their efforts.  In many ways, it was De La Soul's record that proved that one need not sacrifice heavy subject matter or skillful rhyming schemes in favor of diverse musical arrangements, and this in many ways reflects the changes that were occurring at the same time in the rock-style genres.  Serving as the ideal lead-track, "The Magic Number" not only showcases the groups' exceptional level of talent, but it also gives a brief insight into their overall philosophy, which is now referred to as the "D.A.I.S.Y. age" which is said to stand for, "da inner sound, y'all."  Regardless of the exact meaning or term for what they were doing, there was no denying that it was a musical revolution, and the effects of their work can still be felt and heard within hip-hop music today.  Though each song on the album is amazing in its own right, De La Soul have rarely sounded better than they do on their lead single, the self-defining and genre-reshaping classic, "The Magic Number."