De La Soul
Three Feet High and Rising
Tommy Boy

This was the game changer.  This blew hip hop out of the water and then De La Soul stepped back and watched it all come splashing back down, reconfigured and rearranged.  Hip hop in the 80s was either hardcore (think Boogie Down Productions or NWA), it was goofy (think Beastie Boys, though what was also about to change), or it was at the top of the charts (Run DMC).  It was also urban, arising out of the inner city, first of New York, and then LA. And then these three nerds from Long Island showed up, dropped Three Feet High and Rising, and nothing was ever the same again.

De La formed in high school in Amityville, and quickly came to the attention of Prince Paul, producer extraordinaire and member of Stetsasonic.  And this led to a record deal with Tommy Boy, and, in 1989, a year after forming, Three Feet High and Rising dropped.

I dug hip hop.  I had first head ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five when I was 9 or 10, a few years after the song came out.  I hated disco, deeply, but there was something about the story Melle Mel, et al. told, and the way he told the story, that hooked me. I grew up in suburban Vancouver, and whilst we were not exactly wealthy, the story Mel and his group told had no connection to me, but I could dig how he was close to the edge.  Even as a kid, I was there, the product of growing up in a violent home.  But this got me into hip hop.  And then my buddy, Rick, got his hands on LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer, and, of course, around then we also had the Beastie Boys burst onto the scene, and Run DMC, whom I was already familiar with, saved Aerosmith’s career with the cross-over ‘Walk This Way.’  And Public Enemy, Chuck D.’s militant raps woke me up to the plight of African Americans.  And in 1988, NWA from Compton, California, dropped Straight Outta Compton.

All this was hard, all this hip hop told the stories of life in the streets of NYC and LA, except for the Beastie Boys, who were just dumb moogks at the outset.  And here comes De La.

De La Soul is comprised of three guys, originally they were Plugs 1, 2, and 3, for where their mics were plugged into the PA.  Posdnous and Trugoy the Dove were the rappers, and PA Pacemaster Mase was the DJ.  Even their names were ridiculous. Posdnous’ name was the reverse of his DJ moniker, Soundsop.  And Trugoy?  He just re-arranged the word ‘yogurt,’ which was apparently his favourite food.  And Mase?  He was a PA system now?   Then there was the album cover, all daisies and peace symbols.  I remember staring at this album cover at Sam the Record Man in Coquitlam Centre and thinking, ‘What the fuck is this?’

I was already into De La by this point, though, their first single, ‘Me, Myself, and I’ was all over Muchmusic.  Centred around a Funkadelic sample (more on this later), the track was funky, and frustrated, as Posdnous and Trugoy were annoyed at the fact they were constantly dissed for being positive to the point in the video (and song) where Q-Tip shows up to tell the lads that ‘black is black.’  The video for this track was a classic too, mocking all the tropes of hip hop as it was, including the Run DMC-Aerosmith collab, as the boys from De La made their point.

De La were also at the centre of the Afrocentric movement centred around the Native Tongues movement, which also featured Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Black Sheep, Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest.

As for the actual album, right from pressing play on my stereo in 1989, this was clearly gonna be something different.  Centred around an on-going skit (De La kinda invented this, too) about a TV game show, we start off with Tommy Boy’s Don Newkirk.  And from this, we go straight into ‘The Magic Number,’ which is sung, not rapped.  I remember sitting there in my room thinking, once again, ‘What the fuck?’  And yet, it was so catchy, so fresh, so dope, I couldn’t stop listening.

The entire album is comprised of samples, one of the first, if not the first, to be built in this manner by the band and Prince Paul.  This was going to lead to all kinds of legal headaches, as it slowly became obvious that those artists sampled were due royalties. No one thought of this back in the day, and so, Three Feet High and Rising, which is in the Library of Congress, was also tied up in lawsuits, and in 2014, when De La gave away their back catalogue for free as a Valentine’s Day present to their fans, this album was missing due to this mess.  For awhile, the album was pulled by Tommy Boy, though it appears to have re-surfaced, though, I will note, it is not on Apple Music today.

‘Change in Speak,’ built around a James Brown sample of a funky beat, bass, and guitar, draws on the funky beat of Brown and Pos’ lyrics to start the song reflect that:

Once again it’s time to buy more soul
A flavor you will savor in your soul
Wax is distributed and then sold
So watch it turn, bring your next of kin soul
P.A. Mase has rocked it on the console
Scream real hard until you blow your tonsils
Bang-oh-bang until you burn your shoe soles
Cause you are now dancing to the new soul.

‘Can U Keep a Secret’ has always intrigued me, mostly because it took me forever to figure out who was on the whispered, joke vocals, Trugoy, over a funky, sick beat.

And that segues into ‘Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge),’ a track about Trugoy and Pos’ run-in with Jenny, the hottie in the English class.  The lyrics, though, do skirt along the misogyny that has plagued hip hop from the getgo, most notably in Trugoy’s rhyme, in which he notes ‘she was known as a garden tool,’ meaning, of course, a ho.  I often wonder how they feel about the track today, I like to think that Trugoy (who goes by Dave now) would pull an MCA and apologize for his younger idiocy.

‘Ghetto Thang’ is centred around another funky bass line, as Pos and Dave rap about the issues of the inner city, starting with Mary who had twins, at the age of 14, and only one crib for the babies.  It’s odd, De La aren’t known for being the kind of rappers who discussed social issues, and yet, here, on ‘Ghetto Thang,’ they lay it down.

‘Transmitting Live from Mars’ might be one of the most famous tracks on the album, built around a funky beat, Mase and Prince Paul have layered French lessons.  I’m not kidding, two Parisians talk about what time it is.  Of course, that’s also a take on the tropes of hip hop, because ‘What time is it?’ has long been a demand from an MC on stage, the correct answer being ‘It’s time to get ill.’

‘Eye Know’ takes a Hall and Oates sample as Pos and Dave offer up their love to their hearts’ desires, but they do so within the framework of the lyrical approach to hip hop, here’s Pos’ first verse:

Greetings girl and welcome to my world of phrase
I’m right up to bat
It’s a Daisy Age and you’re about to walk top-stage
So wipe your Lottos on the mat
Hip-hop love this is and don’t mind when I quiz your
Involvements before the sun
But clear your court cause this is a one-man sport
And who’s better for this than Plug One
Now you don’t have to worry about me squashin’ other deals
Cause they’ve already been squooshed
Freeze a frame about moods the same which we can continue
Right behind the bush
You’ll stay with me
Eye Know this
But not because of all my Earthly treasures
Or regardless to the fact that I’m Posdnuos
But because
Eye know Eye love you better (of course, this is actually ‘I know I love you better,’ and it’s the Hall & Oates vocal sample).

Things get a little silly on the next two tracks, ‘Take it Off’ and ‘A Little Bit of Soap.’  The former is obvious, the latter is about a guy they know who doesn’t smell so good.
Now you might feel a little embarassed, don’t take it too hard
And don’t make it worse by covering it up with some Right Guard
Before you even put on your silk shirt and fat gold rope
Please take your big ass to the bathroom
And please use
(A little bit of soap)

And then we get into some classic with ‘Tread Water’ which  might be one of the most abstract and bizarre hip hop songs of all-time:

As I walked along my journey
I thought ‘What have I just learned?’
In a flash I saw commotion
There was movement in these ferns
Silently the silence came, was it the end of my world?
I shouted out in fear, ‘Who’s there?’
‘It’s me, ‘ said Mr. Squirrel
‘I’ve searched for you all over, now you’re found
No time to waste. We must find the Preacher Man
We must find the P.A. Mase, all my population’s dying
And we’re all in tune to doom
Like the Daisy, I need water
I need chesnuts to consume’
‘Mr. Squirrel, ‘ I said, ‘I’m sorry
But the problem can’t be solved
If there’s no one here to help, and no one to get involved
Always look to the positive and never drop your head
For the water will engulf us if we do not dare to tread
So let’s tread water.’

And yet, in the midst of these ridiculous lyrics, delivered beautifully by Pos and Dove, there is a larger message about trying to approach life in a positive mindset, as Dove tells us in this verse, reminding us we need to keep our head above water.  And thus the lyrics of this track have always fascinated me, because in the midst of the abstract of the lyrics is that very clear  message about keeping positive and keeping one’s head above water, and it’s always shown me how fragule that positive look is, and how it is essential to keep it, given the alternative.  This is what made De La so different than everything in 1989, this positivity, this reminder to keep your head up.  It was their 1989 manifesto.

 

‘Potholes in my Lawn,’ well, more De La abstract.  The song is built around a pretty straight-forward hip hop beat and a horn riff, a kind of cranky sound, as our boys talk about the potholes in their lawn.

 

‘Plug Tunin’ (Last Chance to Comprehend)’ is a remake of the track that got Prince Paul’s attention in the first place, this wicked track centred around a big hip hop beat as Plugs 1 and 2 drop their rhyme.  I can imagine Prince Paul hearing this for the first time and realizing this was a new sound. Stetsasonic were already at the vanguard of hip hop in the late 80s, but they weren’t this.  He we have two laid back MCs, name-dropping Chuck D., and talking about daisies, soul, and the kick drum.

 

The Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip show up on ‘Buddy’ as we get the an early glimpse of the Native Tongues, and, well, generally, Dove, Pos, Afrika, Mike G, and Q-Tip generally talk about their jimbrowskis and all the Jennys in their worlds.

 

The album ends with the original 12″ version of ‘Plug Tunin,’ the track they originally sent to Prince Paul.  I can never decide if I like this version, or the ‘Last Chance to Comprehend’ version.  Whatever, it doesn’t matter.
Answering any other service
Perogative praised positively I’m acquitted
Enemies publicly shame my ability
After the battle they admit that I’m with it
Simply soothe, will move vinyl like glue
Transistors are never more shown with like
When vocal flow brings it all down in ruin
Due to a clue of a naughty noise called
Plug Tunin’
Flock to the preacher called Pos
Let him be the stir to the style of your stew
Sit while the kid of the Plug form aroma
Then grab a Daisy to sip your favorite brew
Lettin’ this soul fire be your first prior
But don’t let the kick drum stub your big toe
See that the three will be your thread
But like my man Chuck D said, ‘What a brother know’
Dance while I play and the cue cards sway
From my flower girls China and Jette
The button is pressed in ’89 we’ll start the panic
From De La Soul and a Prince from Stet
Negative noise will be all divided
Dangerous to dance, Posdnuos will croon
Ducks and kizids will all be rid
When paying position to the naughty noise called
Plug Tunin

De La’s career hasn’t hit the stratosphere as it looked like it would in 1989, this remains their best-selling album.  And that’s a shame, because they have one of the most consistent discographies in hip hop.  They made two more albums with Prince Paul, 1991’s De La Soul is Dead, a conscious attempt to distance themselves from the DAISY Age, an 1994’s Buhloone Mind State.  This is actually my favourite of theirs, built around jazz samples, and featuring guests like Guru from Gang Starr, Short No Mass, and  Maceo Parker.  After that, Prince Paul encouraged them to go out on their own, and they did with Stakes is High, which is probably their hardest album.  They then released two of their planned three-part opus, Art Official Intelligence.  Part I, Mosaic Thump dropped in 2000, and Part II, Bionix in 2001.  It looked like they had faded out after Grind Date, their most disappointing album sales-wise.
But then, in 2012, Dave (as Dove was calling himself by then) and Pos got themselves involved with a French DJ duo Chokolate and Khalid, and they released First Serve, a concept album about a fictional hip hop band.  Dave, in particular, sounded rejuvenated on this album, his rhyming style was re-born, and tight.  And thus, this led to their most ambitious album, 2016’s De La Soul…and the Anonymous Nobody, which was a crowd-funded joint, which saw Plugs 1, 2, and 3 retreated to a LA studio, where they recorded a whole whack of live music with session musicians, cut it up, re-configured it, and invited a few friends to stop by, and the result was this brilliant late career album.