Maybe it’s to do with my age, but for me the golden age of hip-hop was the late '80s to the early ‘90s: acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Souls of Mischief, and the Jungle Brothers captured an optimistic spirit that seems long-lost today. Public Enemy and Arrested Development promoted a political agenda that has waned in its urgency; and the revolutionary lyrical subject matter of acts like Gang Starr, Snoop Doggy Dogg and NWA is now long-established as a hip-hop cliché.
One act that stood outside from the pack, at least for a while, was De La Soul: their symbolism was in flowers and hippy culture rather than guns and street lore; they rapped about crocodiles and squirrels, and their lyrics were filled with surreal humour that would make even Salvador Dali scratch his head in bafflement; and they drew musical samples from a host of unlikely sources including Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, and the flamboyant pianist Liberace. It was a new direction in hip-hop that De La Soul had started to plot out, but by the time their second album came around, the aptly titled De La Soul is Dead (which featured dead flowers on the cover), they had lost their nerve and bowed out of the “daisy age”: an age where hip-hop could be friendly, playful and experimental.
What I have come to realise in recent years is that much of the magic of 3 Feet High and Rising can be attributed not just to the band, but to the album’s producer Prince Paul. The imaginative samples and playful beats carry over to other projects he worked on including Handsome Boy Modeling School, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and the fantastic MF Doom.
The album opens with a staple of the hip-hop genre: the dreaded skit. I don’t tend to like skits; it’s very rare that a skit will add anything of note to an album, and literally acts as filler between ‘real tracks’ to make the album look like better value for money. When you buy a 15-track CD and realise that there is a skit between each song, you feel a little ripped off. The intro to 3 Feet High and Rising is presented as a cheesy game-show with kitschy organs and bad jokes.
The first real track on the album is the classic ‘The Magic Number’. It’s a song that you just can’t help bouncing around to. The drum break has been used countless times since by other artists, but no one else has managed to capture the energy and joy that this song brings. I’m sure Beck used ‘Change in Speak’ as the starting point for his Odelay album – laid back hip-hop beats with some James Brown samples thrown in for good measure.
‘Cool Breeze on the Rocks’ may strike the casual observer as another a pointless interlude, but it is rather an intense and jaw-dropping slice of scratch-mixing virtuosity. We are exposed to an explosive abstract collage of a few dozen samples of the word “rock” from a range of eclectic sources. It’s bizarre to say the least, but fits in perfectly with the flow and tone of the album.
‘Can you Keep a Secret’ is another track which I would describe as a skit. It has a little more about it than previous skits, in that it could almost be considered a real song, but as the music progresses, and lines about band members having dandruff and needing haircuts are whispered into the mic, you realise that it’s just another ‘comedy’ track. ‘Jennifer Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge)’ puts the album back on track with unusual beats and a story of teenage lust.
‘Ghetto Thang’ has a dark driving bass-line that is crying out to be played loud – it is easily the most serious song on the album, and shows another side of De La Soul. The social commentary is quickly swept aside with the bizarre French lesson of ‘Transmitting Live from Mars’ – another buffer track.
‘Eye Know’ is one of my favourite tracks on the album, and probably rates in my top 20 of all-time. I cannot fault this song in any way – it’s just a fantastic feel-good record that could make even the most miserable Sisters of Mercy devotee break out in a goofy smile and want to hug the person nearest to them. Some songs just make you glad to be alive, and this is definitely one of them.
‘Take it Off’ is another pointless skit that seems more pointless than the others because it is just a string of in-jokes that are probably only funny to the people in the room recording them.
‘Tread Water’ is De La Soul at their most surreal. The music is joyous and funky, but it is lines like “I was walking on the water when I saw a crocodile / He had daisies in his hat so I stopped him for a while” and “I looked down and then around and I heard / 'Hi! I'm Mr Fish. How do you do? As for me / I'm in tip-top shape today, 'cause my water's clean / And no-one's menu says Fresh Fish Fillet” that make it special.
‘Buddy’ features the vocals of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip as well as the Jungle Brothers, and has the same laid back feeling of Tribe’s Midnight Marauders – a great track. ‘Me, Myself and I’ is another hip-hop classic with its central sample being taken from Funkadelic’s excellent ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’. My attitude to sampling is similar to my attitude towards cover versions in that if you can’t do anything to either improve or make us enjoy the song in a different way, then don’t bother. De La Soul are the masters of taking a great sample and turning into something incredible and ‘Me, Myself and I’ demonstrates this perfectly.
Album-closer ‘DAISY Age’ is a great piece of downbeat hip-hop that artists like DJ Krush and the Cut Chemist took to their logical conclusions almost a decade later.
The album is slightly let down too many comedy skits and strange musical interludes. But there are some undeniable classics on here, and the album is excellent if you can get past the buffer tracks.