Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 21: Three Feet High and Rising (De La Soul, 1989)

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“Peace and tranquility is now resumed under a DAISY like condition! De La Soul has now entered your MIND, BODY, and SOUL. Sit back, take a luuden, and everything will be Dan Stuckie. For this is a DAISY AGE.”

So concludes the comic adventures of De La Soul within the liner notes of their 1989 landmark album, Three Feet High and Rising. Without even hearing a lick of sound, the notes—and, of course, the eye-poppingly day-glow-bright daisy-filled cover art—give you an idea of what means these three young artists use to bring their art to the world: positive vibes, and private language; humor, wit, and satire. De La Soul consists of three: you’ve got Posdnous (a.k.a, Plug One, soppin’ up sound; favorite food: Twizzlers), Trugoy the Dove (a.k.a., Plug Two, a pioneer of a phrase called talk, who enjoys to eat yogurt enough to use it as the basis of his nickname), and P.A. System Pasemaker MASE (a.k.a, Plug Three, a man Making A Soul Effort, whose favorite food and beverage both is ketchup).

Don’t be fooled by the peace-sign and daisy imagery: these guys aren’t hippies—a point that seemed to require constant reiteration by the group: it’s “pure Plug Bull,” they say. “We can have a psychedelic sound in some of our cuts, but we are not psychedelic rappers and we are not hippies. We are not hippies.” They’re simply peaceful guys who like to wear peace signs in their hair. And the acronym DA.I.S.Y.—a description of their production—stands for Da Inner Sound Y’all. So: daisies.

One thing to keep in mind while listening to the freewheeling and hijinx-filled Three Feet High and Rising is that an album like this—piled high with layer upon layer of samples—simply couldn’t be widely released today, in our very un-DAISY age, thick as it is with legal precedent for weighty suits against so-called intellectual property theft. In 1989, particularly within hip-hop—which wasn’t yet the commercially blockbusting genre that it is today and therefore under the radar—young artists were able to use sampled beats, hooks, effects, etc., to get their musical ideas from brain to speakers quickly, efficiently, and—importantly—cheaply.

For a record like this one, which was released on Tommy Boy Records—an imprint with solid distribution due to their relationship with Warner Brothers—you’d’ve wanted to clear the larger, more obvious sampled chunks, often via one-time lump-sum agreements with the original artist—and Tommy Boy did that—but common sense dictated that it was absurd or at least unnecessary to clear every chopped-up, pitch-shifted, tweaked sample that appeared only as a momentary texture. The late '80s / early '90s was a beautifully creative time that provided fertile—and comparatively non-litigious—soil in which sample-rich and incredibly important albums like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory, and, of course, De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, were able to grow. In Shunryu Suzuki’s 1970 book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, we are reminded that, “‘pulling out the weeds we give nourishment to the plant.’ We pull the weeds and bury them near the plant to give it nourishment.” Similarly, De La Soul dug through crates—not least those of their parents’ suburban Long Island record collections—and pulled forgotten or neglected wax by the roots to cut up and bury in their tracks, nourishing them.

In 1991, Three Feet High and Rising hit a snag when a pair of turtles smelled green. Let me explain.

Two former members of the '60s rock band The Turtles decided to sue De La for their uncredited use of a modified sample from the band’s song “You Showed Me”—a song, which, by the way, they didn’t write—in the 1 minute and 12 second interstitial track called “Transmitting Live from Mars,” which is as close to a throwaway track as could be, featuring, besides the the shifted organ and strings from the Turtles record, sampled and scratched audio from a French language instructional album. $1.7 million dollars ought to cover it, the two former-Turtles thought, offering at one point the option of collaborating with De La Soul on a track as a way of making the lawsuit go away. No thank you, masked men.

Tommy Boy Records, producer Prince Paul, and the trio took their De La Lumps and pressed onward, but the precedent had been set—the label and band settled out of court—and the artistic process of digging crates and creating first and asking questions later started taking a back seat to pre-production meetings with lawyers, talking about who they might want to avoid sampling.    

There are innuendos aplenty appearing through Three Feet High and Rising: Jennies, Jimmies, Buddies, and so on. The De La lexicographicalandscape runs deep and wide, and the coded language allows the group to operate on multiple planes. The liner’s comic strip shows a Walter Cronkite-looking gentleman with a finger waggling in the air and a talk-bubble overhead that states, “This album does not contain explicit lyrics. But the thought is EROTIC.”

De La Soul had a knack for sample-stacking, often using pitch-shifting when needed to best nest one inside or rest one atop another. In the 70-plus samples employed on Three Feet High and Rising, they pulled not only from the “classics,” as it were—I’m talking James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and “Funky President” of course; talkin’ Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone—but also more left-field cuts (and here I mean tracks by artists who tended to skew more toward white demographics) like Kraftwerks “Trans Europe Express,” Steely Dan’s “Peg,” Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That,” and, not least, the track from which the album title was lifted, Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising.” And then there’s the sample of a Richard Pryor stand-up bit in the track “Cool Breeze on the Rocks,” that of the French language instruction on “Transmitting Live from Mars,” and, a forever-fave of mine, Bob Dorough’s hit from Schoolhouse Rock, “Three is the Magic Number” sampled on “The Magic Number.” This is pastiche to a T.

“Pastiche is a violation of decorum, a mixture of unrelated elements, like the humble macaroni pie or pasticcio that gave it its name,” wrote Wendy Steiner, in her 1995 book called The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism. “Pastiche is democratically diverse and tolerant of inconsistency. It is the clownish face on social justice, a joke with deep seriousness.”

One of my favorite things about this album is how, despite that vast and dense mix of elements, the album is tied so tightly together, lyrically, and conceptually. From the title we are pulled into “The Magic Number,” which is three of course. On track 12, “Tread Water,” we meet, among others, Mr. Monkey, whose problem is that his bananas are ripe but with his bandaged climbing hand he can’t reach them, at their height of three feet. The trio helps by elevating Mr Monkey through the sound of De La (the “score” of which he picks up at the “Native store,” referring to the collective called “Native Tongues” De La Soul founded around 1988 along with Jungle Brothers and Tribe Called Quest. Both the Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip from Tribe Called Quest would make guest appearances on track 18, “Buddy.” 

Track 6, “Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge),” contains a sample of Liberace (of all people) playing “Chopsticks,” interesting because it’s only the sample of the elementary element of Liberace’s version of the song—the part that "any Derwin" could do. It’s about the layering of existing material with its own hidden stories that’s exciting. “Little Derwin’s got something to show us that Jenny could never do.” And Liberace makes a grand reappearance at the start of track 16, called “Plug Tunin' (Last Chance to Comprehend),” with a spoken-word sample taken from his patter introducing that previously sampled version of “Chopsticks.”

In track 9, “Eye Know,” Trugoy raps about losing all those other “Jennies” he reckoned with, and that this time the Magic Number is two, "‘cause it takes two, not three to seduce." Which brings us back to The Magic Number.

Paths like this one criss-cross the 24 tracks on the record and triangulate trios around the icositetragon—the day-glow yellow center of a daisy of your choice.

In its way, Three Feet High and Rising functions as a sort of commonplace book for the young men of De La Soul and their clever mentor, producer Prince Paul—a bibliaudiography. What strikes me most about the album is the pure and present joy. About the project, Posdnous would recall, “It was a capsule of our innocence; I can hear four individuals who didn’t give a damn about the rules and just went in and had a good time.”

De La Soul’s newest record, their ninth, titled And the Anonymous Nobody, is set to be released later this month.

It largely avoids samples.  

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.