The Great Albums

Creative, optimistic 'new wave' of hip-hop

April 6, 2003



"Mirror, mirror on the wall/Tell me, mirror, what is wrong?" De La Soul rapped on "Me Myself and I," a Top-40 hit from its 1989 debut. "Can it be my de la clothes/Or is it just my de la soul?"

In an era where the simplistic, nihilistic sounds of 50 Cent and Eminem represent the epitome of rap music in the mainstream pop outlets of MTV and radio, "3 Feet High and Rising" stands as one of the most optimistic, life-affirming and wildly creative albums that hip-hop has ever produced--and it is indeed thanks to the soul ("de la" or otherwise) of its three architects.

Emerging several years after the genre's genesis during the creative flowering of rap's second wave in the late '80s and early '90s, New York rock critic Robert Christgau initially pegged De La Soul as "new wave" to Public Enemy's "punk rock." The group was less about aggression, brutal realism and political outrage than it was about cheery melodies, genial grooves and a Utopian vision of the way things should be in the black community (as opposed to the way that they often are in the ghetto).

Where Public Enemy urged its listeners to fight the power, De La Soul heralded the start of "the D.A.I.S.Y. Age"--which, in the grand tradition of psychedelic acronyms, stood for "DA Inner Self, Y'all." From the cartoon flowers and Day-Glo colors of the album cover to the idyllic sounds contained on the disc, De La Soul welcomed listeners to a new and invigorating sound: hippie hip-hop.

Like Chuck D., the three rappers were smart, well-read, middle-class African Americans from suburban Long Island (Amityville, to be exact). Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer) and Trugoy the Dove (David Jolicouer) had been in a more conventional rap group called Easy Street before they linked up with Maseo (Vincent Mason) in 1985 and eventually joined forces with visionary producer Prince Paul, a veteran of Stetsasonic.

The members' stage names were indicative of their playful, childlike sense of humor: "Trugoy" was Jolicouer's favorite food, "yogurt," spelled backward, while "Posdnous" reversed the letters from Mercer's DJ handle, "Sound-Sop."

"Many of the B-boys would say that our beats weren't hardcore enough," Maseo told England's New Musical Express in 1991, a few years after the crew's debut. "But we're more about a vibe than coming up with hardcore beats. ... Where we live is very open and mellow. Sure, there are rough neighborhoods. But people don't live one on top of the other. There's room to think about what's going on."

Added Trugoy: "If our music reminds you of a hippie, Bohemian vibe, that's OK. We want the music to speak for itself."

The group would make its mark as part of the so-called "Native Tongues" posse, which included fellow travelers A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and Monie Love--all artists who avoided sexist boasting and cliched tales of gangsta violence in favor of timeless celebrations of individuality. By all accounts, De La Soul's distinctive vision was already in place when it first entered the studio.

"Back in 1987, a newly signed rap act made it into my recording studio with a new vibe, message, and attitude," wrote Al Watts, the engineer who mixed the crew's debut (and who served as the game show announcer in one of several between-song skits--which, in more dumbed-down form, have now become a rap staple). "They began to lay down tracks that would on a daily basis blow my mind.

"These three young artists developed a style so unique and creative that it was apparent that this record was going to change the face of hip-hop. In my humble opinion, '3 Feet High and Rising' ... single-handedly transformed a fetal genre of music into a mainstream multicultural phenomenon."

This hyperbolic claim is justified by De La Soul's giddy jams, even if the offspring it has influenced--including the likes of Outkast, Cee-Lo and Common--sell far fewer albums today than their caricatured gangsta counterparts. Musically, the crew strayed far and wide from the James Brown beats and old soul samples that dominated much of old-school hip-hop, creating a fresh, new sound every bit as inventive (but a heck of a lot sunnier and catchier) than Public Enemy's white-noise collages.

The first proper song on the album, "The Magic Number," rewrites a tune from the Saturday morning "Schoolhouse Rocks" cartoon ("Three Is A Magic Number"), while other samples are culled from old albums by the Jarmels, Steely Dan, Prince, a strange yodeling disc, and a French-language instruction record. Unfortunately, this enthusiastic, crazy-quilt approach to incorporating snippets of other recordings landed the group in hot water.

De La Soul had sampled and inverted a very short hook from "You Showed Me" by the '60s pop band the Turtles for the track "Transmitting Live from Mars," but it failed to get the songwriters' permission. They sued and won the case in a landmark decision that set the parameters for sample artists thereafter. (Today, all samples have to be legally cleared and purchased from the original artists before an album can be released, even if the cuts are essentially unrecognizable.)

The innovations didn't end with the music. The lyrics of songs such as "Me Myself and I," "The Magic Number," the slyly sexy "Buddy," and "Plug Tunin' (Last Chance To Comprehend)" are full of good-natured in-jokes and the sort of playful between-friends ribbing inspired by lazy afternoons spent smoking pot and goofing on bad TV.

Aside from a few scattered marijuana references, De La Soul isn't vocal about its drug habits on the disc. The album's reputation as a psychedelic masterpiece comes more from the invigorating swirl of sound, the deft and nimble flow of rhymes, and the group's own invented slang than from any obvious pharmacological influences.

"De La Soul create a kind of dance psychedelia, disrupting consciousness by rupturing stylistic integrity," English critic Simon Reynolds rhapsodized. "Splicing together grooves, beats and chants, licks and stray murmurings from unconnected pop periods, they create a friction, a rub that's both sensual and uncanny. Different auras, different vibes, different studio atmospheres, and different eras are placed in ghostly adjacence, like some strange composite organism sewn together out of a variety of vivisected limbs, or a Cronenberg dance monster."

Unfortunately, De La Soul was unduly stung by the criticism from hardcore rappers, and after the success of its debut, the members disavowed the D.A.I.S.Y. Age concept. Their second release, "De La Soul Is Dead," boasted harder beats and more traditional samples, and the group turned to the sort of gangsta tales that it had previously avoided, including a cut called "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa."

Thankfully, the long-running trio (which performs at the House of Blues on May 2) has returned to form in recent years: 2000's "Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump" included one of its best tunes ever, "All Good?" (featuring guest vocalist and Chicago native Chaka Khan), and the following year's "AOI: Bionix" featured an updated take on the black astronaut theme so familiar to George Clinton, Lee Perry, and Sun Ra.

Still, De La Soul has never bettered the furious creativity of "3 Feet High and Rising," which remains as an inspired pinnacle that other rappers can only hope to top.