De La Soul is alive

Two takes on 3 Feet High and Rising, 20 years later
|
(0)

CHECK ONE Last night, I played De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy/Warner Bros., 1989) for the first time in years. I couldn't stop laughing.

It was a surprise, even though I always knew that much of De La Soul's early appeal rested on its humor. Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer spelled "soundsop" backwards; Dave "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur loved yogurt. (He's pictured eating yogurt in the album's liner notes.) They complained about style biters who dug "Potholes in My Lawn"; and called their loopy, circuitous jams "Plug Tunin'." There were references to soap, water, and Luden's cough drops. In the first of several "game show" skits that bookended the album, Trugoy remarked that his favorite film was the 1976 sex-and-torture spectacle Bloodsucking Freaks. Twenty years later, De La Soul's private language — or, to be accurate, "DA Inner Sound Y'all (D.A.I.S.Y. Age)" — still sounds fresh and crazily absurd.

Mainstream rock critics, suspicious of all that hippity-hop stuff, welcomed 3 Feet with restrained praise at first: Rolling Stone, in one of its historic blunders, only gave the album three stars while acknowledging it as "one of the most original rap albums ever." The yellow-and-turquoise-daisies album art and MTV hype obscured De La Soul's sharply intelligent sendups of go-go ("Do As De La Does") and rap clichés ("Take It Off," which parodied the then-ubiquitous "Funky Drummer" loop). Today, irony is so entrenched in the Generation X-Y-and-Zero lexicon that we forget how pleasurable it is when it's done right.

Unfortunately, the good vibes quickly turned sour. Shortly after the album's release, De La Soul ended an Arsenio Hall appearance with "Ain't Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie," a refrain first voiced on "Me, Myself and I." The 1991 follow-up De La Soul is Dead offered a smashed flowerpot and tales of how the crew nearly got kicked off LL Cool J's tour for fighting, just to prove that, hey, they ain't no punks. Goofy odes to weed-smoking jostled uneasily with cautionary tales of child abuse and murder. The playful spirit of hip-hop's so-called golden age was gone, another casualty in the oncoming storm of street realism and gangster aesthetics. (Mosi Reeves)

CHECK TWO I'd dug "Plug Tunin'" when I chanced across it on a mixtape from somewhere. This flow — this new style of speak — was shrouded in slang, occulted, and backed by a sound collage that seemed conjured from a basement where a rusty Victrola played the memories of an old man nodding off in his Lay-Z-Boy.

My boys hated that song. I loved it, but I didn't "get it." Armed with more fashion-sense than any of us knew what to do with, Marlon looked over at me and said, "You really like these Oklahoma muthafuckas?" Yes I did. Brothers was dope. From Strong Island, and dope. Rakim dope.

One Sunday, I was cleaning up my place to 3 Feet High and Rising and ran across a roach in an ashtray. Sprawled out on the couch watching the sun stream through my dirty windows, I "got" De La Soul. Every word was deciphered. It felt as if I'd learned a new language, or remembered an old one.

Things changed after that.

The 20th anniversary of De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising is a cause for celebration. Anyone else feeling vindicated?

Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer, David "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur, and Vincent "PA Mase" Mason have chronicled the last 20 years through nine studio albums and countless production credits (Camp Lo, Gorillaz and MF DOOM among them). Prince Paul produced them, and in turn their popularity produced Prince Paul. They introduced a sleeping world to the black gale known as Mos Def.

De La is coming back to San Francisco. Witness genius at work. (D. Scot Miller)

Also from this author

  • Panther cry

    New Bay anthology "Listen Whitey!" plays the sounds of black power

  • 'AMERICA' the beautiful

    An open letter to Glenn Ligon

  • A better tomorrow

    Will Alexander seeks a unified-all-inclusive art theory in Compression & Purity