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Unspotified: De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising

My first job was at Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr for other regions). Dr. Dre, to my knowledge, was a co-host of Yo! MTV Raps. Between that and the local high school’s rap radio show, that was how I discovered new music.

Rap did have a lot of friendly characters–Will Smith was still “The Fresh Prince,” and not yet via the TV show. There were similar figures who time would forget (like Dana Dane). And the high-top fade was a common style, with of course Kid ‘n Play providing the most pronounced example.

I was a white kid working among not a majority of white people and was more on the social periphery of my coworkers. But I overheard talk about “Me Myself and I.” It was in heavy rotation, on MTV and the radio. I became curious and procured a cassette at the local flea market.

De La Soul presented a memorable image. The rappers wore Afrocentric medallions and dashikis. They were not entirely apart from hip-hop culture of the time but were more a little bit off. The high-top fades were just a bit crooked.

The videos and cover art were unified in their aesthetic–alternately dayglow and black and white. With lots of daisies.

I didn’t know where these guys came from. I had actually heard of Stetsasonic, the group that producer Prince Paul belonged to, and the Jungle Brothers, a group that guested on the album. I wasn’t yet familiar with another group that made an appearance, called A Tribe Called Quest. These groups were declared to be part of a collective called “Native Tongues.” So there was already a world built around De La Soul.

All of this, and I haven’t yet mentioned the music. Actually, prominent on the album is its skits. Skits weren’t yet played out in hip-hop. They were actually funny here, even when I didn’t understand their inside jokes. I still don’t know who Dante or Jenifa are. Heck, I still don’t know what “Potholes in My Lawn” means.

OK, the music. Hip-hop is often very quickly dated. Why does this debut album endure almost 30 years (!) later? The samples ventured outside the then-standard James Brown ones, into the psychedelic, but also the corny. Yes, the album title is a Johnny Cash quote. The lyrical approach is a recognition that they are dorks (like us). “Puffery” was always there in rap, but not here. There was clowning, but also the playful use of language. The music and rhymes sound loose, even sloppy. This endures because it’s not too much of its time. It’s not dated because it spans eras–looking back as far as the 60s but also ahead to where rap would go in the ten years or so that would follow. And we were beginning to enter the era of lyrics (where much rap before was a bit too simple, even Run DMC. And things seem to have gotten to that again, somehow). OK, they seemed like college kids, maybe art school goofs. This again is not entirely abnormal for the time.

Three Feet High and Rising might have given us summer jams, party jams. De La has always tried to do this. But these are party jams for something like comic book nerds, long before quite so many declared themselves comic book nerds. To listen to the album is to be transported to a block party in Long Island. And I know almost nothing of Long Island, but it feels like a safe, familiar place. I probably longed for such a setting as I worked the Hardee’s grill. And it still sounds like a good place today.

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