Back in 2019, we reviewed ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ when it hit its 30th anniversary. We return now because of two very different events. In February founding member David Jolicoeur, a.k.a. Trugoy the Dove, or Plug Two, died. Celebrating the legacy of one of the most influential voices in Hip Hop would be reason enough to look back at De La Soul’s career, but at the start of March, another seismic event took place. For the first time, all De La Soul albums are now legally available on streaming services. With both of these events in mind, and taking a cue from our sample happy friends, Plugs One, Two and Three, we present an updated review of the classic album ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ featuring sampled text from our own 1999 review.
When Kelvin Mercer, Vincent Mason and David Jolicoeur met at Amityville High School on Long Island, NY the Hip Hop scene was becoming increasingly politicised. The trio’s early musical experiments, raiding their parents’ record collections for samples, were in sharp contrast to the prevailing trends as they leaned into sounds that surprised and brought humour. Joined by producer Prince Paul, the group began to craft a debut and took on a range of pseudonyms with Mercer becoming Posdnuos (“Sound Sop” backwards), a.k.a. Plug One, Jolicoeur becoming the aforementioned Dove a.k.a. Plug Two, and Mason becoming Maseo, a.k.a Plug Three.
As the first album to go all out with extensive use of sampling, ‘3 Feet…’ represented a seismic shift in music and musical culture. Soon after its release it became a legal precedent of sorts as the band and label were sued for copyright infringement, settled out of court, and saw the economic viability of the album, and in turn, the extensive use of sampling stomped all over. The sad result is that while the majority of samples were cleared for physical media, ‘3 Feet…’ and all of De La Soul’s early albums were long unavailable on digital services, depriving fans and new audiences of one of the finest and most influential groups in Hip Hop history. Partly to redress this balance the group went against their then-label Warners and released their entire discography for free download back in 2014. Thankfully the catalogue has changed hands over the years since, with the original master recordings finally being returned to the group, starting a long process of re-clearing hundreds of samples for current digital and future technologies that the band themselves helped to coordinate. For those keen-eared listeners who have spent significant time with physical copies of ‘3 Feet High…’ there are some subtle but key differences with some samples now missing, most notably Eddie Murphy on ‘The Magic Number’, and some beats and musical elements carefully recreated.
Beyond the legal wrangling, ‘3 Feet High…’ is the crown jewel of sampling, showcasing freedom of expression and an abundance of ideas that has seldom been repeated and rarely been bettered. Taking in the now famous educational film samples from ‘The Magic Number’ and easing them up beside Johnny Cash and radio clips of an NYC Mayor, De La Soul crafted a worldwide smash hit that announced who they were to the universe on top of a Led Zeppelin beat. If that’s all this album was, a bullet point in the technological advance of music culture, then we could accept that perhaps it wasn’t necessarily required listening for future generations. But ‘3 Feet…’ was so much more than that thanks to the lyrical prowess of Pos and Dove.
Their dense, tight flow broke with the mould of early 90s Hip Hop and focused not on gangsta braggadocio but on D.A.I.S.Y.s (da inner sound, y’all). As a unifying concept of community, harmony, strength of inner character and free expression, De La Soul lead the way along with their Native Tongues brethren; Queen Latifah, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep and A Tribe Called Quest. Their rhymes didn’t just have something to say, but they had something that had to be listened to. Articulate yet mysterious, De La created a singular vision that demanded the listener not just pay attention in class but devote the time to repeat spins to make the most of their dynamic lyricism. Beyond big concepts, there’s a gleeful self-referentiality to their lyrics, as seen when Dove raps to a potential beau, “This time the magic number is two, ‘cause it takes two, not three, to seduce”. With wit is also wisdom, one not found in much Hip Hop of the day where recognising that it takes two people to make a love song was not known to be commonplace in any major popular music genre.
While in their early days, the trio spent considerable time trying to avoid a ‘hippie’ image that was unfairly tagged onto them, see the ‘3 Feet High….’ track ‘Me, Myself and I’ and second album ‘De La Soul Is Dead’ for evidence, slowly they settled into their groove, creating a string of albums that furthered their status as Hip Hop innovators. In time they would even win a Grammy for their work on the Gorillaz track ‘Feel Good Inc.’, co-written by Dove. Yet, thanks to their early work being left off streaming services the group have not had the exposure to younger audiences that many of their peers have received. Thankfully this wrong has been righted and the joy of ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ is now available for new generations of music lovers. As an ode to Hip Hop itself, there will be few better collections than ‘3 Feet…’. You may no longer need to beg, steal or borrow to get your hands on a copy, but you should seek it out now and let it spin.