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De la Soul

3 Feet High and Rising

The mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s represented the zenith of large and loud in hip-hop. America was an increasingly volatile place, a place where a rap group’s worth was pegged to their ability to battle equally intimidating competitors on wax, where politicians took umbrage at lyrics they didn’t understand, and where parents everywhere complained that the kids were up to no good.

And it was in this climate in 1989 that De La Soul delivered an album that introduced listeners to the many ways they’d use dialect to talk about their perspective on things and their approach to life. With a sound that felt simultaneously playful and whimsical but also urgent, 3 Feet High and Rising presented a hip-hop group that was clearly in it for more than just street cred. In the process, they also created one of the most radical records of all time.

The story of 3 Feet High and Rising is well known: four young men from Long Island who called themselves De La Soul (Posdnuos, Prince Paul, Maseo, Trugoy the Dove) released a debut album that upended virtually every assumption about rap. They had been influenced by the Native Tongue collective (A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers), but their music was much more eclectic than anything their predecessors had attempted.

They worked with Prince Paul, one of the most creative producers in hip-hop history and he helped define their sound. His samples are less familiar than those of other producers of his era; he was more likely to pull from rock or jazz than the soul and funk sounds preferred by most producers at the time. Paul was the perfect foil for the trio, inspiring them as much as guiding them, the yin to the De La yang—the comic relief to their earnestness. He had the same highbrow humor and knack for kitsch, but it was expressed in studio wizardry and pranks, rather than wordplay. The pairings made 3 Feet High and Rising as much fun as it is smart; no record since has so perfectly combined intelligence with silliness.

Combining forces on 3 Feet High and Rising, the quartet produced a wise-cracking, genre-bending, psychedelic masterpiece. It was a record that sounded like nothing else at the time. It’s been 33 years since 3 Feet High and Rising dropped, and the album still sounds like the future in a way that most other rap albums don’t. In 1989, De La Soul had crafted an album that was not only out of step with rap’s mainstream sound at the time; it was offbeat compared to what their forward-thinking friends like A Tribe Called Quest and Brand Nubian were doing too.

For all its good-natured whimsy, the album has a lot to say about hip-hop’s place in the world at the time of its release. With 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul wished to create something different from what was standard practice in rap at the time. They wanted it to be an album that didn’t just appeal to hardcore hip-hop fans but also had crossover appeal to anyone with an open mind and an ear for quality.

De La Soul loved hip-hop and understood its power, but they also knew its limitations. More than anything else, they wanted to stretch out into new territory with it, and so they took their love of hip-hop and expanded its boundaries by drawing from other musical traditions that most rappers considered off limits: pop, rock and soul music.

Over thirty years later, De La Soul’s debut still feels special, not just because it was a milestone but because it’s such a delightful listen. Its time-capsule quality doesn’t feel dated so much as like a fragment from another universe. It’s proof that a bunch of New Yorkers kept their focus and weirdness even as they conquered the world—that hip-hop can be smart and sharp and silly, provocative and playful and exuberant all at once.

Album cover of De la Soul's debut 3 Feet High and Rising