"I love daisies, I love daisies, I love pushin' up your favourite daisies!"
At the end of the 1980s, hip hop came of age, and, like the adolescent it was, it questioned its own confused identity continually. On the one hand, New York rappers like KRS-One and Public Enemy were presenting hip hop as an (admittedly hard-hitting) way of preaching social awareness in the decaying, drug-ridden ghettos of America; on the other, the endlessly controversial and nihilistic gangsta rap scene was just getting started, particularly in Los Angeles with bands like NWA.
Presenting an alternative to either approach, a group of thoughtful, Afrocentric and musically eclectic rappers from (mainly suburban) New York got together, called themselves the Native Tongues, and declared that they were living in a D.A.I.S.Y. Age ("da inner sound y'all").
Although it was perhaps A Tribe Called Quest who represented these characteristics most faithfully, the band most closely associated with the Native Tongues movement, then and now, was Long Island's De La Soul. Consisting of MCs Posdnous (Kelvin Mercer) and Trugoy the Dove (Dave Jolicouer) and DJ PA Pasemaster Mase (Vincent Mason), the band provided the definitive D.A.I.S.Y. Age record with their 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy Records).
Colourful, positive, upbeat, playful, youthful, experimental and funny, 3 Feet remains one of hip hop's best and most important albums. Rather than preaching black power or rhyming about drug murders, De La brought hip hop into a more abstract realm which was less about competition and more about having a good time - an approach which would soon see them vilified and misunderstood by a great part of their audience.
"I know it's gonna be swell and I wanna win all the money... wanna win all the money... see ya..."
A number of key concepts hold the album together. Most immediately, the record is framed within the context of a fictional quiz show which illustrates how materialistic hip hop was becoming. "Intro", the first track, introduces the idea: "Hey all you kids out there, and welcome to 3 Feet High and Rising! Now, here's what we do - the following contestants..." It turns out that to win the money - as they're all obsessed with doing - the contestants have to answer four pointless, riduculous questions, e.g. "How many times did the Batmobile catch a flat?" Throughout the album we hear the contestants' responses - and none of them can answer a single one.
"I was walking on the water when I saw a crocodile / He had daisies in his hat so I stopped him for a while."
The quiz is not the only running theme throughout the album. In general, 3 Feet High is a statement of De La's D.A.I.S.Y. Age optimism. Amid overflowing samples, positivity is expressed in tracks like "The Magic Number" ("Difficult preaching is Posdnous' pleasure") and "Me Myself and I" (proud individuality expressed with the help of a Steely Dan sample), both of which are still familiar to music fans today, not to mention the gorgeously mellow love song "Eye Know".
But De La weren't just expressing their own positive approach; more often than not, they were criticising those who didn't share it. The album is full of playful ripostes, as in "Say No Go" (the dangers of drugs) and "Take It Off" (the inanity of fashion trends) as well as the more serious, self-explanatory "Ghetto Thang".
And some of the tracks are just plain fun, as in "Cool Breeze on the Rocks", a hilarious sample-fest, "Tread Water", a bizarre lyrical journey that could be a "Subterranean Homesick Blues" for hip hop, and "Transmitting Live from Mars", with its unexpected sampling of a French language learning tape.
A third idea that unites many of the album's songs is that of playing around with language. In some (although not all) of their tracks, De La were moving to a more abstract lyrical style than the simple, down-to-earth "this is me" rap staple, and the lyrics make frequent allusions to this: "Flaunt this new style of speak"; "Get 'em high off this dialect drug"; "Posdnous, the president of a paragraph"; and even a song title, "Change in Speak".
These ideas all come together in the sublime final track, "D.A.I.S.Y. Age". Defining the message of the album, this track acts as a musical experiment, a manifesto for the D.A.I.S.Y. Age, and a statement of linguistic versatility all at once. Over a difficult but strangely catchy beat, Pos and Dove present a selection of metaphors for their "Change in Speak" - not just the "president of a paragraph", but "romancing dialect in shows", "Dove will show dominance inside of every phrase", "dialect: ultimate", and a promise from Posdnous to "fill you with my vocab".
The record features a number of guests from the Native Tongues movement, and these help to set the tone of the record - the Jungle Brothers appear on "Buddy", along with A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip, who pops up throughout the album (not least on the self-explanatory, distinctintly x-rated "De La Orgee"). Meanwhile, vocalists China, Jette and Renee provide some melody on "D.A.I.S.Y. Age". But definitely the most important is producer Prince Paul (Paul Huston), then of Stetasonic but, in the band's early days, almost a fourth member of De La Soul as well. Paul's musical influence on the band was greater than was often recognised, and the album would not have been the same without him.
3 Feet High and Rising attracted attention immediately on release. Although many fans understood that De La's approach was not naive but merely refreshingly positive, and tracks like "The Magic Number" became pop hits, the band also came in for a whole lot of criticism. A lot of people in the rap world didn't like the idea of a bunch of laid-back suburbanites mocking them on a best-selling debut, and the Soul were quickly labelled hippies and fakers. These people were wrong, and the band's response to their critics, the moody, sardonic De La Soul Is Dead was a masterpiece; but 3 Feet High was debuttal and definitive, and remains a landmark in hip hop.
Tracklisting (run time 1:03:30 hours):
- Intro (1:42)
- The Magic Number (3:16)
- Change in Speak (2:33)
- Cool Breeze on the Rocks (0:47)
- Can U Keep a Secret? (1:40)
- Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge) (3:25)
- Ghetto Thang (3:35)
- Transmitting Live from Mars (1:11)
- Eye Know (4:13)
- Take It Off (1:52)
- A Little Bit of Soap (0:56)
- Tread Water (3:46)
- Potholes in My Lawn (3:48)
- Say No Go (4:20)
- Do as De La Does (2:12)
- Plug Tunin' (Last Chance to Comprehend) (4:06)
- De La Orgee (1:13)
- Buddy (4:54)
- Description (1:31)
- Me Myself and I (3:49)
- This Is a Recording 4 Living in a Fulltime Era (L.I.F.E.) (3:10)
- I Can Do Anything (Delacratic) (0:41)
- D.A.I.S.Y. Age (4:42)
(The CD reissue also contains the original 12" version of "Plug Tunin'".)