Revisiting De La Soul’s ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ 30 Years Later
Unpacking the genesis, creative process, legacy, and complicated legal history behind one of rap music’s most important albums.
|Gino Sorcinelli||Oct 30, 2019|| 5|
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Revisiting De La Soul’s ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ 30 Years Later
This article was originally published on Still Crew in March of 2019. It has since been updated and slightly revised.
Though Prince Paul attended the same Long Island high school as De La Soul members Dave (Trugoy the Dove), Maseo, and Posdnuos (Plug One), they only knew him in passing as a successful local DJ during their early years as a group. That all changed when their high school music teacher Everett Collins decided to start his own record label. Having already demonstrated his musical chops with drumming gigs for The Isley Brothers and ‘80s R&B outfit Surface, Collins moved into the burgeoning genre of rap music by signing Gangster B, a solo artist who Maseo happened to DJ for at the time.
When Collins called on Prince Paul to program some drums for an upcoming Gangster B release, the Amityville teenager eagerly arrived at the studio with his Sequential Circuits TOM drum machine to give the record some added punch. Unfortunately, the session proved frustrating, as Gangster B and Collins made Paul program the drums exactly like The Beastie Boys “Paul Revere” despite his protests. He may have been annoyed by the experience, but the session led to a follow-up conversation where Maseo pitched the idea of Paul and De La Soul joining forces.
With Paul’s interest piqued, Maseo brought him a demo of “Plug Tunin’” in late 1986 to see what he thought of the group’s material. The song had started out as a live routine the group performed over The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President,” but it morphed into something more substantial when Posdnuos created a new beat with a pause tape loop of The Invitations’ “Written on the Wall.”
Though Paul later noted that their demo was a little rough around the edges at first listen, he felt like De La Soul held a great deal of promise. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! Let me hold this tape, come back tomorrow, bring the emcees, watch what I do with it,’” he told Angus Batey in a 2009 HipHop.com interview. “That was the ego in me!”
Paul immediately went to work after hearing the rough cut version of “Plug Tunin,’” incorporating multiple bits of music and transforming the demo into a richly layered, wall of sound production that would later become stylistic trademarks for both Paul and De La. Blending James Brown, Billy Joel piano keys, a bit of a famous pianist’s cassette tape, and a sample that was further popularized two years later with Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill A Man,” Paul impressed his soon-to-be collaborators with his studio savvy.
Pos later admitted to being hesitant about someone adding onto his beat, but Paul’s handiwork won him over. “I was very concerned about what he was gonna do to the music that I was trying my best to produce, which was my first stuff, but right from there he made me feel at ease,” Pos told HipHop.com. “He was a person who was thinking on the same level as us.”
Once the “Plug Tunin’” demo was complete, Prince Paul thought that Daddy-O from Stetsasonic might be able to provide some additional production for the group. But he declined, citing what he heard as an overly similar sound to Ultramagnetic MCs. Despite his initial hesitation, Daddy-O eventually came to appreciate the uniqueness of De La and subsequently helped Prince Paul shop their demo tape to several perspective labels. “He was getting more buzz on my tape than his own artists,” Paul told Ethan Brown in a 1999 oral history of his career published in The Source.
Though Daddy-O is frequently credited for getting their demo in the hands of one-time Tommy Boy president Monica Lynch, Paul also credited former Tommy Boy employee Rod Houston for being instrumental in the group’s decision to bring their recording to the label.
Once Lynch heard the demo, she predicted it would either be a huge success or fade into obscurity. “It was one of those things where you thought, ‘This is either going to be a landmark or it won’t even make a dent in the consciousness,’” she told The Source.
Despite her mixed feelings, Lynch had enough faith and foresight to quickly sign the group before someone else could get them under contract. The quick turn of events didn’t seem to sit particularly well with Daddy-O when he discussed the signing a decade later. “Tommy Boy signed them quicker than I could say fuck,” he told The Source. “Monica moved so quickly she had the contracts ready before I even knew they were being drawn.”
Paul also had misgivings about whether or not the group should sign on the dotted line given his already problematic Tommy Boy/Stetsasonic deal, and was further conflicted in light of lucrative offers from Geffen and Profile. With the gift of 20/20 hindsight, it now appears both Daddy-O and Prince Paul’s reservations about the label were valid.
Once the ink on their contract dried, the recording of 3 Feet High and Rising took place at a rapid clip with limited funding. Though the exact budget from Tommy Boy is hard to pin down, Posdnuos put it at $13,000 while Paul estimated that they recorded the entire album for about $20,000 in a mere six weeks.
Despite some of the stress caused by the group’s demo shopping experience, the process of creating 3 Feet High and Rising was a free-spirited and informal endeavor. From the custodial staff at the studio to peers that happened to be passing through, sessions were filled with a variety of random characters and collaborators that helped give the entire project a unique energy. “Whether it was the janitor down the hall and we wanted to use his voice for something because he sounded like something or if it was a woman on the phone and we invited her in because her phone voice sounded good and it would be perfect for the skit,” Dave told Eric Diep in a 2014 XXL interview. “Or, if it was the Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip and Latifah rolling in just after a show because we wanted to hang out and wind up doing a song like “Buddy,” it was no rules in regards to who was invited to our sessions.”
Beyond the energy provided by their studio guests, the group also found the experience of being in a proper studio invigorating. Though they still assembled and drafted some bare bones demos in the same vein as “Plug Tunin,’” a more professional recording setup helped them actualize some of their more ambitious ideas. “At home we did these dusty old demo tapes using one little Casio sampler that could only fit in two samples at a time,” Pos told Richard Harrington in a 1989 Washington Post interview. “Once we got in the studio, we found that we could work the equipment in, and it just brought forth more ideas.”
Recording their groundbreaking debut right before sample clearance lawsuits became a common headache for record labels, Prince Paul and De La Soul reworked snippets of music from a wide range of obscure and well-known sources. Using pieces of Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, Otis Redding, Parliament Funkadelic, and a myriad of other records, they made an album that took sample layering to unfathomable new heights—much as their predecessors The Bomb Squad had done with Public Enemy’s first three albums.
According to the group, it never crossed their minds that the music they recorded would leave such a lasting imprint on the industry. “It was playful, childlike and fun,” Posdnuos told Dave Simpson in a 2014 Guardian interview. “We’d dip into psychedelia or jazz. We’d slow down Eddie Murphy’s voice and add a car screeching or us yodeling. At no point did we think what we were doing would end up being so revolutionary.”
They may not have realized it, but the album was indeed revolutionary. Quickly becoming a darling of the press after earning rave reviews in NME and The Village Voice, it sold half a million copies in a mere four months—far exceeding the initial commercial expectations of Tommy Boy. “In essence, Tommy Boy didn’t think—Tom Silverman in particular—didn’t think 3 Feet High and Rising was going to do well at all,” Dave told Sway Calloway in a 2019 Sway’s Universe interview.
The labels' specific projected sales are unknown, but when Maseo cited them at 50,000–100,000 units in the same Sway’s Universe interview, Dave said they were even lower than that. According to De La, it was a combination of low sales expectations and Tommy Boy misjudging the importance of clearing every single sample that led to legal trouble soon after the album’s release. “They felt like, ‘Oh, well, this little skit is not a full song so it’s kinda insignificant—we don’t feel we need to clear that. Who’s gonna really pay attention to that?’” Maseo told DJ Nobody in a 2016 L.A. Record interview. “At the same time, I’m gonna be honest: I get they logic on it, but it didn’t work out that way!”
It’s easy to judge Tommy Boy harshly for their oversight based on the standards of today’s multi-billion dollar music industry and its rigid clearance laws, but sampling was just beginning to enter the broader consciousness in 1989. There was no established blueprint for how to take someone else’s music and repurpose it. Yet no matter what level of blame or sympathy Tommy Boy deserves for their oversight, the decision to not clear every single sample used on 3 Feet High and Rising continues to cast a cloud over the record’s legacy and limit easy access to one of rap music’s most important albums 30 years after its initial release.
3 Feet High and Rising first became entangled in a complex web of legalities when the rock band The Turtles, who were sampled on the interlude “Transmitting Live From Mars,” sued De La for $2.5 million over an uncleared sample. According to Maseo, The Turtles settled for approximately $100,000 with De La and Tommy Boy each paying half.
Though public perception was that the lawsuit was an oversight on De La Soul’s part, they have always insisted that they submitted the proper documentation to Tommy Boy regarding The Turtles’ sample. Further adding to the layers of confusion surrounding the lawsuit, it was rumored that The Turtles actually liked 3 Feet High and Rising and wanted to work with De La Soul.
Meanwhile, their lawyer apparently asked Pos for an autograph while serving him legal papers.
The sample clearance issues caused by De La Soul’s sample-heavy production on 3 Feet High and Rising and beyond—coupled with dated contracts and Tommy Boy’s temporary surrender of the De La back catalog to Warner Brothers—have created a long and painful struggle for the group to make their music easily accessible to fans. The bulk of their catalog has long been unavailable on all digital and streaming services despite frequent requests from listeners and high-visibility peers.
For a group who would undoubtedly earn significant streams if the catalog were available today, this has hurt their bottom line and their ability to draw in new fans. Posdnuos perfectly summarized De La’s frustration and the absurdity of the situation while talking to Finn Cohen for a 2016 New York Times interview: “We’re in the Library of Congress, but we’re not on iTunes.”
De La turned the difficult situation into something positive when they ran a Kickstarter campaign for their 2016 album and the Anonymous Nobody… and gave away high-quality MP3 rips of their entire catalog for a limited time. Setting an initial goal of raising $110,000 through crowdfunding, their fans donated in droves and helped them pull in almost six times that amount. Yet despite this tangible evidence that they still had significant commercial appeal, their Tommy Boy catalog remained unavailable.
With the 30th anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising having come and gone in March of 2019, it is unfortunate that the album’s lack of availability continues to be the dominant narrative. The focus should be upon Prince Paul and De La Soul’s creative genius, their game-changing sample layering, and the impressive lyricism of Dave and Posdnuos.
Instead, the weeks surrounding the anniversary were an emotional roller coaster for both the group and their fan base. First, it appeared Tommy Boy was going to upload their full catalog and give them only 10% of the earnings. Then Tidal agreed to pull the albums from streaming until a fair agreement was reached. However, Tommy Boy was ultimately unwilling to give the group what they thought was a fair split and. It now appears that a mutually satisfactory agreement is impossible.
Amidst the legal turmoil and frustration, fans of 3 Feet High and Rising should take some time to sit with the album and give it a careful listen. 30 years ago a group of teenagers from Long Island showed listeners how to write a thoughtful love song over a Steely Dan loop, embrace individuality alongside a Funkadelic sample, and use bizarre metaphorical terms like “Potholes in My Lawn” to perfectly describe dissatisfaction with subpar rappers of the day.
In the process, De La Soul let an entire generation of rap fans know that it was OK to be eccentric, goofy, and weird. These lessons—bestowed to listeners in the form of an undisputed classic—will continue to endure, resonate, and influence no matter what legal hurdles the group faces. There’s no doubt their music will continue to live on and prosper despite the flawed mechanisms used to distribute it.
Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!