The Complicatist : Three Feet High & Rising
Celebrating 25 years of hip hop’s best-loved album
by Gordon Campbell
How high’s the water, momma? Johnny Cash’s spectral presence on 3 Feet High And Rising was exactly the sort of culture jamming that made De La Soul’s debut album such a trippy classic. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the album’s release. That’s a good opportunity not only to recall 3 Feet High and Rising with affection, but to salute the bygone era of sampling democracy that it epitomized – a time when hip hop could throw Johnny Cash, Eric Burdon, the Mad Lads, Bo Diddley, Steely Dan and scores of other into the Daisy Age blender without bothering about the legal consequences.
Today’s copyright laws and the related cost of sampling clearances have made this kind of unhinged creativity impossible. By “sampling” I don’t mean to imply that riffs or bass lines or other stray elements were scissored and re-assembled into any of the De La Soul tracks. The genius of producer Prince Paul lay in the way he took these slivers of sound and made them interact with each other, and created something entirely new from the results. That’s the real drag of the wider legal situation. If you’re a painter or photographer you can rip off your predecessors and contemporaries at will. If you’re a film-maker you can do the same thing and call it “ homage.” But if you’re a music producer ort band, you’ll get your arse sued, no matter how creatively you’ve transformed the sounds.
1. Magic Number. For fun this month, I’ve assembled a few of the sample sources and put them alongside the 3 Feet High track on which they appear. (Keep in mind that on any given 3 Feet track, samples are being laid on top of samples, so this is real tip of the iceberg stuff.) Starting out of course with a vintage clip of a lean and mean Johnny Cash…and the “Magic Number” track that it turns up on, like some lost Ghost of Christmas Past. And always keep in mind this timeless advice :
Parents let go ’cause there’s magic in the air
Criticising rap shows you’re out of order
Stop look and listen to the phrasin’ fred astaires
And don’t get offended while Mase do-se-do’s your daughter
2. Plug Tunin’ One of the most beloved of 3 Feet tracks. The beat was sampled from the late 1970s instrumental “Midnight Theme by Manzel, there are wisps of the vocal from the 1960s soul oldie “Written On The Wall” by the Invitations, and – though I didn’t hear it at the time – Prince Paul also made use of a small portion of Billy Joel’s “ Stiletto” from his 52nd Street album. How these elements were combined is explained at length here.
Keep in mind that these are only three of the ingredients in play on this track.
3. Eye Know Very easy to spot the dominant sample on this track – namely, a repeated loop of a single line from Steely Dan’s song “ Peg.” Along the way, you can also hear samples of the Mad Lads (“Make This Young Lady Mine”) Sly & the Family Stone (“Sing a Simple Song”) and Lee Dorsey ( “Get Out of My Life, Woman”) . The whistling was – amusingly – culled from Otis Redding ‘s efforts on “Dock of the Bay…”
4. Change Is Speak. Here come the Mad Lads again – Prince Paul must have really liked these guys – this time via a sample of them singing “No Strings Attached.” The other main sample on this track is from “Bra” by the British deep funk group Cymande, which Paul – presumably – came across when the track was a staple of the London/New York nightclubbing scene during the late 1970s. “Cymande”, incidentally, means “Dove” – also the name of one of De La Soul’s three members.
5. Potholes in My Lawn
This terrific track samples not only “Magic Mountain” by psychedelic warrior Eric Burdon when he was still leading his 1970s band War, which went on to bigger things without him. The track also sampled the yodelling and jaw harp from the “Little Ole Country Boy” track off Parliament’s Osmium album.
That’s probably enough to go on with. For De La Soul’s own recent reminiscences of how the album got made, read here.
Footnote : Oliver Wang, who runs the excellent Soul Sides website from his base in the Bay Area, has also put together this excellent hour long radio show devoted to 3 Feet High and Rising – with rarities and more samples. Highly recommended.
But mainly…. get out your battered copy of the album and give it another spin. Believe me….the effect is still “Mmmm” as the daisy grows in your mind.