It is such a damn shame that De La Soul and Tommy Boy Records couldn’t seem to resolve their interminable royalties dispute in time for the 30th anniversary of 3 Feet High And Rising, not only because it means that the planned release of the trio’s catalog to streaming services has been delayed — including their aforementioned groundbreaking debut — but also because it means that, rather than celebrating a game-changing album, much more of the group’s time has been spent fighting for fairer treatment from the label that originally brought them to the world’s attention.
30 years ago, there wasn’t a “rap game” — at least, not as we know it now — so it could hardly be said that 3 Feet High And Rising changed something that didn’t exist yet. Instead, De La Soul’s funky, witty, genre-bucking debut expanded the boundaries of what exactly rap could be. At a time when militance, stoicism, and street-smart, tough guy demeanor stood at the forefront of the burgeoning culture’s mainstream representation, three jazz-rap “hippies” — Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo — ushered in a “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” that demonstrated a whole new paradigm for rap — much of it, at the cost of the group’s “street credibility.”
It takes a lot to go against the grain. It might take even more to do so when the grain hasn’t quite settled yet, when it seems like the whole world is trying to push in one direction. In 1989, rap was in flux. Just one year before, a plethora of groundbreaking albums dropped from artists and groups as diverse as the artists themselves, from Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, to MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa, to Public Enemy and NWA. However, as wildly divergent as the sounds and styles were, there seemed to be a common consensus that hip-hop and rap music as its offshoot were meant to be rugged, tougher than leather, maybe even downright gangsta — even Will Smith and Jeff Townes as The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff positioned themselves in opposition to the idea that rappers needed to be stone-faced, ice-cold roughnecks.
In 1989, De La Soul didn’t so much challenge that conception of rap music so much as they ignored it almost entirely, crafting an alternative sound almost wholesale from a stack of records as tall as their producer for the album, Prince Paul, and as colorful as its flower-printed cover, designed by British art collective the Grey Organisation. Where the beats on other classics of the era hit like bricks with punishing kick drums and bruising bass lines, 3 Feet High And Rising contained soundscapes with varied layers and textures that they swung around like wiffle bats, connecting in a vastly different way. Rather than sampling just from jazz, funk, and soul, they borrowed as heavily from Hall & Oates and Steely Dan for more melodic, almost relaxing soundbeds from which to sling their quirky but no less sharp lyrics about self-love (“Me Myself and I”) and adolescent whimsy as on “Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge).”