The first thing to say is that the album cover is just indescribably fabulous. Surely top ten of pretty much any list in terms of what it says about what's going to happen on the record inside. Off the top of my head I can think of possibly What's Going On, There's a Riot Going On, Marquee Moon / Horses (both Robert Mapplethorpe photos) and Astral Weeks to compare. Ok perhaps Kind of Blue and Exile on Main Street too. Now I've got on that train of thought I'm thinking of others, but I want to focus on 3 Feet High & Rising today and keep on doing so until I finish writing this.
My copy of this record, has spent most of the last twenty years four or five albums back mid-way or towards the back of piles of my records when really that sleeve alone should make me place it right at the front for pretty much most of the year or go the whole hog and frame it, hang it on the wall and buy myself another copy to house the album that I play. Alright. This is geeky stuff and very male geeky stuff. But I'm not alone. Records have this kind of inexpressible value to many of us.
So, to that sleeve. A lot of it is down to how distinctive from one another the three core members of De La Soul are. The smart guy, the boffin and the goofy one. Kelvin Mercer, Vincent Mason and David Jude Julicoeur. Posdunos, Mase, Plug One and Two (sorry I'm not an expert on this stuff).They're all framed just staring straight ahead and you get the sense that they've sat around for a while together and come to a group decision on this. None of them will take precedence. They're a posse. Though not a gang. There isn't the remotest sense of menace which is the hallmark of so many Hip Hop albums of the time and ever since. This is Daisy Age. But they're not hippies as they go on to stress on the record. This is a lot leaner, hipper and more eclectic than that.
The three De La Souls are neither happy nor sad though it does seem that all six of their eyebrows are slightly arched (if it's possible to arch both eyebrows at once for effect). They're certainly not giving much away at all except conveying the fact that you'll probably enjoy this and maybe should buy it.. They're definitely not grinning from ear to ear and this is just as it should be because what you'll hear when you get round to putting the record on is deadpan and phenomenally deadpan right from the off. Subtle. And something not quite like anything you've ever heard before. It has to be said in fairness that they are laughing their butts off in the shot of them sat on a sofa on the back cover. You do get the idea that this is probably not Public Enemy's new record. This back sleeve gives the track listing, beautifully laid out in plasticine, pink, yellow, green and blue.
It's Sesame Street. Of course it's Sesame Street. Not to say so straight from the off would be doing this remarkable album cover and the content inside an enormous disservice. It's The Banana Splits, it's The Monkees, The Jackson Five Cartoon, Hanna Barbera, (particularly the Hair Bear Bunch), The Looney Toons, The Partridge Family, The Muppet Show and so on. It's all the very best parts of childhood and you've got the best part of an hour of it coming up should you choose to listen.
The record as it unwinds confirms precisely this vibe. There's a vaudeville, variety show organ and then the introduction from the mic. 'Hi, all you kids out there. Welcome to 3 Feet High & Rising!' and we're off.
What goes on over the next fifty minutes or so is just pure pop joy. It's American daytime children's broadcasting complete with regular ad breaks. It slips every now and then into something more adult (on Ghetto Thang, Say No Go,) or pretend smut (De La Orgee) but never veers remotely towards X Certificate territory and the tone remains ultra confident and determinedly upbeat. The singles leap out at you of course. How could they not? Magic Number, Eye Know, Say No Go, Me, Myself & I, Buddy. That's a pretty unbeatable run of 45s..
The samples and scratching make it seem like someone is twiddling furiously round their radio dial. The choice of tracks sampled is like someone rifling through an unbelievably eclectic record collection and giving you five second bursts of each. The way they blend it so seamlessly with their tracks' momentum is quite remarkable. The juxtaposition of Steely Dan, Otis Redding, Sly and the Family Stone and Lee Dorsey on Eye Know is a particular triumph. But it's difficult to pick out individual examples because it's the cumulative effect of the concept as a whole that's so impressive.
You can hear the rhythm and rapport of years of playground games on the streets of Long Island. It feels a little more middle class than some more authentically 'street' hip hop but I'm not going to fault it for that for a moment. It has to be one of the most inventive records ever made in any genre.. There are French language lessons and public service announcements .There's doo wop and local radio, there are white pop soul crossover hits (Average White Band and Hall & Oates' fabulous I Can't Go For That).There are Black soul icons; James Brown, Ben . King, Funkadelic, Michael Jackson. As with many debut albums, their whole lives are laid out before you. It's lovingly assembled and brilliantly achieved.
There are loping drumbeats and sloping riffs. It's American Pop Culture on black vinyl. There are guest appearances from Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and Jungle Brothers who slip effortlessly into the mix and complement fully what's going on. This is a genuine movement of positivity. It rarely misses a beat. It doesn't date. It's still a quite astonishing document and soundtrack of a particular time and place. The scratches on my record sound like they might have been on the original pressing.
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