By the beginning of 1989, with the golden age in full swing, hip-hop had already formed the main strands that would dominate the genre throughout the next decade. Ice-T and N.W.A. revealed the allure of trigger-happy tales of street life; Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions reinvigorated the art of the protest song; and with DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, as well as LL Cool J, rappers proved capable of becoming teen idols and pop superstars. But there was still an element missing in hip-hop's sonic palette, even if nobody knew it at the time—except for three kids from Amityville, New York.
3 Feet High and Rising, the debut album by De La Soul, is an idiosyncrasy in the group's discography, and in the entire hip-hop landscape of the 30 years since its release. There hasn't been another record that so overwhelmingly and consistently emitted a sense of happiness without falling into novelty territory. I'm not just talking about fun songs; there has never been a shortage of party jams, especially in hip-hop's early days. What I mean is a sense of positivity, optimism, and pure heartfelt joy that's present in all aspects of the album's production and design, and feels both carefree and meticulous. Future artists built careers on these aesthetics, but none captured the same spirit quite as brilliantly as Posdnous, Trugoy the Dove, and Maseo did here.
Part of what makes 3 Feet channel this spirit so well is its sequencing, with various interludes and brief tracks interspersed between the more fully formed songs. The record is framed around a fictional game show in which the band members and producer Prince Paul compete, making this a sort of loose concept album, and basically the birthplace of the famed rap skit. The intro is an especially delightful presentation of the group's kooky humor, with questions like "How many times did the Batmobile catch a flat?" and the worst recorded attempt at an Australian accent. Later albums, including those by De La Soul themselves, would often take cues from radio shows for their skits, mostly used as comic relief to break up from harsher tracks. Here, the game show bits maintain the quirky flow of songs like "Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge)."
Of course, De La Soul is not a straight-up comedy act, and 3 Feet wouldn't be such a milestone if they were. On an album that feels like strolling through a theme park, the one constant is the elevating power of positive thought and self-confidence, mainly as it's manifested in friendship. The importance of the group dynamics is already stated on "The Magic Number," the second track and first proper song on the album, where Pos and Dove take turns staking their claims in the rap game and introducing the D.A.I.S.Y. ("Da Inner Sound Y'all") concept that would describe the album's sound and look.
In line with their mutual respect, each rapper gets one interrupted verse, while DJ Maseo has his time in the spotlight with an extended outro sampling Johnny Cash, Eddie Murphy, and NYC mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Everything about this track exudes whimsical charm, from the "Schoolhouse Rock" interpolation to the chain rhyming pattern. It sets the tone for an album rich in unique cadences (most strikingly on "D.A.I.S.Y. Age") and unorthodox samples (like a French learning cassette on "Transmitting Live from Mars").
For those who felt as though 3 Feet High and Rising came out of nowhere, the sense of camaraderie on the album is really a culmination of the communal spirit they cultivated as part of the Native Tongues collective. One year earlier, in 1988, the Jungle Brothers had the first full-length release of the crew with Straight out the Jungle, itself a landmark of novel production and witty lyrics that also featured Q-Tip's first commercially released verses. 3 Feet kept some of Jungle's best elements, like the inclusion of frequent studio chatter or the dissociation from rap's mainstream, while crafting richer instrumentals and dialing down the Afrocentric politics.
De La didn't avoid social commentary completely, though, with both "Ghetto Thang" and the anti-crack "Say No Go" standing with the best conscious rap of the time, while feeling right at home alongside the album's more lighthearted tracks. These songs point at systemic neglect, but also at the bad habits of impoverished communities, as causes for concern, without sounding confrontational or preachy and with some slivers of hope ("There must be some ghetto love and ghetto change"). They're grounded just enough in reality to distinguish De La from other purveyors of joyful hip-hop like Tone-Lōc or Young MC, who scored big in '89 but offered little on the socially aware front. In a way, the Amityville trio took the potential for conscious, forward-thinking rap the Jungle Brothers showcased and made it explode in a warm iridescent blaze.
It makes sense, then, that the most important Native Tongues track would be a De La song, even if its definitive version isn't on 3 Feet. "Buddy," an ode to carnal knowledge, originally featured Q-Tip and the Jungle Brothers' Afrika Baby Bam and Mike Gee alongside Pos and Dove, with each of the five rappers sharing their preferences and shouting out each other. The "Native Tongues Decision" remix includes additional appearances from Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and Phife Dawg over a thicker, almost G-funk beat, making this a showcase for the crew and a serious contender for the best posse cut ever.
The sense of kinship and equality between the Tongues is also echoed in the video, where they groove together and flaunt their attire of choice: large caps, baggy colorful shirts, and black medallions.
Mentioning visuals is actually important here since the iconography of the 3 Feet era was crucial to the brand of hip-hop De La soul promoted. In a genre obsessed with physical appearance, De La's rejection of the common rap look felt fresh and empowering in a non-militant fashion. On "Take It Off" they name-check some stylistic staples of 80s hip-hop—like Kangol hats, bomber jackets and the Jheri curl—that should be discarded because of how they inhibit individual expression. This point is made very clear in the video for the "Me Myself and I," where De La play students in detention getting picked on by their classmates who sport much of that same maligned gear.
The album's visual language goes beyond clothing, however, with the artwork for the LP and single sleeves standing as a major component of its legacy. Designed by British underground art collective Grey Organization, the brightly colored, hand-drawn imagery, filled with flowers and peace signs, is a perfect representation of the sprightly ambiance of the music. De La strongly denounced their description as hippies, and their disdain of labels is a major talking point on "Me Myself and I," whose B-side was in fact titled "Ain't Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie."
It's hard not to get a sense of the late '60s when presented with such symbols, coupled with a record brimming with optimism and brotherly love. There's a strong echo of psychedelic soul found in the album's innovative production, which to this day has never lost its groove, and in the successful melding of socially conscious numbers and tunes of romantic desire, like "Eye Know," perhaps the sweetest, purest love song in all of hip-hop.
The experiment that was 3 Feet High and Rising was successful on all fronts, but the dedicated craftsmanship behind it also caused some fatigue to its creators, who were eager to move on from their initial image. By 1991, the D.A.I.S.Y. Age was over, with a new record named De La Soul Is Dead depicting three decaying flowers on its cover. The band moved on to grimier, more introspective territory, but the impact of their debut was just beginning to materialize. The most immediate influence was, of course, within the Native Tongues, with most members releasing new albums in 1989 and 1990 that had some remnants of 3 Feet's colorful excitement in their beats, rhymes, and looks. A Tribe Called Quest, though more cerebral and toned down, seem specifically indebted to the album's playfulness, mostly on their earlier creations. The awkward young lust of "Jenifa Taught Me" made room for the slicker "Bonita Applebum," while the vast array of source material on De La's record enabled such left-field samples as Lou Reed on "Can I Kick It?."
3 Feet's status as a watershed moment for non-conventional hip-hop was especially obvious in 1993. The Tribe featured Dove on "Award Tour," where Phife acknowledges De La for giving him his start on the "Buddy" remix. At the same time—literally, on the same day—Tribe released Midnight Marauders, The Wu-Tang Clan released their debut. While much grittier and meaner than anything De La Soul has ever done, 36 Chambers does rely extensively on the kind of goofy humor that makes 3 Feet such an ingratiating listen. Like De La, the Clan marked themselves as industry outsiders through offbeat pop-cultural references in their lyrics and samples, with the frequent kung fu movie snippets serving as a variation on both the children's TV interpolations and the loose game show framework on 3 Feet. And even in the most gruesome moments on Wu-Tang's record—like the torture skit preceding "Method Man"—there's still the sense of friendly tomfoolery that De La brought to the game as an antithesis to dead-serious hardcore rappers.
That same fraternal vibe is also channeled in the work of the Hieroglyphics collective, formally introduced that year on such collaborative efforts as Del the Funky Homosapien's No Need for Alarm and Souls of Mischief's 93 'til Infinity. It would take 20 years, though, for that crew to directly pay respect to the originators of the feelgood posse cut, with a quick "Buddy" insert on their bouncy track "Highway Five".
Later examples of De La's influence include the late '90s-early '00s output by Common, who went from braggadocious newcomer to enchanting storyteller on such releases as Like Water for Chocolate. Tracks like "The Questions" and "A Film Called (Pimp)" find the Chicago native ruminating about Black identity in an enjoyable skit-like manner, balancing consciousness and friendliness in a way not unlike "Ghetto Thang," while "The Light" is a love song as gentle and sincere as "Eye Know." This change in Common's persona has much to do with his work as part of the Soulquarians collective, showing once again the importance of communal spirit to the creation of uplifting personal music.
The home of positive hip-hop has long since moved from New York to Chicago, Common's hometown and base camp for the current generation of soul-rap visionaries. Chance The Rapper, in particular, has taken Common's place as hip-hop's greatest optimist, although his bright-eyed rhymes take their inspiration from religious devotion just as much as human connection.
Chance also realizes the importance of this image, with his painted mixtape covers exuding the same naïve joy of 3 Feet's flowery sleeve. Even his signature "3" hat recalls the number's significance on that album. Not to mention Chance recorded a version of the Arthur theme, bringing De La's fascination with kids' TV full circle. It's another quirk from a singular character in modern music, which can be better understood not as an isolated spark of ingenuity, but as a continuation of the trajectory De La Soul set in motion on their debut.
The pursuit of happiness in hip-hop now takes on all shapes and colors, consolidating the legacy of the album that showed true joy, like true artistic expressions, knows no boundaries.