Day 5 of the #mayvinylchallenge asks for your “black gold” – your most valuable record. You can cut this a number of ways using the selling numbers on Discogs, and truth be told this is my third highest average album in my collection. And as you know, three is the magic number. We’ll get to the first and second highest later during the month in other categories; in the meantime there’s no better cure for a dreary and humid Sunday morning that to break out one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time, the smooth and ridiculous groove of 3 Feet High and Rising, the debut from De La Soul.
More often than not my entryway to rap and hip-hop is through the music: I can definitely appreciate and love the skill of rapping but it often comes after being moved by the production surrounding the performance. It’s probably also why my favorite artists and groups are those with a really strong musical style, whether it’s the furious punk rock attack of Public Enemy, the jazz-inflected groove of “bands” The Roots or Jurassic 5, the skeletal minimalism of early Wu-Tang Clan or, moving the newer territory the way artists like Kendrick Lamar or Salt can take all of those touchstones and create something new.
But the first time I heard the drum sample from Led Zeppelin kicking off “The Magic Number” I knew I was hearing something special, something I never heard before. What Prince Paul does on 3 Feet High and Rising is create an alchemy of all of my favorite music, distilled into a beautiful, uplifting, and fun ride that you can ride at any level. Take songs like “Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge)” or the Steely Dan pulse of “Eye Know” and you’re in instant party mode, free to laugh and chill and hang with your friends. Dig deeper, either with the aforementioned songs or tracks like “Ghetto Thang” and you can listen to the narratives of a darker existence, and see how the music punctuates and reinforces the story. You can go in a completely different direction and just marvel at Prince Paul’s production choices, whether it’s his sample mastery (“Tread Water”) or the many wonderful interludes like “Transmitting Live From Mars”.
Of course the production is only half the story. You don’t get a classic like the late album cut “Me Myself and I” without the prodigious talents of Posdnuos, Trugoy and Maseo. Because 3 Feet High and Rising isn’t trying for the more isolated rap attack of peers like Big Daddy Kane, Ice-T or LL Cool J it’s easy to pass over the actual rapping, but that’s a huge mistake. Lyrically and vocally everyone is completely plugged into the groove and delivers. Bringing it back to “Me Myself and I” you can see the thought and skill put into the lyrics. Another standout as I listen again is “Say No Go” with its story of drugs, junkies, and growing up in that environment. even when it’s not getting heavy, the flow is sublime as on the hyper track “Plug Tunin (Last Chance to Comprehend)”.
Any way you cut it, this is indeed a recording for living in a full-time era.