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"3 Feet High and Rising": De La Soul's Track by Track Guide to Groundbreaking 1989 LP

Mase, Posdnous and Trugoy on the album that introduced a funkier, sunnier hip-hop

June 3, 2009 9:00 AM ET
3 Feet High and Rising, an album that went on to inspire legions of innovative followers from Digable Planets and Mos Def to OutKast and Kanye West. Mase, Posdnous and Trugoy looked back at 3 Feet and shared some of their plans to commemorate the LP's anniversary in an exclusive track-by-track interview with Rolling Stone.

"We always wanted to be one of those acts that could be considered part of a legendary legacy," says Trugoy, a.k.a. David Jude Jolicoeur. "I remember back in the day, saying it's so cool that the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie are still played. That's what we wanted hip-hop to be, one of those genres that doesn't fade out when whatever's new is hot."

With 3 Feet High and Rising, the trio teamed with producer Prince Paul to create a template for free-thinking, creative hip-hop that wasn't afraid to challenge the still-budding genre's norms. "We appreciated what BDP, Dougie, LL and so many others were doing, but we had something else to say, and we knew there were people out there like us that wanted to hear something else," says Trugoy. "We felt like, if we wanted to look the way we looked and touch on topics we did, we shouldn't be fearful of doing it just because it was the boasting and the bragging and the gold chain era. We always felt that individualism and creativity and expressing it was most important."

To mark 3 Feet's two-decade anniversary, De La are putting together a tour, a book and a album including remasters and remixes of the original tracks, along with some "re-interpretations": In 1989, when the LP was released, samples were a new frontier and many on the album were used without clearances, which would prevent the tracks from being re-released. But De La has an electrifying idea about how they can release those songs.

"We've been in conversations with Warner Bros. to explore re-recording some of the songs with some of the people we sampled from," says Mase, a.k.a. Vincent Mason. The discussions are still in early stages, but the trio is hoping to cut "Say No Go" with Hall and Oates and "I Know" with Steely Dan, among other tracks. "It's real cool to know that we have lasted this long, people appreciate what we do," adds Posdnous, a.k.a. Kelvin Mercer.

In the late 1980s, the three members of De La had been writing rhymes and working on concepts for a while but their breakout album didn't come together until they connected with Prince Paul, then a keyboard player with Stetsasonic, and subsequently got signed by Tommy Boy. "When I met Paul, he was trying to express a lot of different ideas with Stetsasonic and it wasn't working out too well," recalls Mase. "We were looking to be professionals at making records and he was a professional. It just really sparked."

"The Magic Number"

Posdnous: "At that point, we were still trying things in Mase's house, just having fun with records. [Schoolhouse Rock's] 'Multiplication Rock' was a record we just had and we were already in love with History of the Hip-Hop I record from Tommy Boy, where Double Dee and Steinski had the beat that was up top there, so we decided to just put those two together on our little Casio machine."
Trugoy: "There was no plan back then. It was just putting songs together and placing them where they belonged. Obviously three of us in the group, '3 is the magic number' became the philosophy, but mostly, it was just a song that we loved and it became part of the album."

"Change in Speak"

Posdnous: "There was a record I found that had a whole bunch of great songs from the Mad Lads on it. Then we just decided to put the 'Bra' song from Cymade on it, we just started mashing things. We all worked together really well as a foursome, just trying to add different things."

"Cool Breeze on the Rocks"

Posdnous: "Honestly, I can't even remember why we decided to make that collage in the first place. When we started, it was just so cool to try to do it, like, 'Yo, how bout "Rocket in the Pocket" ' — everyone was just trying to scroll through their mind for any song that said 'rock' in it. Everyone came to the studio with a different album, whether it was a rap album, a rock album, Michael Jackson."
Trugoy: "We weren't thinking legalities at that time. We were just thinking about putting good music together, and although there was a process — even at that time, we did have clear samples, and turn in information — but our label didn't think that really had to clear the samples because they only expected the album to sell a couple of thousand anyway."

"Can U Keep a Secret"

Posdnous: "That song is a testament to a lot of the stuff we did in the studio in that it wasn't planned out as a song."
Trugoy: "That was just another high moment. And a lot of people there. We had 15 or more people at our sessions at all times and we were always thinking, 'Let's utilize voices, let's utilize personalities.' "

"Jenifa Taught Me"

Posdnous: "The original record was one of my father's, 'Soupy' [by Maggie Thrett], some old doo-wop record. It was definitely Paul who came with the Liberace cassette with 'Chopsticks.' "

"Ghetto Thang"

Mase: "We had 'Ghetto Thang' as an idea for a long time. We had that tune on the keyboard — "
Trugoy: "It was one of those times in Mase's den on Smith Street where we always sat there and created ideas and Mase's mom would come into the den having juice and cookies for us." [All laugh]
Mase: "I gotta get out of here."
Posdnous: "I'm gonna mess your head up: The original title for 'Ghetto Thang' was 'Soft Violins,' because we were playing with the violin sound on the keyboard. It was just once again, one of the routines we were trying to come up with in the house. By the time we were with Tommy Boy we were able to give it a better beat, give it a better keyboard, and it wound up becoming a song that talked about things that happen in the ghettos of America. We said, 'Let's make sure we have something like "The Message" from Grandmaster Flash, like, wow, that's a whole other level of looking at things.' I think it was important for us, already being known from our singles as being funny and witty, to have something like that added as well."

"Transmitting Live From Mars"

[This song was the subject of a lawsuit presented by the Turtles over copyright infringement]

Posdnous: "Trouble, basically. My pops had this 45 — I don't know why he had this record — it was this French instructional record. I thought it would sound cool with this Wilson Pickett cover of 'Hey Jude,' and then Paul had the Turtles record ['You Showed Me'], so he said let's put that with it, so we just added it all together. It's just amazing how big that skit became, even beyond legal matters. When we played Paris they would go crazy over that. It wound up introducing us to Serge Gainsbourg, who we wound up sampling on later records."
Trugoy: "We didn't think any sample on the album would be a problem, because we gave all the information to Tommy Boy, but to hear that a skit was actually the problem was crazy."

"Eye Know"

Posdnous: "When me and Dave worked in the mall, we would just hear songs playing in the loudspeakers. They would always play [Steely Dan's] 'Peg' and we were, even then, aspiring to be a group, and we were like, 'Yo, that could be a dope song to use.' So, when it came about time to use it, we took that part 'I know I'll love you better,' we took the Lee Dorsey beat, we used the horns from another Mad Lads record, and that was it. It was fun. It was kinda my first time programming a beat."

"Take It Off"

Trugoy: "That was another one of those moments where there were 25 people in the studio. There was a song out there at the time called 'Kick the Ball' and it used the same Headhunters beat, so we basically mimicked the sound of their single and, instead of saying 'kick the ball,' we said 'take it off' and thought about all the cliché hip-hop stuff that people should just change and find some individualism or some of their own personality, as opposed to falling in line with what hip-hop was supposed to be. It was something we felt strongly about. We felt like there shouldn't have been guidelines for hip-hop."

"A Little Bit of Soap"

Posdnous: "Once again, just going through records. The original song was called 'Little Bit of Soap,' so we just decided to flip it in a funny way to talk about how someone could smell bad."

"Tread Water"

Posdnous: "I never really liked that record."
Trugoy: "We actually sat down in Paul's room and came up with that idea. The sample just sounded so happy-go-lucky, skipping, playing hopscotch, the whole walking through the water and meeting animals and crocodiles and telling a story. It's like a children's story. Paul was always instigating our foolishness. When we started talking about meeting Mr. Crocodile, his eyes just lit up. He was like, 'Yeah, you talk about Mr. Crocodile, and you talk about meeting Mr. Rabbit.' So blame that one on Paul."

"Potholes in My Lawn"

Trugoy: " 'Potholes in my Lawn' was like another way to say beat-biter or sucker MC, like songs from Run-DMC, songs from MC Lyte. The lawn was our rhymes and the potholes were the pieces missing."

"Say No Go"

Trugoy: "Crack. We grew up around neighborhoods where there was an epidemic. We knew drug dealers and some of us actually stood on the corner ourselves. We didn't know about songs where people were boasting about being drug dealers at that time, so for us, speaking about social issues and things that were going on in our neighborhood worked. Those three words, 'say no go,' kinda caught our ear and we thought we could make that about not doing drugs."

"Do as De La Does"

Posdnous: "Paul had made that beat and he put it up — everyone was there that day. Our sessions became notorious and people would say, 'Let me go through there, because if I go through there I'll wind up on the record.' So, that day, Red Alert, MC Lyte were there, so we all jumped in the booth and started call and response in the silliest way we could."

"Plug Tunin' "

Trugoy: "First single. That was an important record, because I think that sorta signed how we were gonna approach writing rhymes, in terms of style. We were always impressed by KRS-One and how he always had a style, so instead of saying 'Mic check one, two' we would say 'Plug one, plug two.' It was a routine. A lot of people listen to that song and say, 'What the hell are you guys talking about? I don't understand a word,' but if you listen to it, you can get it. What's really cool about that record is the style, the pattern and the cadence of the rhymes."

"Buddy"

Posdnous: "Mase would always play the Commodores record ['Girl, I Think the World About You'] and we figured, let's make a song out of it. We didn't know what it would be called, the idea of 'Buddy' had come up and we had a session planned in about to week to record it, and we had a show with Q-Tip and Jungle [Brothers], meeting them for the first time. It was never planned for Jungle Brothers to be on that first album. They happened to come to that session while we were recording that song and we were like, 'Hey, you want to get on it?' and lo and behold, that's how we became the Native Tongues."

"Me Myself and I"

Posdnous: "That was the second to last song recorded for that album. Tommy Boy was loving how the album was going, but they felt like we needed an introduction song. That was the first time on this album where it was brought to our attention that we may need to make sure we have something that isn't so over someone's head. Mase and Paul had already mentioned trying something with one of the Funkadelic records. We did that record like it was nothing. We were surprised how big it got. Sometimes the simplest thing is what people can relate to."
Trugoy: "Originally, it was us trying to make sure we're saying we're not hippies. We were just being ourselves. People are now taking the song to be, 'OK, it's cool to be me and I don't have to be hard' — it wasn't really about saying that, even though the video came off like that."

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