Pop's timeline is speckled with such ironies. Spring 1989: At the precise moment black lacquered long-players gave way to the compact disc, the most vinyl-conscious music genre ever conceived came into its own. Hiphop—a full 10 years after its first appearance on wax—was venturing where wheels of steel alone couldn't take it, far beyond the disco lock-groove of "Rapper's Delight"; past the 808 jabs of Paid in Full; and into the realm of smart digital samplers.
Where it finally arrived was 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul's debut album, and a bric-a-brac masterpiece. Robert Christgau, the Village Voice's stingy champion of all things lizard-brained, closed his review of the Long Island trio's debut by assuring his readers, "You can dance to them." A glib endorsement, sure, but one that spoke for the counterintuitive brilliance of an anti-crack anthem set to Hall & Oates ("Say No Go") and a Cymande sample made even funkier by Monkees accents ("Change in Speak"). Like the Bronx block parties that cradled hiphop in the early '70s, 3 Feet High and Rising was a feast fed by vinyl—the more eclectic the ingredients, the better.
But it was elsewhere on the record that De La Soul consummated its relationship with the deep crates of its members, Maseo, Posdnuos, Trugoy, and their producer, Prince Paul. On interludes like "Cool Breeze on the Rocks," which interpolated over a dozen songs in succession, and "Transmitting Live from Mars," which pitted '60s bubble gum group the Turtles against a French lesson, De La Soul introduced the staple of rap albums to come–the hiphop skit.
Welcome or not, hiphop skits are an extension of the album's packaging. At a time when packaging was shrinking to the size of mass-market paperbacks, interludes functioned as aural gatefolds or expanded liner notes, reaching into the audio itself. "We always saw the skits as an open curtain to the group and the way we related to each other," De La's Trugoy says by telephone. "It's something a lot of groups would record but not actually put on the album. We just thought it would be something to unify the record."
But 3 Feet High and Rising's innovation has a mixed legacy. Some listeners loathe hiphop skits as a self-indulgent exercise serving two nefarious purposes: to interrupt the music's flow while filling the disc. Though a handful of interludes are unanimously regarded as classics, the majority of skits fall flatter than a Fat Boy.
But the skits on 3 Feet High and Rising are funny, and they add an extra dimension to the crate-digging aesthetic that hiphop reclaimed in the late '80s. By structuring the record around comedic interludes, De La Soul's debut took the shape of a hybrid pop/comedy album—retaining the casual lunacy of Let's Get Small without lapsing into the novelty of "Like a Surgeon." It's in the game-show parody framing 3 Feet High and Rising that the hiphop generation, after much fretting over hardness and authenticity, found itself on wax.
"I think we were of that generation where as kids we would sneak down to the basement and listen to our parents' Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor albums at a low volume," Trugoy says. "It was a shared experience we had before we even met one another."