Sampling remains just one of the various pitfalls artists and legal teams need to cross. This month’s reports of Kanye West and Solange being sued over use of a Leroy Mitchell song from the 1970’s is just the most recent notable example. But fewer than thirty years ago, during the so-called Golden Age of Hip Hop, De La Soul released their debut album “3 Feet High and Rising” (1989). The album was drenched in good vibes and was stuffed to the brim with spoken-word samples and musical snippets of all genres from Johnny Cash to Kraftwerk.
The band’s resultant legal troubles would spell the decline of liberal sampling in hip-hop, nevertheless, the album garnered contemporary and retrospective critical praise. The Village Voice labeled it the “Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop” and it entered the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2010 as culturally and historically significant.
Such praise of “3 Feet High” is warranted regardless of surface level innovations (for better or worse the album popularized the comedic “skit” on a rap album). Like “Sgt. Pepper,” the album redefined what a hip-hop album could be. Even the quiz show skits strung a threadbare concept through the album, that De La Soul did not take themselves too seriously.
And like “Sgt. Pepper’s” mantle as the album for 1967’s “Summer of Love,” De La Soul’s mission statement of a D.A.I.S.Y. age (da inner sound y‘all), branded the group as neo-hippies more palatable than the confrontational gangsta rap style that was gaining commercial momentum.
Perhaps most influential of all wasn’t so much that the album was bucking the trend of what was popular, but more that De La Soul was just doing their own thing. Hip-hop had morphed from party music in the early 1980’s to the more politically conscious music of Public Enemy and culminating at the end of the decade with the more violent lyrics of N.W.A.
Meanwhile, De La’s sampling and lyrical content created their own character altogether. Light-as-a-feather love song “Eye Know” freely uses a Steely Dan horn lick and a whistling Otis Redding to create something completely new. Even the children’s rap of “Tread Water” nonetheless fits perfectly with the album’s tone.
The unabashedly upbeat “Me Myself & I” hit the top of the Billboard Rap Chart for several weeks in 1989, setting the stage for a whole new movement in for the genre: alternative hip-hop, or jazz rap, championed by contemporaries like A Tribe Called Quest through to OutKast and Gorillaz.
The band was eventually sued for the uncleared sampling of The Turtles‘ “You Showed Me.” The practice persisted, including by De La Soul, but an industry precedent was set of explicitly seeking artists’ permission before sampling. The thorny legal issues meant that oftentimes artists were unsuccessful, and like West and Solange they sometimes missed a step in the process.
Regardless, “3 Feet High and Rising” is both a remnant of the golden age of hip-hop sampling, as well as a timeless and exciting statement of creative and artistic freedom.