Published Fri, March 3, 2023 at 9:11 AM EST
The full length rap album had come a long way when De La Soul arrived in 1989 with 3 Feet High And Rising, but it still had a long way to go.
The first full length rap albums were released at the beginning of 1980 and they contained as many R&B songs as they did rap songs. As a result it wasn't possible to sequence the albums thematically , and there was no sense of cohesion as the albums were really more like compilations of previously released singles paired with a few new songs. In 1980 The Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow both released self titled albums that fit the previously mentioned description. It wasn't until Run-DMC released their 1984 self-titled album that we got an album that didn't contain R&B songs. The social commentary of "It's Like That" and the remake of Kurtis Blow's "Hard Times" combined with Jam Master Jay's cut song "Jays Game" and the slightly comical "30 Days" provided a somewhat variety of different subject matters that did not exist in rap albums previously.
Skits on rap albums filled what would have been several seconds of silence and it broke up the monotony of the listening experience.
In 1984 the Fat Boys released their self titled debut album, marking the first time that a rap album contained a skit. Sandwiched between "The Placed To Be" and "The Human beat Box" there is an unnamed skit where Buffy (The Human Beat Box) is beatboxing and Prince Markie Dee and Kool Rock Ski are laughing and singing "fat face" in the cadence of Kurtis Blow's "AJ Scratch". This may seem like a small thing almost forty years later, but the skit filled what would have been a few seconds of silence with continuous audio that not only gave a further glimpse of how funny The Fat Boys were, but it broke up the monotony of what a rap album was until that point.
In 1985 LL COOL J's debut album Radio contained "El Shabazz" as it came to be known because like most of these skits they were unnamed and unlisted on the albums. "El Shabazz" was actually interactive for the time. After LL performs what is essentially an acapella routine, he instructs the listener to "turn the record over to the other side because the other side is better." Again, this may not seem like a groundbreaking advancement today, but it opened the door for rap albums to feel more cinematic and immersive and that's exactly what happened in just a few short years.
1988 was one of rap's greatest years, especially for album releases. A short four years after The Fat Boys introduced the skit to rap albums, groups like Public Enemy filled their albums with skits. Because there were so many acts with so many themes the skit played well into their albums which were beginning to feel and sound like sonic movies, but in 1989 De La Soul changed the landscape of the rap album and expanded the boundaries of what could be done.
3 Feet High And Rising was as different as De La Soul themselves. The look, slang, style, and cadence of De La Soul were something that Hip-Hop had never seen or heard. Some of the group's zany approach can be attributed to their mentor and producer Prince Paul, the DJ for Stetsasonic. Paul was a bit eccentric as evidenced by his solo work as well as his Handsome Boy Modeling School output and even his Dew Doo Man persona. A quick listen to "Music For The Stetfully Insane" from Stetsasonic's 1998 release In Full Gear suggests that perhaps Paul was as equally a good fit in the De La world as the Stet world, at least stylistically. De La's first release "Plug Tunin'" gave us a glimpse into the coded language and "new style of speak" that the group was introducing and was also the birth of the "Plug" handles that the group never expected to be permanent.
"Potholes In My Lawn" was our first visual of De La Soul and a precursor of the slang and double speak that was to come.
Dropping the needle or pushing play on 3 Feet High And Rising was an experience. The intro was a wacky game show with the group members as contestants, Al Watts as the game show host and Don Newkirk acting as the prize announcer. Ridiculous questions such as "How many fibers are intertwined in a Shredded Wheat biscuit?" were hurled at the contestants. Hip-Hop had never heard anything as left of center as this intro that occurs right before "The Magic Number" drops which were something else that sonically we'd never witnessed.
"Cool Breeze On The Rocks" is another skit that features De La's DJ Pasemaster Mase pasting the word "rock" together from different songs. This skit was followed by more of the talk show skit which runs throughout the album and "Can You Keep A Secret" follows, which features various random proclamations like "Prince Paul has dandruff" and "Trugoy Needs A Haircut."
"Transmitting Live From Mars", (which resulted in one of several sample-based lawsuits for the group's label Tommy Boy) is a French conversation on top of "You Showed Me" by The Turtles and "Hey Jude" by Wilson Pickett. These between-song skits gave the album a cinematic quality that we had never witnessed. The D.A.I.S.Y. Age had arrived.
"Take It Off" is one of the more hilarious and popular skits on 3 Feet High And Rising and is a chant instructing the listener to take off things (mainly early 80's Hip-Hop fashion) that are no longer in fashion. "Take it off - take those shell toes off," they demand. Striped Lee jeans, mock necks, du-rags and bombers aren't spared. "Take It Off" served as an opportunity for young fans to taunt each other by suggesting that they were wearing things that should have been taken off as well. This made for a skit that everyone could have fun with. "The De La Orgy" is simply the group re enacting the audio of a orgy over a beat. As the album's liner notes state "This album does not contain profanity, but the thought is erotic."
De La Soul's sophomore album De La Soul Is Dead took the execution of the skit even further, starting with Prince Paul's narration announcing the death of De La Soul which was the groups rejection of the hippie image that defined them with their previous album. As the album opens, kids on a school yard find a De La Soul tape in the trash and an older bully and his friends take it from them before "Oodles of O's" - one of their most celebrated songs drops. Throughout the album the bullies listen to and negatively critique tha album.
"Bitties In The BK Lounge" is an exchange between Posdnous who plays a Burger King employee and a rude patron. The song is perhaps one of De La's most creative, and it's not a stretch to say that its one of Hip-Hop's most creative along with "Millie Pulled A Pistol" on Santa from the same album.
Rap albums never really had engaging liner notes in the beginning. In the very beginning, there were really none. There were special thanks and credits to musicians on the backs of the record covers, but no inserts in the vinyl or cd cover that really engaged the listener. Tommy Boy Records used the sleeves inside of their records to cross-promote releases from artists on their roster since the label's earliest days. This was a genius move in the way that Motown and other labels used the record sleeve as a promotional tool. De La Soul's liner notes contained on their record sleeves were very much like Parliament Funkadelic and the crazy stories contained in their liner notes and album covers.
A comic introduction to the group described Trugoy as a lover of Yogurt who randomly spoke Elizabethan. Pos was portrayed as a user of stress tabs who ate Twizzlers. Mase's favorite food and beverage was supposedly ketchup. As Parliament did in their artwork, the group also claimed that they were teleported to Earth from another planet. These liner notes accompanied the music and were often consumed together in the days before everyone released music videos for their music. De La Soul and their daring yet entertaining approach to releasing music made it possible for Ice Cube to feature his execution on a skit from AmeriKKKA's Most Wanted, his debut album. Biggie's release from jail and later suicide skit on Ready To Die and the many skits on the Chronic were made possible by the work that De La Soul put in early. Rest In Power Plug 2.