During the month of September 2012, the IASPM-US website will feature essays on the topic of “The First Time I Ever Heard…” Each of our authors for this series will explore that magical moment most of us are so familiar with, when a song or artist or genre first entered our sound universe and knocked everything off its axis, if only for a moment.
I loved this series call as soon as I saw it – thank you, Justin Burton – and instantly, a cluster of firsts called themselves up. “Kung Fu Fighting.” “Sign ‘o’ the Times.” Pure Guava. Lots of Beatles: “Penny Lane.” “Hey Jude.” And “Eleanor Rigby,” which led to a frustrating week calling radio stations and requesting “All the Lonely People.”
I also thought of the beginning of Stakes is High, De La Soul’s fourth album. Voices hocket the phrase “When I / first heard / Criminal / Minded,” and then briefly limn encounters with the Boogie Down Productions classic. Later, as “Sunshine” fades out to end Stakes is High, we hear someone (Q Tip?) say, “Yo, when I first heard 3 Feet High and Rising I was–”
He’s abruptly cut off. This might have seemed like uncharacteristic swagger from De La, putting their album on a parallel with BDP’s – but 3 Feet High and Rising had already been heralded by multitudes – including BDP’s KRS-One.[1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh2_GOPGKBs. KRS-One appears at 5:37.] De La Soul didn’t need to place 3 Feet High in the annals of hip hop; rather, the truncated ending felt like they were letting their fans finish the thought, offering a chance to locate ourselves in the history.
In the spring of 1989 I was at Penn, a sophomore with relaxed study habits. Typical afternoons found me and my friends playing hacky sack in the Quad, with someone’s speakers facing out the window blasting Nothing’s Shocking, Green, and, ok, maybe the Dead. I was buying lots of albums at Spruce Street Records, run by a middle-aged grouch who (natch) turned out to be a sweetheart. And he stocked great stuff, including bootlegs like Prince’s Black Album, which I snagged for fifteen bucks around this time.
The less-cool store was in the student union: Discovery Discs, run by a young guy with a neat mop of sandy blond hair and the relentless cheer of Vicki from Love Boat. The store only sold CDs, and pimped its “compact disc listening bar,” five stools at a counter where you could hear anything on display! Clerks would flip through a drawer to find your selection and stick it in a player under the counter; your remote control was embedded in the bar. It wasn’t the birth of preview listening, but a sleek, efficient update. I already resented the record industry for herding fans into the expensive CD market, and Discovery Discs pissed me off for celebrating the trend, selling us on the high-tech convenience of the digital format. Of course, digitization turned out to be supremely convenient, and in hindsight I almost feel bad for Discovery Discs’ eager tycoon – after all, he provided a service, and every so often, his store lived up to its name…
…I was flipping through the longboxes one day, and some cover art lit me up: day-glo cartoon flowers on a neon yellow background, with superimposed grayscale photos of three black male faces arrayed like petals. One guy wore a mock-stern look and granny glasses; he had dark skin and a ‘do like a pencil eraser. The other two had lighter skin and asymmetrical thatches of short dreads – one wore a curious, kind expression; the other was leonine. They looked to be my age. A bit stunned, I took the cover to the listening bar.
Hey all you kids out there! Welcome to 3 feet high…and rising! Introducing their album as a game show and inviting the listener to play along at home, De La Soul cleared out existing concepts, claimed space, and called you into it. 3 Feet High was goofy but earnest; amidst the daisies and talking squirrels were footnote manifestos both bashful and ardent, as De La Soul declared independence from the orthodox b-boy stance with disarming, surreal style. I can hold two pieces of doo-doo in my hand! There was also the exhilarating kaleidoscope of music – name-that-tune-sized snatches of Zeppelin, Steely Dan, Sly Stone, and Hall & Oates, plus bands I’d come to know and love, like Cymande.
I was instantly riveted, and 3 Feet High and Rising got lots of airplay in Butcher 228 that semester. My friends got on board, and I enjoyed the credit for being first – everything was Dan Stuckie. But the lingering impact of 3 Feet High was more vexed, and started with a rueful recognition. De La Soul’s playful irreverence reminded me of my friends back home in Winston-Salem, and I pictured them growing up in a neighborhood like mine – watching Electric Company; playing pickle on summer evenings; listening out for their moms to ring the bell for dinner. But this identification was undercut by stark realization: You grew up in a cul-de-sac neighborhood of fifty-eight homes occupied by fifty-seven white families. Outside of school and sports, you hung out with white kids who hung out with other white kids. Good ol’ garden variety, young adult, white liberal guilt complicated my elation at 3 Feet High. But elation was my response, immediate and genuine.
To my chagrin, it also turned out to be commonplace. I wasn’t first at all; in fact, by the time I heard De La, they had already caricatured the crossover audience they had attracted in New York – not just white kids, but Italian kids, the most fraught subset of the time.[2. Italian-American/African-American tensions in Brooklyn were incisively chronicled in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, released that summer; on August 23, Italian-Americans shot and killed sixteen-year-old African-American Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst.] Towards the end of 3 Feet High and Rising, a guest character gushes to the band in an exaggerated guido voice, Hey, that was freakin-a, man! I really wanna take you back home with me, you know? I really get into your fuckin’ music!
By satirizing their crossover appeal, De La Soul disavowed it – a move that seemed defensive in light of contemporary reviews, one of which described De La Soul as hip hop for people who didn’t like rap. The overall review was positive, but the racial freight of this dig must have stung. It stung me, too – my first instinct was to protest – but I do like rap! – then I had to acknowledge that knowing some Schooly D lyrics was not loving rap. Fine – I loved tunes, then, and bands. I loved the Hot Fives, I loved Traffic, I loved the Replacements, and I did love De La Soul. Yet each man kills the thing he loves. And back home in Winston that summer, I felt the bite of Wilde’s rueful wit.
I remember four things about my first day training to be an ice cream man. One is the horrific story my mentor told me about his dog getting poisoned. Another is that the truck had three gears, and I didn’t drive stick (it was also my last day training). Third, I heard “Old McDonald” about seven thousand times. And then there was the moment that still gives me shudders.
We were in a neighborhood with a racial makeup the exact opposite of my neighborhood – I’d never been to it, or even through it. After selling some Creamsicles and Drumsticks, we pulled away from our stop, and passed a small group of teenagers with a boom box playing – oh my God! – “Buddy” by De La Soul. I was giddy, and when I heard “My Buddy/helps me to…” I leaned halfway out the gaping truck door and yelled “De La my soul!” The kids looked up, shocked. Not like “Wow, did you see that?! I hope he gets to be our ice cream man!” More like “Damn, freak.” My face flushed. Not only had I totally dorked out, but I figured I blew it for De La Soul, made them guilty by association with loser ice cream boy.
Looking back, my angst seems quaint, not to mention solipsistic. But that moment was an early, visceral lesson in popular music’s vital potential, not just as body-mind pleasure, but as a site of identification refracted through problematic categories including but hardly limited to race, class, gender, sexuality, physicality. And it’s an abiding example – I still identify with De La Soul; they’re one of my favorite bands of all time, period. Meantime, Pos, Dove, and Mase are routinely hailed as hip hop “elder statesmen,” which sounds weird until you realize they’ve been in the game for most of the game and they’re still in the game. Indeed, they’ve claimed longevity as an adaptable theme – on The Grind Date, they resentfully wield it at young rappers like a street cop’s truncheon. But here’s Mase on the jubilant title track from Bionix: “Before we go any further, we wanna send a special thanks to all those folks out there that been supportin’ De La since ‘89 – now that’s a long time.” I hear that, and it’s like hearing Mom’s bell.
Nick Rubin is Visiting Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Virginia, where he earned his Ph.D in Music. His dissertation and current book-in-progress covers college radio’s emergence as a social, industrial, and cultural phenomenon.