At Pitchfork, there are some great behind-the-scene nuggets in hip hop scholar Jeff Chang’s revisiting of the classic debut album from De La Soul, particularly the notes he gets in on the LP’s infamously sample-heavy textures, which were conceived by the group and legendary crate-digging producer Prince Paul.
With abstract lyrics as well as loops pilfered from psych or jazz albums woven together on a Casio drum machine/sampler and a budget of $13,000, the Long Island trio’s 3 Feet High and Rising was issued on Tommy Boy in 1989. Chang notes that the Beastie Boys, in working on their similarly audacious sample-driven Paul’s Boutique, heard 3 Feet and nearly started over (1988-1989 saw still-sonically riveting LPs and singles from Public Enemy, N.W.A., Third Bass, Eric B. & Rakim, and more). Here’s Chang:
3 Feet High and Rising emerged fully formed, offering a world as richly imagined as anything American pop has ever produced. Just as hip-hop was firmly establishing itself as the most avant of pop’s garde, the best of their peers—from smooth operator Big Daddy Kane to Blastmaster KRS-One to Living Colour’s Vernon Reid—showed up at their release party to salute their achievement. Even KRS, who had just dropped what would come to be recognized as one of the best albums in hip-hop history, said it couldn’t compare what De La Soul had just made. While huddled in Los Angeles to finish their own sample-heavy Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys reportedly listened to 3 Feet High, despaired, and briefly considered starting all over again.
What they all heard in it was an unprecedented assemblage of sound. Four years before, Marley Marl had accidentally unlocked the power of the sampler—a technology that allowed time to be captured and manipulated. The sampler vaulted hip-hop out of its inferiority complex. Now it too could meet the sonic ambitions of rock, funk, jazz, and soul. Like their peers, Prince Paul and De La Soul set about using it to build a world.