In 1989, at the dawn of gangsta rap and its accompanying macho gun play, De La Soul rapper Trugoy chose a name that celebrates his love of yogurt, spelled backwards, and wore his sleeves pulled down over his hands. On their single The Magic Number, De La Soul namechecked Fred Astaire and the Dosey Doe. This was the hip-hop version of the Kinks singing “I’m not the world’s most physical guy” while surrounded by rockers like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
The cover of their debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, was fluorescent yellow and featured neon daisies and geometric haircuts. Between each flower are the heads of Posdnuos, Trugoy and the band’s third member, Maseo, together, but in a circle, like satellites orbiting one another.
As you can imagine, because they sampled everyone from Johnny Cash to Hall & Oates, Steely Dan to Liberace, all on one album, they encountered enormous legal problems getting the samples cleared for streaming.
But these disparate pop culture references constitute the best possible splintering of the brain. Listening to 3 Feet High is like laying on your back, watching meteor showers.
This is not to belittle the rest of their output – for many fans, Buhloone Mindstate is the magic record. For others, it’s De La Soul Is Dead or Stakes Is High. I just have this particular album’s imprint at a particular age.
I played the album on repeat the year I went to secondary school, and because I knew all the lyrics by rote, including the comic interludes between songs, I bewitched the coolest girl in class into choosing me as her best friend. That I was able to memorise and repeat it was unusual; I couldn’t make sense of the lessons at school.
Looking back, I now know why the numbers on the board were jumbled, and why I couldn’t comprehend the comprehension – and that while I was a great dancer I couldn’t memorise steps; I probably had a learning disability. The things that need learning (driving, languages, cooking, assembly instructions) I simply do not do. And all the things that I didn’t have to learn (writing), I do. But it was still rough not understanding the questions nor knowing how to answer them. Being able to recite 3 Feet High off by heart was a balm. (For what it’s worth, my guess is it’s some kind of processing issue).
I imagine there are a lot of hip-hop heads who were bright kids with undiagnosed learning difficulties, gravitating to rap as relief from the learning struggle. First music love is often a reaction to feeling like a school misfit, but in this instance, it was like my struggle with learning was reversed through the album.
De La Soul had a catchphrase – Da Inner Sound Y’all – which was shortened to DAISY, and my dad painted it on to my bedroom wall when I was 12, surrounding it with their cartoon flowers. It was one of those random times when he could have said “No” but said “Yes”, and I don’t understand why. Kids who came over didn’t understand, either, why I was allowed a De La Soul mural painted straight on to the wall. I think it was his gateway drug to letting me leave school at 16, to try being a writer.
When I was married, my husband and I had a truck with a CD player and we’d drive the freeway and recite the whole of 3 Feet High. I remember when we weren’t speaking and he stormed out of the house, and when he came back at the end of the day he just handed me a vinyl copy of 3 Feet High. But soon enough, trucks and cars stopped coming with built-in CD players. Then 3 Feet High, unavailable to stream, really did feel vaporised.
The weirdest time in a writer’s life is the year between handing in a book and it coming out. You feel like a fantasist. To have decades lived in that liminal space between albums must have been tortuous for the band. I imagine it didn’t mean nothing then, when during that interminable wait, Damon Albarn asked them to do Feel Good Inc with Gorillaz – and they ended up winning their first Grammy, 16 years after their debut album.
Two years ago, the hip-hop and electronic label Tommy Boy Music was sold to music rights company Reservoir and someone had enough money to finally unpick 3 Feet High. It finally made it to streaming on 3/3/23 (because three is The Magic Number!). The week before, Trugoy the Dove died, aged 54. His real name was David Jolicoeur – despite my failure in French class, I grasp his name translates to “pretty heart”, and this makes me smile almost as much as his music.
That house I grew up in is long ago and far away, left behind as money troubles mounted. I know (or Eye Know), somewhere under the layers of paint, the mural my dad painted me is still there. I realise it would only have been up for six months before we had to leave. If you stay alive for long enough, disappearing ink can reappear at the strangest times. You just have to answer “Yes” when you could say “No”. And trust that your best words may be unavailable for a very long time, and that couples in love will speak them on freeways, until they are.