De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising”

Album cover for 3 Feet High and Rising

This week, I’ve been listening to De La Soul’s debut album “3 Feet High and Rising” from 1989. When I was 12 years old, My sister and I stayed with my mom in a loft apartment above a natural food store. The owner lived nearby and I had a crush on his 15 year old daughter. One day she was sitting on their porch and kept saying “Hi, I’m Mr. Fish. How do you do? As for me, I’m in tip-top shape today.” from De La Soul’s track “Tread Water.” Well, that was enough to get me started listening to them. And I continued to enjoy this throughout middle school and into high school. I don’t even remember the name of the girl that introduced me to it, but I still love this album.

De La Soul worked with Prince Paul creating one of the most innovative and influential hip hop albums of all time. The set aside much of the macho bravado that dominated rap lyrics in exchange for more philosophical musings on love, peace, spirituality, relationships, and identity. They promoted a more positive peaceful way of living an enacting change, in contrast to their contemporaries who spoke more of violence and anger.

Likewise, they mixed surprising sources into their music, using the Casio RZ-1 8-bit sampling drum machine. Samples appear from such artists as Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin. Their use of samples also changed hip hop in another, more legal, way. The Turtles sued for the unauthorized sample of their recording of the Byrd’s “You Showed Me” in “Transmitting Live From Mars.” The out-of-court settlement changed the practices of sample-based music to include clearing samples. The following year, hip hop group Salt N Pepa released their own version of “You Showed Me.” I don’t know if they did so out of response to the De La Soul controversy on or not, but I’d assume they cleared their samples.

Potholes In My Lawn

I found it very difficult to only pick three songs to talk about here, because that means excluding so many other great tracks. I definitely was not going to ignore my favorite, “Potholes in My Lawn.” I like the the way they use effects to alter the vocal. Most of the vocals follow the same relaxed rhythmic while the use of echo-delay and changes in accompaniment provide variety and a sense of movement.

The surrealistic lyrics invite interpretation without much indication. I suspect they’re talking about the threat that negative criticism and self-doubt pose to the creative process. Where the lush green lawn would be an artist’s utopia where the writer’s genius work would just flow from them; the potholes pose as those areas of self-doubt, making it difficult to walk around. The lyrics casually rhyme here and there. It’s more a playful use of rhyme than following a strict pattern.

Everybody’s sayin’
What to do when suckin’ lunatics start diggin’ and chewin’
They don’t know that the Soul don’t go for that
Potholes in my lawn
And that goes for my rhyme sheet
Which I concentrated so hard on, see
I don’t ask for maximum security
But my dwellin’ is swellin’
It nipped my bud when I happened to fall
Into a spot
Where no ink or an ink-blot
Was on a scroll
I just wrote me a new ‘mot’
But now it’s gone
There’s no
Suckers knew that I hate
To recognise that every time I’m writin’
It’s gone

They primarily built the accompaniment around sampling the War song “Magic Mountain.” They’ve sped up the original, giving it a brighter more positive sound. The yodel that servers as a chorus came from the Parliament track “Little Ole Country Boy.” A drum machine pattern emphasizes the beat. Mostly these are the kick and snare, with hi-hat sounds used to “hurry up” the beat, using during the third beat. In the late-80s/early-90s, this was a popular place to play in the beat. The rest of measure would often follow basic patterns, but between the third and fourth beat, something interesting would happen which encouraged many of the dance styles of the time.

Me Myself and I

De La Soul’s biggest hit “Me Myself and I” stands as one of their best. In the song, they reference the Jungle Brothers’ track “Black is Black,” from which they drew the vocal rhythm. They took the dominant sample of the song, including the synth hook from “(Not Just) Knee Deep” by Funkadelic. They’ve layered samples from a few other artists, as well as made use of the drum machine to strengthen and give continuity to the beat.

I love the intro with the snare on the first and third beats, with kick on second and fourth beat; this dramatically turns the beat upside. It’s disorientating, exciting, while maintaining the beat. They also use the fader control on their table to produce a stuttering effect to the backing vocals during the chorus. This funky effect gives life to the track while creatively manipulating their source material.

Eye Know

Their single “Eye Know” gets its refrain and synth hook from Steely Dan’s “Peg.” Originally, the line “I know I love you better” was the last line of Peg’s second verse, but here it has become the chorus. This is noteworthy, because usually when a sample is used for the chorus of a hip-hop song, it was the chorus of the original song as well. The strummed guitar and melodic horn stabs were sampled from the beginning of “Make This Young Lady Mine” by The Mad Lads. This time, they’ve sampled acoustic drums from “Get Out My Life, Woman” by Lee Dorsey.

The speakers offer a life-long relationship to an ambiguous female love interest. Each three members of De La Soul each get a verse, where they share a little of their philosophy of love and relationships. Throughout the song, there’s self-introductions and visions of a beautiful life together. These are peppered with references to other songs on the album, as well as songs by other hip hop artists, including another reference to the Jungle Brothers(“Behind the Bush“). De La Soul does not shy away from throwing references in, making little jokes in their songs, and just generally having fun doing what they are doing. On this album, they strike an impressive balance of being playful while being true to their vision.

We could live in my Plug Two home
And on Mars where we could be all alone
And we make a song for two
Picture perfect things and I sing of how
I know I love you better

Portishead’s “Dummy”

Album cover for Portishead's Dummy

This week, I’ve been listening to Portishead’s debut album “Dummy” from 1994. I remember how excitingly unusual and new this album sounded when I was 17 years old. This combination of goth, hip hop and jazz came from another world; that dark alien digital world was filled with the smoke and fog of human emotion. In this world, Nine Inch Nails were the rock n roll and Portishead were the jazz-soul. This was my and much of the world’s introduction to the trip-hop genre, though I don’t think the name existed yet. While I spent more time listening to Nine Inch Nails, I definitely enjoyed Portishead as well. I seem to have lost touch with most of these songs over time, only really remember a few of them; It was good to spend a week revisiting, even though I didn’t love it as much as I used to.

Sour Times

The second track, “Sour Times,” provides a great example of what Portishead is about. They built the accompaniment around samples of a late 1960s crime-noir jazz piece “Danube Incident” by Lalo Schifrin. Over of this, they have layered organic instruments and synths emphasizing elements of the original score. Beth Gibbons sings about longing for a former lover who has since gotten married to another.

Cause nobody loves me, it’s true
Not like you do

There’s an unusual instrument rises and falls from the back to the front. More percussive than melodic. ; it makes me think of Tibetan prayer wheels, even though they sound nothing like this. It’s quite possibly a cimbalom, which they’ve played in a jangly sinister way. There was something similar in the Schifrin song that sounds more like a plucked violin, or piano strings. It gives the track an non-specific ethnic feel, like some far away culture.

Numb

I love the scratching of Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman” throughout Portishead’s “Numb.” The track showcases some very good performance and songwriting, but it’s the use of a turntable that pushes the song into something fantastic. They use some traditional hip-hop techniques in a more languid broken-hearted way. The original melody gets chopped up slowly, pitches descend, as the heart gives out. This produces a far-off and lonely atmosphere with an instrument normally used for excitement and energy.

Glory Box

The greatest track on the album is definitely “Glory Box.” It rightly closes out the album, sounding like the end-credits of a sci-fi noir film. Portishead built the backing music mostly from “Ike’s Rap 2” by Isaac Hayes. As with other songs, they add their own instrumentation to emphasize or change elements of the original song.

An unfortunate thing that happens throughout this album becomes most apparent to me in this song: the use of samples locks them into a key and especially with a chord progression. Where this has always bother me is the end of “Glory Box.” There’s a bridge where the character of the song changes, a break-down. Then the song returns back to where it was. Had they been using all original instruments, I suspect they would’ve opted for a key-change at the end.

Give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to be a woman
I just wanna be a woman

Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album cover

Yeah boy! I devoted this week to Public Enemy‘s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to learn as a songwriting musician. This first first hip hop album for this weekly project. This was also my introduction to Public Enemy, excluding the collaboration with metal band Anthrax in the 90s. My music is definitely not hip hop; so learning from this album works a little differently. Rhythm and tone of voice take precedence over key and melody. While I consider this a valid style, it’s not one that I either have the intention or skill to use. I look to other aspects of the songs for my purposes.

The famous song “Bring the Noise” opens the album after a short intro track. The song starts with the phrase “too black, too strong,” a phrase crafted from a sample of Malcolm X (“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. […] You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. […] It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.”). This perfectly introduces an album that frequently takes pride in being “too black” while designed to wake listeners up to sociopolitical issues.

The lyrics are densely packed with meaning. References deal with current events and/or historical context, particularly with racism and corruption within both the media and the government.. The use of phrases and word-choice to convey meaning is particularly interesting to me. Unfortunately, Public Enemy seems to spend more time talking about how controversial and political they are than actually being political. Braggadocio and self-referential lyrics have been a major part of rap music since the beginning. In the mid-80s when Public Enemy were getting started, rap songs usually spoke about partying, dancing, rapping.

The overall message of this album is that racism is still a problem and that minorities, especially the black community, should be proud of who they are and take a stand against social injustices. Public enemy is not here to teach so much as wake people up so they will take themselves to school. Most directly, they point to Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan, saying “a brother like me said, ‘Well What he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now.'” Though they generally keep it light, when they hit, they hit hard like in the song “Louder than a Bomb” with lines like “Your CIA, you see I ain’t kiddin’, Both King and X they got rid of both. A story untold, true but unknown.”

Public Enemy assumes a sizable crowd are going to be hearing the songs and they speak to that crowd, and they write for that situation.  In contrast on “Blue“, Joni Mitchell was speaking intimately to a single listener. On “Highway 51 Revisited“, Bob Dylan was usually speaking to the subject of the song.

The music is almost completely built from samples, with turn-table scratching and a Roland TR-808 drum machine keeping the beat. What they’ve done is more than looping a sample; the music is a layered collage of music and sound effects to create a rhythmic atmosphere. The drum patterns make you want to dance. The first beat of each bar is usually dedicated to the kick drum with a snare on the second and third beat. Extra work on the snare and/or hat during space between the second and third beat that give the rhythm their groove.

Limitations of samplers caused them to use short samples, so most samples are either only 4 or 8 beats long.  Since they’ve built each song with a limited collection short samples, chord progressions are nearly non-existent. Changes in the music are created through either having or not having a sample playing; for example, they may cut out the bass line for a eight bars and then bring it back. Combining this layering of starting and stopping phrases with dynamic vocal delivery is what keeps the songs interesting despite the repetitive nature of the music. The siren noises get annoying though.