On a hot, sticky night in 1988, the three 19-year-olds who made up De La Soul were getting nervous. The trio were about to play their first gig, at a Manhattan dance party called Payday, and the main act – Stetsasonic, Tommy Boy Records’ big draw – hadn’t shown up. But even as the band waited in the wings, the troupe of dancers clutching giant cue cards with lyrics written on them – De La Soul knew they were onto something special. ‘I remember that night clearly,’ MC Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer to his mother) says today, ‘being nervous and like, “Wow, is this gonna go over well?” But then we look into the crowd, and DMC [of Run-DMC] is in the front row! It was amazing.’
Tommy Boy A&R man Dante Ross concurs: ‘The crowd started losing its collective mind.’ After playing all their songs, the members of De La Soul stood in the bathroom wondering what to do next. ‘And then DMC runs in and he’s like, ‘Man, that was f****** incredible! You gotta go back on! Do it again!’ Mercer recalls, laughing. ‘Like I said, it was an amazing night.’
You could argue that De La Soul’s first NYC show was as important to music and popular culture as Sex Pistols’ debut performance of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ or Elvis playing at the Louisiana Hayride. Even if the trio didn’t invent a musical movement, its first album, 3 Feet High And Rising, changed hip-hop forever. And now, 20 years and seven albums later, the band is performing that debut album once more on a massive
As Mercer puts it, ‘3 Feet High means something to people the way that Songs In The Key Of Life by Stevie Wonder or Yellow Submarine by The Beatles does to me.’ Does it ever feel weird to be held in that kind of esteem? ‘It is sometimes a little surreal for me to see someone have so much invested in something we did,’ he acknowledges. ‘In our minds, 3 Feet wasn’t even meant to be what it turned out to be – we were just happy to make an album and to hear it on our radio station that was in our own town [Amityville, Long Island].’It was a phenomenally successful record, making unlikely stars of a group of teens who giggled a lot and dressed in their dads’ old pants and Africa pendants. ‘Suddenly we’re on a tour with LL Cool J and Public Enemy, we’re ridin’ around the entire world with Slick Rick,’ Mercer remembers. ‘It was just a lot, and it took a while for it to sink in.’
And all this grew out of a project that started as plain fun: ‘It was very natural, and we had [producer] Prince Paul right there with us making sure that nothing seeped in that made us think of rules.’ Mercer and Trugoy The Dove (Dave Jolicoeur) rapped about conversations with peacenik squirrels, BO and crack addiction. They made up their own language and revolutionized sampling, as PA Mase (Vincent Mason) got busy with breakbeats but also lifted riffs from Johnny Cash and Billy Joel. The whole record was sprinkled with silly game-show skits that were largely inspired, Mercer says, by youthful days spent sneaking listens of his parents’ Richard Pryor albums.
‘We had no idea it would become a movement,’ Mercer says (remember ’90s copycats PM Dawn and Dream Warriors?). But two decades later, DLS and 3 Feet have had a clear effect on OutKast, Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz and all of the rappers at the forefront of today’s burgeoning mixtape scene.
There’s just one problem with De La Soul’s homecoming show next week: ‘It’s 21 years of having the same friends, and we didn’t burn any bridges – so we gotta deal with trying to get all these people in who want to come out and see us,’ Mercer says. ‘Family, artists, people from our businesses – they all wanna be there. It’s a headache in a good way…but it is a headache.’
3 Feet High And Rising and the rest of De La Soul’s back catalogue are available in stores.