3 Feet High and Rising is the debut studio album by American hip hop group De La Soul, released on March 3, 1989 by Tommy Boy Records. It is the first of three collaborations with producer Prince Paul, which would become the critical and commercial peak of both parties. The album title comes from the Johnny Cash song “Five Feet High and Rising”. The album contains the singles “Me Myself and I”, “The Magic Number”, “Buddy”, and “Eye Know”.
Critically, as well as commercially, the album was a success. It is consistently placed on lists of the greatest albums of all time by noted critics and publications, with Robert Christgau calling it “unlike any rap album you or anybody else has ever heard”. In 1998, it was selected as one of The Source Magazine’s “100 Best Rap Albums”. It was selected by the Library of Congress as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings annually that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
The album’s artwork was designed by Toby Mott’s and Paul Spencer’s radical British art collective the Grey Organisation (GO). In 1986 Mott and Spencer had moved from London to New York after GO’s infamous paint attacks on Cork Street art galleries, where they began working as bicycle messengers. By 1989, GO were exhibiting their paintings around the East Village and working as art directors for Tommy Boy Records and MTV (among others) making music videos for various groups, such as Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and The Rolling Stones. GO also began designing album covers for groups such as Information Society and De La Soul, most notably 3 Feet High and Rising.
Mott describes the process of designing the album cover in his essay ‘Hip Hop in The Daisy Age’: “We have come up with the ‘Daisy Age’ visual concept. De La Soul visit our loft where we lay them down on the floor facing up, their heads making a triangle. We photograph them whilst hanging precariously off a step ladder, one idea being that the cover would not have a right way up. CD’s [sic] have yet to be the dominant musical format so the vinyl album sleeve is our most effective way of making a statement. We layer the brightly-coloured hand drawn flower designs made with Posca paint pens on acetate over the black and white photographic portrait print, which is rostrum camera copied. This is well before the time of Apple Macs and scanning etc. […] The intent of the design of De La Soul’s, 3 Feet High and Rising LP cover is to be new and bright, with the overlaying of the fluorescent flowers and text reflecting a synthetic pop cartoon look […] This is a move away from the prevailing macho hip hop visual codes which dominate to this day”.
It is listed on Rolling Stone’s 200 Essential Rock Records and The Source’s 100 Best Rap Albums (both of which are unordered). When Village Voice held its annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1989, 3 Feet High and Rising was ranked at #1, outdistancing its nearest opponent (Neil Young’s Freedom) by 21 votes and 260 points. It was also listed on the Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Released amid the 1989 boom in gangsta rap, which gravitated towards hardcore, confrontational, violent lyrics, De La Soul’s uniquely positive style made them an oddity beginning with the first single, “Me, Myself and I”. Their positivity meant many observers labeled them a “hippie” group, based on their declaration of the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” (da inner sound, y’all). Sampling artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Hall & Oates, Steely Dan and The Turtles, 3 Feet High and Rising is often viewed as the stylistic beginning of 1990s alternative hip hop (and especially jazz rap).
“An inevitable development in the class history of rap, [De La Soul is] new wave to Public Enemy’s punk”, wrote Robert Christgau of the album in his 1989 “Consumer Guide” column for The Village Voice. “Their music is maddeningly disjunct, and a few of the 24-cuts-in-67-minutes (too long for vinyl) are self-indulgent, arch. But their music is also radically unlike any rap you or anybody else has ever heard — inspirations include the Jarmels and a learn-it-yourself French record. And for all their kiddie consciousness, junk-culture arcana, and suburban in-jokes, they’re in the new tradition — you can dance to them, which counts for plenty when disjunction is your problem.” Writing in retrospect, Rolling Stone magazine’s Michael Azzerad calls it “the first psychedelic hip-hop record”, “(o)ne of the most original rap records ever to come down the pike”, and an “inventive, playful” record that “stands staid rap conventions on their def ear.” In The A.V. Club, Nathan Rabin credits Prince Paul for helping “create progressive hip hop” with his production on the album, while author John Riordan says “its comedy skits and positive lyrics established the group as a progressive hip-hop act at odds with the increasingly violent image of mainstream rap.” Phil Witmer of Noisey cites De La Soul’s “sampledelia” on the album as an “old-school” example of sampling being applied to “jarring, collage-like effect”.
It was ranked 7 in Spin’s “100 Greatest Albums, 1985–2005”, ranked 88th in a 2005 survey held by British television’s Channel 4 to determine the 100 greatest albums of all time. In 1998, the album was selected as one of The Source’s 100 Best Rap Albums. The album was ranked number 346 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, maintaining the ranking in the 2012 revision and shooting up to number 103 in the 2020 reboot of the list. In 2006, Q magazine placed the album at #20 in its list of “40 Best Albums of the ’80s”. In 2012, Slant Magazine listed the album at #9 on its list of “Best Albums of the 1980s”. The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. In 2000 it was voted number 138 in Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums.
- On the Billboard chart, 3 Feet High and Rising hit #1 R&B/Hip hop and #24 in the Top 200.
- “One of the greatest albums ever made” – NME
- “The Sgt. Pepper of hip hop” – Village Voice
- #5 on the top 100 Albums of the Century – Spex
- Top album of 1989 – The FaceAt #2 – Record Mirror
- At #4 – Sounds
- At #5 – Rolling Stone
- At #8 – OOR
- At #10 – Melody Maker
Electronica artist James Lavelle cited 3 Feet High and Rising as one of his favorite albums. “It was definitely a reaction to the slightly more hardcore area of what was going on in hip hop. As a concept record, it’s probably one of the best ever. It’s like the Pink Floyd of hip hop, their Dark Side of the Moon – the way it musically and sonically moves around, but also the use of language was so unusual and out there.”
Macy Gray felt it was “the best record of the past 15 years” in a Q magazine review: “They’re like The Beatles of hip hop.”
In 2011, 3 Feet High and Rising was among 25 albums chosen as additions to the Library of Congress’ 2010 National Recording Registry for being cultural and aesthetical and also for its historical impact.
“America’s recorded-sound heritage has in many ways transformed the soundscape of the modern world, resonating and flowing through our cultural memory, audio recordings have documented our lives and allowed us to share artistic expressions and entertainment. Songs, words, and the natural sounds of the world that we live in have been captured on one of the most perishable of all of our art media. The salient question is not whether we should preserve these artifacts, but how best collectively to save this indispensable part of our history.”— James H. Billington from the Library of Congress.
Coincidentally, Steely Dan’s album Aja, from which 3 Feet High and Rising samples, was also named to the registry that year.
The album is also credited with introducing the hip hop skit, a style of comedic sketch used both to introduce rap albums and as interludes between songs.
The track “The Magic Number” was later used in the end credits of the 2021 film Spider-Man: No Way Home.