KELVIN Mercer, aka Posdnuos, had no idea.
“When we recorded 3 Feet High and Rising we never guessed it would have the impact it did,” says the De La Soul rapper. “We were just happy to make a record. None of us expected it would take on a life of its own. I continue to be astonished.”
Released in 1989, 3 Feet High And Rising was immediately iconic. At the time hip-hop was still a young genre. Nonetheless, it was clear the Long Island trio had struck upon a unique formula. Their music did not celebrate aggression or casual misogyny. It was melodic and upbeat. Rap was often angry and political. De La Soul were the exact opposite.
“I was born in the Bronx but wasn’t raised there,” says Mercer, 43. “My childhood was spent in the suburbs. It wasn’t a big concrete jungle. We had gardens. So we incorporated those elements into our material. We didn’t hide where we came from. We felt we ought to acknowledge it.”
Mercer grew up in Suffolk County, a relatively bucolic outer suburb of New York. The family home was close to the sea, not far from the town where the movie the Amityville Horror is set.
“There wasn’t that clutter of everyone living on top of one another,” he says. “You didn’t have the mass of apartments and project buildings. Long Island was definitely more middle class. The further out you went the better it got. We were about 40 minutes from Manhattan.”
Mercer’s upbringing shaped De La Soul’s lush, laid-back sound, which critics quickly dubbed ‘jazz rap’. “Of course there were bad areas in Long Island. You get those everywhere. However, we were very different from the kids in, say, Brooklyn or the Bronx or Harlem. Naturally it influenced our music and our lyrics.”
Certain rappers from Long Island liked to pretend they had grown up in ‘the hood’. This always struck Mercer as a missed opportunity. Why rhyme about ghettos and crack dens, when your life experiences were so very different?
The group formed at high school. Mercer struck up a friendship with local kids David Jolicoeur and Vincent Mason. They would rap during lunch-break and after class. One of their demo tapes found its way to producer Prince Paul. In 1988 he invited the trio to Calliope Studios in Brooklyn. Within a few months they had put together the bones of 3 Feet High.
At the time hip-hop was increasingly controversial. The genre was entering its ‘gangsta’ phase with West Coast rappers such as Ice Cube and Ice T seizing the initiative from New York (where the scene had originated). In that context, De La Soul were practically revolutionary. Rather than railing against the police or delivering sexist rants, their lyrics extolled peace love and harmony.
This won them many friends but earned enemies too. They were accused of being hippies, a throwback to the naivety of the 1960s. In fact, they saw themselves in very different terms. De La Soul believed that a group should showcase a different aspect with each album. On 3 Feet High they extolled brotherly love. They had a darker side too, one they wanted to explore on subsequent releases (their second LP De La Soul Is Dead, was far bleaker).
It may have been a short bus journey to Manhattan and yet Long Island felt like the end of the world, says Mercer. As a kid he had traded rhymes with friends. He never dreamed he could make it in music though. When successful rappers visited his high-school, they were warmly received. “I remember LL Cool J coming to my school and performing. DMC from Run DMC visited too. they were like gods to me.”
The first time they believed they might make it was when the aforementioned Prince Paul had a hit. He was from Long Island too. A light bulb went off. If a guy from up the road could break the scene, why not De La Soul? “It was like ‘wow — look what he’s done. Maybe we can do it as well’.”
In a scene where juvenile braggadocio can often feel de rigueur, De La Soul are remarkably humble. They’re just back from a US tour with LL Cool J and fellow Long Islanders Public Enemy.
“LL and PE came out a few years before us. I would never regard myself as their equal. Coming from Long Island, PE are like family. We don’t place ourselves up there with them.
“When I got the call from LL’s people to join his tour we jumped at the opportunity.”
* De La Soul headline Indiependence festival, Deer Park, Mitchelstown, Friday Aug 2
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