For a certain segment of heads, hip hop reached its zenith in 1989. That’s not because the genre grew stale or slipped out of the zeitgeist in the ensuing years. Quite the contrary. But 1989 felt like the end of an era. It was worry-free sampling’s last hurrah — and what a pre-copyright-crackdown hurrah it was, thanks to a few inventive, lush, sound-rich records!
The first of those ’89 releases to hit shelves was De La Soul’s left-field debut, 3 Feet High And Rising. The album was peculiar on many levels, which was a huge part of the appeal. De La and Prince Paul crafted a sprawling yet cohesive album that flew in the face of rap’s usual singles-driven approach. It also eschewed the genre’s increasingly hard edge — led by breakouts from Public Enemy and N.W.A. the prior year. Instead of animus and attitude, 3 Feet… was sunshine and lollipops.
With over 60 far-flung samples and a populist slant, the eccentric album helped introduce hip hop to wider audiences and primed the pump for rap’s eventual cultural ascension. As we look back after three decades, its influence remains palpable. To celebrate that milestone and its continued vitality, we decided to rank all the samples featured on 3 Feet High And Rising with a data-driven approach.
In order to properly delineate the massive number of tracks stuffed into De La Soul’s first album, we considered two primary factors: desirability and pervasiveness. For the first category, we gathered want/have info from the Discogs Database. As the reference point for each track, we used the master release of the first single whenever possible.
A handful of songs were never released on a 45, so we used the first LP they appeared on. This made things tricky since, for example, most people didn’t buy Billy Joel’s 52nd Street to blast Stiletto over and over. Probably not, anyway. To correct for that, we adjusted the numbers of each full-length on the list to neutralize the “LP effect.”
Going beyond pure popularity, we weighted want/have stats to favor wantlist additions on the database. Even though only 23 users have Manzel’s Midnight Theme in their collection, 771 users want it. It might not be a “popular” release, but it is clearly a “desirable” one.
As for pervasiveness, we consulted the sample gods at WhoSampled to see how many times a track was used in another song. After all, Hey Jude is culturally ubiquitous — but this is a world where Syl Johnson, not John Lennon, could be considered more popular than Jesus.
We did our best to grab every sample we could, but there’s always a chance we missed something.The album has so many samples! Speak up if you notice any glaring omissions, and of course chime in if you think the list is all wrong and someone like the Bar-Kays got the (son of) shaft. See what I did there?
This article was produced in partnership with Vinyl Me, Please.