Kelvin Mercer, AKA Posdnuos, rapper
Hip-hop was still very macho back in the 1980s. The inner-city MCs’ raps were full of bragging and boasting. Although I was born in the Bronx, I grew up on Long Island. At my school, which was a mixture of black and white kids, we would rap over Annie Lennox or Steve Miller. They weren’t the coolest, but our love for them was genuine.
We started working with the DJ and producer Prince Paul, who’d been in Stetsasonic, one of the first hip-hop crews to use a live band. We’d take records along to the studio and say: “We need you to loop this portion of Magic Mountain by Eric Burdon and War. We’re going to rap over it and add a bunch of sounds.“ And that ended up being Potholes in My Lawn.
We made the whole of 3 Feet High and Rising for $13,000, using just a Casio RZ-1 drum machine/sampler and another gadget called an Eventide harmonizer, which allowed us to match songs that had totally different pitches – we could put Daryl Hall’s voice over a Sly and the Family Stone record. It was amazing.
Ideas came quickly. We were mixing three songs a day, all egging each other on. We took Hall and Oates’s I Can’t Go for That and turned it into Say No Go, an anti-drugs song. Eye Know took a line from the Steely Dan number Peg (“I know I love you better”) and ended up being a song about a girl, with some whistling from Otis Redding. And we made Me, Myself And I by rapping over a Funkadelic loop in the rhythmic style of the Jungle Brothers.
It was playful, childlike and fun. We’d rap about “Mr Fish swimming in a bathroom sink”. We’d dip into psychedelia or jazz. We’d slow down Eddie Murphy’s voice and add a car screeching or us yodelling. At no point did we think what we were doing would end up being so revolutionary.
We coined the term “the daisy age” after we noticed a nightgown in a store that had a picture of Minnie Mouse holding a daisy on it. Although daisy stood for Da Inner Sound Y’All, it was also about suggesting a sunnier style of rap – during downtime, we’d do skits, silly stuff over music. When we finished the album, Prince Paul said that it needed something to glue all the tracks together, so we got on the mic and gave the album its rolling gameshow skit.
When we were recording The Magic Number, Dave [David Jude Jolicoeur, AKA Trugoy the Dove] came across a Johnny Cash album of his dad’s. It had this song Five Feet High and Risin’. Someone said: “There’s three of us – how about 3 Feet High and Rising?” That became a song lyric and the album title.
We knew the album didn’t sound like anything else, but we had no idea if people would like it. Everything happened very quickly after its release. Our manager asked: “So, do you want to stay in college – or do you want to be rap stars?” I was like: “Uh, I’ll take rap star.” We were all over the radio, and they put us on the road with Public Enemy. We went from being an unknown rap act to a gigantic pop group.
Toby Mott, sleeve designer
At the time, hip-hop imagery mostly featured pictures of acts with three things: girls they didn’t know, cars they didn’t own – and guns. Tommy Boy Records had given me a 12in demo of De La Soul’s Plug Tunin’ and told me this was their new act. The record was so lo-fi, I had to play it at ear-splitting volume. But I loved it. The band sounded so fresh I wanted to try something different with their sleeve.
I was part of The Grey Organisation, an experimental London art collective that had moved to New York. We laid the trio down on the floor of our loft with their heads almost touching and took a black and white photo from above. I was hanging so precariously off the stepladder I almost fell on them. They seemed mystified. We added the dayglo background and, since the daisy-age concept suggested flowers, I drew some on with Posca paint pens, which were the new thing, very popular with graffiti artists. Because this was still the vinyl era, the sleeve was designed to be viewed in a 12in format and to spin like a record, with no right way up and the words going round and round.
I’d been obsessed with American music and New York since my early teens. I thought the city was just like in the film Warriors: graffiti on the subways, drug-dealing on the East Side. But as an Englishman, I was able to walk through places I shouldn’t, such as the Bronx, without feeling threatened. People there were fascinated by my accent. They found it quaint and eccentric.
We were paid a one-off fee, $2,000 I think. Eight months later, De La Soul exploded. They were played on college radio, which was basically white radio. That meant mass market and millions of records. They became a global hit, which was new territory for hip-hop. After De La Soul, it became the dominant culture. The word seminal gets bandied around, but De La Soul were exactly that.
• De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising: The 25th Anniversary Tour starts at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London W12, on 1 May. Details: wearedelasoul.com