Maybe the best way to consider De La Soul’s debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, is to skip past it entirely, to their sophomore effort, De La Soul Is Dead. While 3 Feet High is a fun, ambitious intro to the group’s bright, mindful style, De La Soul Is Dead—released just two years later—works double-time to burn that all to ashes. Within the first few minutes, the group (a) announces its death, (b) trashes both Vanilla Ice and children, then (c) moves headlong into a low-bass track about the emptiness of success. It’s an incredible album: a loose-ended, pissed off kind of brilliance; label-forced image rebellion as commercial art. Every ultra-positive track on 3 Feet High finds its perfect devil’s advocate here. Oh, you liked “Me, Myself & I?” Here’s a new track about an abused child who shoots Santa Claus with a hand cannon. Oh, you like how warm and sweet “Eye Know” is? Cool, here’s a track about how getting what we always wanted sort of means we’ll never have an authentic relationship again. As a whole, the album amounts to a very real, existential distress call. Everyone! We made it! And it is fucking awful!
If you grew up on early 90s hip-hop like me, it might be tempting to call what happened to De La Soul between their first and second albums a dark turn, or the moment the founders of hip-hop’s neo-hippie D.A.I.S.Y. age broke for good, and turned cynical. The rationale makes sense. 3 Feet High is, on its face, a brash force for good. It samples Schoolhouse Rock! and Hall & Oates and Steely Dan. The group prefaces nearly everything with their vibrant brand (“Da La heaven,” “De La style,” “De La orgee”). They call sex “buddy.” There are skits. A whole track is dedicated to listing people who need a haircut. One of the group’s emcees named himself “yogurt” spelled backwards.
And yet, for all of that unspoiled joy, 3 Feet High is just as cynical as De La Soul Is Dead or any other of the wonderfully bitter, hilarious albums they released over the next two decades, projects that increasingly distrusted the rap industry, their place in it, and sometimes, the point of hip-hop at all. The part of cynicism 3 Feet High speaks to, though, is the part non-cynics never talk about, something that broadcasts to most ears with the unheard frequency of a dog whistle.
But not for me. I hear it. I’ve been hearing it clearly my whole life.
“Do not be cynical,” was how Conan O’Brien closed out his six-month run as host of The Tonight Show in 2010. “I hate cynicism. It’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere.” I get what he was going for: O’Brien’s run on that show ended in an ugly, public way, sabotaged by a network that had supported him for over a decade, and he wanted to leave on a note of defiant resilience. And yet, as a lifelong, often reluctant cynic, I winced. Not because Conan had attacked my philosophy, but because what he’d sent out to the world at that moment, tears welled, was the misguided message that cynicism, above all things, is a choice.
Cynicism tends to read as patently simple (everything = bullshit), an assessment rivaled only by the simplicity with which it’s often regarded (cynics = assholes). At worst, non-cynics tend to avoid us at all costs. At best, we become a social afterthought; a depersonalized mascot to our social groups. The embodied safety of the known quantity. I’ve been called “Eeyore” and “Male Daria.” I’ve been told with scorn that I have “poisonous thinking,” or to “keep it pos,” or to do yoga. Even the most well-meaning people seem to approach my cynicism as a fundamental programming error. “Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?” a friend asked recently, and when I said no—because of course I didn’t, because holy hell, why would I volunteer to build myself an opportunity for certain failure and heartbreak—she said “I thought you might say that,” then tried to change my thinking, proposing simple, executable resolutions, like “I will read two books and learn a new word.”
I don't know the origins of my cynicism. It could root from something as formative as my upbringing in a Midwestern mill town turned obsolete by American industry, or from something as pissy and shallow as how I thought I loved someone as a teen and she didn’t love me back (boo hoo). Either way, it’s a part of my makeup, which I was lucky with, at first. I came of age as a cynic during a time where I could bark it out at the world and the culture would bark it right back at me. There was De La Soul, yes, but also Janeane Garofalo, and Marc Maron, and the Dead Milkmen. My generation’s avatar appeared on a Rolling Stone cover wearing a T-shirt that said CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK.
But my cynicism has aged, and badly. Now in my late thirties, I have a catalogue of utter social failures, where my innate distrust and tendency toward a certain dourness has been made as obsolete as the dead town I hail from, and the ghosts of those failures haunt. One moment among many: after my wedding ten years ago—an event my wife, also a cynic, dreaded as much as I did—I sat with a very cool, rosy coworker, sharing my photos from that day. This is us at City Hall, because fuck a church wedding, I said. Here are my relatives, who almost seem to want to be there. I liked my coworker, and was truly excited to show her all of this. Our wedding was fantastic and surprising in rich ways neither my wife nor I were prepared for, sparking something new and alive inside us that we were only just beginning to understand. But how could I explain any of that without first showing how achingly low our expectations were? What we feared the most?
“You’re awful,” my coworker said, before I could get any further.
Her eyes were hard, face flushed.
“What is wrong with you?” she asked me, then never spoke to me again.
Who, exactly, would choose to have those kinds of interactions?
So I’ve come to understand my cynicism as less of a doomed prism through which I view the world, and more of a perpetual, internal conflict where blasts of bright hope meet a wall of doubt, and lose big. But there are rare times, like my wedding, when that hope wins, which is where 3 Feet High and Rising comes in.
The album’s charm lies in its wild joy, but also in its complete unsustainability. Now looking back at 3 Feet High, it’s easy to see that De La Soul’s spirit was meant to break, which it did. The album was produced during an era in hip-hop where sampling was a free-for-all (see also: the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique), and it became a warning shot of deep caution to hip-hop artists of the end of that era as well. But it wasn’t the Steely Dan or the Hall & Oates samples that did De La Soul in. Instead, it was a tiny, twelve-second sample of the Turtles’ “You Showed Me,” that appeared fleetingly on “Transmitting Live From Mars,” a French-spoken, minute-long interlude of utter silliness on 3 Feet High that, by 1991—just months after the release of De La Soul Is Dead—ended up costing the group close to two million dollars in copyright violations.
One might understand the impulse, then, to burn everything to ashes.
But 3 Feet High is still there. That untamed joy exists. I can download it, carry it with me, access it whenever I want, which is what I think of often when my expired sensibilities tend to alienate non-cynics, or when I can’t figure out a way to communicate that beneath the mountain of distrust and fear I’ve been cast with, there is something warm and renewable and dumbly hopeful that's hard to show—a longing almost, to return to an unbroken moment of goodness and purity that I fear might not have ever existed in the first place. But with 3 Feet High, it does. It’s proof of the truer underside of cynicism, evidence that the outlook I’ve been shouldered with is built of more layers than many may think. The album’s existence is a strong argument for the theory that every expression of cynicism is, at its heart, a desperate, unending callback.
Maybe that’s the case with De La Soul, too. In 2014, after twenty-plus albums and other projects that explored cynicism as an art, they gave it all away to anyone who wanted it, no charge. Then, in 2015 they announced a new, crowd-funded project laced with the kind of raw ambition and bigness that 3 Feet High trafficked in, with no small measure of the caution, wariness, and reactionary distrust that came in their work after. “For the first time, we’re going to sample ourselves,” they announced, then invited heaps of musicians in for long studio sessions designed to produce an unending archive of original sounds for De La Soul to wade in, chop up, and make their own for new, independent efforts, bound by almost nothing.
In other words: They’ve found a pathway, maybe, to get back to something pure again.
It’s an experiment in music, but also in philosophy: a massive act of fully realized cynicism, both sides of it working above-ground, and in concert. I’m watching it all closely, and having so much fun with what might happen. I’m aching to know the results, but at the same time I know now, as a weathered vet of this racket, that this excitement and uncertainty is the best part of the hand I’m dealt. In that sense what De La Soul is making now is a tiny experiment for me and my cynicism as well—something workable, not unlike the types of New Year’s resolutions my friend proposed. Nothing about what De La Soul is doing right now is bullshit, and I’m enjoying the wide possibility of sitting with these full, open moments, however small, when none of the tiny joy I'm feeling can find a way, yet, to be forever unmade.