Obscure Records, Mistakes, and Mixing By Hand: Prince Paul Reconstructs the Making of 3 Feet High and Rising

This is a modified and updated version of an article that first appeared on The Smoking Section in August of 2008. Many thanks to John Gotty for giving me permission to republish it. Also, many thanks to Ethan Brown for helping me contact Paul for the first time several years ago.

A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul are often discussed as musical peers. As members of the Native Tongues, their first four releases follow a similar timeline, and both groups received a coveted five mic rating from The Source for their debut albums. They collaborated many times over the years and influenced countless artists and musicians. Yet despite all the similarities, one key difference has stunted De La’s career. Although they continue to tour and put out new music, you can’t buy the bulk of their back-catalogue on any digital platform. You also won’t find much of their work on Spotify. This can be devastating for musicians, as so many people stream music or buy music their music through Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes. People can still purchase early De La Soul on Cassette, CD, and vinyl, but having a small digital presence limits their ability to generate passive income and gain new listeners.

The group’s feelings about the situation reached peak frustration in 2014. As Posdnous put it in a Rolling Stone interview, “We’ve been blessed to be in the Library of Congress, but we can’t even have our music on iTunes.” Tired of missing out on opportunities for new listeners and rediscovery, De La posted their entire body of work for free download for 25 hours. The free download helped commemorate the 25 year anniversary of their 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising. This decision resulted in a fair amount of media attention, but the problem remains. Despite the fact that sample-heavy albums like the Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique and Girl Talk’s Night Ripper remain available on iTunes, I can’t re-buy any of De La’s earlier work and support my favorite rap group of all time. (I should note that while Paul’s Boutique remains available, the Beastie Boys have been sued over samples used on the album multiple times.)

In addition to the problems this situation has caused De La Soul, it also limits the exposure the co-producer of De La’s first three albums, Prince Paul, receives. Despite producing the majority of 3 Feet High and Rising and playing a significant role in the production of De La Soul is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate, Paul’s ability to benefit from his back catalogue of work is limited in a way that DJ Premier’s is not. This is unfortunate on many levels. In era where producers are scared to sample for fear of expensive lawsuits, De La Soul’s early albums serve as a pristine example of how good sample-based music can sound when done right. De La and Prince Paul’s production is a perfect demonstration of how rap can unite disparate and diverse influences into one perfect song. An expensive lawsuit from the rock group The Turtles and updated copyright laws should not be the deciding factor in whether or not people can access this music. These are remarkable albums and I fear that the world’s collective memory of them is fading.

The thought of people forgetting about these albums makes me sad, so I’ve decided to update and publish several interviews I did with Prince Paul a few years back discussing his work with De La. After reading our interviews, I hope you will feel inspired and want to experience these albums. Whether it will be a process of hearing them for the first time or a process of rediscovery, I want you to tweet @amazonmusic and @iTunes or reach out to them through other platforms and let them know you would like to see the early De La Soul albums made available.

The first interview I will share looks back on the creation of 3 Feet High and Rising. Enjoy.

“That was basically it, that equipment and a bunch of records.”

Gino: What sort of production equipment were you guys using on 3 Feet High And Rising?

Prince Paul: We were using a 24-track two inch reel. It might have actually been a 32-track board. I believe Sound Workshop was the name of the company that made it. As far as samplers, we were using the Akai S-900, which had just come out, an E-mu SP-12, and a Casio sampler like an SK-5. We also had a Juno. I can’t remember the exact model number. That was basically it, that equipment and a bunch of records.

Gino: I understand that the records you guys sampled came from a variety of sources. Dante Ross would have some records, De La would have some records, and a mixture of different people would bring records by. Is that accurate?

Prince Paul: Not to discredit Dante, but I don’t think we used any of Dante’s records for that album. (Laughs) But yeah, it was a combination of me, Pos, Dave, and Mase. We combined our collections. We more or less gathered what our families listened to and collected over the years. Pos had a deep collection. His dad had some really obscure records, which helped us out a lot. I’d been collecting forever and I always had weird records. Everybody came to the table with their own little thing. It was almost like we were trying to outdo each other, like “Oh, look what I got!” That’s why the album sounds so layered out. We just kept adding stuff to it.

“Pos had a deep collection. His dad had some really obscure records, which helped us out a lot.”

Gino: Did you teach everyone else the technical aspects of production or did the rest of De La bring their own knowledge to the table?

Prince Paul: In those days, especially with 3 Feet High, it was primarily me because I was already working with Stet. I was a little familiar with the studio, but I wasn’t that good. Luckily I had really good engineers with me or what I deemed to be good engineers at the time. I fronted like I knew everything just to make the De La guys comfortable. I’d say, “Yeah, let’s gate that and compress this.” Meanwhile I didn’t know what half the things did. But I knew enough about what the different equipment did and its capabilities to get by. That helped. That opened them up to being more imaginative with how to chop things up, sample, and pitch things.

“I’d say, ‘Yeah, let’s gate that and compress this.’ Meanwhile I didn’t know what half the things did.”

Gino: Do you think that’s part of the reason why the album came out the way it did? Since you guys weren’t seasoned veterans with production, it seems like there was a certain innocence and experimental vibe to the album.

Prince Paul: Yeah, without a doubt man. There are tons of mistakes on that album. I’ll listen to it and go, “Oops. That was a mistake, there’s a mistake, that’s a mistake.” There’s a part of “Me Myself And I” where the music drops out and that was a mistake. Me and Pos used to mix everything by hand. We didn’t have automation. Everything was kind of on the fly as the song went along. There was a part where one of us was supposed to leave the beat in, and we forgot. We just looked at each other, threw it back in on time and said, “Eh, that’s good enough.” (Laughs)

We could have easily edited the pieces together on tape, but we liked to do everything from beginning to end manually. We didn’t feel like doing it all over so we were like, “Nobody will know the difference. They don’t know how it’s supposed to go.” That’s what that whole album is. You can hear things like people talking in the background and the doors opening to the booth. It was horrible. But it made it work.

“Me and Pos used to mix everything by hand. We didn’t have automation. Everything was kind of on the fly as the song went along.”

Gino: To be honest with you, since I’m a younger guy, I didn’t start listening to the album until almost a decade after it’s release when I was in middle school. I don’t think there has ever been an album that comes close to 3 Feet High in terms of how imaginative it is.

Prince Paul: Wow, thanks. I appreciate that. If you had listened to it in the era it came out in, it probably would have freaked you out even more. When that album came out we treaded on territory that nobody was willing to go. I just remember people scratching their heads. Either you really liked it or you hated it. It was an extreme record and it was radical in it’s time. But I’m glad you picked it up and liked it. I guess that it shows it has a little bit of staying power.

“Wherever their imagination went and whatever songs they wanted to use, it was up to me to figure out how to sample it and make it into a song.”

Gino: One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Eye Know.” I love the Steely Dan sample. Could you talk a little bit about who came up with the idea to sample “Peg” and how you developed the song’s concept?

Prince Paul: I have to give Pos a lot of credit for that one. He’s the one who more or less conceptualized it. He said, “Hey, these are the songs I want to use.” For me, particularly on that song, I had to say, “Ok. Let me make it work. This is how we do it.” That was the working relationship with me and De La in those days. Wherever their imagination went and whatever songs they wanted to use, it was up to me to figure out how to sample it and make it into a song.

We were 3/4 of the way into the album and Pos had come in and initially laid down the beat for “Eye Know.” I was impressed because that was a result of the time spent showing them the ropes with production. I literally sat there and showed them how to produce. As opposed to just doing it for them, I was trying to teach them. My intention was to just work with them on that one album and then have them do the rest of their albums themselves. When I came in the studio, Pos had laid down the basic format of the song. I was like impressed. And then it was just a matter of sprinkling whatever else on to make it right. But yeah, Pos should definitely take the credit for putting that song together.

“As opposed to just doing it for them, I was trying to teach them. My intention was to just work with them on that one album and then have them do the rest of their albums themselves.”

Gino: You say that you were setting them up to go on alone after 3 Feet High, yet you ended up staying on for their next two albums. Was that a surprise?

Prince Paul: For me it was flattering. When De La Soul Is Dead started up, they hit me up and said, “We know you said you weren’t going to do the next album but we’d like for you to work with us on the next one. You’re part of the group and part of the family.” That was nice. That’s why the second and third album came about the way they did.

I told them early on in our relationship, “My whole thing is to do this one album and then have you guys go do your own thing.” When I was in Stetsasonic, I always felt like I had a limited say in things. I thought I had some really good ideas, but you can only get so many of your own ideas across when you have such a big group. I always felt stifled.

That’s more or less the reason that De La Soul came about. I needed a creative outlet and they came at the right place and the right time. I used them as my creative outlet. But I didn’t want them to feel like I did in Stet. My whole intention was to do the one album, show them how to do things in the studio, and then have them do their second and third album, if they were going to have one. We didn’t know back then.

“That’s more or less the reason that De La Soul came about. I needed a creative outlet and they came at the right place and the right time.”

Gino: So they only had a one album deal?

Prince Paul: Back then labels always tried to lock you in for ten albums or something insane. They’d give you a contract and say, “Here’s a ten album deal that expires in 2000-something.” You’d be like, “Whoa, that’s crazy,” but you didn’t know any better so you’d sign it anyway. That was standard back then, to sign your life away.

“That was standard back then, to sign your life away.”

Gino: You had a quote in Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique where you said, “If there was ever a sign of the existence of god, De La Soul would that be proof to me. I’ve never had such a perfect fit in any other production situation.”

Prince Paul: That’s definitely true. To this day it still amazes me. How did we find each other? I don’t think that any other producer would have worked for them and I don’t think any other group would have worked for me at that time. Working with De La Soul set the pace for who I really was.

Those early records and what they allowed me to do defined me as a producer. It gave me an air of conceit. A lot of those early De La records have that air of conceit. Records like “Take It Off” are us saying, “No, I won’t be doing that. That’s for you guys.” And that has stuck with me today. It defines my production. I was already heading in the direction of being obscure, but De La Soul made me put my pinky up while I was drinking tea.

Check out some of De La Soul and Prince Paul’s catalogue on iTunes here and here. You can also follow De La and Paul on Twitter @wearedelasoul and @djprincepaul.

I am a director of academic support/special education teacher who loves to write about books, movies, music, records, and samplers. I also love interviewing people about these things. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, and recommending it on Medium.
You can also check out my Bookshelf Beats publication.