It’s tempting to imagine De La Soul’s classic debut, “3 Feet High and Rising,” as a crusading retort to the nihilistic aggression of gangsta rap when it emerged in the spring and summer of 1989. True enough, NWA’s gory and gat-infested “Straight Outta Compton” was the acrid flavor of the moment, banging out of Jeeps and boomboxes from coast to coast, led by the controversial anthem, “F— Tha Police.”
But hip-hop was in a golden age at the time, and the choices weren’t so stylistically or thematically simplistic. Public Enemy was in its prime of political acuity, and the so-called “conscious” or “backpacker” rap movement had already begun: “3 Feet High” was released between the debuts of Native Tongues acts The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest.
No, “3 Feet High” is an enduring classic because it was so audaciously creative. It blended the nonviolent integrity of Martin Luther King with the bawdy hilarity of Moms Mabley, wrapped in the gawky, self-conscious intimacy of a slumber party. As gangstas girded for battles between themselves and against the police, the Long Island boyz of De La Soul — Trugoy, Mase, Posdnuous, and producer Prince Paul — stuck figurative flowers in their gats and proclaimed it a D.A.I.S.Y. Age. MTV got on the case like brown and white on wild rice, slotting the vid for the nursery rhyme-like single “Me Myself and I” into numbingly heavy rotation.
The backlash was fierce, shocking the still-callow members of the group into essentially disowning themselves — their next record was entitled “De La Soul Is Dead,” with dying daisies in a broken flowerpot the sole image on its cover. The surrender didn’t take — the group’s style and sensibility is literally irrepressible — but the humor and hijinks would never again be so unabashed.
De La Soul has been celebrating the 20th anniversary of their masterpiece with an extended “20 Years High and Rising” tour that stops at First Avenue tonight. Live performance has never been their strong suit — I remember a horrible 20-minute track show of this same material at the old Met Center way back when — but it is going to be hard to screw this one up. I hope they don’t cherry pick the album so much that the game-show skits — even if taped — are omitted, and I hope they bring along a real DJ for some old-fashioned scratching. Expect a crowd that knows the cues as thoroughly as a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” audience, down to the French lessons and the whistling on the Steely Dan sample to “Eye Know.” “Me Myself and I” will be the emotional climax, of course, but I’m primed for the sublime bounce of “Buddy.”
The closing line of the whole shebang is perfectly perverse and prophetic: “Are you ready for this?”
De La Soul at First Avenue, tonight, doors open at 6 p.m., $20.