A couple of months ago, Soundtrack Series welcomed Actor. Writer. Whatever. author Mellini Kantayya (and her story about what it was like to be an actor who looked even remotely Middle Eastern following 9/11) on the show. She recently had the opportunity to interview Plug One from De La Soul (!!!), and we have it! Mellini and Plug One talk about 3 Feet High and Rising, why a lot of De La Soul is not on iTunes, and the mystery behind “The Magic Number.”
5 to One: 5 Random Questions to De La Soul’s Plug One from Actor. Writer. Whatever. Author, Mellini Kantayya
1) In the chapter [of my book] entitled “Did I Peak Too Soon?,” I write about how your skills and talents coupled with youthful exuberance created, in my opinion, the greatest hip-hop album of all time. Did you think that chapter was the best thing you ever read, or just one of the best things you’ve ever read?
Well, you must understand, I’ve been blessed to read a lot [of] things but nothing wrong with considering something written about something I’m a part of as “the best” ever!
2) Thanks, man! But, in all seriousness, in the language of critics, 3 Feet High and Rising was “experimental,” but to listeners it feels less like an experiment and more like play. Producer Prince Paul [Paul Huston] has reported that these were some of the most productive, creative, and entertaining sessions he ever worked on. What was your experience of working on that album when you were so young? Is it different from how you approach work now?
The experience is unmatchable. It was our very first time putting music down in a professional studio. Up until that point, we rhymed into a mike we were holding in a corner of a room. It was our first time rhyming in a booth, first time mixing and pressing knobs on a mixing board, etcetera. Everything was magic as well as fun. The vibe of the studio—Calliope—felt like we were home—opposed to being in a sterile and cold studio environment, so that played a part in how we comfortably made music and came up with ideas while there. There were no rules because we didn’t know them. Now, we have just as much fun but there is a box we jump out of to be “out of the box.” We have a sense of when we make something it won’t be or will be liked or played by this or that person or radio station. We didn’t pay attention to that way back when.
3) 3 Feet High and Rising, to quote the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, “marshaled an astonishing range of samples,” which is one of the reasons the album is so groundbreaking, but it changed the legal ramifications of sampling as well. Is this why I can’t download an MP3 version of the album on Amazon or iTunes?
The albums aren’t available because Tommy Boy [Records] never had the correct language in the agreements between us and whoever we sampled. So, it never gave a broad legal language to include what would become digital sales. So, new agreements have to be done all over again with each and every person we sampled. And that, in a nutshell, is why no music we put out with Tommy Boy appears on iTunes.
4) One of the samples was a clip of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the comics on the radio in 1945. What was the impetus for using that clip and how the hell did you come across it?
Not familiar with which De La song you are speaking about . . . Sorry.*
5) Many artists and performers—hip-hop or otherwise—seem to wind up in the news for all sorts of hijinks and shenanigans (drugs, jail, basically losing their shit, etc.), but the last item I remember reading about De La Soul was the Library of Congress’s 2011 announcement that 3 Feet High and Rising was being inducted into the National Recording Registry. How have you managed to remain scandal free? Do you have an Olivia Pope type person in your life?
Hey, even Olivia Pope loves some hip-hop . . . Over all, we mind our own business—keeping our own business in the house . . . where it belongs.
*Note: The song “The Magic Number” samples a recording of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading comics to children during a newspaper deliveryman strike in 1945. But since Plug One didn’t recall the sample or the song, I went back and gave both another listen. In “The Magic Number,” you can clearly hear LaGuardia’s voice asking, “What does it all mean?” (the first time is at 22 seconds); the sample is pulled from LaGuardia’s reading, (at 1:24).
As to where they came across that sample, I contacted Matthew Barton, Curator of Recorded Sound at the Library of Congress. This is what he had to say:
WNYC recorded LaGuardia reading and in 1969 it was released on an album of LaGuardia speeches on the Audio Fidelity label. I’ve always thought that’s where De La Soul got the sample, since this is a record you can find around New York, and almost nowhere else. But if that’s not the source, then they might have gotten the sample from Double Dee and Steinski’s 1983 “Payoff Mix.” You can hear it at the very end of that record here [at 5:12].
Mystery solved . . . sort of.
Kelvin Mercer (a.k.a. Plug One, Posdnuos, Pos, Mercenary, Sop Sound, Plug Wonder Why) is a rapper, producer, and one-third of the hip-hop trio De La Soul. They are currently on tour.
Mellini Kantayya (a.k.a. Mellini Kantayya mispronounced) is an actor, writer, and author of Actor. Writer. Whatever. (essays on my rise to the top of the bottom of the entertainment industry). She is a Soundtrack Series alum.