4. DE LA SOUL, 3 FEET HIGH AND RISING
In 1990, I was a new teenager and about to finish grade school. My life was just about perfect. I was still living in Hawaii, I enjoyed my friends, I got along with my parents, I skateboarded or egged houses on a daily basis, and N.W.A. had opened the floodgates to a whole new wonderful world of obscenity and misogyny. But just like Ice Cube, I was due for major change. Cube once rapped that he'd rather "kick the bitch in the tummy" before paying child support for his unborn child, and then went on to star in the movie "Are We There Yet?".
(long awkward pause for reflection)
Well, I guess I really don't have anything to compare with that metamorphosis. But, I did get some earth-shattering news shortly after graduating 8th grade: My dad accepted a job in Beaverton, Oregon. And I guess you could say I took it like a kick to the stomach. Okay, that was too easy.
Beaverton? How insulting. I had just spent over half my life in tropical cities with exotic names like Wahiawa, Mililani, and Honolulu. And now we were moving to a foreign city that just sounded... Uh, kinda gross. I dragged my heels as hard as I could. I was about a decade past the age of being able to get away with throwing a tantrum, but I still gave it my best shot. No luck. Two months away from my freshman year in high school, and we were uprooting across the Pacific Ocean.
I was temporarily relieved to discover that we would actually be living in a city called Lake Oswego, not a city named after a large semiaquatic broad-tailed rodent (or worse yet, a ton of said creatures). But Lake Oswego turned out to be even further from my ideal. For starters, I quickly learned that the city's nickname was "Lake No-Negro", due to its, ahem, rather shocking lack of cultural diversity. I couldn't make this stuff up, folks. Rich white people in Land Rovers everywhere you looked. Not good for me and my extensive rap cassette collection, not to mention my lone aspiration of becoming a professional skateboarder/gangsta.
I was enrolled in a Christian high school (surprise, surprise) and I immediately felt out of place (surprise, surprise). It wasn't the same alienation I felt as an Aryan youngster in an all-brown Hawaiian grade school. This time, at least my pale skin fit in. But the clothing covering it was seemingly from another dimension. The school was helplessly preppy. I'd like to say I raged against the machine, but no... My collection of Stussy, Vision Street Wear, Airwalk, and Billabong clothing was dropped off a Goodwill, then systematically replaced by Levi's and B.U.M. Equipment. Saddest of all, my Jason Lee (yes, the same guy who went on to star in "Alvin and the Chipmunks") skateboard was left to collect dust in our new basement for the entirety of 9th grade.
Sophomore year was different though. I made friends with a couple of dudes who also had skateboard skeletons in their closets, and we soon agreed that it was time to rekindle the fire. Just in time, too. I received my first portable Sony Discman for my 15th birthday and immediately started a Columbia House (16 CD's for one cent! Not to mention a lifetime of legal threats and unreasonable obligations!) membership behind my parents' back. My first order was a bunch of music that I hoped would make me cool, Lake Oswego-style. UB40, Snow, INXS: White, white, white. And those are the least embarrassing ones. Yeah, skateboarding definitely reentered my life at just the right time.
There was this store in a giant shopping mall that was the closest thing suburban Portland had to a decent skate shop. It was called "Zumiez", and I begged my mom to drive me there at least twice a week. I felt so alive in that place. As the mid-90s approached, popular culture was taking a strange post-Grunge turn, and all of the clothing I loved (and that Zumiez oh-so-happily provided) was colorful, baggy, and borderline hippie. But it wasn't the clothes or skateboards that motivated me to keep coming back. It was the music.
I discovered that the same guy worked on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I really liked this guy. I was never brave enough to introduce myself, but his friendly, laid-back (years later, I would learn the correct term for this personality trait was "stoner") demeanor reminded me of Hawaii. And, he would inevitably be blasting De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising out of the store's overhead speakers.
This album was already a couple of years old. Koolthar, my old best friend/explicit lyric fiend, did not approve of this group back in Hawaii. De La Soul had the right skin color for the Rap genre, but their lyrics were far too peaceful, loving, and altogether (gasp!) moral. Sure, there were vague drug references sprinkled throughout (um, "3 Feet High and Rising"?) but these were nothing compared to my usual cassette intake. There were also a few sexual overtones on the album, but again, my bar had already been raised (pun sadly intended) so incredibly high by the likes of Too Short, Geto Boys, and 2 Live Crew, that hearing De La's MC Dove rhyme, "Positions, muscles flexed, Dove was lost in a Ghana hex, passed her test, felt her teddy, Jenifa oh Jenny!" seemed like more of a poetic nursery rhyme than something I wanted/needed to hear alone. With headphones. In the dark. Plus, I was roughly 2604 miles away from Koolthar's judgment. I quickly placed my first obligation-fulfilling, full-price ($25, shipping excluded) CD order from Columbia House. Within two weeks, a little corrugated square arrived in the mailbox. I immediately unwrapped and began memorizing.
Michael Sweet's gorgeously chiseled Stryper physique was the earliest inspiration for my future drummer obsession. Next, Lars Ulrich's nipple ring flapping against his man-breast during Metallica's glory days helped fuel the fire (giving me that which I desired). But most importantly, De La Soul was the group that made me want to drop everything and become a vital part of the Rhythm Nation. And they didn't even have a drummer! It was through this glorious 3 Feet High and Rising album that I first heard John Bonham's pounding ("The Magic Number"), Steely Dan's sleazing ("Eye Know"), Sly & The Family Stone's funking ("Say No Go"), and Kraftwerk's krafting ("Ghetto Thang"). Unbeknownst to teenage me at the time, I was absorbing all of this influence in one sitting.
Listening to 3 Feet High and Rising nowadays is a bittersweet journey. I can still lip synch along to every song. The game show skits still make me laugh, Zeppelin still has never sounded so good layered upon Schoolhouse Rock, and "Plug Tunin'" is still the banginest of bangers. But overall, it's hard for me not to be distracted by all the samples, especially now that I know and love most of the original songs (one obvious exception being Hall & Oates' "I Can't Go for That"... I don't just love that song, I adore it). Still though, there's no better soundtrack for my weekly drives through Lake Oswego in my Land Rover. Just keeping it real.