Friday, December 14, 2007
Keep It Surreal: Tread Water
De La were acutely sensitive to being branded "hippies," as plainly indicated by Pos's insistence on "Me, Myself & I," that the neo-counter culture characterization was nothing more than "pure plug bull." When they performed the song on The Arsenio Hall Show they placed particular emphasis on this line and even incorporated a portion of their b-side cut "Ain't Hip To Be Labeled A Hippie" as if to dead Arsenio's unflattering introduction on the spot. The video press kit for 3 Feet High And Rising appears to exist solely to recuperate their damaged credibility with the crowd that looks to the likes of Big Daddy Kane to speak authoritatively on matters of taste. In the video, DJ Red Alert grants De La their redemption from hooded-down mockery in a major way by suggesting that the cultist pacific trippiness that everyone perceives in the day-glo aura of the Long Island trio links them more closely to George Clinton than to anything that came out of Haight-Ashbury during "The Summer of Love."
If one were to disregard Pos's caveat and Red Alert's cogent observation and listen to 3FH&R without considering why a crew from North Amityville, Long Island chose to depart sharply from the rapidly conventionalized and commercialized rap aesthetic of the day, the hippie comparison is somewhat understandable. The brothers did after all volunteer to sample The Turtles and plaster their album artwork with psychadelic flowers and peace signs. In addition to songs that range from inexplicably bizarre ("Jenifa Taught Me") to downright silly ("A Little Bit Of Soap") to strangely moralistic ("Say No Go" and "Ghetto Thang") they also recorded "Tread Water," a plea for level-headed unity articulated through a series of tales that have Pos and Trugoy conversing with animals.
While it is true that eccentric stylized whimsy was commonplace in recorded rap music ever since "Rapper's Delight" was pressed, and De La's totemic parables have numerous antecedents in Afro-American and African folkloric traditions, "Tread Water" is almost singularly weird because its earnestness and irony combat each other without ever achieving a comfortable resolution. The music is disconcertingly bright and insistently happy. The De La emcees adapt rather quickly to the concept of talking squirrels and alligators, describing their surprise at this fact as the beginning of a Wordworthian communion with a larger universe of truth. The narrators walk away from the encounter satisfied and optimistic about the applicability of the lessons learned, but the strangeness here is a bit much to digest in one sitting.
Yet and still, "Tread Water" should not be misread as a mere throwback to the fallacious pastoralism and indulgent opiate-inspired flights of fancy sanctified in a bygone era. The harmonious and verdant world that is made real in the song is very much rooted in the greener pastures of a Strong Island '70s childhood spent imbibing a liberating spectrum of pop cultural moments including the funky if well-meaning oddness of Schoolhouse Rock and Sesame Street and the stardusted antics of Funkadelic, Sly Stone, Frank Zappa, and David Bowie. "Tread Water" is absurdist theater made legible to an increasingly media-savvy, consciously post-modern generation of rap fans and thus never amounts to "rhymin' for the sake of riddlin'" or even psychedelica for that matter. However the very suggestion that real-world problems might be remedied by through the proscriptive wit found in populist folk allegory is delightfully confounding, coming as it does at a time when De La's peers were seeking respite from the world's ills in jazzy escapism, quasi-gnostic contemplation, or the cynical hyper-realism of "street knowledge."
De La Soul - Tread Water - Listen & Download