An essay by Toby Mott, 3 Feet High and Rising cover artist & Grey Organisation Founder
It is getting hot on Canal Street; things get a little cooler on entering the subway. I'm travelling uptown on the 6 train to meet Monica Lynch at Tommy Boy Records to talk about a new act they have signed from Long Island. She gives me a 12" promo DJ copy of De La Soul's debut, Plug Tunin. Back downtown in my loft on Grand & Centre Street in lower Manhattan - it's where Chinatown meets Soho - the rent’s cheap but there are rats on the staircase. I put the record on the turntable and have to play it at full volume; it's so low fi, it sounds 'dusted'. This is not Bring the Noise Hip Hop but something completely fresh; altogether more melodic and playful.
It’s 1984 in NYC and I find myself working as a bicycle messenger taking packages around town from studios to advertising agencies. I move along breathing in a city that has existed for me as an exciting celluloid dream - through Times Square, passing the break dancing b-boys and giggling fly girls, taking subway trains which rumble along still graffiti covered. As I immerse myself in the city, opportunities open up and I find myself in the Hip Hop world working with acts from Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, all of who seemed to continue my English punk sensibility by being inventive, challenging and new.
Five years later, the summer of '89 is scorching hot and humid. Nights out are spent at the downtown hip hop clubs Payday and Saturdays in the Lower East Side. I'm part of the self styled Grey Organisation arts collective from London, now working as art directors in the burgeoning Hip Hop music video scene as well as exhibiting our paintings in the East Village galleries.
Dressed in our uniform of grey suits, buttoned up white shirts and shaved heads, we find a home in NYC having caused trouble for ourselves with the authorities back in London with some of our 'Art Actions', like covering the gallery windows of Cork Street in Mayfair with grey paint.
I know Tommy Boy Records from working with their act Information Society on their video and record sleeves, they are a synthpop band from Minneapolis and are doing well on MTV with a very bright 'Pop' look we have given them for their breakout hit, Pure Energy.
With De La Soul it is not going to be about the prevailing rap stereotypes of gold chains, cars and guns, this is not about getting 'paid'.
We have come up with the 'Daisy Age' visual concept. De La Soul visit our loft where we lay them down on the floor facing up, their heads making a triangle. We photograph them whilst hanging precariously off a step ladder, one idea being that the cover would not have a right way up. CD's have yet to be the dominant musical format so the vinyl album sleeve is our most effective way of making a statement.
We layer the brightly-coloured hand-drawn flower designs made with Posca paint pens on acetate over the black and white photographic portrait print, which is rostrum camera copied. This is well before the time of Apple Macs and scanning etc.
On release, the album's success is immediate and crosses over to the 'college audience', then the code for 'white'. Hip Hop at this time is not the monolithic culture it is now.
The intent of the design of De La Soul's, 3 Feet High and Rising LP cover is to be new and bright, with the overlaying of the fluorescent flowers and text reflecting a synthetic pop cartoon look, not a reworking of some earlier hippy ideal. If anything, it is almost a loving parody of the Daisy Age label that De La Soul has been given. This is a move away from the prevailing macho hip hop visual codes which dominate to this day. It was forward thinking of both Tommy Boy Records and De La Soul to take a chance with the Grey Organisation that summer in 1989. The downtown NY club scene embraced De La Soul, it was a meeting of minds as we danced the nights away to the sounds of 3 Feet High and Rising. It's as fresh today as it was, 'back in the day'.