De La Soul led the charge, but it was the music made by their extended Native Tongues family that changed hip hop worldwide. Angus Batey speaks to artists on both sides of the pond and discovers what happened when this “new style of speak” hit Britain three and a half decades ago…
At the beginning of 1989, three teenagers from New York state’s Long Island were about to finish their debut LP, and would have been feeling that tingle of excitement any artist experiences when their creative work is about to make its first contact with the outside world. The members of De La Soul couldn’t know that their melange of musical reference points – samples culled from their parents’ record collections, allied to a determination to add their own distinctive lyrical approach to the stylistic vocabulary of hip hop, the music they’d grown up loving – would be seized upon so comprehensively and so immediately that it would help change the art form they were just beginning to find their feet within.
They didn’t think what they were doing was going to have an impact that would change everything for the growing global hip hop audience – indeed, that it would help take this still-new art form to places it hadn’t been able to reach before they made their first record. Neither did they have the merest inkling that others would soon see them as disruptors sent to overthrow what had become the established order of hardcore rap royalty – setting them in apparent opposition to artists whose records they loved and admired. But that’s what was about to happen.
“It wasn’t like we thought to ourselves: ‘We’re gonna try our best and make sure we come out as different as possible from what’s out,’ it’s just that it was the natural way we were,” De La rapper Posdnous told me in the early 2000s. “We were the same kids who had every Kool G Rap album, every Rakim song, all the early Juice Crew stuff. We loved Run DMC, knew every lyric to (Boogie Down Productions’ debut) ‘Criminal Minded’. We were just fans of the music. Whatever was out at that time, that’s what we were on, hardcore or not.
“But regardless of what we were into, we always were all about what we were gonna do when we ever got the chance to get out there,” he added. “We had the funk and soul from (group DJ Pacemaster) Mase’s side, the calypso and soul from (Trugoy the Dove, who tragically passed away earlier this year) Dave’s side, and my father’s jazz and blues and soul and gospel side, and we just put that all together with our own influences. We wouldn’t just sample James Brown – maybe I would sample my father’s old Hall & Oates record. Or when I’m working in Burger King at the time and I hear this old Chicago record on the radio, I’ll think: ‘Maybe I’ll put that to a beat.’ That’s just how we were thinking, so when we got equipment that’s what we started to do."
Today, as media around the world spend the year marking hip hop’s 50th birthday, and De La’s back catalogue reaches streaming services (and perhaps a new generation of listeners) for the first time, the conventional historical narratives appear to be in alignment. A musical movement based on DJ culture, where new songs were made out of fragments of old records, hip hop was always a magpie art form, always more a combination of sounds and styles than a sound or a style in itself.
It’s such an established interpretation that we tend to assume this is how hip hop was always seen, heard and considered. But by 1989, certain rough rules had emerged that meant hip hop was running the risk of no longer being an anything-goes form of music. For many of the still-new music’s biggest fans, beats had to be rough and rugged, and for most rappers, subject matter was generally confined to one of two main themes - the harsh realities of street life, or declamatory and ever-more outrageous boasts of their technical and lyrical prowess on the microphone. It might be a stretch to suggest hip hop was at risk of boxing itself into a corner, but there were enough signs to suggest that something might soon be needed to shake the art form up. And while they didn’t necessarily realise it themselves, this was exactly what De La were doing.
As great as their debut – ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ – was and remains, its reputation rests in some significant part on the fact that it wasn’t just De La Soul who were moving the music in a subtly but significantly different direction. They had become friends with the Jungle Brothers, another New York-based hip hop trio who worked in the same Manhattan studio – Calliope – where ‘3 Feet...’ was put together. The JBs had already recorded with Q-Tip, a member of the Queens outfit A Tribe Called Quest, another like-minded group. Soon they’d be joined by Black Sheep, Chi Ali, Queen Latifah, Monie Love and others as part of a loose collective of musical fellow travellers dubbed the Native Tongues.
What each Native Tongues artist did individually, the collective served to reinforce and to amplify. And while, around the world, it would be the DayGlo yellow of De La’s album sleeve and the title of one of its tracks (‘D.A.I.S.Y. Age’) that gave an image and a title for this new movement, it was the Native Tongues together who changed how hip hop evolved. And although those conventional histories will say that the impact was most keenly felt and the template most conspicuously built upon by American artists – first the Bay Area’s Hieroglyphics collective; then LA’s Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas; in time, with the emergence of The Roots, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and others, the turn-of-the-century independent/true-school movement – nowhere was the Native Tongues’ influence more keenly felt than in the UK.
“The Jungle Brothers spent a lot of time in the UK, touring, doing dates,” recalls Debbie “Cookie” Pryce. “They were very accepted by the British community, and I think we felt that closeness and openness from them.”
A music industry veteran, today Pryce is a label manager at The Orchard, the distribution firm, based in London. But back in the late-1980s, she and her friend Susan Bamford were the Cookie Crew, a British rap duo whose first record, a one-off collaboration with house DJs The Beatmasters, had become a surprise hit.
The Cookies had more connections with the Native Tongues than might at first be apparent. They were friends with Monie Love before the British emcee moved to New York and became a core member of the collective; large parts of their two albums were recorded in Calliope with producers including Daddy-O and DBX of Stetsasonic, whose membership also included ‘3 Feet High...’ producer Prince Paul; and they toured with De La Soul in the early 1990s.
Often unfairly derided as a scene populated by Brits who wanted to emulate Americans, British rap’s first flowering of talent definitely drew inspiration and encouragement from their New York contemporaries. And while the likes of Public Enemy were powerful influences on the nascent UK rap scene, there was something about the Native Tongues’ approach that resonated very strongly in London.
“Our connection with the sound at that time was very important,” Pryce says. “It wasn’t like any of us tried to mimic it, but it brought a sense of togetherness and happiness. I just felt that everything was colourful and everyone was in a good space. There was a certain imagery that we saw the US were doing that was playful. And it wasn’t the super-hardcore rap: some of those bands got a bit of stick from the press because it was called happy rap - but you can be happy and like rap.
“We were absorbing this sound that was different and friendly,” she adds. “And although it was different, it was easily embraced. This was the coolest stuff on the planet – and the fact that a collective could come together as a joint force to create that energy, to create all these individual sounds and personalities and groups, where there was male and female...? That whole thing felt like a family connection, and it was beautiful for us to watch. It was needed. It kind of broke up the essence of some things that were a bit grim about hip hop or the way people saw hip hop as being about aggression and negativity, which it just wasn’t.”
Another British outfit with similarly strong ties to the Native Tongues were the Stereo MCs. The group were based in London, though founder members Rob Birch and Nick Hallam were both natives of Nottingham. The pair had become turned on to hip hop’s liberating potential after a few years making electronic music, and following a sampleadelic debut LP - 1988’s ‘33 45 78’ - the Stereos began making a unique kind of hip hop-influenced dance music that was all their own. The chance to work with the Jungle Brothers came around during the making of their second LP, ‘Supernatural’, and the group headed to New York, and Calliope, right at the time that the Native Tongues were in their first flush of fame.
“The whole Native Tongues movement - if you want to call it a movement - was the bringing together of a philosophy that broke down the identity of rap,” Birch explains over 30 years on. “They weren’t taking the piss out of it – they were just saying that you don’t have to adhere to a stereotype in order to be a hardcore musician involved in rap music.”
The point may seem trivial today, but at the time, it needed to be made. Emerging in an era dominated by politically strident hip hop led by Public Enemy, and where artists from the braggadocios teen LL Cool J to the up-by-the-bootstraps street orator KRS-One all relied to a significant extent on an alpha-male element to their personal presentation and microphone presence, rappers ready to offer a different take on what it meant to be an emcee were taking a commercial and reputational risk. And then there was the Tongues’ approach to music, where melody and aural colour were given equal prominence as tough, rattly, kinetic breakbeats: this was music that sought to be involving and enveloping, not just impressive – these walls of sounds had open doorways and plenty of indication that their makers wanted to invite open-minded listeners in.
And yet the NTs artists were still making hip hop in a way that the music’s core fan base needed it to be made: their innovations were adding to the template, never detracting from it. This meant they were able to appeal to outsiders who had found elements of earlier rap too extreme or too tough to digest; yet they did this without watering down hip hop’s true essence. As Pos said, they loved all the great hip hop records that had come before, and they tried to build on what those artists had taught them – they hadn’t come to tear anything down.
“All of those crews were, if you want to call it, hardcore,” Birch says of the Tongues in general, but referring in particular to the JBs, De La and Tribe. “They were true to a certain mentality and way of being. They had a philosophy about music which was very earthy rather than using the usual stereotyped lyrics and adopting the stereotyped kind of identity that a lot of people had. It was a movement that was more about respecting people, respecting women, having a kind of spiritual respect without being too clichéd about it.
“It was open-minded, so it included everybody,” he continues. “Although it was conscious of its roots and was speaking about inequality in our environment and our society, it was actually standing up much more than a lot of hardcore music, because it was eloquently and intelligently and un-aggressively saying: ‘This is how things are and we need to make things change, and we need to come together about this if we want things to change.’ It was all about positivity, and anybody could go to the dance. Any form of music that brings all people together has got to be a really good thing, right?”
Working closely with the Native Tongues, and seeing first-hand how they approached the jobs of making and performing their music, would obviously have had an effect on any group. The inspiration the Cookie Crew and the Stereo MCs took from their time in the orbit of the collective went beyond the technical, and both bands appear to have benefitted from - and to have helped inculcate - a new type of thinking about hip hop, and how to market and promote it - and who should market and promote it. British success for De La, Tribe and the JBs helped catalyse these developments.
“Clearly, within labels, there weren’t people who looked like me,” Cookie recalls. “There weren’t Black and brown people in radio promotions, in press departments. Everyone around us were white executives. They were lovely-hearted people who had done their jobs very well – but did they understand the culture and the movement and the future of what we were doing? Probably not.
“Everyone was in the moment, right?” she continues. “We got signed based off of an accidental hit. Internally, the infrastructure wasn’t set up to see things through for the long term. Groups have a hit, do one album, do the second album, then fall off, disappear. They either go and do something else, or they get out of the industry completely.”
Up to early 1989, the hip hop that had been succeeding in the UK music marketplace was the politicised and hardcore style. It was marketed to people who already knew they liked it. Press coverage was limited; while a few publications may have looked at Public Enemy as a militant new-school version of The Clash, the same writers and titles were less keen to cover rap that did not deal in similarly strident and politically motivated material. That changed with the release of ‘3 Feet High...’.
The records’ timing helped, too, as there were already a number of artists working at blending dance music with rock, and an audience emerging that was ready to feel the similarities and points of connection between hard beats and melodic guitars. There may not be many overt sonic similarities between ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ and the self-titled debut album by The Stone Roses, yet both bore durably influential and brightly coloured sleeves, both drew from different aspects of 1960s pop for their sonic templates, and – by the time the Roses made the first post-LP single, ‘Fool’s Gold’ – both bands were happy to work with sampled breakbeats. Indie clubs began dropping Tribe and De La tunes alongside the Happy Mondays and Jesus Jones. It may only have happened around the edges, but the subcultures began to bleed in to one another.
Perhaps part of the reason why this music found such a receptive audience in the UK was down to the inherent differences in the UK’s and US’s musical cultures. Rob suggests that London itself had an importantly different dynamic:
“Living in London, the advantage was that life is compressed,” he says. “There’s no room for being segregated to the degree that it is in America, because rich people live next door to tower blocks and people have no option but to live together. You become influenced just by walking down the street, where you’ll be hearing Bhangra, African music, music from different parts of the globe. It’s a melting pot, and whatever your state of mind or where you’re coming from, we’ll unavoidably mix it up.”
“All of those crews were, if you want to call it, hardcore. They were true to a certain mentality and way of being. They had a philosophy about music which was very earthy rather than using the usual stereotyped lyrics and adopting the stereotyped kind of identity that a lot of people had. It was a movement that was more about respecting people, respecting women, having a kind of spiritual respect without being too clichéd about it." Rob Birch, Stereo MCs
The records Cookie Crew made in Calliope were a significant success, the group memorably appearing on ‘Top of the Pops’ with Edwin Starr when ‘Got to Keep On’ broke the UK Top 20. For the Stereos, their Calliope sessions provided a US top 20 hit – ‘Elevate My Mind’. That earned them the green light for a third LP, 1992’s ‘Connected’, which spawned a string of global hits and won them the first ever Brit Award given to a British rap group. There were other, overt and direct, homages from UK rappers to the Native Tongues’ first records, perhaps most notably when the hitherto hardcore duo Top Billin’ changed their name to Definition Of Sound and had a major hit in 1991 with ‘Wear Your Love Like Heaven’, which combined a rattly breakbeat with a sample from the 60s psychedelic pop track ‘Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)’ by one-hit wonders The Hombres. One of the versions released included a remix by Ultimatum - aka Nick and Rob from the Stereos. (The B-side contained a track called ‘I Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘bout Daisies’.)
But the impact and influence of the Tongues on British music didn’t end in the fading afterglow of those 89-91 classics. By 1997, when the Jungle Brothers brought Pos, Dave and Tribe’s Q-Tip back together on the song ‘How Ya Want It We Got It (Native Tongues Remix)’, and hired Tongues offspring The Roots to produce the single ‘Brain’, the group were still looking to the UK to help them reach a new level of creativity. The song ‘Jungle Brother’ found its way to drum’n’bass remix crew Urban Takeover, aka Aphrodite and Mickey Finn, whose astonishing take on the tune practically coined a new sub-genre, the track going on to inform not just the late-90s phase of drum’n’bass but become an important record to the big beat scene of the turn of the century. In 1999, the JBs released the album ‘V.I.P.’, produced by Alex Gifford of British breakbeat band The Propellerheads. The group’s leader, Afrika Baby Bam, spent several years in the 2010s living in Ramsgate, Kent, where he collaborated with producer Nick De Carlo on the group’s most recent release, the 2021 LP ‘Keep It Jungle’.
“I came to Europe to explore, and then had the space to keep workin’ every day, like a machine, where I didn’t have the past distracting me, tappin’ me on the shoulder, pullin’ me this way or that way,” Afrika told me in 2018. “The people that I’ve worked with here, who have allowed me to work that way, I’m grateful to. If you go in their dojo then you sharpen up: I walk out a better version of me. This is where I’ve chosen to do that, because in America, the general population wants things dumbed down and simple and easy.”