The Native Tongues is a collective of Hip Hop artists known for their positive-minded, good-natured Afrocentric lyrics, and for pioneering the use of eclectic sampling and later jazz-influenced beats. Its principal members are the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. The collective was also closely tied to the Universal Zulu Nation.
The New York City-based Native Tongues crew was a collective of like-minded Hip Hop artists who would help bring abstract and open-minded lyricism that addressed a range of topics – from spirituality and modern living to race, sex, and just having fun – to the mainstream. Together with the use of eclectic samples that would take on an increasingly jazzy sound, they would be pioneers of so-called conscious Hip Hop, alternative Hip Hop, and jazz rap.
De La Soul’s Dave recalled: “The Native Tongues came about where, basically, we had a show together in Boston. [De La Soul], Jungle [Brothers] and we linked from there. We had a natural love for the art and a natural love for each other on how we put stuff together. So we invited [the Jungle Brothers] to a session, and when they hooked up with us, we happened to be doing “Buddy“. It wasn’t business; it wasn’t for a check. It was just trading ideas and just seeing what you’re doing. Bottom line, it was just having fun.”
According to ATCQ’s Q-Tip: “I remember Afrika [Baby Bam] called me that night, like, two in the morning. “Yo these kids, De La Soul, you gotta meet ’em! I swear we’re just alike!” I went there, met them, and it was just fuckin’ love at first sight. It was disgusting. In Hip Hop, it praises individualism. I think that’s the main achievement of the Native Tongues. It just showed people could come together.”
Fostered by Kool DJ Red Alert, the success of the Jungle Brothers would pave the way for De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest; together, in 1988, these three groups would form the core of the crew and continue the spirit of Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation. By 1989 they had been joined by Queen Latifah and the UK’s Monie Love, and soon by the Black Sheep & Chi-Ali. Collectively, the members of the Native Tongues had a huge effect on the style and trends of Hip Hop during its most important period, the Golden Age of the late 1980s–early 1990s.
There are several collectives today—with overlapping membership—that can be seen as the spiritual heirs to the Native Tongues crew: the Spitkicker crew (founded by De La Soul’s Trugoy and Posdnuos in 2000), the Okayplayers, and the Soulquarians.
There have also been a lot of acts – such as Leaders Of The New School, The Beatnuts, Fu-Schnickens, Brand Nubian, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common and The Pharcyde – who have been considered (peripheral) members of the collective – but for this list we’ll be focusing on The Native Tongues’ core members. With that said – let’s get into it!
15. Queen Latifah - All Hail The Queen (1989)
Queen Latifah‘s debut album was a critical and commercial success upon it’s release. The album is universally regarded as a Hip Hop classic; though it contains a couple of filler tracks and has a bit too much of a crossover feel (with even some house, techno and reggae influences) to be higher on this list.
Standout tracks include the feministic anthem “Ladies First” (with Monie Love), “Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children” (with De La Soul), “Evil That Men Do”, and “Wrath of my Madness”, but there’s much more to enjoy here.
Queen Latifah’s ability and star power is already on full display – making this album a powerful start of an impressing career.
14. De La Soul - The Grind Date (2004)
Everybody will recognise the fact that De La Soul dropped more than one classic album, but strangely enough De La’s 2004 release The Grind Date (their 7th album) is rarely mentioned when discussing their best records. It should be, though.
The Grind Date is tighter and leaner than other De La releases (no skits, which is something a lot of people can appreciate, I know I do) and it boasts production of Madlib, J Dilla, 9th Wonder, with guest spots of MF DOOM (with an epic verse on “Rock Co.Kane Flow”), Common, Ghostface Killah and others. If you somehow missed The Grind Date – now’s the time to check it out.
This is an outstanding album, and easily one of 2004’s best.
13. Jungle Brothers - Straight Out The Jungle (1988)
The debut album of the Jungle Brothers, and the first album of a group affiliated with The Native Tongues collective. An influential album – it marked the beginning of a series of albums by the other acts in the collective.
Cuts like “Straight Out The Jungle”, “On The Run”, “Because I Got it Like That” and “What’s Going On” are easy favorites, but the whole album is dope. Great production, mellow rhymes – this is a bonafide Hip Hop classic.
12. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)
Energised by a one-off performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on November 13, 2015, the ATCQ group members decided to record a new album in secrecy – their first since 1998’s The Love Movement. Despite Phife’s untimely death, the album was completed, with Phife’s recorded bars flawlessly integrated into what turned out to be a near-perfect final album.
The album features all four of the group’s members (Jarobi makes a comeback and even spits some bars!) plus a host of guests — André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Jack White, Anderson .Paak, Talib Kweli, and Consequence and Busta Rhymes, two longtime Tribe collaborators.
The result is a phenomenal album with that classic Tribe vibe but set firmly in this era at the same time. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service certainly is one of the highlights of 2016 and a more than worthy addition to Tribe’s monumental catalog.
11. Queen Latifah - Black Reign (1993)
Although her debut album may have been more important as a trailblazer for female emcees, this third effort is Queen Latifah‘s best record. Latifah’s charismatic and powerful personality really shines on this album, as well as real and heartfelt emotion in some of the songs (partly due to personal tragedy prior to the recording of Black Reign).
Most famous for the Grammy-winning anti-misogynist song U.N.I.T.Y., Black Reign has much more to offer. Tracks like “I Can’t Understand”, “Just Another Day”, “Superstar”, “Black Hand Side”, the dope posse cut “Rough…” and the emotional tribute to her brother “Winki’s Theme” show off Latifah at her versatile best. Great album.
10. Q-Tip - The Renaissance (2008)
There was a lot riding on this album, released 9 years after Q-Tip last (solo)album Amplified – which wasn’t all that well-received. While not a bad album at all, Amplified was considered too ‘lightweight’ and insubstantial for someone with Q-Tip’s stature.
The Rennaissance obliterated all doubters and Q-Tip critics. The album is consistent as hell, 13 tracks with no filler material. “Gettin Up”, “We Fight/We Love”, “Official” and “Believe” are highlights, but there really are no weak tracks here.
With The Rennaissance, Q-Tip succeeds perfectly in blending the ATCQ vibe we all love with his own distinct style. This album is a blueprint of how Hip Hop can sound when its done correctly. Pure excellence.
9. De La Soul - Buhloone Mindstate (1993)
De La Soul‘s third album, De La Soul’s third masterpiece. Buhloone Mind State probably is the most underappreciated album of De La Soul’s first four. The reason for that probably is that it has less commercial appeal than the others (“It might blow-up but it won’t go ‘pop’”). Artistically it is every bit as strong, though – cohesive and consistent throughout – another artistic peak for both De La Soul and producer Prince Paul.
“Area”, “I Am I Be”, “Eyepatch”, “Breakadawn”, “Ego Trippin’ Pt 2” and more – there’s no shortage of super dope tracks on this one. De La Soul’s first four albums are all classics, and even if this one may seem a little less appealing at first glance, it definitely ranks up there with the others.
8. Black Sheep - A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing (1991)
This album is FUN. It’s also hugely underrated and rarely mentioned when classic Hip Hop albums are considered. It should be, though. Over 70 minutes in length, but not a minute too long – it’s filled with dope, humorous, clever tracks. Mr. Lawnge’s production is tight and Dres is a great emcee with a unique voice and flow.
The anthemic “The Choice Is Yours”, the smooth “Flavor Of The Month”, the banging posse cut “Pass The 40”, the excellent “Butt In The Meantime”, “Similak Child” and “Strobelite Honey” are just a few of the choice cuts on this album. And let’s not forget the confrontational album opener “U Mean I’m Not” in which Dres effectively mocks gangsta posers. Black Sheep’s attitude is refreshing and the whole album works – A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing maintains its great vibe from start to finish. Classic.
7. A Tribe Called Quest - People's Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm (1990)
The third part of the Native Tongues triple classic album introduction to the world (the first two being the Jungle Brothers‘ Straight Out The Jungle and De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High And Rising) – People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm introduces us to A Tribe Called Quest.
People’s… is a musical masterpiece. An innovative fusion of hard beats and jazzy samples, combined with fun, clever and positive lyrics – mainly from Q-Tip (Phife was still finding his voice here and his lyrical skills would improve significantly on Tribe’s follow up The Low End Theory).
“I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”, “Can I Kick It”, the cheeky ode to female beauty “Bonita Applebum”, “Push It Along”, “Luck Of Lucien” – the album is filled with timeless joints.
6. De La Soul - Stakes Is High (1996)
Another De La Soul masterpiece. All of their first four albums are classics in their own right, this one was their most mature and confident effort up till then. No gimmicks, no frills, just straight up Hip Hop.
“Big Brother Beat” with Mos Def, “The Bizness” with Common, “Supa Emcees” and the prophetic and important “Stakes Is High” title track are just four of the seventeen outstanding tracks on this album.
Almost a decade in the game at this point, De La Soul was still fresh and far from going stale.
5. Jungle Brothers - Done by the Forces Of Nature (1989)
The Jungle Brothers never received the same recognition their fellow core Native Tongues members De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest did, nor they did achieve the same commercial success – but their first two albums are surefire classics. Their 1988 debut Straight Out Of The Jungle is a diamond in the rough, this one is more than a worthy follow-up.
Standouts include the laidback “Sunshine”, the classic Native Tongue posse cut “Doin’ Our Own Dang” the club tracks “What U Waitin’ 4” and “U Make Me Sweat,” the empowering “Acknowledge Your Own History” “the beautiful dedication “Black Woman”, and tracks like “Feelin’ Alright”, “Done by the Forces of Nature” and “Beeds On A String”.
Conscious, positive and funky – Done By the Forces Of Nature deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as De La’s 3 feet High And Rising and Tribe’s People’s Instinctive Travels…, and is a definite must have for any and all Hip Hop fans.
4. De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
De La Soul Is Dead is a long album, but packed with brilliance, musically and lyrically. “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'”, “Bitties In The BK Lounge”, “Afro Connections At A Hi 5”, “Keepin’ The Faith”, “My Brother’s A Basehead”, “Ring Ring Ring” and the monumental “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa”, the album is literally packed with awesome songs.
A marked change in style and feel to their equally brilliant debut 3 Feet High & Rising, De La Soul Is Dead showed a darker and more contemplative side of De La Soul. Gone is the happy-go-lucky positivity of their debut, instead we get De La’s disillusioned vision on the state of Hip Hop, which would turn out to be highly prophetic.
This album was so ahead of its time, Hip Hop still hasn’t caught up yet.
3. A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders (1993)
Almost a toss-up for the number one and two spots on this list, that is how good this album is. Faced with the impossible task of following up on the flawless masterpiece that is The Low End Theory, Tribe delivered an album that is every bit as awesome as its predecessor. There can be no greater praise.
Midnight Marauders sounds as fresh today as it did on the day it was released: the mark of a true classic. The three singles, “Award Tour”, “Electric Relaxation” and “Oh My God” may be the best-known joints on the album, but the rest is just as good – there are no weaker tracks on Midnight Marauders, not a single one. An incredible achievement, especially knowing they did the same thing on their preceding album, making it two perfect albums in a row.
In the words of Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad: “We decided to call the album Midnight Marauders because A Tribe Called Quest are like sound thieves looting your ears.” That sounds about right.
2. De La Soul - 3 Feet High & Rising (1989)
Innovative and hugely influential – this cooperation between De La Soul and producer Prince Paul is truly a landmark album in Hip Hop (and music in general).
This album introduced the skit to Hip Hop albums; and although skits more often irritate than add value, on this album they work. De La Soul more or less invented the rap-skit and they remain one of the very few acts who know how to use it (although on some of their later albums they misfired sometimes on the skits front). Where in 95% of the cases skits do not add anything, except annoying breaks in the flow of albums, De La actually knew how to use skits in the right way – to give a thematic and coherent feel to an album.
The whole album is consistent and all the songs are awesome – no filler tracks here. Clever wordplay, deft rhymes, playful production, positivity, and fun: 3 Feet High And Rising represented a new direction for Hip Hop, clearly a reaction to cliches already emerging in Hip Hop, even in its early years.
De La Soul’s debut is a must-have for anyone who loves Hip Hop and an all-time classic.
1. A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (1991)
PERFECTION. The Low End Theory is the definitive statement about what creativity, innovation, artistry, fun and raw talent can produce. Building on the quality work of their debut, Tribe perfected the fusion of jazzy influences and bass heavy Hip Hop beats. The album is so coherent and consistent, it almost feels like one long song – in this case a good thing.
Phife, who only played a small part on the first album, really increased his skills as an emcee and establishes a perfect interplay with the exceptional-as-always Q-Tip. Clever lyrics and smooth and warm music all the way through – from the hypnotising opening track “Excursions” to the album closer and ultimate posse cut “Scenario” – this album is nothing short of perfect.
- Queen Latifah – All Hail the Queen (1989)
- Monie Love – Down to Earth (1990)
- Queen Latifah – Nature Of A Sista (1991)
- Chi-Ali – The Fabulous Chi-Ali (1992)
- Black Sheep – Non-Fiction (1994)
- A Tribe Called Quest – Beats Rhymes & Life (1996)
- A Tribe Called Quest – The Love Movement (1998)
- Queen Latifah – Order In The Court (1998)
- Q-Tip – Amplified (1999)
- Phife Dawg – Ventilation: Da LP (2000)
- De La Soul – Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000)
- De La Soul – AOI: Bionix (2001)
- Q-Tip – Kamaal The Abstract (2009)
- De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody… (2016)