There was a time when pop wasnâ€™t hip-hop and hip-hop most definitely was not pop. If you can remember that far back, then you’re likely familiar with the Native Tongues. Though there were plenty of Afrocentric bandwagon-jumpers, the Native Tongues, consisting of A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and Black Sheep were the true leaders of a new school (while it lasted). Their music was as different from rap at the time as their lyrical outlook and fashion (Africa medallions and dashikis, anyone?).
The Native Tongues were laid back and unafraid to rap about a broader spectrum of life. And their album art was just as jazzy, sophisticated and playful â€“ a stark contrast to the album art of then (and now), which often alternates between menacing and wealth-flaunting photos of an artist and his crew. The Native Tongues instead flaunted covers with concepts â€“ ideas beyond the next drug deal or Benjamin-stacking. Though theyâ€™ve since grown with hip hopâ€”those who have survivedâ€”it is their genesis that truly cements their rap legacy. De La, Tribe and the rest of the crew brought a relaxed vibe laced with jazz to a genre normally associated with alpha-dog aggression. And, however briefly, the rap world followed suit.
De La Soul – Three Feet High and Rising and De La Soul is Dead
These two covers are a â€œBeforeâ€ and â€œAfterâ€ of the Afrocentric era. De Laâ€™s debut features peace symbols, day-glo colors and the exuberant wonder of a flowering movement. But for their second album, De La labeled themselves deceased â€“ a decade before Nas held hip hopâ€™s post-mortem. This was their response to the Afrocentric backlash, which had pigeonholed Plugs 1, 2 and 3 as â€œhip-hop hippies.â€ In a move considered career-suicide, the trio didnâ€™t physically appear on their sophomore release, instead symbolizing the passing of the â€œDaisy Ageâ€ with an illustration of a wilting daisy. One of the first rap albums with a concept, both musically and cover-wise.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders
The second and third Tribe albums are two of the most memorable albums and album covers in rap history. For the Low End Theory, its minimal cover mirrors the jazz-laced, deep but simple music of the album. The red-and-green body-painted female form on black background also alludes to sly sexiness within (after all, Q-tip raps about sex 80% of the time). And for yâ€™all non-vinyl cats, the CD itself is one of the best â€“ an iridescent green photo of the Tribe, making them look like green-eyed aliens when tilted.
On Midnight Marauders, Tribeâ€™s cover concept is genius: head shots of their rap peers, past and present, all sharing front and back cover space. And as record collectors know, there are multiple versions of the cover collage. Its only flaw: resurrecting the female from Low End and placing â€œherâ€ in the middle, marring an otherwise perfect album cover. Unfortunately, she also appears on the cover of Beats, Rhymes & Life.
Black Sheep – A Wolf in Sheepâ€™s Clothing and De La Soul – The Grind Date
Though musically and lyrically clever, the Black Sheepâ€™s first album was a harbinger to the end of the Native Tongues movement. While other covers were conceptual, Dres and Mr. Lawnge are literal â€“ a photo of the two mingling with a flock of sheep.
Completing the circle is one of De Laâ€™s more recent offerings, The Grind Date. Though the cover isnâ€™t awe-inspiring (a photo-illustration of the trio), the CD liner notes make up for it with a clever concept â€“ a calendar, with each month related to a song on the album. Clearly, conceptualism is not dead â€“ and neither is De La.