Native Tongues

Native Tongues

There was a time when pop wasn’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 – 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 – ideas beyond the next drug deal or Benjamin-stacking. Though they’ve since grown with hip hop—those who have survived—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 “Before” and “After” of the Afrocentric era. De La’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 – a decade before Nas held hip hop’s post-mortem. This was their response to the Afrocentric backlash, which had pigeonholed Plugs 1, 2 and 3 as “hip-hop hippies.” In a move considered career-suicide, the trio didn’t physically appear on their sophomore release, instead symbolizing the passing of the “Daisy Age” 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 y’all non-vinyl cats, the CD itself is one of the best – an iridescent green photo of the Tribe, making them look like green-eyed aliens when tilted.

On Midnight Marauders, Tribe’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 “her” 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 Sheep’s Clothing and De La Soul – The Grind Date

Though musically and lyrically clever, the Black Sheep’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 – a photo of the two mingling with a flock of sheep.

Completing the circle is one of De La’s more recent offerings, The Grind Date. Though the cover isn’t awe-inspiring (a photo-illustration of the trio), the CD liner notes make up for it with a clever concept – a calendar, with each month related to a song on the album. Clearly, conceptualism is not dead – and neither is De La.

More Covers:

Rick Kang

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  1. all i can is each one of these albums are classics in there own way
    they dont need these covers to be classic neither, even though it finishes it off nicely

  2. every time i see one off theese articles I always have a few of the covers. I am VERY proud that i can say I have every last one of theese :).
    REAL music is timeless.

  3. ^^^ Son, how you have the Monie Love album and not the Blackstar joint. That cd’s dope and really does prove you are indeed a homosexual. Goodnight yall………..

  4. Common and Black Star were Native Tonngues-affiliated but not officially part of the Native Tongues clique. U did forget Chi Ali though.

  5. Word to Chi Ali…. did y’all know he appeared on America’s Most Wanted? I dunno if he capped someone or whut, but he apparently stole a “valuable” CD collection….

    As a side note: anyone remember Jeff? He wuz a li’l (12 years old?) kid who appeared on a single with De La some time before Buhloone State, I believe…. Great single….

    As Blackstar IS included in the pix, as well as Monie Love, I dunno why peeps can’t see…. could be all the homophobia in they eye….

    For the record, also, Monie appeared on the Buddy remix, so she’s more O.G. than Blackstar (whereas Mos Def first appeared in Native Tongues shit on Stakes is High….)

    Best 12″ cover (not included): Millie pulled a pistol on Santa…. shoulda put that one in for the holidays!

  6. Andrew Emery says:

    Cool, but get a different title. Hip-Hop Connection magazine did a column called Deep Cover for 3 years about hip-hop artwork. I know because I wrote it.

  7. To Andrew Emery:

    Yikes! Our bad, I guess…. hip Hop Connection — the U.K. rap mag? Cool… Plagarism unintentional, fa’ real… If you wrote in the HHC with RA the Rugged Man on the cover about Quas’ 1st album, I read yer shit….

    Anyhow, apologies…. think of it as subliminal flattery or summat…. the appropriate authorities have been notified!

  8. YOU Can find cool artsy RAPPERS LIKE THESE TODAY.
    You have Pidgeon John, LA Symphony, COUP, Ladybug Mecca, Diggable Planets, J Live, Mos Def , ROOTS, K-OS, Ghostface, Kool Keith, Jean Grae, rappers from Stones throw Records like Madlib. and thousands all over the globe. Do not despair fellow hip hop fans dont dwell on the radio.

    Nevertheless, the albums posted above are classics.

  9. Rick!

    man it’s funny how no matter how much love and shine is put into an article, someone ALWAYS has something negative to say. Corrections and/or feedback don’t require hate. But then again some people don’t outgrow their hater stage until later on in life. Either way we all love this music. Well i say, THANK YOU for showing love to the Native Tongues and this mag is dope.

  10. mARC,
    so… you listed some pretty tight artists there. Diggable Planets, Ghostface? Not gonna lie, thats ill. However, what does you listing off your favorite hip hop artists have to do with this at all? I mean, this is about Native Tongues Posse and great cover art from great albums of a specific time period and cultural movement. Tell me what Jean Grae has to do with that. Thats all. Native till death. Face that Moment of truth.

  11. Re the “Jeff” comment… I always thought that Jeff (the Brainwashed Follower) and Chi Ali were the same kid.

    Listen to De La’s “Brainwashed Follower” then Black Sheep’s “Pass the 40.” I swear it’s the same kid.

  12. Hmmmmm — is “Jeff” rilly Chi Ali? Who knows the answer to this?

    Damn — we gotta do some hip-hop investigative reports! (like on GZA’s first album).

    Is hip hop dead? I mean, I like some current artists, but it’s moreso that the artists I liked from back-then are still doin’ shit now (Ghost, Doom, Madlib, etc.). But I’m an old man — y’all youngstas got any suggestions for a gran’pa?

  13. Jeff and Chi Ali are not the same people. Jeff is Trugoys nephew or cousin. De la are good friends of mine that’s the only reason why I know that (lol). I also do a lot of graphic design for them. I did the “De La Soul is Dead, Ring Ring Ring…, and the Satursday’s covers as well as the De La Mixtape.

  14. Common and mos def were native tonguers. They were the second generation. Look inside the stakes is high cd booklet they are in they with the rest of the native tongues and recently they were involved in the N.E.R.D she like to move (native tongues remix).

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