I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a person’s first art. Not the first art they create, but that first art they embrace, independent of their parents’ influence. I’ve mentioned here at least half a dozen times that hip-hop and rap captured my imagination at an early age, but what I’ve been thinking about lately is the type of hip-hop and rap that made me a lifetime enthusiast. If Run-DMC and the Fat Boys brought me in [I fully believe the Fat Boys were just as important as Run-DMC in exposing the suburbs to hip-hop], the Native Tongues were the acts who won my heart.
The Native Tongues were a collective of likeminded rap artists in the late 80s who ushered in what would now probably called ‘conscious rap’. Anchored by the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, the Native Tongues provided an alternative to the political bombast of Public Enemy and the frustrated rage of NWA. Put it another way: if PE was Metallica and NWA the Sex Pistols, the Native Tongues were prog-rock.
De La Soul was Pink Floyd. And ‘De La Soul is Dead’ was ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.
The members of De La Soul were teenagers when their debut ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ changed rap forever with its unique sample selection, youthful energy and videos that I had taped on VHS and watched again and again [to this day the video for ‘Buddy‘ looks like one of the best parties anyone could ever go to]. ‘Me Myself & I’ turned me into a George Clinton fan before I knew who George Clinton was, and ‘Say No Go’ made me love Hall and Oates all over again. But I didn’t buy ‘3 Feet High and Rising’. Times were tough for a boy of 13, and my VHS of videos was enough for me to get my fix at the time.
In 1991 a stark black and white video from De La’s sophomore effort hit the airwaves, and I was enthralled. A bumping bassline and soulful vocal sample [lifted from The Whatnauts’ ‘Help is On the Way’, I discovered a decade later], the song was three minutes of frustration over people who tried to use the group for their own purposes, as they visually destroyed their iconography: the broken daisies pots, the shaved dreads, announcing they were ‘dead’….how big do your balls have to be to do that?!
I had to have that tape. Needed it. I don’t know where I ended up picking it up, but my Walkman bore a hole through that tape every day on the walk to high school. It was dark, funky, hilarious…I was fascinated. Refusing to be pigeonholed by the image of their first album, the group took the second not to reinvent themselves, but to go on the offensive to every critic that tried to label them a novelty act, and evolved the innovations from the first album: the game show from ‘3 Feet’ became a readalong storybook [with accompanying comic in the liner notes] about a crew of roughnecks who steal the new De La tape from a kid who found it in the trash. Throughout the album the story continues with the thugs mocking and voicing their confusion over what they just heard. How many rap albums got meta like even now?
Last month the Lady bought us tickets to see De La Soul at the Phoenix here in Toronto. The experience [in a word: Damn] lead me to do something I’ve never done: repurchase music previously owned. I bought a CD of De La Soul is Dead and was enthralled all over again: the radio station interludes for WRMS [the Jungle Brothers plugging the Dew Dew Man on the Rap de Rap Show still makes me laugh], the banging bass of Schwingalokate to the all out party anthem that is still ‘A Rollerskating Jam Called Saturdays‘, the chilling molestation narrative of ‘Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa’….the album is heavy food for thought, and still earns the five mics it got from The Source, at a time when nobody got five mics from The Source. Plus, the record did more to school me on classic jazz, funk and R&B than any other album [Joe Sample’s ‘In My Wildest Dreams‘, anyone?]
It’s funny, in light of all the pioneers we’ve been losing lately [RIP Baatin and Roc Raida], Roots drummer ?uestlove suggested that older heads owe it to the culture to try and teach some history to the younger generation. And he’s right. And yeah, for a lot of younger people this music is corny as hell, but you have to realize that these artists were making hip hop at a time when having a career in rap was a lot more unacceptable than it is now.
All respect to De La Soul, who did it then, and are still dropping classics twenty years later. Now how many people can say that?