Hip-hop may have started as lightweight party music, but by the mid to late ’80s it was evolving rapidly, and a golden age dawned with the release of Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell — an honorable mention, incidentally — in the summer of 1986. Run-D.M.C. gave hip-hop its modern form, hitting harder than old school rap with sparer beats and street-level lyrics. Rap music is notorious for its gleefully violent and explicit content, and as rap was ushered into the mainstream, its profane and often misogynistic lyrics became a frequent target of the American culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. But in the late ’80s, a new movement arose in the form of the Native Tongues, a collective of hip-hop artists dedicated to keeping their music more positive-minded.
Formed by the Jungle Brothers, Afrika Bambaataa, and Queen Latifah, the Native Tongues eventually brought folks like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Common and Black Star into the fold before disbanding in the ’90s after the members had achieved the desired degree of popularity. The landmark release from the Native Tongues was the Jungle Brothers’ Straight Out the Jungle in November of 1988, and while it may not be nearly as interesting as what came after it, the presence of jazzy samples — amidst grooves culled from house music, of all things — and rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest on a couple of tracks made Straight Out the Jungle a breeding ground for jazz-rap, an important style within the alternative rap subgenre.
The following March, De La Soul released their excellent debut 3 Feet High and Rising (an honorable mention), which is generally considered one of the best rap albums ever and an alternative rap classic. The Jungle Brothers released their second album, Done by the Forces of Nature, in November of 1989, and it featured several members of the Native Tongues, including De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. I like their second album a lot more than their first. (It’s an honorable mention.) In April of 1990, A Tribe Called Quest released their largely underrated debut, People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm, which is another honorable mention. In fact, People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm is often overlooked because The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest’s follow-up, is a flat-out masterpiece.
It’s one of the greatest albums ever, easily the best of what so-called “alternative rap” has to offer. (A ridiculous genre if there ever was one. As far as I can tell, it’s just a blanket term for any rap music that sidesteps the traditional stereotypes of rap.) I was initially skeptical that A Tribe Called Quest’s unlikely marriage of jazz and rap could bear much fruit, but The Low End Theory really is one of those albums that deepens with each listen. There had been successful iterations of jazz-rap before, but The Low End Theory was the first to extend beyond rapping over jazzy samples. A Tribe Called Quest actually built something new on The Low End Theory, and as a result The Low End Theory really does sound like a birth. (Which is only fitting, because like Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, The Low End Theory was released in the United States on September 24, 1991.)
In the early days of hip-hop, songs were constructed much differently than they are now. Nowadays it is very common for rappers to just take an existing song, sample the entire hook and rap over it. For example, in 2006 Nas sampled Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for his song “Hip Hop Is Dead,” and while it’s far from the worst example of the kind of wholesale sampling that has derailed rap music over the past ten to fifteen years, it’s pretty lazy compared to his work on Illmatic, his brilliant 1994 debut. Rap songs used to be constructed by taking small pieces from existing material and seamlessly weaving them together to form something almost entirely new. Only listeners with the most acute ears could begin to decipher them without looking up the list of works sampled.
It may come as a shock to those unfamiliar with rap’s golden age, but the hip-hop that came from that era — usually cited as ’87 to ’93, but I think of it as 1986-1994 — was in fact highly literate. Judging by the kinds of songs they sampled, these guys clearly had an awesome working knowledge of music history, and this was in the days before the internet and digital music where everything is at your fingertips. If you have written off rap music as terrible and art-less, check out The Low End Theory. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll at least respect it. It’s a far cry from the dreck made today. (And once you have fully explored The Low End Theory, be sure to listen to Tribe’s 1993 follow-up Midnight Marauders. It contains their best and most accessible single, “Award Tour,” among other highlights.)