Though short-lived, the hip-hop collective Native Tongues had an initial run between 1989 and 1994 that remains one of the most important movements in the genre’s history, due to its role in pioneering jazz-rap elements, innovating production techniques, furthering socially conscious and Afrocentric lyricism, and doing it all within the context of community and having fun.
The movement’s East Coast–based leaders like the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest changed the shape of hip-hop to come, influencing an array of artists from Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) and Common to Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. Though albums like Tribe’s The Low End Theory, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, or Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen are still named among hip-hop’s masterpieces, plenty of lesser-known gems from the era remain underappreciated.
So let’s take the opportunity to highlight six excellent records from the fringes of Native Tongues, whose diverse originality and devotion to funk-fueled fun are perfect examples of the movement’s ethos, if lesser-known than their peers.
Monie Love is a pioneer deserving of more credit than she often receives for her brief, two-record career in the early ‘90s. Beginning with her debut Down To Earth, the British-American rapper showcased finesse in flow, weaving clever rhymes and conscious lyrics together over groovy beats provided by the likes of Jungle Brothers’ Afrika Baby Bam and The Beatnuts. Though Monie received two Grammy nominations at the time for her hooky performances on “Monie in the Middle” and “It’s a Shame (My Sister),” she never garnered the acclaim she deserves for her commanding yet undeniably fun performances.
Brand Nubian’s 1990 debut album encapsulates the Native Tongues aesthetic as well as any masterpiece Tribe and De La crafted. The trio wrote more politically and religiously conscious bars than many of their contemporaries, unabashedly professing Five Percent ideology and Afrocentrism on groovy tracks like “Wake Up” and “Drop the Bomb.” However, the funky James Brown samples and slick back-and-forth wordplay between Grand Puba, Sadat X, and Lord Jamar ensure there’s no tradeoff between content and fun. Brand Nubian’s party-ready positivity ensures that One For All lives up to its name and remains an essential snapshot of the early ‘90s.
Shortly before linking up with A Tribe Called Quest on the iconic posse cut “Scenario,” Leaders of the New School delivered a solid debut of their own, filled with high-energy performances and light-hearted lyricism. A young and rambunctious Busta Rhymes stars alongside a highly dynamic Charlie Brown and tongue-twisting Dinco D, sharing hilarious bars about high school life and youthful relationships.
While LONS maintain their carefree vibe throughout the record, the MCs slyly slip conscious lyrics into the mix, speaking out on equality (“Just When You Thought It Was Safe”) and peer pressure (“Transformers”). Though the group would only put out one more record after their debut, LONS, and especially Busta Rhymes, became an important point of reference for rappers just wanting to cut loose.
“Lo and behold, there’s always a black sheep in the family,” declares Black Sheep’s Mista Lawnge on the album’s “Intro,” leading straight into the hardcore, gun-toting, N.W.A.-like track “U Mean I’m Not.” It’s a shocking entrance for the Native Tongue duo, which quickly turns utterly hilarious when the song’s end turns into a skit and MC Dres reveals his delusions of grandeur were all a dream. The tongue-in-cheek parody shows off Black Sheep’s not-too-serious approach to music, leading to stand out performances like “The Choice Is Yours” and “Strobelite Honey.”
Though best known for their collaboration with NBA star Shaquille O’Neal on “What’s Up Doc?,” Fu-Schnickens were much more than a novelty act. Their ‘92 debut is imbued with humor and character, yes. But their serious attention to combining hip-hop with reggae and dancehall stylings (as well as martial arts film samples) established their unique flavor, leading to hits like “Ring the Alarm.”
Other standouts like “True Fuschnick” find MC Chip Fu stealing the show with a Caribbean flair and blistering tongue twisters unmatched in the early ‘90s. Featuring production from A Tribe Called Quest, as well as verses from Phife Dawg and Black Sheep’s Dres, Fu-Schnickens’ debut remains an exhilarating and essential piece of the Native Tongues collective.
While Black Sheep joked about being hard, The Beatnuts’ original trio consisting of JuJu, Psycho Les, and Fashion embraced vulgar hedonism and veered closer to a gritty Wu-Tang aesthetic than the jazzy grooves of their Native Tongues contemporaries.
Though their debut LP wouldn’t come out until 1994, The Beatnuts established their role early on in the movement with production credits, including Monie Love’s “Pups Lickin’ Bone” and Chi-Ali’s The Fabulous Chi-Ali. Production remains the highlight on Street Level, where murky jazz undertones are smothered by heavy boom-bap loops on memorable tracks like “Hellraiser,” “Straight Jacket,” and the beat-switching “2-3 Break.”