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#7 | DE LA SOUL | Buhloone Mindstate
Tommy Boy (1993)
Revisited by Quentin Harrison
De La Soul had, by 1993, caused a healthy commotion in hip-hop music. Their debut 3 Feet High and Rising (1989) was bright and loquacious, its follow-up De La Soul is Dead (1991) was a mature about-face to the aforementioned pep of that first LP. The slightly dramatic mood swing between the records portrayed an almost neurotic attention to creative detail that, if not honed, could derail their third effort.
As if on cue, Maseo, Dave and Posdnuos hunkered down to craft one of their finest long players to date. Buhloone Mindstate (1993) is a relaxed, but poised album that utilizes an expressive mix of jazz and funk, while lyrically blending social commentary and humorous fiction. These facets had been separated on their previous two albums, but here, they are positioned on one record together. The project's lead single “Breakadawn”―pitched between the sumptuous samples of Smokey Robinson's “Quiet Storm” and Michael Jackson's “I Can't Help It”―was an ideal lure (and taster) for Buhloone Mindstate.
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#6 | JUNGLE BROTHERS | Straight Out the Jungle
Revisited by Jesse Ducker
There would be no Native Tongues without the Jungle Brothers. Well, all of the Native Tongues individual components were essential, but the Jungle Brothers were especially important with respect to creating the crew’s identity. The Jungle Brothers, made up of Afrika Baby Bam, Mike G, and Sammy B, were the first group of the Native Tongues family to come out the gate, dropping Straight Out the Jungle in 1988, in the thick of hip-hop’s Golden Era.
The often jazzy, always idiosyncratic production styles that the Native Tongues would become known for had not been pioneered yet, so musically, Straight Out the Jungle relied heavily on tracks found on “Ultimate Beats and Breaks” collections. But the Jungle Brothers still made their mark lyrically and subject matter-wise. The album showcases many of the hallmarks that the collective became known for: cultural awareness (“Black is Black”), political consciousness (“What’s Going On”), goofy sense of humor (“Jimbrowski”), and the quirky track about the ladies (“Behind the Bush”). With Straight Out the Jungle, the Jungle Brothers helped establish a new vibe and slang, and fired the first shot of what would become a hip-hop revolution in its own right.
#5 | A TRIBE CALLED QUEST | People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
Revisited by Chris Lacy
Epic in scope and limitless in sound, A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was a movement that was light years ahead of its time. A Tribe Called Quest opted for a more developed social awareness rooted in a glowing hybrid of samples from the jazz, soul, and funk realms, rather than follow gangsta rap’s tidal wave of rebellion.
The album’s biggest hits (“Bonita Applebum,” “Can I Kick It,” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”) contain unique samples from Rotary Connection, Lonnie Smith, and the Chamber Brothers’ back catalogs. Similarly, deep cuts such as “Pubic Enemy,” “Description of a Fool,” and “Ham n’ Eggs” tackle diverse subject matters of venereal disease, ignorance, and high cholesterol with remarkable maturity and wit.
In retrospect, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm tills the soil for ATCQ’s pursuit of greatness and stands as an undisputed classic nearly three decades later.
#4 | DE LA SOUL | 3 Feet High and Rising
Tommy Boy (1989)
Revisited by Matt Koelling
De La Soul did not technically begin the Native Tongues. That distinction, chronologically and spiritually, belongs to the Jungle Brothers. De La Soul may not even be the bellwether group for the subsequent Native Tongues musical movement. For many of us, that mantle is held by A Tribe Called Quest.
But make no mistake, if you were around when the D.A.I.S.Y. Age first sprouted? Then you know that things truly popped off right here, in 1989, with the release of 3 Feet High & Rising, aided by a fluky hit single called "Me Myself & I,” which gave Funkadelic’s “Not Just (Knee Deep)” second life, three full years before Dre and Snoop did so. That song, and its accompanying satirical video sending up the high-school-like hip-hop climate of its era, became a smash hit that oddly shared rotation alongside late ‘80s hits like Tone Lōc’s "Funky Cold Medina" and Young MC’s "Bust a Move.”
De La Soul officially met and bonded, as a collective, during summer school while students at Amityville High School in Long Island, New York. Have any of you ever been a smart-ass kid, smart-dumb enough to end up being forced to attend summer school?!? Count me in, among those too-cool young fools, once prescribed to that particular form of wasted time. But shared failure to dutifully cooperate with the requirements of the Long Island public school system serendipitously blessed these three brothers from other mothers, with each other. Plus, for three decades and counting, blessed the culture with one of the greatest rap groups of all-time.
Three was “The Magic Number” that led off this odyssey of a debut album. It symbolized the synergy between De La Soul’s trio of principal players: Posdnuos (Plug One), Trugoy a.k.a. Dave (Plug Two) and Mase (Plug Three). Meanwhile during this era, four would be a more accurate numerical description for the magic. Because it’s impossible to talk about this album without the contributions of the album’s producer, Prince Paul. Paul, then a DJ with the legendary “hip-hop band Stetsasonic, was absolutely integral to the early success of De La Soul. He was the catalyst for De La landing on Tommy Boy Records. He ran point on all the production and mixing. Paul also served as a mentor/cool-older-cousin of sorts, as the only one with experience in the music industry, or the only member of the four who had even reached legal drinking age by the time of 3 Feet’s creation and release.
De La Soul would go on to release two more full-length collaborations with Prince Paul over the next three years following this one, before parting ways after 1993. Though all of them have gone on to do great work since, those three albums probably represent the critical and commercial apex for both the legendary group’s and producer’s career. That’s likely not an accident. Recorded at Calliope Studios on a shoe-string budget rumored to be just over $20,000, Paul and the Plugs made a madcap masterpiece. It would go on to sell platinum, while it still gets routinely mentioned among the greatest albums in the history of its genre.
At 24 tracks and nearly 70 minutes, there’s a lot to unpack here. And that’s before we even get to the skits, which birthed a tradition in hip-hop that would go on to be a gift, or at times a curse, when in less skillfully good-humored hands. The title of this album comes from a relatively obscure Johnny Cash line, and to this day, I’m still not sure why. The same could be said of that French lesson we hear, over a sample by The Turtles on “Transmitting Live from Mars”. Speaking of Mars, did you know “Potholes in My Lawn” is the first hip-hop song to be played on the red planet, via NASA’s Opportunity Rover in 2004? True story. 3 Feet wasn’t all just eclectic sounds and elaborate inside jokes either. Tracks like “Ghetto Thang” and “Say No Go” showed remarkable depth and insight for folks of any age, let alone from teenagers.
The sum total is an album that sounded like nothing that came before it, when it arrived in March of 1989. And not much since either, in no small part due to the landmark Gilbert O’Sullivan vs. Biz Markie sampling lawsuit case of 1991, which soon rendered “sonic collage” records like 3 Feet, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back financially unfeasible.
But that larger story, about the dangers of letting judicial courts rule on creativity, is too lengthy to tackle here. Just listen to the dizzying amount of disparate sounds deployed here. Then tell me whether they represent inspiration or imitation. No idea’s original. But when doing things like flipping Steely Dan’s “Peg”, merging it with Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” whistle, plus a pair of sweetly delivered rap verses to young devotion over some Sly & The Family Stone “Sing A Simple Song” drums, on “Eye Know,” De La Soul come pretty damn close.
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#3 | A TRIBE CALLED QUEST | Midnight Marauders
Revisited by Chris Lacy
A Tribe Called Quest had the unenviable task of following up two consecutive masterpieces, but Midnight Marauders is a rare threequel that deftly blends street-smarts, comedy, and honest emotion. The 1993 opus finds the eclectic hip-hop collective following a loose concept, interweaving snappier and more experimental textures into their signature brand of jazz, funk, and soul.
The group's outstanding production flutters and tingles on the melodically lush “Electric Relaxation” and trunk-rattling bass of “Award Tour.” However, much like its precursor The Low End Theory, the album’s key ingredient is spotlighting the rhyming chemistry between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Their baton-passing technique—particularly on “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” “Clap Your Hands,” and “Oh My God”—is akin to watching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen orchestrate the Chicago Bulls’ offense.
Not only is Midnight Marauders arguably the crown jewel of ATCQ’s catalog, but it birthed a legion of artists they’ve heavily inspired, from rap veterans Kanye West and Drake to rising stars Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak, among others.
#2 | DE LA SOUL | De La Soul is Dead
Tommy Boy (1991)
Revisited by Patrick Corcoran
Two years after their groundbreaking 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul delivered their follow up in 1991 entitled De La Soul is Dead. Allied to this ominous title was an album cover that confirmed the death of the D.A.I.S.Y. age that they had previously nurtured to fruition. Bored with people’s expectations of what would follow their debut and sick of the labels that stalked them, they issued a mind-boggling 27 tracks that served as a playful, witty “fuck you” to those external demands.
Yet for all they proclaimed the demise of the D.A.I.S.Y. age, the same humor, invention and keen-eyed commentary ran through the whole piece. The tongue-in-cheek parody of house music “Kicked Out the House” and the faux rage mocking of sellout, hardcore rappers of “Afro Connections” prodded at industry targets, while “Bitties in the BK Lounge” cleverly undercut their newfound fame. Top of the pile though was the sexual abuse fable “Millie Pulled a Pistol On Santa.” Built around Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay” sample, it is an emotional punch to the solar-plexus―a tale never forgotten once heard.
Alongside these gems, De La’s sense of fun and desire to move hips still endured. “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” is the pure sound of undistilled joy. “Keepin’ the Faith” is equally effervescent and only De La (with help from Prince Paul) could fashion a winning 5-minute tune from “Pease Porridge.”
Thankfully premature on its proclamation, De La Soul is Dead showed an unwillingness to pander to fashion, a desire to cut loose and have fun, and a need to feel the funk. No wonder they’re still going strong.
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#1 | A TRIBE CALLED QUEST | The Low End Theory
Revisited by Patrick Corcoran
The first thirty seconds of A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 album The Low End Theory delivers a statement of intent that tells the tale of the era-defining 48 minutes that follow it. An Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers bass sample accompanies Q-Tip’s genealogical musings to create an expansive dynamic that belies its simplicity. This is jazz, this is funk and, most importantly, the awesome power of a fully operational Tribe. With Phife Dawg more present and focused than on their debut, the interplay and contrast between Tip and him is sheer unadulterated musical chemistry―the kind that can’t be manufactured.
The Low End Theory is the rarest kind of hip-hop, where beats and rhymes live in total harmony. A perfect union of granite hard beats constructed via a dazzling array of inventive samples and witty, self-effacing and incisive rhymes. Whether it’s the sped up Jack DeJohnette bass line of “Buggin’ Out” or the “player got played” verses Phife serves up on the sun-drenched vibes of “Butter,” the album doesn’t miss the mark once with the winning formula.
Perhaps the greatest compliment The Low End Theory could have received was when jazz bassist Ron Carter lent his stand-up magic to “Verses From the Abstract.” This was The Low End Theory in microcosm―reflective and respectful of the past that helped shape it, while forging a fresh, bold and vibrant identity for hip-hop.
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