Growing up in the late 1990s, I didn’t have much love for hip hop. Songs like Sabotage had made the Beastie Boys ‘acceptable’ but in general hip hop seemed to embody a materialism that was at odds with more conscious guitar bands at the time. However I think if I’d have been born a few years earlier things could have been very different. The reason being simply because… I missed the Native Tongues. In the late 80s and early 90s a collective of like-minded hip hop artists came about, known eventually as the Native Tongues. The principal members are usually cited as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and the Jungle Brothers. Here’s a favourite of mine from A Tribe…
The obvious defining feature of the Native Tongues was that they were all from the East Coast of the States. But what really defined them as a collective was the style of hip hop they pioneered, known as backpack hip hop. Backpack hip hop, as opposed to gangster rap, tends to be more underground, alternative, and conscious hip hop. Originally a slang term for a graffiti artist that always kept a backpack on with their music collection; backpack hip hop is usually soft, arty, conscious, political, or any combination thereof. Popular backpack groups outside of the Native Tongues include Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, and arguably even some more popular acts like Public Enemy and Run DMC.
Backpack hip hop, and particularly the Native Tongues collective, was at the heart of what is known as the ‘golden age’ of hip hop. Rolling Stone Magazine wrote that the golden age was a time “when it seemed that every new single reinvented the genre”. This was a period in the genre that is said to be characterized by its diversity, quality, and innovation. There were also commonly strong themes of Afrocentricity and political militancy at the time. One major factor was that rappers began talking about urban poverty. This brought a great deal of listeners to the genre who were struggling with poverty and relying on alcohol, drugs, and gangs as a result. Public Enemy’s song Fight the Power was a move to motivate people living in the American ghetto’s to work their way out of poverty and do something with their lives.
Generally, there is some disagreement over what bookends the golden age of hip hop, but in my opinion the golden age began with the commercial breakthrough of Run DMC in 1986 and ended with the gangsta rap of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg circa 1993-1994. My advice is dive back into the past of hip hop and relish what you find, the albums of the Native Tongues and other backpack rappers will sit comfortably beside your rock ‘n’ roll tunes. I did it and never looked back.