Since the dawn of hip-hop – well, almost – the British market was briefed with the latest American tunes by way of compilations. 22 volumes deep, the “Street Sounds Electro/Hip Hop” series must be one of the most comprehensive physical hip-hop collections of any period (in this case 1983-1988), a considerable number of the latest US tunes reaching UK ears via these records. In fact, compiling music is a British specialty, and not simply the commercial variant but particularly the one that is carefully curated, annotated and liner-noted, hoping to pass on historical musical knowledge. Ever since hip-hop inspired me to dig a little deeper, labels such as Harmless, Mastercuts, Strut, Soul Jazz, BBE, BGP, Suss’d, Ninja Tune and even Ministry of Sound educated me about soundtracks, soul, electro, house, reggae and whatever peculiar period or movement deserved particular reconsideration in retrospective.
“The Daisy Age”, put out in 2019 by Ace Records, is a classic educational effort across a compilation album made in the UK. An introduction by Bob Stanley and individual song commentaries by Matt Hall provide information in physical form. Quite correctly, the compilers note that the Daisy Age ‘wasn’t really a movement, barely even a moment’. But they hope their presentation will make a case for the term being more than just one group’s quirky catch phrase. That group would have been De La Soul, an iconic hip-hop act that just experienced triumph and tragedy in a tumultuous sequence of events when member Dave Jolicoeur passed away mere weeks before their catalog finally reached streaming platforms for the first time, making their music available to audiences who hadn’t really been exposed to cornerstones of hip-hop history such as “3 Feet High and Rising”, “De La Soul Is Dead” and “Stakes Is High”.
Proclaiming the Daisy Age (the term appearing in their ’88 debut single “Plug Tunin'”), De La Soul heralded their arrival on a scene where the toughest, boldest, loudest, fastest rap artists were usually the frontrunners. De La were very aware of the potentially disruptive nature of their music. They were more abstract in their way of expressing themselves, less restricted by rhyme patterns and rhythmic structures, more melodic musically, more adventurous in their sampling selections. They were overflowing with ideas whereas the artistic choices their peers made were not necessarily less innovative but moreso means to an end.
Upon De La Soul’s arrival, there could have been much debate about categories and labels, certainly because De La themselves adamantly insisted on it (see “Me Myself and I” and practically both the first albums), but there wasn’t because the entire American scene was just too damn exciting to root for a specific team. These were the crucial years that secured rap and hip-hop’s breakthrough, ensuring things remained interesting. And De La Soul were in the midst of it, one of the legacy acts absolutely responsible (with the help of their producer Prince Paul) for the fact that rap and hip-hop are still around today.
“The Daisy Age” tries to trace that influence on the more immediate level, that is in the ’90s. But let’s get one thing out of the way first. The historically relevant term that has carried over from those days is Native Tongues, rather than Daisy Age. Native Tongues (or Native Tongue family) is the one that stuck, describing a collective of curious artists not bound by convention. Core members were the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Monie Love and Black Sheep.
What began at a Boston venue in 1988 when Jungle Brothers and De La Soul played the same show, coalesced into a loose collective that nonetheless became a firm reference for rap music coming from a certain mindset, one that values culture and creativity. There is no point in putting the Native Tongues on a pedestal as the ultimate ‘good guys’ of hip-hop, but by comparison they did represent a more sincere, more respectful, more open-minded, more conscious branch of the genre, of which they became the very archetypes. Well-known acts and artists such as Common, The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, MF DOOM, Busta Rhymes, Black Moon, The Pharcyde, Blackalicious, Hieroglyphics, Jurassic 5, Black Eyed Peas, Fugees, Arrested Development, PM Dawn or Slum Village would simply not have existed in their particular manifestation without the Native Tongues. Their long-term influence still exceeds these familiar names and was fundamentally transformative within hip-hop across the globe.
The evolution that took place when the boundaries of hip-hop and rap music were pushed, the artistic innovation, growth and liberation, are not inextricably tied to De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers. They would have happened either way. In fact, they were already under way. But these happen to be the individual artists that made up the catalytic collective that went down in history the same way numerous art movements or art groups have in other arts. As the Native Tongues.
You reach the plateau where your momentary brilliance radiates into the future once your influence and impact start to manifest. Seizing the moment is crucial. The movement has to get going with product and partnerships. The three aforementioned groups released six full-lengths between 1988 and 1991. They found female allies in Queen Latifah and Monie Love and, ever playful, adopted a duo named Black Sheep into the Native Tongue family. The latter’s “The Choice Is Yours” remains one of the hardest hitting and overall edgiest track the Native Tongues have to their name.
If you wanted to draw up an actual family tree, it would also include the pubescent Chi-Ali, whose ’92 album was produced by The Beatnuts, who jokingly have referred to themselves as the ‘real black sheep of the Native Tongues’. Other artists have instated themselves as heirs, in name at least, such as Brooklyn’s Bush Babees and North Carolina’s Little Brother. While the latter are more of a symbol of the lasting impression the Native Tongues left on rap music and would be out of place (and time) on this compilation, Da Bush Babees earn their spot with “We Run Things (It’s Like Dat)”, precursing Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli) and in some way substituting them here.
“The Daisy Age” however also recalls a few unusual suspects. Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” is a very British pick indeed. Sometimes these compilations have trouble making the necessary distinctions, leading to the inclusion of all-purpose tracks to assure Joe Public he won’t be entering completely unknown territory. Nobody would in good faith associate this song with the Daisy Age. The assumed connection between Native Tongues and Flavor Unit through Queen Latifah is simply too tenuous here. If you absolutely have to consider someting from Naughty, even their other big hit, “Hip Hop Hooray”, would be much more appropriate. Or how about something with just more vibes like “Written on Ya Kitten” or “Feel Me Flow”? Or an excellent British remix from the era such as “Hip Hop Hooray (Sunship Club Mix)” or “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright (Rough Rhodes Mix)”?
The other square peg is the official kickstart of basketball star Shaquille O’Neal’s rap sideline, “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock?)” with the Fu-Schnickens (vinyl edition only). While the frenetic trio fits the bill, the fact they are represented with a vehicle to introduce a celebrity’s costly leisure activity is frankly annoying, regardless if it comes in the form of a K-Cut remix or not.
Furthermore, contemplating a period where the influence was palpable, “The Daisy Age” could have also remembered any UK representatives beyond Monie Love, who was ultimately a transplant. Groups like Outlaw Posse, The Sindecut, Definition of Sound or Caveman were largely on the same wavelength as the originators. (Notable crossover innovators like Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack, Us3, Urban Species, Young Disciples, Omar, Caron Wheeler or Galliano also owe crucial parts of their aesthetics to the Native Tongues.) What’s more, actual collaborations took place between Jungle Brothers and Stereo MC’s and every track off the latter’s “Supernatural” album would have added an international dimension to this compilation. To sum up the relationship betweeen the UK and the Native Tongues, the latter would probably readily attest to how feedback from overseas boosted their careers.
The international nod to artists outside of the nuclear Native Tongues family that the compilation definitely gets right is Dream Warriors’ “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style”, a perfectly preserved Daisy Age artefact that of course wouldn’t be complete without the swinging Quincy Jones composition that casual consumers of pop culture will associate with the first ‘Austin Powers’ movie while Canadians recognize the theme of the long-running ‘Definition’ game show . One that would have lent itself particularly well would have been “Respect”, for which France’s Alliance Ethnik enlisted Native Tongues collaborators Vinia Mojica and Bob Power. If that isn’t enough of a hint…
London-born Monie Love, who moved to New York in 1988 to pursue her career, occupies a very special place as far as 1990s rap music is concerned. Warner sold her debut album that was mainly produced in the UK in the US, and while it didn’t do as well as expected, Monie Love’s career remains one of the strongest links between US and UK rap not just as far as the Daisy Age is concerned but historically. “It’s a Shame (My Sister)” is her highest charting single, but more importantly a certified club smash offering supportive relationship advice. As far as hip-hop history is concerned, her receipts include the bubbling guest part in the “Buddy” posse cut remix, the classic “Ladies First” duet with Latifah and her own “Monie in the Middle”, which has been namechecked by rappers in their rhymes many times long after its release.
The compilers try their hardest to offer a panoramic view of their field of study. An obvious pick is Del Tha Funkee Homosapien’s “Mistadobalina”. Cracking the top 10 in six countries but not the US or the UK, it enjoyed 15 minutes of international airplay that were denied to most of the class of 1991. As far as radio-friendly, dancefloor-compliant hip-hop with that familiar ring of loops and rhymes, Del’s second single was perhaps the biggest breakout hit after De La’s own “Me Myself and I”. Also on the West Coast but still lingering in obscurity, the Freestyle Fellowship put out “To Whom it May Concern…” on bare-mininum pressings. Performed by associated act All In All, musically “Sunshine Men” captures the Daisy Age vibe perfectly while J. Sumbi brings an explicit Los Angeles perspective to the indie hip-hop artist’s most enduring pet peeve – the state of the rap industry.
Concluding the compilation’s early West Coast expedition is Digital Underground’s “Doowutchyalike”, which on the one hand is fully representative of the sovereign spirit finding expression prioritized by this wave of hip-hop artists and on the other hand is also a reminder of how much the Native Tongues are indebted to P-Funk, with the important distinction that Digital Underground were George Clinton’s actual soul children. Still, in the end the hip-hop classic “Doowutchyalike” is the extended dance version of the “3 Feet High and Rising” skit “I Can Do Anything (Delacratic)”.
The story of the Daisy Age is also one of growing up while not letting your flame of creativity die down. De La Soul did it with the three albums that followed their debut, A Tribe Called Quest did it with their sophomore “The Low End Theory”. And then there is Daniel Dumile, who lost his brother and bandmate in 1993 and saw their group KMD’s second album shelved the following year. He rose from the ashes as MF DOOM, a revered figure in our circles that left us too soon as well. In 1991, KMD were anxious to be accepted by the ladies, but even then “Peachfuzz” was one of their more innocent joints and, from the label’s perspective, a solid candidate for a single. Speaking for an even younger demographic, Chi-Ali voiced similar concerns on “Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a #”, only to find out that adulthood is not everything it’s cranked up to be when he spent the early 2000s serving a 14-year sentence for manslaughter in the first degree. And without wanting to ruin the tribute, I would not dispute the presence of Brand Nubian (with “All For One” from their classic debut), but since the majority of the artists on this comp have a reputation for being liberal and tolerant, Brand Nubian joined A Tribe Called Quest for an revoltingly homophobic song that thankfully didn’t make “The Low End Theory”. Lesson learned: the Daisy Age wasn’t always paved with primroses – some of these lawns got potholes.
Meanwhile selections from core members drive the point home why this became a movement in the first place. The warmth could be felt. A sense of unity was emanating from these records. There are many successful collectives in hip-hop music (some more cohesive than others), but the collaborations rarely felt this organic. Q-Tip going first on “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'” and it not at all feeling like a guest spot. Queen Latifah taking on her role as ‘Mama Zulu’ on “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children” watching over Pos and Dove. “Doin’ Our Own Dang”, off the Jungle Brothers’ second album, may have been the moment they realized they had become a force to be reckoned with, confidently tauting their chemistry and influence. That’s why the Native Tongues spirit is always more present in collective efforts than solo endeavors, see Digable Planets’ “Where I’m From” versus Justin Warfield’s “K Sera Sera” (despite Prince Paul production). That doesn’t rule out exceptional individual presentations like Q-Tip’s ingenious performance on “Bonita Applebum”.
In the end, whether you rely on streaming playlists, revisit your own collection or end up picking up a copy of “The Daisy Age”, what you get is often immaculate hip-hop from some of its greatest artists. While Wikipedia contributors are trying to establish the umbrella term ‘progressive rap’ (which may or may not be a thing) for many of these artists, ‘the Daisy Age’ is perhaps the correct answer to the historical search for a time in hip-hop when artistry and originality aligned with universal accessibility in such a way that the music was forever changed.