The Native Tongues has, and perhaps will always be, my favorite moment in the world of hip-hop music. For the younger readers, the Native Tongues consisted of: A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, Monie Love, and a host of other late 80s to early 90s groups and solo artists. They came along at a time when hip-hop was full of polar opposites. There were “beefs” between certain artists, diss songs, and the ever-present competitive nature that still exists today. The Native Tongues represented unity midst all of that. They wore eccentric clothing (including the black, leather, Africa medallions) and rhymed in a sophisticated way that sometimes required multiple listens to understand what they were saying exactly.
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever and the Native Tongues found themselves at odds shortly after a birthday party for Queen Latifah in which things got out of hand. This is according to personal accounts from various members that were included in the extras on the DVD/Blu-Ray for the A Tribe Called Quest documentary, ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life.’ There have been sparse groupings of various members recording songs since then, but nothing in particular that gave any hope to the Native Tongues reforming, although Posdnous of De La Soul was quoted as saying “The Native Tongues have officially been reinstated” in the song ‘Stakes is High’ in 1996. The formation of evitaN (Native spelled backwards) gives us more hope that it could actually happen.
I came across a video for evitaN’s song ‘Who Is This?’ one morning as I was piddling around on the internet and was moved to tears. evitaN is a two-man crew that features Black Sheep’s Dres and A Tribe Called Quest’s Jarobi White. I had heard an interview on Sirius XM with Dres saying that he was putting forth an effort to regroup the Native Tongues in some capacity some time before running into this song. I figured this is what he meant, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I would later discover that this would lead to the album ‘Speed of Life,’ and waited in anticipation for more from these guys. When the album released, my expectations were met and exceeded.
First of all, I have to admit, I didn’t know Jarobi could rhyme like that. A Tribe Called Quest fans will know that Jarobi wasn’t a very vocal member of the group. I only remember Jarobi narrating ATCQ’s first album ‘People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths of Rhythm’ in the skits. After hearing him on ‘Speed of Life,’ I can say with confidence that he could definitely hang with the lyricists of the Tribe, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. He got away from the group to pursue a culinary career early on, but had he stuck around, he would have been a household name among us hip-hop heads. Dres, of Black Sheep fame, was already known by a number of us as a strong lyricist. After all this time, he hasn’t lost a step. Jarobi’s lyrical efforts were surprising, but Dres wasn’t outshined.
So the album starts with ‘Keep Keepin On.’ It’s an engaging start for fans that won’t alienate newcomers. The video is equally charming (you can YouTube it to see what I mean.) The orchestral sample lends itself to the grandiosity of this pairing of emcees. We all know there are some rappers that have been around for a while that should probably throw in the towel (I won’t name names,) but once the beat drops and Dres and Jarobi turn in their verses, you know these guys are an exception. There’s no smoke and mirrors here in the way of extra-fast rhyming and gimmicks. It’s just rhymes with an old-school sensibility that exudes confidence in what the Native Tongues initially brought to hip-hop. The intelligence and positivity that they introduced over 20 years ago is still intact here.
“Let the light shine throughout your lifetime. Dig deep inside, peep my timeline. Wise, strong. Right, wrong. Pray, dawn. Keep keepin on” is the chorus for this first track and, along with the rhymes, starts the album on a positive note that Native Tongues was known for back in the day. The rest of ‘Speed of Life’ falls in line with that. Lyrically, the wordplay is impressive while at the same time, saying something that needs to be heard, as opposed to what’s being said by everyone else. It’s history repeating itself in some capacity. When hip-hop was full of head-to-head aggression, the Native Tongues took a different direction and put forth an effort to bring us together. To focus on our similarities as opposed to our differences, and to promote positivity and an enjoyment of life with one another.
Another thing I find impressive about ‘Speed of Life’ is the features. You get the impression that the featured artists on this album are featured, not because they’re particularly popular right now, but because they can RHYME. Features on ‘Speed of Life’ are Craig G, Rah Digga, Bootsy Collins (WHOA!), Havoc of Mobb Deep, Homeboy Sandman, Sadat X, and a few others. This list, like evitaN itself, seems to cater to fans of old-school rap…of the “Boom-Bap”…of lyrics. You’ll appreciate what you find on ‘Speed of Life’ if you’re a genuine “hip-hop head.” Chances are, these artists come up frequently in conversations you have because you reach back into your catalog (or crates) to listen to most of these folks anyway.
The best part of ‘Speed of Life’ is that it came along when it did. I sincerely hope this album (and even this review) could inspire more fellowship among the Native Tongues members still recording new music. evitaN hit the ground running with a reunion, or just putting out dope music, in mind. Since this album released, I’ve held following releases up to it. ‘Speed of Life’ has set the precedent for what is or is not “dope” in the realm of hip-hop. It’s the kind of album with songs (for this one, ‘Keep Keepin On,’ ‘Euphoric,’ and ‘Moon, Stars & Sun’) that will make you stay in your car when you arrive at your destination and you’re on a particular song to hear the end. Few rap records do that these days. Real hope for the triumphant return of hip-hop rests with these guys.