No year in hip-hop history sticks out quite like 1996: It marked the height of the East Coast–West Coast feud, the debut of several artists who would rule the next few decades, and the last moment before battle lines between “mainstream” and “underground” were fully drawn. The 1996 Rap Yearbook, a recurring series from The Ringer, will explore the landmark releases and moments from a quarter-century ago that redefined how we think of the genre. Today, we’re exploring the leaders of the Native Tongues collective at their respective crossroads.
Nineteen-ninety-six was one of hip-hop’s most polarizing years, capturing the tension of a genre in conflict with itself and the world at large. The year saw hip-hop expand through the emergence of new figures from different regions, but it also saw tragedy as 2Pac, who dominated the conversation that year, was murdered amid a sensationalized bicoastal dispute. MTV may have embraced hip-hop’s impact on its bottom line by this point, but much of society still viewed it with disdain. Meanwhile, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed the entertainment industry by further consolidating outlets for music. More mergers and acquisitions meant fewer opportunities for any music to be played. The business aspect of hip-hop had been elevated, meaning there was more money involved and more pressure to succeed. And while success was always the goal, commercial success was being embraced in ways that didn’t square with anyone who saw conflicts of interest in hip-hop. What happens when the whole game starts resembling the glitz and glamour of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” video thanks to less-talented imitators? Suppose hip-hop stumbles during its ascent, only to be found floating face down in the mainstream? These growing pains were culture shocks to folks with reservations. The price was going up, but at what cost?
De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were successful, but on their own terms: They might blow up, but they’d never go pop. Their subversive ambition and sharp perspectives pushed hip-hop in new directions as it blossomed at the start of the 1990s. As key members of the Native Tongues collective, they added variety to hip-hop by following their eccentricities and broadening the notion of what it could be. They changed with every album, challenging themselves and listeners alike. De La Soul used its second album, 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead, to kill the lazy hippie narrative that sprang from their debut, only to go even further left on 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate. A Tribe Called Quest was on a continuous journey to chart new musical ground. Each album, from 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm through 1993’s Midnight Marauders, added new layers to hip-hop as the group not only reinvented themselves sonically, but outdid themselves in the process. But everything changed for the groups in July 1996, when De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest released albums that stand out as emblems of a genre at a crossroads.
Stakes Is High, released on July 2, is De La Soul’s most antagonistic act. Being outspoken wasn’t new to them—Buhloone Mindstate’s “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)” and its accompanying video skewered rap superstar posturing with precision—but now they were being direct about it. Stakes Is High called bullshit on the clichés De La Soul saw trending upward in hip-hop and expressed unease about where the genre and world were headed. As for A Tribe Called Quest, expectations were high for the group on the heels of Midnight Marauders. Beats, Rhymes and Life, released on July 30, found the group adjusting to shifts within hip-hop culture, their personal lives, and themselves. A Tribe Called Quest had charted new territory once again, but it was ominous this time: Beats, Rhymes and Life marked the beginning of the end for the group during the ’90s.
Both Stakes Is High and Beats, Rhymes and Life featured new dynamics that significantly impacted their sound. Prince Paul, who helped produce De La Soul’s first three albums, stepped back as the group took over production duties. A then-unknown J Dilla (who, going by Jay Dee, also produced Stakes Is High’s title track) was one of the new ingredients to Beats, Rhymes and Life. Both albums showcase pioneers reckoning with a changing climate: They begin by dismissing inferior MCs within the first 10 minutes and conclude by zooming out as the artists assess their own lives, difficulties and all. And both Stakes Is High and Beats, Rhymes and Life remain two of the most important albums released in 1996 because they capture the tension and change rippling through hip-hop that year.
Stakes Is High was personal for De La Soul. Their future was uncertain following Buhloone Mindstate’s underwhelming commercial performance in conjunction with hip-hop’s rapidly changing landscape. In the 2016 Mass Appeal documentary De La Soul Is Not Dead, the group recalled Lyor Cohen telling them while they were on tour that it was “about to get rough” for them in lieu of the album’s underperformance. He wasn’t alone in this thinking. “Dave’s cousin was like: ‘Yo, stakes is high for y’all,’” Posdnuos remembered. “It was a crucial place of not knowing if we was going to continue or we going to be forced to go get regular jobs and become common folk,” Maseo told Okayplayer in 2016.
It’s easy to reduce Stakes Is High to an indictment of contemporary hip-hop considering how blunt De La Soul is throughout its 68 minutes. On “Supa Emcees,” Posdnuos and Dave recall the lost art of MCing, as they knew it, while vowing to uphold the mantle. “I got questions about your life if you so ready to die,” Dave says on “Long Island Degrees,” a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to Biggie’s debut album. It comes off pedantic at times, but the anxiety fueling the album came from a genuine place. It’s not unreasonable that artists who immersed themselves in a culture as teens, advanced it, then watched it change into something they didn’t recognize—and, in some cases, objected to—by their mid-to-late 20s respond with skepticism. They spoke up the way they did because they felt like they had to. “Hip-hop has a mechanism of self-correction and self-policing,” says journalist and author Rob Kenner, who directed De La Soul Is Not Dead. “There are antibodies and when a pathogen is introduced into the body, the antibodies go to work, cleanse the system, and develop immunities. I think that’s what we saw on those records, like: ‘Really? That’s what you’re doing?’ If you care about someone, you don’t hold your tongue.”
That’s what inspired the repudiation of materialism heard on “The Bizness” and mockery of the drug lord and Mafioso fascination heard on “Itzsoweezee (HOT).” All of the “champagne-sippin’ money fakers” and kingpin aliases were less of a problem until they started multiplying. The critique reaches its summit on the title track, where Dave lists his grievances over Dilla’s masterful blend of an Ahmad Jamal sample and ambient dice game noise: “I’m sick of bitches shakin’ asses / I’m sick of talkin’ ‘bout blunts, sick of Versace glasses / Sick of slang, sick of half-assed award shows / Sick of name-brand clothes / Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks / Cocaine and crack, which brings sickness to Blacks.”
The stakes were high for hip-hop, Black people in America, and De La Soul themselves—because they cared. Despite the foreboding energy flowing through Stakes Is High, it ends on a bright note initiated by a joyous Commodores sample. The buoyant “Sunshine” makes it clear that they just want to forge ahead for the sake of the art, all angst considered:
De La is the crew that you must hear, but please don’t rush the stage
‘Cause even though them stakes are really high, we’re really not here to raise
We’re just here to move your mind and soul with perpetuated ease
It’s just about the show until it’s time to go and get with the young ladies
Stakes Is High isn’t as highly regarded as 3 Feet High and Rising or De La Soul Is Dead, but it’s every bit as daring and still among their best work. The edge of the message is a reflection of the urgency and precarity around the album. De La Soul wasn’t looking for static, they were just being true to their name.
Much of the tension and change that influenced Beats, Rhymes and Life was internal. Michael Rapaport’s 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest detailed the growing divide within the group, which began after the completion of Midnight Marauders. Phife Dawg, who died in 2016 from complications associated with diabetes, had moved to Atlanta after the release of the 1993 album. Q-Tip found Islam, formed the production team the Ummah with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Dilla (after boosting his profile as a producer via his work with Nas and Mobb Deep), and gave his cousin Consequence, who’d previously been on the periphery, a more prominent role. A Tribe Called Quest leapt forward on The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders on the strength of the chemistry between Phife and Q-Tip, which was an evolution of their friendship. With Phife’s relocation and Q-Tip, through the creation of the Ummah, perhaps looking beyond A Tribe Called Quest, the cohesion at the core of the group’s success was fractured.
At the same time, A Tribe Called Quest was working around the fiber of hip-hop changing, compositionally. Its rising popularity, coupled with more money being generated, led to more legal claims over sample use. “The bulk of us relied on sampling and our drum machines to make the music,” Muhammad says. “Having to chop up the drums instead of letting it rip from the beginning changed the feel. It’s such a subtle thing, but you hear that in the Beats, Rhymes and Life album.” On top of internal discord and augmenting their musical approach, A Tribe Called Quest was dealing with the weight of their position as hip-hop’s preeminent group following the accomplishment of Midnight Marauders—all while easing into their mid-20s as hip-hop grew into something vastly different from what it was when they broke through. From the overall tone to the artwork, there’s an unmistakable heaviness to Beats, Rhymes and Life.
“In that heaviness is maturity. In that heaviness is spirituality, complete life change,” Muhammad says. “You go from this world of partying, while taking this responsibility of being true to the culture and wanting to put good into the music. Wanting to unite people and wanting to talk about the challenges people from our community are facing. Life is changing and you’re connecting on a religious plane that doesn’t wholly align with all of the actions that take place when you’re not. Then, you’re doing that while trying to navigate the difficult changes happening within relationships that really matter to you.”
Songs like “The Pressure” and “Mind Power” bear that sense of responsibility as Q-Tip and Phife shatter phony rapper facades. “Now I got hip-hop acts posin’ like fat cats / Lex and Rolex, Moet and a top hat / But what about your contract, slick? Is you proper?” Q-Tip asks on the former. “Denouncing tough guy wannabes that look smoother than silk,” Phife announces on the latter. “What Really Goes On” and “Keeping It Moving” address the East Coast–West Coast issue, which A Tribe Called Quest was dragged into following an apparent misunderstanding between them and 2Pac at the 1994 Source Awards and a line from Q-Tip’s “Queens Representin’” freestyle the following year that Westside Connection took umbrage with. “Get a Hold,” with its eerie, sewn-together samples and creeping bass line, has a thick layer of gravitas to it. “Stressed Out,” the album’s parting thought, is about seeking refuge after being painted into a corner by life.
The playfulness of A Tribe Called Quest’s previous albums gave way to something more high-minded and world-weary. “We didn’t take ourselves too seriously, and then I think I was guilty of taking myself way too seriously,” Q-Tip admitted to Spin in 2008. Beats, Rhymes and Life has good moments, but “good” wasn’t enough for A Tribe Called Quest. “For that time, it was only a good record because they were just coming off Midnight Marauders, which was the pinnacle,” says journalist, screenwriter, and producer Cheo Hodari Coker, who profiled the group for the Los Angeles Times in 1996. As Questlove wrote in The Source upon their breakup in 1998: “By this time most attitudes were, ‘If Tribe ain’t moving the world with each release, then we won’t stand for nothing less.’” One of 1996’s most surprising developments was A Tribe Called Quest aiming to push hip-hop further along the righteous path and stumbling in the process.
The releases of Stakes Is High and Beats, Rhymes and Life were supposed to mark a new era for the Native Tongues. The movement, which included Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Black Sheep, Chi-Ali, and numerous affiliates, had splintered by 1996—as had the core of the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. Long gone was the camaraderie of De La Soul’s “Buddy” remix, which was the mainstream launchpad for the Native Tongues ethos back in 1989. The ensuing years saw glimpses of the strained relationship surface on record: “Or some tongues who lied and said, ‘We’ll be natives to the end’ / Nowadays we don’t even speak,” Posdnuos said on Buhloone Mindstate’s “I Am I Be” of his relationship with Q-Tip and Afrika Baby Bam of the Jungle Brothers at the time. A 2007 Vibe story recalls a 1996 meeting between A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and the Jungle Brothers while the former was recording Beats, Rhymes and Life. The pillars of the movement sought to set any acrimony aside and clear the air. And on “Stakes Is High,” Posdnuos declared: “The Native Tongues has officially been reinstated.”
It was intended as a rallying cry, and the Stakes Is High booklet features a mini–Native Tongues reunion, but there was very little collective output for the remainder of the ’90s. Stakes Is High is the last album De La Soul released during the decade. They, along with Q-Tip, appear on the Native Tongues remix of the Jungle Brothers’ “How Ya Want It We Got It,” from their 1997 album Raw Deluxe. Tribe was officially done the following year. “I don’t think we all really got cool again until like four years ago,” Mike G of the Jungle Brothers told Vibe. “From ’96 to 2000, there was no real communication.” The only thing that meeting produced was fleeting optimism.
“So in that meeting, which was the last big meeting the Native Tongues had, we all were hopeful that it was a beginning,” Muhammad says. “But it took Tribe nearly another 18 years to even overcome our own differences to record We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service. So because we were dealing with our own internal obstacles, it wasn’t feasible for us to even build something after that because we were still trying to get our footing. So it was a hell of a cheerleading line on ‘Stakes Is High,’ and we were hopeful, but we just could never get to it.”
There was no Native Tongues resurgence, but Stakes Is High and Beats, Rhymes and Life featured kindred spirits and extended family who continued the legacy. Dilla helped to map out the sound of both albums, setting up his own path to greatness before his death in 2006. Common and Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) appear on Stakes Is High’s “The Bizness” and “Big Brother Beat.” Consequence went on to work with self-professed A Tribe Called Quest successor Kanye West. In 2004, Common, Bey, Q-Tip, and De La Soul were all summoned by ardent Native Tongues enthusiast Pharrell Williams for the Native Tongues remix of N.E.R.D’s “She Wants to Move,” which interpolates the Jungle Brothers’ “I’ll House You.” “There wasn’t another Native Tongues, but there were a lot of offshoots and that was confirmation for me to keep doing what I do,” Muhammad says.
Stakes Is High and Beats, Rhymes and Life are perfect snapshots of hip-hop in transition. In-house culture wars and generational strife aren’t new, so understanding the friction of earlier adjustment periods is crucial to understanding how hip-hop got to its current state. The growth of hip-hop into a ubiquitous force, along with the progression of the internet, has made it so that niche artists and legacy acts can thrive on the support of audiences they’ve worked hard to build. Despite the bulk of its music being absent from streaming services due to a dispute with Tommy Boy Records, De La Soul crowdfunded its most recent album, 2016’s And the Anonymous Nobody. The erasure of regional and ideological lines made it so that they could collaborate with 2 Chainz—and have it make sense. Hip-hop snowballing into the popular music and culture made it so that De La Soul can commiserate over the Tommy Boy situation with former labelmate turned podcaster N.O.R.E. on a platform founded by Diddy. It’s why they’ve done two collaborations with Nike. It’s why Q-Tip can create a hip-hop culture commission for the Kennedy Center. And it’s why Muhammad and Adrian Younge can score Netflix’s adaptation of Luke Cage, which Coker wrote, produced, and oversaw.
The concern heard on Stakes Is High and Beats, Rhymes and Life was justifiable because the change was aggressive, but in many ways beneficial in the long run. “I think what was happening was that these groups were saying: ‘Look, no one is mad at anyone making money, just don’t dilute the spirit of the culture,’” Coker says. De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest may have questioned the upside of hip-hop’s transformation back then, but no one should blame them for channeling their wariness into art when resistance made them who they are.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.