A Tribe Called Quest – photographed by Shayan Asgharnia.
Do us a favor real quick and type in “rap albums released in 1989.”
Did you see it? What came up? If the first album displayed was De La Soul‘s seminal debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, a 24-song release that found the trio’s playful rhymes on top of beats crafted with bits-and-pieces of James Brown, Funkadelic, Michael Jackson and Sly Stone. But even before that introduction hits your ears, you get a sense of how different De La is from their contemporaries based on the album artwork alone.
Three black faces against a bright yellow backdrop; the album title in green and the group’s name in pink with a peace sign replacing the “O” in “Soul”.
Critics at the time generalized the aesthetic of De La Soul as a “hippie” group, but the truth is that the trio was simply trying to offer a simple sentiment: There is more than one form of representation for black masculinity. De La Soul’s aesthetic came to life through their music videos: the Native Tongues posse party cut, “Buddy”; the lave lamp trip of “Eye Know” and the high school sitcom of “Me, Myself and I”.
The latter is most indicative of De La Soul’s divisiveness as they attempted to be true to themselves outside of mainstream portrayals of black men.
As Dave, Maseo and Posdnous are chastised by Professor Defbeat and their classmates, they offer their raps with deadpan delivery. Their desire for individuality and inclusivity goes unheard, each one antagonized throughout the video. By the end, the trio leave Defbeat’s classroom, with the main interpretation from the video being the power of liberating one’s self from an identity that is not for them is ideal. But another take away can be one that speaks to a problem that is still prevalent in rap: individuality and inclusivity are seen as mutually exclusive.
Through pure aesthetic alone De La Soul challenged black masculinity. Their use of color, a visual contrast to the images presented in Gangster rap made songs such as “Eye Know” a swirl of fluorescent colors that surrounded the trio. There was a nostalgic comfort to it all. The playfulness De La Soul presented was necessary — that black positivity served just as much significance as black anger.
Then came A Tribe Called Quest.