Imagine there's no booty. No honeys looking fly. No Cristal in the bathtub. No Rolies in the sky. Now imagine De La Soul in 1989, ignoring hip-hop flash and fashion with their classic debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, rhyming about potholes in the lawn, dressing like floppy Muppets who got lost on the way to the golf course, sampling everything from Steely Dan to Schoolhouse Rock. De La Soul were a Saturday-morning-cartoon hip-hop crew, with producer Prince Paul supplying the funniest jokes. Along with their homeys A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers, the trio summed up the Native Tongues style of hip-hop: progressive, playful, light on its feet. Like all good things, the Native Tongues moment ended too soon, but De La Soul never hung it up; on their fifth album, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, Posdnuos, Dave (formerly Trugoy) and Maseo continue their strange evolution as hip-hop elder statesmen.
The wisecracking teens who made 3 Feet High are all in their thirties now, and although their music has gotten smoother, it remains witty, eccentric and full of left-field sonic detours. Art Official Intelligence, the first installment of a planned trilogy, is De La Soul's first album since 1996's Stakes Is High, which was their first album in three years. (Who do these guys think they are, Pink Floyd?) But when De La Soul get to the studio, they know how to throw a party there. "Oooh" is the sort of crazy-silly funk mayhem that few other hip-hop adults would try, laced with Redman's demented babble and De La Soul's Treacherous Three impressions. "U Can Do (Life)" loops a snatch of Chic's "Le Freak" as Posdnuos boasts, "They stressin' back in the day/I'm at the front of the night." Like all of De La Soul's albums, Art Official Intelligence has too much indulgent filler, but that's the price they pay for experimenting, and the guest shots from Busta Rhymes, Chaka Khan, Xzibit and the Beastie Boys keep the bodies moving. Despite their low media profile and a near-total absence of bling, De La Soul show how hip-hop lifers can grow up on the job.
The Native Tongues spirit lives on in the arty, collegiate crews dubbed "the underground" by believers and "backpackers" by skeptics. The problem with underground hip-hop is the music. The beat goes jazz-fusion soft, while the MCs try so hard to sound subtle and detached that the whole mixture ends up as a puddle on the floor. Dilated Peoples' major-label debut, The Platform, improves over their independent-label work, thanks to DJ Babu's chunky beats and help from Cypress Hill's B Real, Tha Alkaholiks and long-lost prog-rapper Aceyalone. But Dilated Peoples are still painfully tame on the mike, especially Evidence, who hits a dubious milestone in "The Platform" by becoming the first rapper ever to utter the words "between you and I." The vocals sink the music: This is the kind of hip-hop album where the MC compares himself to Steve Howe, and while you hope he means the baseball player, you know in your heart he really means the guitarist from Yes. Too bad the Peoples don't sample "Roundabout."
Detroit's Slum Village offer a livelier update of the Native Tongues sound. Their debut is Fantastic, Vol. 2 (there was no Volume One, unless you count the Wham! album Fantastic). Producer-MC Jay Dee made his name with A Tribe Called Quest as part of the Ummah production crew, and Slum Village refine the laid-back sound he helped to invent, with cushy jazz keyboards all over the place. Jay Dee raps along with fellow members Baatin and T3 but submerges the vocals deep in the mix until they become a subliminal sound effect — a wise strategy, since the raps that float to the surface are nothing special. Q-Tip makes a great cameo over the trigger-drum beats of "Hold Tight," while Busta, Kurupt and Pete Rock also pay their respects, and D'Angelo sits in for the quiet-storm ballad "Tell Me."
With all the celebs on hand, Fantastic, Vol. 2 could have been a multiple-ego trip. Instead, it's Native Tongues hip-hop the way it should be done, right down to the low-key voices that fade away behind the Harvey's Bristol Cream-texture synths. There's no reason to think this sound will ever take over the world; in the hip-hop world, nice guys finish last. But as De La Soul and their disciples keep proving, sometimes it's a victory when the nice guys just stay in the damn race.