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Native Tongue festival brings together hip-hop’s past and present

Jungle Brothers performed as part of Native Tongue Fest at the 9:30 Club on July 18. (9:30 Club)

It’s been 30 years since De La Soul released “Buddy” and its remix, both notable for coy references to casual sex and elevating the hip-hop collective known as the Native Tongues within the mainstream. The Native Tongues — made up of artists including the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love and Queen Latifah — offered a trailblazing brand of hip-hop that was considered “alternative” at the time because it stood in contrast to the braggadocio of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane and the subversiveness of Public Enemy and N.W.A.

The collective grew during the 1990s, with the likes of Black Sheep, Brand Nubian, Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) and Common joining the core and the extended family. Their influence helped hip-hop evolve into something more expansive. Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, two of the most successful and influential figures in music over the past two decades, are Native Tongues disciples.

On Thursday night, the 9:30 Club hosted the inaugural Native Tongue festival. The show featured Monie Love, the Beatnuts, Da Bush Babees, Fu-Schnickens, Leaders of the New School, Black Sheep, Chi-Ali, Brand Nubian and the Jungle Brothers, mixing members of the Native Tongue nucleus with its long list of family members. The night focused on the collective’s impact on hip-hop’s first golden era, as well as its enduring hold on the genre and its culture.

Echoing the lessons of the Nation of Gods and Earths will always be one of Brand Nubian’s defining characteristics, but some of the group’s less-heralded moments still capture hip-hop’s transition to something greater. Grand Puba performed his verse from Mary J. Blige’s “What’s the 411?,” the title track from an album praised for its influential fusion of R&B and hip-hop. “This is where the word ‘swag’ came from,” Grand Puba said before performing the song. That dichotomy, between the past and the present, lingered throughout the show.

After taking the stage to her verse from “Buddy,” Monie Love questioned why shows of similar scale don’t feature more women. “Why am I always the only girl on all these lineups with my brothers?” she asked. And after performing her portion of Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First,” she told anyone who knows young women interested in pursuing hip-hop to give them this advice: “Focus on what’s in your bars, as opposed to what’s in your bra.” It was a well-intentioned quip, but it echoed an old, flawed criticism of women in hip-hop: that successful female rappers tend to be popular because of their sexuality rather than their talent.

Several performers took the time to pay homage to their Native Tongue family who have passed away over the years. Shortly after performing “The Choice Is Yours,” Dres of Black Sheep paid his respects to Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, former executive Chris Lighty and celebrated producer and rapper J Dilla. Those figures played pivotal roles in making the Native Tongues what they are. The tributes continued throughout the show.

Jarobi White, a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, honored Phife with a montage of images and obscure sound bytes during his DJ set. DJ Maseo, also known as Plug Three of De La Soul, played several songs produced by Dilla,including “Stakes Is High,” from De La Soul’s 1996 album of the same name. And after the legendary Kool DJ Red Alert reminisced about filming the “Buddy” video 30 years ago, he introduced the group he helped establish that, in turn, helped establish the Native Tongues: the Jungle Brothers, fitting closers.

The group’s 1988 debut, “Straight Out the Jungle,” was the very first Native Tongue release. Seeing the Jungle Brothers perform “I’ll House You” 31 years later was beautiful, considering how instrumental it was in hip-hop and house music’s ongoing synthesis. Hip-hop couldn’t have arrived to where it is today without that. And that was the first Native Tongue festival’s resounding theme.