A Tribe Called Quest need little, if any, introduction- but on the off chance that you’re not familiar with the Queens NY collective, we’ll try to clue you up. Simply put, MC’s Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, DJ/Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and satellite member Jarobi White – otherwise known as A Tribe Called Quest – are, without question, one of the most celebrated, influential and innovative hip-hop groups in recent memory. This is not shallow hyperbole, nor is it misplaced admiration; ATCQ were at the epicentre of the ‘alternative hip-hop’ movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and have inspired legions of subsequent hip-hop artists and groups from Outkast to The Roots, from Kanye to Pharrell, from Kendrick to Cole. For real, if these dudes aren’t amongst some of your favourite rappers, they’re most probably amongst your favourite rapper’s favourite rappers. You follow?
Tribe gracefully expanded the borders of a hip-hop that was often ignorantly criticised by some for being macho, hyper-masculine and vitriolic. By injecting abstract, humorous, playful and reactive lyrics and themes into their music, ATCQ essentially helped birth conscious rap without ever straying into didacticism. One of the groups to emerge from the amalgamated Native Tongues posse, ATCQ embraced eclectic rhythms and sounds including jazz, funk and rock and roll, and rhymed with a unique style, charm and flow about a variety of subjects including race, sex, consumerism, community, healthy-eating and the cyclical nature of all things. Never played out and always clued up; with their tight flows, unabashed personalities and dope beats, Q-Tip, Phife, Ali and Jarobi solidified their place in Hip-Hop history.
Ahead of the release of their first studio album in eight years – We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 your Service’ – as well as a much-anticipated SNL performance, we figured it would be perfect time to delve into their discography, reminisce to a few of our favourite tracks and reflect on the lasting legacy of the funky trio. Here’s to one of the freshest crews to ever grace the game! All that’s left to say is RIP Malik!
Can i Kick it? – People’s Instinctive Travels…
Not necessarily a ‘deep cut’ by any stretch of the imagination, and indeed some purists might reel at the fact that such a bait tune has been included on this list, but it’s hard to argue that ‘Can i Kick It?’ was the record that put Tribe on the map. Written when all four members where still yet to broach their 20’s, and appearing on both their initial demo as well as their debut studio album, the track’s infectious ‘call and response’ hook has long-since transcended the realm of Hip-Hop. For real, regardless of whether or not your moms or pops are into hip-hop, ask em ‘Can i kick it?’ and we’d put money on them chiming in with a ‘yes ya can!’. The sultry, stripped-down Lou Reed sample allowed the emerging aesthetic of ATCQ to be at the forefront here; equal parts goofy and smart, palpable chemistry between the members and a genre-bending, inimitable approach – in both sound and style – to the hip-hop game.
Footprints – People’s Instinctive Travels…
Footprints is a track that might’ve flown under the radar of the more casual Quester, but it’s undoubtedly vintage tribe and one of our favourite joints off of the first studio album. As the opening Stevie Wonder trumpets (Sir Duke) segue into Donal Byrd’s collage of sound (Think Twice), Q-Tip’s smooth flows and nascent story-telling abilities are put on show. This combination of production and parlance is typically mesmeric – but the delight which the listener gets upon being snapped out of that trance as the kick drums and snare make an appearance (On Tip’s demand at 37 seconds) simply never grows old. Tracing Tip’s lyrics, it becomes evident that this is an anthem that not only pay’s heed to the footprints that a group like ATCQ are following in, but also boldly predicts the marks that the collective will go on to make.
Excursions- The Low End Theory
Aside from having one of the dopest hip-hop album covers of all time, if not one of the dopest album covers period, The Low End Theory was widely regarded to be an instant classic and, year after year, its reputation and the esteem with which it is held only seems to grow. Excursions is the opening track and it definitely sets pace; an undulating base line that grabs your attention, Tip’s characteristic, crystal-clear narration, and referential samples (in this case, the jazz of Art Blakey and the rhapsodies of The Last Poets) elegantly merge together to make a bold musical statement that would be expanded on in the rest of the album.
Check The Rhime – The Low End Theory
To be perfectly honest, any one of the tracks from The Low End Theory could easily make this list – a fact that stands as a testament to the album’s importance as well as its enduring critical and commercial success. We’ve included ‘Check The Rhime’ not just because of its infectious Average White Band-supplied brass hook, but because Phife’s irresistible presence on the track. Whilst Phife appeared almost as a ‘bonus’ on the group’s first album, he really started to come into his own and began to establish himself as one of Hip-Hop’s great lyricists and personalities on The Low End Theory. On Check The Rhime, The Five Foot Three Assassin demonstrates the keen wit and snappy flows that would eventually enamour him to hip-hop enthusiasts across the globe. What’s more, this track perfectly showcases both the natural chemistry and neat interplay between Phife and Tip- something which would grow to be a hallmark of the ATCQ sound.
Electric Relaxation – Midnight Marauders
Perhaps second only to ‘Can i Kick It?’ in terms of its popularity, Electric Relaxation
has to go down as one of the smoothest Hip-Hop joints ever made. Over a delectable Ronnie Foster sample (Mystic River) Q-Tip and Phife Dawg trade bars about the minutiae of serenading girls from around the way. Again, the interplay of the duo is at the forefront here as they share the verses and flow off of one another flawlessly. Whilst The Abstract is as elegant and eloquent as ever, The Phifer comes through with some rhymes, both bold and comic, that are as memorable now as when they were first uttered; we won’t point you to our favourites, but suffice to say there’s a pretty good furniture ad in here somewhere… A word too on the dope visuals; the crisp, monochrome rendering of 90’s Era New York – be it through the taxi windows or the glass panes of the diner- is as cool as the beat and as slick as the lyrics; the heavy dose of nostalgia it gives us doesn’t hurt the record’s appeal either.
Wordplay – Beats, Rhymes and Life.
Wordplay is a cut from the fourth studio album Beats Rhymes and Life, and Phife once stated in an interview that it was one of his top five, personal favourite ATCQ joints. Production on this album was handled by ‘The Ummah’, the newly formed production collective featuring Tip, Ali and a certain Jay Dee (otherwise known as Dilla) from Detroit. Beats is often cited as Tribe’s ‘darkest record’ – an observation that’s hard to disagree with after sampling some of the combative, cynical lyrics of opener ‘Phony Rappers’ and nodding your head along to the slick, but almost off-kilter and tense beat. Though various tracks on this album demonstrate the production prowess of all three artists, Wordplay especially demonstrates Dilla’s innovative style and unique sound; the off-beat drums and glazed, but polished synths encapsulate Dilla’s laid back, organic style. Wordplay was, in many ways, indicative of the musical direction that ATCQ would go on to pursue in their fifth album The Love Movement.
Very Honourable Mentions
We know generally we limit ourselves to six entries, but it seems almost obscene to not pay homage to a few more influential tracks. Consider our inability to adhere to our general form yet another testament to ATCQ’s diverse and influential discography and their legendary status in the hip-hop scene. Be sure to keep an eye out for their SNL performance and keep your ears peeled for their new album, set to drop on NOVEMBER 11th.