In high school, I would stop two or three times a week by the Music Factory at 169th Street and Jamaica Avenue, a mom-and-pop hole that stocked more rap vinyl than any other store in Queens. Staring at the multicolored album jackets lining the walls from floor to ceiling made me feel immersed in hiphop. On one of my regular visits I walked in on Malik Taylor, aka Phife from A Tribe Called Quest. We shook hands, and I moved on.
In my senior year, I spotted Johnathan “Q-Tip” Davis III, the Tribe’s lead MC, under the freshly constructed blue canopies of the Parsons-Archer bus station. He was wearing a knapsack and headphones, just like me. He was waiting for his Merrick Boulevard bus, “downtown 83, of course,” as I was waiting for mine.
I was not surprised to see either of them. I had seen all of their videos; “Check the Rhime” was filmed at the Nu-Clear Laundromat down the street from my old church. I had heard all of their music; the “Back in the days on the Boulevard of Linden” chorus played constantly on the radio. But even if the Q in Q-Tip had stood for Quebec and not Queens, I’d have still known exactly where they were coming from. Our allegiance to hiphop had been forged in the same place, during the same golden era. So when I heard recently that A Tribe Called Quest was breaking up, it seemed, given the tarnish on today’s hiphop, only natural.
Tribe’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, came out in 1990, when hiphop was erupting with fiery ideologies, from Public Enemy’s militancy to the Jungle Brothers’ Afrocentricity. Even the less conceptual artists like Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, and Special Ed issued intense opinions on everything from alcoholism to racism to materialism. At the time, the genre was enjoying its most abundant variety of ideas.
Common among them was that they were all exploiting the music for more than entertainmentit became a forum for speaking to the urban masses. Brand Nubian advised us to “Slow Down” on drug use; KRS-One commanded us to “Stop the Violence.” Rappers didn’t shy away from being leaders, even (ugh!) role models. Hiphop had emerged in the late ’70s as another way to move behinds, but after only 10 years, the music was on the verge of swaying minds as well.
A Tribe Called Quest worked hiphop’s exhortative aspect with subtle ingenuity. De La Soul often spoke the language of another planet, but you could relate to Tribe. Q-Tip’s abstractions of real urban life (“After Hours,” “Everything Is Fair”) showed him hovering just above the ground without succumbing to gravity or drifting off into space. His songs were cautionary but not preachy: On “Sucka Nigga,” Q-Tip laments his using the word “nigger” without undermining his street credibility. “Pubic Enemy,” Q-Tip’s reworking of “Old King Cole” that finds the “merry old soul” stricken with a venereal disease, denounces sexual promiscuity with playful wit. Mr. Muhammad’s bangin’ beats, and Q-Tip and Phife’s charisma, made some of hiphop history’s most provocative song concepts strangely palatable.
But disappointment greeted Tribe’s 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life. It was a shockingly poor effort, shoddily constructed and overly simplistic. But even an excellent Tribe album would not have made much of a commercial dent when Life came out. The rap landscape was flattening. The free-flowing ideas of the early ’90s had disappeared; industry heads, artists, and fans had closed their minds to experimentation.
The idiom’s variety was buried by the ridiculous East Coast-vs.-West Coast rap rivalry, which wrought the violent deaths of Biggie and Tupac. Just when it seemed that artists and fans might end their trivial but deadly squabbles, a more divisive conflict arose between the independent and the major-label artistssymbolized by the hypermaterialistic Puffy and the hatefully anti-industry Company Flowturning hiphop in on itself. These days, the dominant opinions voiced on any rap song are either “I’ve made tons of money from rapping” or “I’m 10 times better than you, and I haven’t made a dime.” Hiphop is now only about hiphop.
After a mildly stirring show at Georgetown’s McDonough Gymnasium two weeks ago, an exhausted Q-Tip tried to explain to a trio of heartbroken Howard University women the reason behind the Tribe’s breakup. The self-dubbed Abstract Poet said that he and the others have simply said everything that they possibly can as A Tribe Called Quest. More to the point, judging from their latest effort, they have said all they are willing to risk saying in hiphop’s current claustrophobic climate.
Their fifth and final album, The Love Movement, is intended to make a bold statement about the necessity of love in an increasingly individualistic society. It is in fact a breezy revisiting of some of Tribe’s less controversial themes. They tackle urban romance à la “Bonita Applebum” once again with “Find a Way,” “Common Ground,” and “Against the World.” They rejoice in the company of extended family with Busta Rhymes, Redman, and Noreaga, among others, but they never quite re-create the adrenaline overflow of their 1991 bum’s rush, “Scenario.”
Throughout Movement are constantto the point of numbingverbal reminders that these guys are above materialism, driven by a love for the art form. But it’s merely a safe record; it contains no last words of wisdom to make you lament their disbanding. The conviction and commentary of Tribe’s previous work have gone out of fashion in today’s hiphop, but fans born of a better age realize that it was essential to their significance. If Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife-Dog, and Q-Tip the Abstract Poet had not decided to go, we would have probably forgotten they were even still here.CP
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Jungle Brothers’ debut album, Straight Out the Jungle, is one of many unheralded gems of hiphop’s golden era. Beyond its sheer artistry, the album is significant because it introduced A Tribe Called Quest to the hiphop world. In 1988, Tribe had even less name recognition than their relatively obscure hosts, so of the many things that made Straight Out the Jungle an underground head-banger, the presence of Tribe’s lead lyricist, Q-Tip, ranked at the bottom. Q-Tip’s contribution to “Black Is Black” made it one of the album’s better cuts, but his lyrical offering on “The Promo” couldn’t save it from being one of the album’s weakest.
Ironically, while the Jungle Brothers never got the credit they deserved, Tribe became pop-world darlings. Q-Tip and Co. strung together four commercially successful albums, made film appearances, and produced tracks for the likes of Janet Jackson. Yet unlike countless other MCs seeking greater record sales, Tribe walked the line between pop and the underground with ease. While the soft-hop purveyors became running jokes among hiphop heads (read: Will Smith), Tribe could be honored both at the Grammys and in the ciphers.
Tribe touched the entire spectrum of American life, claiming one generation raised on MTV and another reared on drug raids. There was a time when this wasn’t unique. Public Enemy, Run-DMC, and a younger LL Cool J all ran the gamut from the palaces to the projects. But that was before Lady Dollar seduced rap like the illest of sirens, locked the art between her legs, and began birthing mediocrity for profit. Tribe was the last group to resist the enticements of blatant commercialism and still remain popular.
Yet only death itself is more inevitable than the dismembering of music groups. Thus it is not simply the death of Tribe that’s hard to accept, it’s also what that death represents. The end of Tribe essentially means the end of the last super-rappersartists from hiphop’s creative heyday who crafted masterpieces and made them sell. Rapdom’s new lords tend to confuse creativity with indiscriminate hedonism. Indeed, the disbanding of A Tribe Called Quest affirms an already recognized truththat the hiphop nation is in the sorry hands of infidels, debauchers, and otherwise phony rappers.
Tribe’s final offering on the newly released The Love Moment is not their finest hour. The tracks have a boring, meandering quality to them, and both Tip and Phife sound tired. The few bright spots come on the single “Find a Way,” and a few cameo cuts featuring the likes of Busta Rhymes, Redman, Mos Def, and a more polished Noreaga. But as mediocre as Movement is, it is still essentially a Tribe album. It makes no compromises for pop’s sake, and it’s at least akin to their earlier works.
In 1990, when Tribe dropped its debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, rap ruled. The previous year had seen De La Soul’s formidable debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, as well as EPMD’s classic sophomore album, Unfinished Business. Public Enemy would release Fear of a Black Planet the same year Tribe emerged. Travels is at the very least a decent album, but it doesn’t rival the importance of Tribe’s second and third releases, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders.
The Low End Theory came out toward the end of 1991, just when things in hiphop appeared to be falling apart. Tribe released Midnight Marauders in 1993, a year dominated by the quintessential gangsta rap album, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. Yet despite the chaotic context, both albums went platinum and became classics among hiphop heads.
Some rappers, like LL Cool J, would also survive through the early ’90s and profit commercially. But for the sake of record sales, LL reinvented himself as the original player and subsequently lost a measure of artistic respect. Others who attempted failed miserably. Big Daddy Kane, like LL, embraced the player image for profit, but his sales never reflected the switch. Consequently, Kane accomplished the double feat of becoming both commercially and artistically irrelevant.
But Tribe, despite some minor refinements, remained Tribe, and the rap world loved them for it. The group eschewed foolish album skits, bombastic statements, and catchy phraseology. Q-Tip would tell the world that he wrote his rhymes “straight-up; don’t give it no fancy stencils.” While Phife dismissed artists who enlisted fashionable accessories to achieve success, “talkin bout, I need a Philly right before I get loose/Poor excuse, money please, I get loose off of orange juice.” Tribe never sacrificed themselves or the respect of their original fans for paltry and fickle pop acceptance. But they got accepted anywayon their own terms.
Tribe was the truth. Hyperbole is one of rap’s integral elements, and Tribe did their share of bragging. But they never made you feel as if you were being lied to. Listening to “Bonita Applebum” never made you feel the way Lil’ Kim does when she brags that she’s got banks to rob or the way Puff makes you feel when he boasts that he’s got a Benz he “ain’t even drove yet.”
After 10 years, five albums, and at least two classics, it’s Tribe’s prerogative to wanna leave. But there’s something deeply unsettling about their loss. The truth is that the new publicly recognized monarchs of rap couldn’t hold Q-Tip’s mike cord. There’s still creativity brewing underground with groups such as Black Star. But few artists can match Tribe’s ability to produce great art and get it in the hands of lots of people.
Hiphop today is populated by a delusional bunch obsessed with the superficial sort of power manifest in excessthe ability to smoke several blunts and sleep with multiple women. What Tribe is leaving behind is the most tragicomic of sightsa nation of people dancing in the frying pan while the bandleaders tell them to keep cool.CP