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“The House of the Jazz, of the Funk, of the Rhythm” – A Beginner’s Guide to A Tribe Called Quest

People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm (1990)

“We weren’t trying to be tough guys, we didn’t need to be tough guys, we weren’t beating on our chests. It was about having fun, about being light-hearted, being witty, being poetic. Just being good with one another. Just kickin’ it, enjoying life. Being smart. Not being a puppet.

“I think that’s what we presented. Not being fake. Not having a pose. Not pretending to be tough when you’re not. Just be. Just exist. Be comfortable in your skin. And I think that’s what People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm was about: celebrating you, whoever you are.” (Ali Shaheed Muhammad)

Although Q-Tip and co. hadn’t truly mastered their sound yet, People’s Instinctive Travels… stands as one of the greatest debuts of all time because (brilliant songs aside) itestablished what A Tribe Called Quest were all about so effectively. They handled a plethora of topics; safe sex is humorously explored on ‘Pubic Enemy’, ‘Youthful Expression’ is a testament to the power of younger generations, and their Afrocentrism is constantly referenced throughout. No matter how serious or silly the subject was, they never sacrificed the good nature and laid-back vibes that were at the core of their identity.

With its dizzying array of samples, People’s Instinctive Travels… broad sonic reach reflected Q-Tip’s willingness to push the boundaries of hip-hop. He produced the groundwork for most of the album on pause tapes while he was at high school, taking sounds from the past and creatively moulding them in his own image. His wizardry is best demonstrated on the much-adored ‘Bonita Applebum’. A summer jam that depicts Q-Tip’s romantic pursuit of the titular character, the airy keys, funky guitars and subtle punchiness of the drum loop coalesce naturally with his smooth flow and his lustful yet tender (and somewhat coy) lyricism. With Tip’s promises about kissing his girl “where some brothers won’t” and having “crazy prophylactics”, it exudes the kind of charm that only Tribe were able to conjure.

The one, tiny downside to People’s Instinctive Travels… is that Phife’s contributions are sadly few and far between. He steals ‘Can I Kick It?’ from under Q-Tip’s nose, and his back-and-forth with Tip on healthy eating throwdown ‘Ham ‘N’ Eggs’ is extremely enjoyable, but he rarely gets a look-in beyond that. Whether it was mainly down to him not being an official member of the group at this point, or skipping recording sessions to watch his beloved New York Knicks, Phife’s limited presence is the only blot on a philosophical yet miraculously fun journey that demonstrated Tribe’s greatness from the outset. (10/10) (LISTEN)

The Low End Theory (1991)

I’m going to try my hardest, but the words I write won’t be enough to capture the awe-inspiring genius of The Low End Theory. It was their Sgt. Pepper, their Dark Side Of The Moon. This was A Tribe Called Quest at their apex.

It’s the album where A Tribe Called Quest dived head-first into their jazz influences. ‘Excursions’ sets the tone for the rest of the album with its thumping beat, swirling sax samples and an iconic bassline that’s both gritty and melodic. Q-Tip (on typically fine form) pays homage to bebop and its intrinsic link to hip-hop. As inherently black art-forms, the connection between jazz and hip-hop was something that the group were keen to emphasise throughout, from recruiting legendary double-bassist Ron Carter to play the nimble groove on ‘Verses From The Abstract’, to Tip’s line on ‘Jazz (We Got)’ about “the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead.” Tribe didn’t just alter the course of hip-hop on The Low End Theory, but also reimagined the sound of their ancestors for a new generation.

It’s also the album where it became clear that Phife Dawg was more than just Q-Tip’s sidekick. Having been diagnosed with diabetes prior to the album’s recording, Phife almost left A Tribe Called Quest, but agreed to stick around after he was granted more creative input. The decision added a whole new dimension to their sound. Phife’s larger-than-life flow compliments Tip’s ice-cool delivery to perfection, most notably on the colossal, swaggering ‘Buggin’ Out’ and the euphoric ‘Check The Rhime’. He even gets a chance to shine on his own on ‘Butter’, which caused a brief argument with Tip as he was originally meant to have his own verse on the track. Thankfully he relented, and ‘Butter’ became the perfect showcase for Phife’s talents, where he balanced his braggadocio and wit with hints of self-deprecation. There’s also his ferocious verse on the celebratory ‘Scenario’, which also gave Busta Rhymes a major platform for his manic charisma.

The Low End Theory is the album that cemented A Tribe Called Quest’s status as one of hip-hop’s great innovators. It’s the most essential document of their legacy, and is rightly heralded as one of the greatest albums of all time. (10/10) (LISTEN)

Midnight Maruders (1993)

After the success of The Low End Theory, Tribe were naturally burdened with the pressure to deliver an equally great follow-up. How did they respond? By reminding everyone just how untouchable they were.

To make sure that they didn’t buckle under the stress, Q-Tip wanted to create a relaxed environment for the group to work in for their next album. He set up his production equipment in Phife’s grandmother’s basement, and was given a key so that he could stop by and tinker with the album whenever he liked. Not only was it beneficial for Tip’s creative process, but for Phife’s as well. Phife’s diabetes often left him burned out after recording and touring, so Tip sought to make a space that would help him reach the top of his game.

The approach worked wonders for Tip and Phife’s chemistry on Midnight Marauders. It was sharper than ever before, most notably on the album’s three singles. On ‘Award Tour’, they’re in a celebratory mood, basking in the success that came their way following The Low End Theory, while on ‘Oh My God’, they stamp their authority in between a glorious sax sample and a frenzied Busta Rhymes guest spot. They’re at their best though on the debonair ‘Electric Relaxation’; over a blissed-out reworking of Ronnie Foster’s ‘Mystic Brew’, Tip dons his loverman schtick á la ‘Bonita Applebum’, while Phife is all tongue-in-cheek references and Trinidadian bombast. The solo cuts are just as enthralling; Phife narrates the ultimate bad day on the uncharacteristically bleak ‘8 Million Stories’; ‘Sucka N****’ sees Tip ruminating on the changing connotations of the N-word and its usage as a symbol of black empowerment.

Midnight Marauders wasn’t as revolutionary as The Low End Theory production-wise, but Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were still wickedly inventive with the sounds they had at their disposal. Their interpolation of Steve Arrington’s ‘Beddie Biey’ gives ‘The Chase, Part II’ its sun-kissed shimmer, and with its gentle guitar strums and minimal emphasis on bass, ‘God Lives Through’ is beautifully restrained. It’s perhaps the best way to describe Midnight Marauders altogether; it didn’t change the game like its predecessor, but it certified that nobody could make hip-hop as clever, fun and as sonically breathtaking as A Tribe Called Quest could. (10/10) (LISTEN)

Beats, Rhymes And Life (1996)

Listening back to Beats, Rhymes And Life, it’s clear that the atmosphere within A Tribe Called Quest was souring. There’s still lots to like about it – Tribe operating at half the quality were still better than most – but for the first time in their career, they made an album that didn’t forge a bold new path for hip-hop. It was merely good. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s fair to say Q-Tip and Phife Dawg weren’t at the peak of their powers here. Granted, they still have their moments; Phife is in blistering form on ‘Baby Phife’s Return’ and ‘The Hop’ in particular. For the most part though, their delivery is colder, and their bars aren’t as witty or insightful. The addition of Q-Tip’s cousin Consequence didn’t help matters either. Because Phife had to travel from Atlanta to attend recording sessions, Tip believed that he would contribute less frequently as a result, thus entrusted Consequence to provide some verses for the album. Despite being a technically competent rapper, he couldn’t hold a candle to Tip and Phife, and his presence often got in the way of their rapport (see ‘Motivators’).

The production on Beats, Rhymes And Life was also darker and noticeably more polished. The decision was understandable; with the rise of grittier acts such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep (with whom Q-Tip worked on their 1995 album The Infamous), Tribe’s signature sound felt at odds with hip-hop’s changing climate. Tip formed production group The Ummah with Muhammad and a relatively unknown J Dilla, and the trio transformed Tribe’s music into something more soulful and less sample-driven. Dilla was clearly the catalyst for the shift in sound; his fingerprints are all over the album, from the snappy snare textures to the woozy sampling techniques. Beats, Rhymes And Life presaged how great Dilla was – the wistful ‘Get A Hold’ is a definitive Tribe song – but the murkier, cleaner production didn’t really suit the group, who were always better at their most raw and playful.

On ‘1nce Again’, Tip and Phife reprise the call-and-response from ‘Check The Rhime’ (“You on point, Phife? / Once again, Tip”). However, where it felt organic and fun before, it felt hollow and forced this time around. It was as if Tribe were trying to convince everybody that they were the same, peerless unit that they were before, but really, it suggested that they were struggling to fit into the new hip-hop landscape. Beats, Rhymes And Life wasn’t an abject failure by any means (it was their first number one album) but considering how high they set the bar, it’s hard not to view it as a disappointment. (7/10) (LISTEN)

The Love Movement (1998)

Just after The Love Movement’s release, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad appeared on the front cover of The Source magazine. Dressed in black, Q-Tip stares solemnly into the camera, flanked either side by Phife and Muhammad, who look at the floor with the most forlorn expressions possible. The photo told a thousand words, and the headline underneath drove home the obvious; A Tribe Called Quest were to go their separate ways.

There’s a sad irony when it comes to The Love Movement. It was a concept album about love, but it was made by a group whose love for each other had turned to dust (for the time being at least, but we’ll get to that later). The songs were fine, but strangely characterless; the group’s radiant positivity and desire to innovate had disappeared, replaced by an overly-serious demeanour and a sound that lacked in colour and creativity in comparison to their first three albums. Tip and Phife’s faltering relationship had fully manifested itself in the music; Tip sounds unenthused throughout, and apart from on the breezy shuffle of ‘Pad & Pen’, there was hardly any of the quintessential interplay between him and Phife. It’s particularly telling that Phife shows up less regularly than before, although his verse on ‘His Name Is Mutty Ranks’ offered glimpses of his infectious energy.

Although the album encapsulated Tribe’s artistic descent, there were still several bright spots. ‘Find A Way’ is one of the finest songs in their arsenal, with the ethereal production providing the base for Tip and Phife to wax lyrical about the emotional strain of unrequited love. Tip ponders his gratitude for life on penultimate track ‘The Love’, a euphoric shot in the arm that the album really could’ve done with more of. The Love Movement had its moments of brilliance, but it was a disappointing end to one of the most glittering runs in pop music history, best described by Hanif Abdurraqib in his book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest:

“It’s not that A Tribe Called Quest couldn’t have continued to be great and attempt great things, and it is not that the sound in hip-hop was shifting so drastically that they couldn’t have found a lane. The problem was that A Tribe Called Quest simply didn’t have it in them to fight anymore. They built the whole tree, and held onto it for as long as they could, and then their season arrived, and they decided to drift down and make their peace with falling.” (6/10) (LISTEN)

We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)

We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was an undoubted triumph. Not only was it heart-warming to hear Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Jarobi team up once again (Ali Shaheed Muhammad was working on the Luke Cage soundtrack, so unfortunately wasn’t involved), but they sounded just as vital as they did during their early Nineties heyday. Firstly, it was a haunting reflection on racism, inequality and bigotry. The album, which arrived three days after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, flawlessly detailed the disturbing social and political attitudes that still hang over America to this day. ‘The Space Program’ was a powerful rallying cry to the black community, ‘We The People…’ included a scathing critique of the President’s electoral campaign, and ‘Whateva Will Be’ explored the damaging stereotypes perpetuated by the media. Moreover, We Got It From Here… was a touching dedication to Phife’s memory. Q-Tip’s voice almost collapses during ‘Lost Somebody’ as he contemplates his grief, while Phife’s verse on ‘The Donald’ emphasised why his effervescence was crucial to the sense of joy that permeated through Tribe’s music. It’s heart-breaking knowing it’s the last time we would ever get to hear his voice, but we can only be grateful that he got one more chance to remind everyone how good he was before he passed away.

We Got It From Here… wasn’t just thematically rich, but sonically too. Q-Tip’s production gracefully appropriated elements of Tribe’s classic sound; there’s the monstrous boom-bap beat in ‘We The People’, and ‘Conrad Tokyo’ is filled with a bottom-heavy goodness. He even re-uses the sitar riff from ‘Bonita Applebum’ on ‘Enough!!’ in a typically self-referential moment. These nods to the past deftly coexist with some pleasantly unexpected turns throughout, like the reggae bounce of ‘Black Spasmodic’ and the heady psychedelia of the Elton John-sampling ‘Solid Wall Of Sound’. Not only that, but everyone that contributed to the album is on great form. The energy that emits from Tip and Phife’s bars is spectacular to hear unfold once more, and Jarobi gets the chance to show off his underutilised skill as an MC. The album’s abundance of guests each buy into Tribe’s vision, most notably Andre 3000, whose sparring with Tip on ‘Kids…’ makes for a collaboration that lives up to the superstar billing.

There was a danger that We Got It From Here… could’ve been nothing but a shallow nostalgia cash-in, or that the group could no longer replicate the inventiveness of their early work. Against all the odds, A Tribe Called Quest found a way to reinvent the wheel once more, even though it was to be their last hurrah. I’m sad that we’ll never hear new music from them again, but I can’t complain about the way they said goodbye. (9/10) (LISTEN)

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