I’ve been listening to nothing but the full compliment of A Tribe Called Quest’s catalog for the past two weeks, and all I can say is that despite my loyalty, affinity and seemingly undying fandom for fellow “Native Tongues” De La Soul, Tribe is (or, was) the best group in the early consciousness hip-hop genre. De La’s “3 Feet High and Rising” may be one of the most influential records in hip hop, but the tribe had three distinct masterpieces, with their first three albums each showing a unique vision, showing growth in skills and increasing depth and maturity in content, while also retaining a consistently “Tribe” feel.
The Tribe journey behind the scenes was a tumultuous one best recounted by musical scholars and wikipedia aficionados, but even without knowing the back-story, you can hear the group slowly dissolve over the fourth album, and their fifth marking a last hurrah as Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shahid Muhammad ventured out on their own. They would reunite (with original fourth member Jarobi) sporadically over the past five years for live shows, and even hinted at a sixth album, but it was stated that styles and interests of the group may no longer compliment one another, and coordinating with each other to write and produce would prove challenging.
Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths Of Rhythms
Still my favourite Tribe album, though I acknowledge it’s not their greatest album. I appreciate how it supports its length, 14 songs over sixty minutes. It’s as it’s titles suggests, rhythmic and traveling, moving smoothly between disparate topics, but unified in Ali’s brilliant samples and primarily downtempo beats. Q-Tip takes the lead, with Phife only pops up occasionally, Tip’s verbals are clean, clear and, in a sense, restrained, showing great depth in wordplay and intelligence. Phife had yet to come in his own but early signs of his playful tag-teaming with Tip are shown in the brilliant “Can I Kick It”, “Mr. Muhammad” and the least appealing track, “Ham and Eggs”. This album is in many respects a meditative one, the track “Rhythm (Devoted To The Art of Moving Butts)” is less danceable and more pensive, one of the most perfect cool-down tracks. Many nights over the past two decades (the album turns 20 next year) I would put the cd in the player and (preferrably with headphones) let the sound envelop me, from the opening twinkle backing a child’s wail, a audio simulation of the miracle of birth, leading in to jazzy “Push It Along”. The album feels like it comes to a close with “Go Ahead In The Rain” which is upbeat, funky and full of positive vibes (”even though the rain starts pourin’, start reachin’, start soarin’), the perfect send off, but they’re not done yet. Tip needs to remind you to also have consideration for others as well as yourself in “Description of a Fool”. Backed with disco funk loops from Ali, Tip drops some heavily juxtaposed stories, but that’s the great thing about Tribe, they so often leave you feeling good, energized, but also with something to think about. Though unsuccessful at first, this album has since garnered the acclaim and recognition it deserves, although, because it took such a lengthy path to success, it’s not as influential as subsequent albums, remaining unique and surprisingly fresh.
“Can I Kick It?” - one of their best known tracks, the track in the video isn’t the same as the album, and years (literally) of searching for it on cd have left me empty. Time to track the wax.
“Bonita Applebum” - the Tribe show their romantic side.
“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” - can’t find the video, but I know their is one. Perhaps their most playful track.
The Low End Theory
This was, in fact, my first Tribe Called Quest Album, the only one I could find after seeing the videos for Peoples Instinctive Travels…. It should have been a revelation for me, but honestly, I was a little disappointed. It’s a drastic shift from the funky, playful, full-bodied tracks of the previous album, Ali moving to samples of deep, almost subliminal upright bass grooves, jazz horns merged with a rhythm and blues vibe. Tip’s vocals step up, and move, almost incessantly, while Phife comes into his own, although perhaps not ready to hold a track all on his own yet. The fourteen tracks here move at a brisque 47 minutes, almost a full minute per song less than previous, and there’s barely a pause. Tip and Phife layer over each other, and they provide almost pop style refrains that they return to in the tracks, which isn’t to say they were endeavoring to turn commercial, their success with Low-End Theory almost surprising given how stripped down an album it is. Ali’s production finds Tip and Phife’s vocals frequently looped in, making them part of the tracks landscape. The deep bass grooves of this album catch me every time, especially the opening grooves of “Excursions” and “Buggin’ Out”, the potency of these two tracks, making up for the rather drab “Butter” and “Verses from the Abstract”, but track 7, “Vibes and Stuff”, brings it all back, and it never leaves, going into the heady (but not heavy) cautionary “The Infamous Date Rape”, and the incredible “Check the Rhyme”. The momentum carries through the brilliant “Jazz” all the way to the hype (yes, hype) team-up with Leaders of the New School “Scenario”, which I’d hazard is their most notorious song (mainly due to Busta Rhymes’ frenetic live performance on the Arsineo Hall Show).
“Check The Rhyme” - Low End Theory’s party song, which, when you think about what constitutes a party song these days, really makes it stand out.
“Scenario” - the infamous live Arsineo Hall performance which made Busta Rhymes an instant star.
“Jazz (We Got)” w/”Buggin’ Out” - merging the two best (and polarized) tracks on the album into one video.
Revised Quest for the Seasoned Traveler
While working on reinventing themselves yet again for their next album, Tribe put out this remix album, merging Peoples Instinctive Travels… and Low End Theory into one monster 12-song jam, which doesn’t just add new loops or beats, but in many cases completely revises the tracks. “Bonita Applebum” gets two mixes, one more steamy and throaty, the other more soulful with a chanteuse chorus. “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” finds Phife contributing some Caribbean flavour scatting mixing with Ali’s kettle-drums and Spanish horns, while safe-sex message of “Pubic Enemy” gets a deep, intense funk groove (from “Rappers Delight” no less). “Check Your Rhyme” gets more pensive with a prominent flute sample, “Luck of Lucien” gets expanded to 7 minutes, but is more hyperactive than ever. “Can I Kick It” gets an expanded mix, but it’s still not better than the video version, “If the Papes Come” is the sole new track, a jazzy hi-hat backing Q-Tip’s vox. “Jazz” gets re-recorded into something radically upbeat and uptempo, while “Butter”, once again, is the weakest track. While I’d be hesitant to say any of these tracks are superior to their originals, the new forms were welcome diversions from the familiar, and most were just as pleasing as their source.
It’s with their third album that Tribe solidified their legacy. If any of their works would influence new rappers, listeners and culture in general, it would be this one, where Tip and Phife address head on their culture, their profession and themselves, while Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s production just gets dense. Tip and Phife perfect their give and take rhyming, exemplified by the first track “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” (referencing the slain South African rights activist Steve Biko), showing up over half the tracks. The lounge-jazz keyboards switch tempo for “Award Tour” which is about as bouncy and upbeat a track as Tribe ever made, a track celebrating in earnest their success with Low End Theory. Phife’s rapping shows increasing strength, taking lead on many songs, and going solo on “8 Million Stories”, though that track seems pretty introverted compared to the “Sucka Nigga”, probably Tribe’s most potent track, in which Tip examines the ever-controversial N-word, and how the rap artists at the time began to embrace and recontextualize the word. Midnight Marauders, like the previous albums, uses it’s album title to set the tone of the album, many of the songs, like “Midnight” and “We Can Get Down”, are darker, heavier, and are evocative of the moments that happen after the sun goes down, the “Midnight Marauder tour guide” keeping the title in the listener’s consciousness . Tracks waver between heavy kickdrum-backed or smooth bass-laden, and it’s not that Tribe’s sense of fun completely disappeares but there’s a maturity to the album which completes the journey that began in People’s Instinctive Travels…, and is actually more complimentary to Their first album than their second. It remains a stunning piece, 15 years hence.
“Electric Relaxation” - Tribe’s most chill track was an unlikely selection for a single, but its success was a great example of their ability to successfully diversify their sound
“Oh My God” - Busta once again makes a manic appearance, and even though his part is a nominal contribution, it’s an unforgettable one. It’s still unreal that Busta became such a huge solo star, but you can see how it happened with appearances like this
“Award Tour” - I’d say their most accessible single, catchy as all get out.
Beats, Rhymes and Life
A three year break between albums found Q-Tip converting to Islam and enjoying the fruits of his success with remix, production and guest-rhyme gigs, also creating a production group with Ali Jay Dee called the Ummah, while Phife moved to Atlanta and was, in part, kept on the outside of much of the creative process of this album. The most notable change on the album, though, is the addition of a third voice, Consequence, Q-Tip’s cousin, prominently featured on six tracks on the album including the single “Stressed Out”. Not to diminish his skills, but along with Jay Dee’s input in the production, the album feels regressive, younger, more derivative of itself. While Phife’s flow is at its strongest here, and Tip is as sharp as ever, the album is weighed down by it’s youthful infusion, the tracks going back to being playful, touching less upon serious or mature themes than Midnight Marauders. Tribe’s usually clean style degraded a bit, their sound and verbals striving for something contemporary, taking some influence from the styles of increasingly popular acts like Biggy and Tupac and adding R&B vocalists to the chorus of some tracks, a seemingly undying trend. Rather than innovating as they had always done before, Tribe seemed behind the times. I really detested this album when it first came out, and over the years I have avoided listening to it, but with quite fresh ears, there’s quite a lot to like. Phife really is at his strongest here, while the opening track, “Phony Rappers”, in spite of Consequence’s nepotism, is an amazing track, followed by “Get A Hold” which features a sweet Gregorianesque backing vocal and a deep dub influence. “Motivators” has a group sing-song lyricism that Jurassic 5, Lifesavas and other acts that arose from the influence of the Native Tongues would prominently employ. “Keep It Moving” features minimalist funky guitar and handclaps, with Tip trying to diffuse the East Coast-West Coast fued, or at least dismiss Tribe from the contentious proceedings. “1nce Again” and “Stressed Out” are both the singles from the album, both featuring R&B vox (from Tammy Lucas and Faith Evans respectively), while “1nce Again” is quite fun, they’re still the least engaging of any of Tribes singles. The album, frankly, isn’t nearly as bad as my memory recalled, but it’s the least of any of Tribe’s work.
“Stressed Out” - Phife has some rhymes in the video that do not appear on the album (he’s not featured at all on the track).
The Love Movement
Any Tribe fan new going into the Love Movement that it was their last album, even if you hadn’t heard the news, you could almost sense it. On the previous album the group just wasn’t clicking, and unlike any of the tracks before, I don’t think the singles from Beats, Rhymes and Life made any new, devoted Tribe fans. This album was Tribe’s fond farewell to their fans, an album that felt unified, Phife and Tip performing together on over half the songs, the songs conforming to a common style, the plain white cover, with plain text identifying the group and the title, signifying the same, almost pure minimalist style. The songs feature bareback beats, minimal samples, and a sense of togetherness. The majority of tracks are about love for the ladies, “the Booty”, “Find A Way”, “Like It Like That”, “Against The World”, “Hot 4 U”, etc, but there’s a few diversions with some guest spots from Busta (again) and Redman (on “Steppin’ It Up”) and Punchline, Mos Def, Wordsworth and Jane Doe on “Rock, Rock Y’all” two tracks that unfortunately stand out like sore thumbs in Tribe’s oeuvre, much in the same way “1nce Again” and “Stressed Out” did in the final album, as they’re so divergent in style and composure to their usual flair. The early release of the album featured six additional remixes and rarities from Tribe’s past which really should have been released on an extra ep cd instead of on the same disc, as they don’t flow or fit all that well with the album and with them, it really feels like a signoff, a good bye, a look back. Unlike Beats, Rhymes and Life, The Love Movement has focus and familiarity, and feels like a proper follow-up to Midnight Marauders, a proper send-off.
“Find A Way” - the hook is pulled from a Towa Tei track (”Technova (La Em Copacabana)”) featuring Maki Nomiya from Pizzicato 5.
“Hot Sex on a Platter” - was originally made for the Boomerang Soundtrack (starring Eddie Murphy), and was appended to the European release of Midnight Marauders. Tip wears a burn mask in the video because, as rumour has it, he was in an altercation with Wreckx’n'Effect of a perceived slight Phife made in “Jazz” and his eye was pretty badly messed up.
Q-Tip was the first to come out with a solo album in ‘99, Amplified, which featured heavyweight, subwoofer-stimulating, rumbling bass, and some aggressively bouncy jams, which seemed almost geared towards a mainstream breakthrough, surprising considering Tribes efforts to avoid almost any semblance of pandering to the masses. Despite its almost fluffy, weightless lyrics, Q-Tip’s album is a solidly consistent effort, definitely a rumbling, engaging record that doesn’t get so cerebral, but has some fun. Like the best Tribe albums, the title, Amplified is a mantra for the album, with the rhythms and beats taking focus, the lyrics not so important. It’s actually only the hidden track “Do It, See It, Be It” - immediately following the ill-conceived “End of Time” that pairs Tip up with Korn - that Tip lets out a seriously heartfelt retrospective of his own career. It’s a track that doesn’t fit with the rest of the album, but is a reminder that, in spite of the nature of the album, Tip hasn’t completely forgot about music with meaning. Q-Tip had recorded two subsequent albums, both unreleased. His fourth solo album, his second release, The Renaissance appeared in late 2008.
Phife Dawg emerged in 2000 with his own solo effort, Ventilation: Da LP, alas it wasn’t a very captivating listen, and Phife, as I had assumed, wasn’t capable of holding an album on his own. I sold Ventilation to a used CD store back in an ‘02 CD purge