When I was a kid, a tween by today’s colloquial, there was a routine I went through every day for a couple of summers. I’d get up at around 9:30, shower, throw on my Knicks shorts and a t-shirt, and ride my bike over to my friend J’s house around the block. We’d play basketball from 10 until it got dark. If it rained we went inside and waited it out by playing Guess Who? or watching really terrible popular television programs (“Small Wonder”, for example). We listened to a great deal of hip-hop music while we played. This was during the time when the NBA was transforming from the Larry Bird-era to the Allen Iverson age.
Mostly, we listened to a lot of garbage. Fu-Schnickens was on a lot if that tells you anything. We did manage to squeeze some good stuff in there, too. NWA, Tupac, and when we were lucky, A Tribe Called Quest. There was always something that set them apart as a group. No one came close to them as a collective. Even NWA, for all their great talents, couldn’t line up man-to-man against Tribe. Sure they had Dre and Ice Cube, but they also had MC Ren and DJ Yella (as many of you are surely staring at the screen saying “WHO? rest assured you aren’t alone). Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi were like The Band of hip-hop.
I want to focus on Tribe’s third record, Midnight Marauders. I think it’s their most well-known, and happens to be my favorite record they put out. It dropped at an interesting time for hip-hop. The whole game was changing due to an album that came out the year before Marauders release, The Chronic. Dr. Dre delivered a record that brought rap to the mainstream faster than anyone could have predicted. Prior to Chronic, the only real mainstream hip-hop was watered down pop by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince or Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock. All of a sudden white suburban kids were delving into the world of hardcore gangster rap, referring to eachother as “niggas” and telling one another to eat a fat dick.
It was also a changing time for groups like Tribe, who used jazz music as much as beats to produce their sound. There was already a fairly small number of groups like this-Tribe, Guru, Us3, Digable Planets-and with gangsta being the new thing, time was running short for groups that didn’t conform. To their credit, and to the others mentioned as well, they kept doing their thing and continued producing great hip-hop music without changing their overall message.
Tribe’s most famous song, one almost universally known even if you don’t know who it’s by, is “Award Tour.” The track is brilliant, all keyboards and bass with a flow that can’t be beat by Q-Tip. It also features my favorite Phife line that invades my thoughts at very random times and makes me laugh a little. It’s right at the top of his verse:
Back in ’89, I simply slid into place
Buddy, buddy, buddy all up in your face
A lot of kids was bustin rhymes but they had no taste
Some said Quest was wack, but now is that the case
I have a quest to have the mic in my hand
Without that, it’s like Kryptonite and Superman
Lesser known in most circles that don’t follow hip-hop is the track “Sucka Niggas,” in which the group takes on the rampant use of the word “nigga” among black men. By my count, the word nigga is used 34 times, making it The Big Lebowski of racial slurs. It was fairly courageous for a band like Tribe to take on such a topic at a time when it was the cool thing to do. Movies like Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society were contributing to the world’s understanding of “hood” life and, like any pop culture item, once it’s been mainstreamed it becomes commonplace (like the gore of torture-porn films). On the surface you could hear the song and just think, “Man, this guy sure says nigga a lot.” But if you listen to it, you know he’s saying that we shouldn’t be using the word-as a term of endearment or anything else. The song ends with a statement by the albums robotic guide:
“you’re not any less of a man if you don’t pull the trigger
you’re not necessarily a man if you do”
A Tribe Called Quest represented something completely different in hip-hop. Socially conscious, intelligent, complex songs written for people to think about days and weeks after hearing them. Along with The Roots and Public Enemy, Tribe was and still is at the top of the list as far as forward-thinking rap music that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. Phife, Q-Tip, Ali, and Jarobi (who left after the first record, but rejoined later) will forever be remembered for trying to build up communities instead of tearing them apart. If all rappers could be as smart as these guys, Tupac and Biggie may have made it to old age instead of being another in a long line of statistics.
Already released in NY and LA, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a new documentary about the group, made by film and television actor Michael Rappaport (best known for his turns in Woody Allen’s films Mighty Aphrodite and Small Time Crooks-to me anyway-he also appeared on My Name Is Earl and The Chappelle Show). I’m seeing it tonight, and couldn’t be more excited. It’s rolling out across the country soon, so keep an eye on showtimes near you.