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A Tribe Called Quest: Essentials

Editorial Staff

A Tribe Called Quest, comprised of  Q-Tip, Phife,  Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi, is one of the most revered hip-hop groups of all time. The band members' success lay in their everyman appeal that made you think you could be exactly like them. But behind their ordinary appearance was the ability to make extraordinary music, infused with obscure jazz and soul records imaginatively rearranged with uplifting lyrics. Their first three albums, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, are easily in the ranks of the best hip-hop ever recorded.

Incredibly influential, the albums helped to sonically define hip-hop in the 1990s. Pharrell Williams and Kanye West have cited the group as a key influence and The Low End Theory has often been referred to as "the Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop," with Dr. Dre admitting the record was a key sonic influence on his 1992 album The Chronic. Consequently, the news of any new music from the seminal group that broke up shortly after the release of its fifth album, 1998's The Love Movement, was going to resonate.

After they broke up, the group's lyricists Q-Tip and Phife pursued separate solo careers while DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad embarked on a number of musical projects (including being the musical director for Marvel's Netflix Luke Cage series). The group would reform for occasional spot dates but no new music was forthcoming and anyone who saw the Michael Rappaport-directed Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest documentary would know that tension among group members was especially high.

In 2016, the release of the group's final album is even more significant, as lyricist Phife — who formed one of hip-hop's most formidable lyrical tag teams with Q-Tip — died earlier this year. However, unbeknownst to everyone except those in their inner circle, the group had reformed to record its final release We Got it From Here, Thank You For Your Service prior to Phife's death, after appearing on The Tonight Show to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its debut album.

CBC Music got together to pick their favourite A Tribe Called Quest songs, explaining what the records meant to them and why they were so important.

Song: "Electric Relaxation"
Album: Midnight Marauders (1993)

Hip-hop’s golden era was shining bright. You might have had a five-disc stack in the trunk of your car and A Tribe Called Quest's third album, Midnight Marauders, was in in heavy rotation along with other classic hip-hop albums from Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, De La Soul, Nas, Biggie, Pac and Gang Starr. Tribe was riding high on its success as reflected in other songs on this album like "Award Tour." As on their earlier albums, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammed were still mainlining the jazz albums their fathers listened to. The sample was pulled from "Mystic Brew" by Ronnie Foster and they still had a grip on the essence of what made their music magic. They were in their early 20s, still tapping into a youthful creativity and still rapping about girls. The back and forth between Phife and Tip on “Electric Relaxation” is seemingly effortless. Phife, “the five-foot freak,” delivers his trademark wit with a flare for double entendre. Tip and his unmistakable voice always hinted at a touch of soul. This is just one of their many classics and I had this one on repeat.

— Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe (@MissAngelineTW)

Song: "Push it Along"
Album: Peoples Instinctive Travels & The Paths of Rhythm (1990)

If this self-assured mantra doesn’t get your toe tapping, nothing will. “Push it Along,” the opening track from Tribe’s seminal debut, is a symbolic fusion of lo-fi boom-bap and atmospheric jazz urging us to keep pushing forward, moving and travelling. Although the song rarely makes music editors' lists (maybe it’s the wailing cry of the baby and wind chimes in the intro), there’s definitely something to be said about Ali’s hypnotic sampling of Grover Washington’s “Loran’s Dance”, and Q-Tip’s laissez-faire posturing. Even Phife (R.I.P.) gets eight bars to shine. In the paraphrased words of Tip, his title may not be vital, but this recital, sure as hell is.

— Alison Copeland (@AlisonCopy)

Song: "Lyrics to Go"
Album: Midnight Marauders (1993)

“Lyrics to Go” finds Q-Tip and Phife operating at the height of cavalier cool with the two MCs exhibiting their differing complementary styles. While Tip drops lines like, “Calm and serene like the study was Tao,” Phife’s raspy voice challenges, “Talk a lot of trash but no one can seem to beat it.” However in the background, the nagging thought as you listen is, "What is that high-pitched whistle sound?" It turns out the "whistle" over the warm keyboards is in fact the inimitable voice of Minnie Riperton from her song “Inside my Love,” distilling the group’s penchant for audacious and innovative sampling execution so effectively, it warranted a section in the 2011 Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest documentary about the group.

Del F. Cowie (@vibesandstuff)

Song: "Check the Rhime"
Album: The Low End Theory (1991)

When the celebratory horn line kicks in on “Check the Rhime,” a sample from ’70s Scottish funk group Average White Band, it’s heralding in the most popular song of A Tribe Called Quest’s career. Back when the group was still touring, I was fortunate enough to see them in Toronto, and when it came time to play this song, Q-Tip would not allow the horns to kick in until every last person in the audience was waving their one hand in the air. He must have stopped the intro four times before he was satisfied, the result being that when those horns finally played, it was explosive. “Check the Rhime” is the group’s only number 1 single, so it deserves the fanfare on that alone, but it’s also a crowd favourite because it’s full of some of the group’s most iconic lines, from the playful back and forth of “you on point Tip? All the time Phife,” to the oft-quoted condemnation of the record industry: “Industry rule number 4080, record company people are shady.” A sample from Minnie Riperton and the descending bass on “Baby, This Love I Have” helps form the bedrock of the track, and makes it one of the group’s most essential songs.

Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)

Song: "Scenario"
Album: The Low End Theory (1991)

This raucous posse cut closes out The Low End Theory with no main topic — it's just each MC flexing his overflowing verbal dexterity in the cipher, taking hip-hop rhyming back to its minimalist essence. Featuring Leaders of the New School among the song’s five strong verses, Busta Rhymes still manages to stand out with his "Raoowww! Raoowww! Like a dungeon dragon' growl," virtually starting his solo career. The first time I heard the song's funk lick-adorned remix on York University's college radio station, CHRY, I took the backpack off my back and sat transfixed to hear all seven MCs, making me super late for school. Poignantly, the remix is also notable for the first verse of the song being rhymed by Hood, a Q-Tip-mentored MC who tragically died before the remix hit the streets.

Del F. Cowie (@vibesandstuff)

Song: "Can I Kick It?"
Album: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

The label “ATCQ Essentials” falls short of describing this track’s status in the world of music. "Can I Kick It?" is quintessential hip-hop, period. The 25-year-old track combined eclectic and clever samples with feel-good raps and a little call-and-response for good measure. This has made it one of the most recognizable songs the world over, and one that will unquestionably kick any party up a notch (pun shamelessly intended). I don’t think I’ve ever answered a question with as much conviction as I do saying, “Yes you can!” Fun fact: In exchange for letting the group use the integral "Walk on the Wild Side" sample, Lou Reed got to collect all the royalties from "Can I Kick It?" That's right: ATCQ didn’t make a dime from this legendary track.

— Amer Alkhatib (@ameralkhatib)

Song: "Excursions"
Album: The Low End Theory (1991)

I remember exactly where I was. I was walking down Gottingen Street. Sept. 24, 1991. Cool, overcast day in Halifax. On the day it was released, I bought The Low End Theory on vinyl and cassette from Soul 2 Soul Records, which was run by my friend Delroy Hill. I loved People's Instinctive Travels, so this new album was highly anticipated, to say the least. I was beyond excited. I popped the tape into my Walkman as soon as I left the store. Track 1: "Excursions." Walking south, I was waiting for the light to change at the corner of Gottingen and Cunard when the beat dropped. Good Lord, that snare. After 30 seconds of build-up, 30 seconds of the illest bassline I'd ever heard — it was a bassline that was begging for a hard, heavy beat. Q-Tip made me wait until I was begging for it. And then, like a baseball bat to the skull: "The Soil I Tilled For You" by the Shades of Brown. The hardest. I remember yelling the F-word loud enough for the guy across the street to hear. Q-Tip's rhymes are classic, thought-provoking and highly quotable. But Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that beat. It re-arranged my brain forever. I can barely remember who I was before I heard it the first time.

— Rich Terfry (@CBCR2Drive)

Song: "Bonita Applebum"
Album: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

Three reasons to love A Tribe Called Quest's “Bonita Applebum”:

1. It is cheeky (pun intended). In the song, Q-Tip is obsessed with Bonita’s superior posterior, a behind so infamous, it coined the complimentary phrase, “Apple bum.”

2. A song as openly sexual as this, from any other group, would earn a slap in the face, but Q-Tip and the boys come off looking like gentlemen, with female fans declaring “Bonita Applebum” a firm favourite in the Tribe canon. How’d they manage that?

3. For my money, “Bonita Applebum” is the ultimate ATCQ tune because it contains the building blocks of their diverse sample-based sound, in one song. “Bonita Applebum” is sampling paradise. The song is built on a two-bar drum loop by country rock band Little Feat. The guitar lick is taken from a slice of '70’s rare groove by RAMP, throw in a hook from a Rotary Connection psychedelic track, some ad-libs from a Cannonball Adderely record, and you’re halfway there.

— Pete Morey (@CBCPeteMorey)

Song: "Jazz (We've Got) / Buggin’ Out"
Album: The Low End Theory (1991)

When ATCQ released the video for the The Low End Theory cut “Jazz (We’ve Got),” a reflective, black-and-white clip featuring the band walking around New York City, they also included, at the end, a snippet for “Buggin' Out.” It was loud and bright, the opposite of the previous video, and it served, for many, as an official introduction to Phife Dawg (who was largely absent from their previous record). It shouldn’t work, but it does, because those two songs highlight all the aspects we’ve grown to love about each MC, the very ones that make their back-and-forth rapport one of the best in all of rap. Tip is the abstract poet, “stern, firm and young with a laid-back tongue” in his delivery, as he declares at the opening of “Jazz,” while Phife is energetic, in your face and full of lines that will make you take notice. “Microphone check one-two what is this?” he begins on “Buggin' Out,” a line that may seem innocuous now, but at the time was a break from tradition that cemented his status as an MC to pay attention to. Now, 25 years after their initial release, it’s hard to hear these two songs separately.

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)

Song: "Find A Way"
Album: The Love Movement (1998)

The lead single from A Tribe Called Quest’s fifth album, The Love Movement (widely thought to be their final album until a few weeks ago), is a kind of a full-circle moment for the group. The song is anchored by a vocal sample from "Technova," a song by former Deee Lite DJ Towa Tei, whom the group recorded demos with at his home studio for their debut album. But as much as the song — a track that finds Tip and Phife flirting with a potential mate — is a throwback to their past, it also featured a reconfigured incarnation of Tribe that had incorporated renowned, late Detroit producer J. Dilla. The Detroit producer had contributed to their fourth LP, Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996), where the shift in sound and approach represented ATCQ 2.0 to some point. While diehard fans had mixed reactions to his inclusion, the cavernous low end and inventive sampling he brought to the group (see “Get a Hold”) definitely holds up in hindsight.

Del F. Cowie (@vibesandstuff)

More to explore:

Remembering Phife Dawg's Canadian connection