After conversing with a friend about our favorite music group, she suggested that I offer modern reviews on each of their studio albums. That group, the funky, jazz-infused, “alternative” hip-hop collective known as A Tribe Called Quest, released their debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths to Rhythm, when I was only four years old, and I didn’t actually hear a song from the release until I was a freshman in high school. It wasn’t until then that I grew to appreciate Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jairobi White. Nevertheless, I have been a huge fan of theirs ever since my early adolescent days, and I wanted to somewhat pay homage to their works by examining each album.
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was released April 17, 1990 on Jive Records. While the album achieved critical success, those in the mainstream weren’t all that fond of the album, which was seen as a little too experimental for the average hip-hop fan’s liking. While the mainstreamers essentially shunned the album, it earned ATCQ a new fanbase; an altogether different one. Despite the fact that People’s wasn’t in the main spotlight, Source magazine gave it a perfect 5-mic rating. The album finally achieved gold status nearly six years later.
People’s kicks off with “Push It Along”, a track that spans nearly seven and a half minutes, with not one lyric uttered until nearly a minute and twenty seconds have elapsed. Lead rapper Q-Tip dominates this track, spitting over each verse but the second. Tip introduces himself to listeners with “Q-Tip is my title/I don’t think that’s it vital for me to be your idol” and from that point on, it’s hard to not be hooked. To cap things off, Jairobi hits us with a group introduction.
French hip-hop artist Lucien Revolucien inspired the second effort on the album, “Luck of Lucien,” a track that sounds more like typical Tribe than “Push It Along.” Revolucien provides some intermittent background vocals, lending randomness that seemingly fits best on ATCQ joints. Like most other Tribe tracks, Q-Tip’s voice is prominent: “From the Zulu nation, from a town called Paris/Came to America to find liberty”. Although Revolucien moved back to France in 1995, I’m sure this one made him feel as if he’s never left. “After Hours” is pretty self-explanatory; a song that goes into the mind of a young man who is out and about enjoying the night and all it has to offer. “Just came from fishing, couldn’t get a catch/Downtown they’ll probably have a batch,” Tip spit in the first verse. I’ve been there, man. I’ve been there.
The next track on the album is arguably my favorite ATCQ track ever. “Footprints” features three samples that were blended perfectly, which took a back seat to Tip’s lyrical ventures. Incorporating Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” (listen for it, PLEASE) into the mix was pure artistic genius. “Footin’ up and down like a UNLV Rebel” is one of my favorite lyrics ever, regardless of genre, and it takes listeners back to an era when there was no show on the basketball court like the one the UNLV Rebels put on. Social consciousness appears as well, with Tip rapping, “A Nubian, a Nubian, a proud one at that/Remember me? The one who said Black is Black”, which was also a reference to his cameo appearance in De La Soul’s “Me, Myself And I” video.
Tribe veers in a different direction with track five, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” The debut single from this album, I can’t imagine how people must have reacted to a hip-hop group articulating how a wallet was lost in a place that sounds made up. The video is pure greatness, and I don’t want to spoil any potential discoveries by revealing the plot. Advice: Whenever you are lost, find a dwarf wearing a sombrero and ask him or her for directions. Just do it.
Going from talking about losing a wallet to catching an STD is something that I haven’t ever come across on a rap album, but believe it or not, Tribe did this and did it well, on “Pubic Enemy.” While the song sounds rather campy, Tip lays out a scenario in which a woman learns that she was burned by her partner “who acquainted her acquaintance”.
“Bonita Applebum” is crooning in hip-hop form, plain and simple. There has long been debate over Applebum. Is she White? Black? European? African? Does she love hip-hop? Is she Elegant? A b-girl? No matter, because everything about this song romanticizes the way in which men pursue women, especially those of Applebum’s caliber. Tip starts the song off by asking, “Do I love you? Do I lust for you? Am I a sinner because I do the two?”, and soon after, an ode to perfection in a woman’s body is diligently paid. In addition, when you can use a Grace Jones sample (“Slave to the Rhtyhm”) to produce a track like this, you deserve all of the kudos. To keep listeners on their feet with their ears wide open, ATCQ transitions into “Can I Kick It?”, which is undoubtedly one of the group’s more popular singles. “Can I Kick It?” followed “Bonita Applebum” as Tribe’s third single, and I believe that it is on this song that Phife asserts himself as a lyrical equal to Tip, who to this point, had been the voice of the album. This could largely be attributed to the fact that there were only two verses, one each by Tip and Phife, but Phife’s verse still resonates with me: “Can I kick it? to my tribe that flows in layers/Right now, Phife is a poem sayer.“
“Youthful Expression” just seems so all over the place, and that may be why I love it so much. Besides the utter shock of actually hearing Ali deliver the outro, the production that accompanies Tip’s lyrics make this one of the more eccentric and eclectic songs that ATCQ has released. Each bar is short, but nothing about any of them should be ignored. How did Tribe follow “Youthful Expression”, you ask? This time, Ali delivered the intro on the ridiculously smooth “Rhythm (Devoted To The Art of Moving Butts).” Tip raps over the same Grace Jones sample featured on “Bonita Applebum”, along with Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” and Funkadelic’s “Get Off Your Ass And Jam.” It is incredibly difficult to hear this song, anywhere, and not at the very least tap your foot or nod your head. What sounds like a faint horn or synthesizer sound in the background, combined with intermittent, but lovely hi-hats make this a great party-starter.
After reeling off ten consecutive dope tracks, ATCQ almost maintains their greatness on the last four, starting with “Mr. Muhammad.” Although the first three verses belong to Tip, Phife rapped the most memorable line of the song: “You listenin’, Mr. Quayle (yeah), if you’re hidin’, just give up (woo)”. I can only assume that the numerous mentions of Mr. Muahmmad were an homage to Ali Shaheed, the understated DJ of the group. Next up is “Ham ‘N’ Eggs”, a shot at the breakfast duo, ham and eggs. I am not adverse to pork and eggs, but Tip and Phife traded bars, describing their disdain for the two, and anything else that is similarly unhealthy. They don’t eat no ham and eggs, because they’re high in cholesterol. Yep.
If you grew up like I did, you have heard a ridiculous number of old-school songs. One of my favorites is Slave’s “Slide”, which was sampled on “Go Ahead In The Rain.” Tip puts a little bass in his voice on this track while yet again professing his devotion to the art of moving butts.
The finale to People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is still hard to cope with, solely because it is the last song on such a great album. However, “Description of a Fool” is a great way to finish. Roy Ayers (fuck, is this man a great musician and artist) lended “Running Away” to the last song of ATCQ’s debut album, along with Sly & The Family Stone’s “Running Away” (same title, different concept, same amount of dopeness) and B.T. Express’s “Still Good-Still Like It.” Tip literally spent the entire song going over what Tribe would describe as foolish behavior. Standing on the corner selling Girbauds? Scaling your friends and also your foes? Your mother asks, “What’s the matter witcha, boy?!”
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is my second-favorite ATCQ album, but it will always strike me as the group’s most meaningful. This is not only due to the fact that it was their debut album, but it came along at a time in which hip-hop was being confused for its more aggressive and outspoken brother, rap. In the late 80s and early 90s, rap was the genre that intimidated people, not hip-hop. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm spawned a movement, and was in some ways responsible for the unofficial, but somehow official Native Tongues aggregate. The album inspired (and continues to inspire) those of us who enjoyed, but knew we never quite fit in with the gangster rap revolution which had begun to dominate airwaves and record store shelves around April, 1990. Call Tribe’s debut album experimental. Jazzy. Weird. Nerdy. Afrocentric. Black. Conscious. Colorful. Whatever you do, just make sure you call it what it truly was and is: 64 minutes and 15 seconds of remarkable, thought-provoking music.