Review: Beats, Rhymes and Life

A Tribe Called Quest - Beats Rhymes and Life iTunes cover 600x598 Already 3/5 of the way through A Tribe Called Quest’s studio discography, today I will review one of the group’s less-celebrated albums, Beats, Rhymes and Life. After the success that was Midnight Marauders, ATCQ enjoyed a popularity they hadn’t experienced before. It also gave them a bit of freedom, musically and in their personal lives as well. Q-Tip, after converting to Islam, would be listed as Kamaal. He also began to produce tracks for other artists. Phife Dawg’s lyricism was featured on other songs, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad worked on other music projects, most notably R&B singer D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar.

While on tour, a friend of Tip introduced him to a young Detroit producer by the name of Jay Dee. After getting him acquainted with the rest of the group, it was decided that “The Ummah” (Arabic for “the worldwide community) would be a production group including Tip, Ali and Jay Dee, and would handle production for the rest of Tribe’s albums. A Tribe Called Quest would never sound the same.

Beats, Rhymes and Life was released on July 30, 1996, on Jive Records. Whereas Midnight Marauders was almost instantly loved, this album was met with mixed reviews. Released during the height of a conflict between rap and hip-h0p artists on both the East and West Coast, on their fourth studio album Tribe set out to once again tackle then-current issues. What critics loved was the new, darker sound, and meatier lyrical content. What critics didn’t love was the deviation from their previous sound; the jazzy aesthetic that made listeners want to dance while also appealing to the lovers of lyrics. Hip-hop artist Consequence, the cousin of Q-Tip, got shine on Beats, Rhymes and Life, and this added to Phife once again taking more of a backseat role. Despite the relative uncertainty that faced the group, the album was still certified platinum on October 27, 1998.

Beats, Rhymes and Life starts with “Phony Rappers,” an obvious ode to “Phony rappers, who do not write/Phony rappers, who do not incite.” It is on this track that we are introduced to Consequence, a 19 year-old rapper from Queens, who is also the cousin of Q-Tip. He is featured prominently on this album, leading some to believe that ATCQ had found a new member.

The first song that signaled a serious change for ATCQ was “Get A Hold.” Not only did the production sound very different from their previous works, but so did the lyrics. Tip’s flow sounded more controlled and its content, more socially inclined than it was on Midnight Marauders. Tip implores everyone within earshot to regain some semblance of composure in the name of humanity, rapping: “Lay your ego on the ground so that you’ll benefit/You can take these words and relay it to your click.” The new sound and flow continues on “Motivators.” Tribe aims to let folks know that they are indeed constantly moving, regardless of whoever else is stuck in place. Consequence drops great bars on this track, but the new format seems a bit odd.

Getting back to the party shit on “Jam,” Tip, Phife and Consequence take turns describing a “Friday afternoon in the middle of June” that finally ends with someone pulling a gun and the cops showing up at damn near four in the morning. After the song is over, Tip laments going out and getting wasted, women being bogus, and the spot getting broken up by malarkey. Call it a revelation, if you will.

Addressing the issues of friendship and loyalty on “Crew,” Tip speaks to the snakes that lay in the grass. After reminding one of his boys how he would have stopped at no length to hold him down, he discovers his wife and friend in a rather compromising position. “Allah forgive me, my thoughts is traveling to low desires,” Tip raps before the track eventually ends with gunshots being fired over a woman’s screams.

Funk music band Funkadelic was sampled on several Tribe songs, and this was the case on “The Pressure.” Funkadelic’s “Get Off Your Ass And Jam” was the lone sample on the sixth track of Beats, Rhymes and Life, as Tip and Phife each took a turn in telling us about the responsibilities they face as a group, in addition to being an innovator and savior of the genre, of sorts. More dope sampling can be found on the next joint, “1nce Again,” the album’s first single. The song featuring saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s “Untitled” and vibraphonist Gary Burton’s “I’m Your Pal” was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance By A Group Or Duo. Hype Williams directed the video. This was the first Tribe song to feature Jay Dee’s production, and Tammy Lucas wonderfully sung the hook.

“Mind Power” is one of those tracks where there seems to be some confusion in terms of direction. Tip’s lyrics are relatively uplifting, Consequence seems like he is auditioning, and Phife is still stuck in Midnight Marauders mode. Luckily, the three aren’t lacking, lyrically, and the production is incredibly smooth. Thankfully, “The Hop” is rife with dopeness. Seamless production is accompanied by one of the better lyrical efforts by Tip and Phife on this album. “You see you, your career is over like Johnny Carson’s/Get me vexed, I do like Left Eye, I’ll start an arson,” Phife spit at the beginning of his verse.

Q-Tip attempts to defuse some of the then-existing beef between the East and West Coast’s rap and hip-hop artists on “Keep It Moving.” “Yeah, we from the East, the land of originators/You also from the West, the land of innovators/The only difference of the two is the style of rap/Plus the musical track, this beef shit is so wack.” In my opinion, Tip was also taking a shot at record label execs with his “I ain’t got no time for shuckin’ and jivin'” part of the chorus.

While Phife may have felt left out, he was rewarded with his own spotlight on “Baby Phife’s Return.” The problem with this track is that it’s totally forgettable, from the production, lyrics and hook by the seemingly invasive Consequence, whose sound once again appears to be somewhat out of the place. I also doubt Tip was pleased with Phife rapping, “Just keep shit hotter than Death Row-Bad Boy confrontations” but I doubt Phife gave a shit.

Sometimes music with a message can be condescending, as it is fairly often articulated in a less than sophisticated way and is generally not self-reflective, or anything close. However, “Separate/Together” is one of my favorite Tribe tracks, regardless of album. On this track, Tip adjures men and women to, essentially, get their shit together. “We got to do or do, not separate, together/Got to move on through, not separate, together…” Tip continues dropping knowledge on “What Really Goes On.” Rapping over samples of James Brown’s “Make It Funky” and the Ohio Players’ “Pain,” Tip talks about wayward MCs and once again, the East-West beef. He even calls into question the state of our environment as a whole, lacing ears: “The Westernized world got our minds confused/You frontin’ on me, ak, then you don’t get bruised/The funny style cats, they be playin’ games like Chucky/Government officials shoot their same old/Made of devil agents aka the devil flunky…”

Finally, the triumvirate of Tip, Phife and Consequence gives a sound of musical cohesiveness on “Word Play.” Perhaps I love this track so much because Jay Dee was the sole producer, or maybe because the bars were short and sweet, with no ramblings, excessive boastfulness or what could be construed as remote pretentiousness. Because, all it really is, is word play.

The second single from Beats, Rhymes and Life, “Stressed Out,” features R&B singer Faith Evans on the hook. I’m sure you A2046 music heads can hear Anita Baker’s “Good Love” sample, and the video is certainly…different. Darkness generally isn’t a theme of Tribe, but the tone of the album’s finale is definitely that. Sadly, Phife’s verse that we heard on the video is not on the album’s final cut. Consequence did not disappoint, but it simply didn’t seem appropriate to not hear Phife on such a great song.

Even on the documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes and Life was regarded by a few participants as less than stellar. This could probably be attributed to the new overall sound and lyrical matter, Tip’s newfound style, Phife’s reduced role, or the inclusion of Consequence, a move that now reeks of nepotism on Tip’s part. I would never call Beats, Rhymes and Life wack, but different. It was nominated for 1997’s Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, and I can certainly see why. As a collective, A Tribe Called Quest attempted to delve deeper into society’s ills, especially as they pertained to rap and hip-hop. In some ways, they definitely succeeded, and the opposite applies as well. Beats, Rhymes and Life was nothing short of a gutsy effort, despite the adoration and disdain it received.

Review: Midnight Marauders


Today is the first day of 2013. What’s a better way to begin it than by reviewing my favorite A Tribe Called Quest album and one of my favorite music albums ever, Midnight Marauders? I previously reviewed Tribe’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and their follow-up effort, The Low End Theory. Both were instrumental in bringing a new face to the genre of hip-hop, both in name and style. The eclectic, eccentric, jazzy music that the group virtually perfected left its mark on many a hip-hop fan, and is still extremely popular today.

Midnight Maruaders was released on November 9, 1993, on Jive Records. The album was a success, commercially, and while some have opined that the positive reception played a part in Tribe’s downfall, there can be no denying that the release was the group at its best. An even more confident Phife Dawg and lyrically and socially inclined Q-Tip gave this album a sound that simply wasn’t present on Tribe’s first two albums. To an extent, this work combined themes of both their first and second album, while going a step further in terms of sound and lyrical content. Midnight Marauders peaked at #8 on 1993’s Billboard 200 and was certified platinum on January 11, 1995.

Surprisingly, Midnight Marauders begins with what sounds like 1970s elevator music and a woman’s robotic voice. That voice, belonging to Laurel Dann, informs us that she will be our guide through the Midnight Maruader program. Our “Midnight Marauders Tour Guide”, to be exact. “I will be enhancing your cassettes and CDs with certain facts that you may find beneficial,” Dann adds before signing off.

Do not be confused by “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)”, as the title may cause you to believe this is an ode to the deceased anti-apartheid activist. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful way to kick things off, musically, with Phife rapping “Rude boy composer/Step to me, you’re over/Brothers wanna flex/You’re not Mad Cobra”He and Tip trade bars after a rather unconventional start to the album.

A-Tribe-Called-Quest-Award-Tour The first single from Midnight Marauders was “Award Tour”, featuring Trugoy of Native Tongues co-founder De La Soul, another hip-hop trio that embodied many of the things that Tribe did. A sample of Weldon Irvine’s “We Gettin’ Down” and “Hobo Scratch” by Malcolm McLaren make this one of my favorite beats. We even get an explanation of the album’s title from Ms. Dann: “Seven times out of ten, we listen to our music at night. Thus spawned the title of this program. The word ‘maraud’ means to loot. In this case, we maraud for ears.”

One thing Tribe did very well was tell stories, and that is apparent on “8 Million Stories.” Nothing more than a common man, Phife regales us with tales of going to get a milk shake, getting robbed by a woman, not having anything to wear on a date, going through it with his girlfriend, and being benched by his basketball coach. Admittedly, I use the word “nigga.” I don’t use it nearly as much as I did a decade ago, and am slowly attempting to remove it from my lexicon, but for now, it’s here. Q-Tip sets out to deconstruct the word, its meaning and how it’s used on “Sucka Nigga.” “See, nigga was first used in the Deep South/Fallin’ out between the dome of the White man’s mouth,” rapped Tip before trying to shine some positivity on the word when he spit: “And being that we use it as a term of endearment/Niggas start to bug to the dome is where the fear went…” Despite his own use of the word, Q-Tip tells the listener that he does feel conflicted about it: “Yo I start to flinch, as I try not to say it…”

Track six should be enshrined in the White House. All who visit the home of our president should be made aware of the samples, Albino Gorilla’s “Psychadelic Shack” and the great George Duke’s “North Beach.” Q-Tip’s covered police brutality: “See, Jake be gettin’ illy when the sun get dark/They be comin’ out their heads, but shit don’t let me start…” Nocturnal happenings were a topic, too, as evident in the hook: “The night is on my mind/The sun’ll still shine”. I would argue that “Sucka Nigga” and “Midnight” are two of Q-Tip’s best lyrical efforts.

Never shy to resort to boasting, Tribe’s “We Can Get Down” is almost flawless. The bass and drums are definitely present, but don’t take away from Phife and Tip’s verses. Phife Dawg is “not your average MC with the Joe Schmoe flow”, folks.

If “Midnight” is worthy of White House status, then so was Midnight Marauders’ “Electric Relaxation,” an ode to sexcapades. While the former is my favorite Tribe song, 115026654 the latter has my favorite production…of any song I have ever heard. Samples of Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”, Brethren’s “Outside Love” and Chicago jazz pianist and keyboardist Ramsey Lewis’ “Dreams” are blended perfectly, set to mellow bars by both Tip and Phife, which they traded back and forth in typical ATCQ fashion. The visuals were even better, as the video starts with Tip and Phife dropping their bars in the back of a cab with fellow member Ali Shaheed vibing between them. Many debate the actual content of the hook, and once again, Phife spit one of hip-hop’s more memorable lines: “Lemme hit it from the back, girl, I won’t catch a hernia/Bust off on your couch, now you got Seamans Furniture.”

What distinguished Midnight Marauders most from Tribe’s first two albums was the increased role of Phife. I couldn’t help but see their first release as an introductory course to the lyrics of Q-Tip, and the same applies to Phife with this album. Once I heard Phife rap “And if I ever went solo, my favorite rapper would be me” on “Clap Your Hands,” I knew from that point on, he would be a lyrical force to be  atribecalledquestohmygodreckoned with. Tribe associate Busta Rhymes’ “Oh my God, yes, oh my God” could be found on, you guessed it, “Oh My God.” Keeping up with his penchant for dropping lyrical jewels, Phife gifted us with “Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic/When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” Once again, Tribe presented a dope video. For the album’s third single, we got the shoot’s moving stage driving away with Ali Shaheed still on it, children chasing after a rapping Tip and Phife, and Busta absolutely going nuts for the last 45 seconds.

For some reason, “Keep It Rollin'” doesn’t quite sound like a Midnight Marauders track. It approaches campy status, both in lyrical content and sound. However, a Roy Ayers’ “Feel Like Making Love” sample and verse from DJ/MC/producer Large Professor saved this joint from being forgotten. Getting back on track with “The Chase Pt. II,” aided by a Biz Markie and Steve Arrington sample, Phife and Tip got back to their boastful ways. “Run and tell your dad Abstract’s the bag,” Q-Tip rapped over smooth drums and keyboard.

Ms. Dann tells us after “The Chase Pt. II” that the Midnight Marauders program is over, but luckily, she is mistaken. Not only are we rewarded with two more tracks, but the first of those two is “Lyrics To Go.” Anyone remotely familiar with singer/songwriter Minnie Riperton will instantly recognize the “Inside My Love” sample featured on “Lyrics To Go.” Adding to the composed fray are the iconic Clyde McPhatter’s “Mixed Up Cup” and legendary James Brown’s “Just Enough Room For Storage.” It’s fitting that both Tip and Phife showed their asses on this record, with bars like Tip’s “When I speak of nation please don’t make the deviation/Rebels of the party who create the jump sensation” and Phife’s “The mic is in effect, so you know I’m never stallin’/Walked through the door and all them suckers started haulin'”.

Midnight Marauders finishes with “God Lives Through,” thought by some to be a song about faith, when it’s just a showcasing finale to the album. There are chops of Busta Rhymes’ “Oh my God!” on the hook, a sample of Tribe’s “Oh My God,” and we get dope bars from Phife and Tip, along with shout outs to different areas, from Queens to Oaktown. How dope is it that the last lyric spit on Midnight Marauders was Tip’s “It’s hemp, like Betsy Ross, lemme tell you who’s the boss”?!

My favorite A Tribe Called Quest album is Midnight Marauders, largely because of the further incorporation of Phife Dawg’s lyrical ability and style into the group’s scheme. Phife’s voice emanates confidence and his rapping prowess only added to the allure of Tribe. Not to be outdone, Q-Tip stepped his game up, but I never got the sense that one was trying to outshine the other. Healthy competition was in the air, I’m sure, but even when trading bars and verses, I felt they were more complementary than anything else. Something else that I love about this album is the cover art. Hip-hop artists from Afrika Bambaataa to Whodini can be found on it, and it’s reminiscent of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album cover, in that it served as a “Who’s Who” of hip-hoppers who were popular in that era. This was Tribe at their peak, across the entire board. The first hip-hop album I was actually consumed by, the title did what it set out to do, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad made sure to once again clarify: “We decided to call the album ‘Midnight Marauders’ because A Tribe Called Quest are like sound thieves looting for your ears.”

Review: The Low End Theory

lowendtheoryYesterday, I reviewed A Tribe Called Quest’s debut albumPeople’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Today, I will scan their second studio effort, The Low End Theory.

Roughly a year and a half after ATCQ dropped their rookie album came The Low End Theory. Before it hit stores, however, the group was faced with a few significant changes. Jarobi White decided to leave the group to attend culinary school. Phife Dawg was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Phife also wanted and received a bigger role within the group, as Tribe’s debut sounded more like Q-Tip And Friends throughout than A Tribe Called Quest. Aside from those changes, Q-Tip admits that he drew inspiration for their second album from NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, which was released in 1988. In a 2012 interview with the HipHopDX website, Q-Tip stated, “The group was NWA, and to me, that was the benchmark. And of course I was listening to everything  else around.  The bar was set very high. Musically, my main thing was Dre. That was like, trying to make something he would like and appreciate in a way. Musically.” When asked about the dreaded sophomore slump that has plagued many an artist (and athlete), Tip shot back, “Sophomore jinx? What the fuck is that? I’m going to make The Low End Theory.”

The Low End Theory was released September 24, 1991, through Jive Records. While ATCQ’s first project was well-received, it still had its naysayers for being what they perceived to be too experimental, or in other words, weird. The sound of The Low End Theory made the hip-hop album one of the first to blend its native sound with jazz. Bassist Ron Carter gave an assist on a few tracks, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Co. worked to make the album sound less commercial than their first release. Once it hit stores, it was adored by the masses. It was also considered a work of art that made efforts to shrink the generational gap, and as a result, was thought to have brought on jazz rap. The Low End Theory was certified platinum on April 1, 1995.

“Excursions” is the first track on The Low End Theory, and the introductory guitar riff sets the tone for the entire album. There is a different sound to Q-Tip’s voice; a more subdued, yet stronger one that causes you to want to dance less and listen more. After briefly reminiscing about listening to hip-hop as a teen, he recalls his father’s affinity for it: “My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop/I said, well daddy don’t you know that everything moves in cycles”. If you were listening to an instrumental version of this song, you would not believe it’s hip-hop, and I believe that was the intent behind the production. Listen for samples of The Lost Poets. Bass guitar. Drums. Repeat.

It didn’t take long for Phife Dawg to make his presence felt on The Low End Theory. The diminutive artist came at us immediately on “Bugging Out”:  “Microphone check, one two, what is this?/The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business/I float like gravity, never had a cavity/Got more rhymes than the Winans got family”. Phife’s verse on this song has to be regarded as one of the better hip-hop verses of all-time, and when Phife rapped, “No need to sweat Arsenio to gain some type of fame it sent a clear message that he and the rest of the group could stand on their own. Tip picked up where Phife left off, but I will always remember this song as the one that made me a fan of Phife Dawg. The jazz sound continues on “Rap Promoter”, as do the dope lyrics. As much as ATCQ wanted to convey that they were more than what met the eye, they still lived by a simple rule of “No pay, no play.” “If there ain’t no dough then there ain’t no show/So take your roly poly fat promoter (ass)/To the Chemical Bank and get my cash,” spit Q-Tip.

Early in high school, I imagined myself to be something like a playboy. Hearing “Butter” calmed my ass down. Phife laid out for the listener just how smooth he was: “I was the b-ball playin’, fly rhyme sayin’/Fly girl gettin’, but never was I sweatin'”. And then…we meet Flo. Flo was that girl who epitomized fresh, and despite your best efforts, would always get the better of you. Lots of guys like myself encountered Flo. Some of us have just done a better job of forgetting about her. Phife apparently didn’t forget.

I absolutely love a great sample, and two can be found on The Low End Theory‘s fifth track, “Verses from the Abstract.” Joe Farrell’s “Upon This Rock” and Heatwave’s “Star of the Story” were accompanied by Ron Carter’s bass guitar and the sultry singing of lovely Native Tongues affiliate, Vinia Mojica. No bullshit, but I had memorized every word of Tip’s second verse after listening to the song only 4 times. Uplifting as much as it was great, Tip tackled everyday struggles, the evils of the world and implored: “The thing that men and women need to do is stick together/Progressions can’t be made if we’re separate forever”. Producer/MC Diamond D and Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar and Sadat X joined the fray on “Show Business.” The three and Tip and Phife warned listeners that the fame is not all it’s cracked up to be. “Let me tell you ’bout the snakes, the fakes, the lies/The highs at all of these industry shing-dings,” rapped Tip in the first verse of the song.

“Vibes and Stuff” fuses People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and The Low End Theory, in that it features production which makes it hard for you to not dance, but also a mellow sound that could be best served at a low-key, out-of-the-way jazz lounge. Jazz guitarist Grant Green’s “Down Here On The Ground” was sampled on this track, as Tip and Phife spit some of their dopest bars on any ATCQ song.

Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about track eight, “The Infamous Date Rape.” Any song title with the word “rape” in it would warrant pause, and a song featuring date rape in its title would only do worse. Somehow, Tip and Phife were able to vividly and most respectfully spin two different stories in their verses. Tip played more of the cautious approach, acknowledging: “If the vibe ain’t right, huh, ya leavin'” while Phife readily let us know that he wanted to score: “Might as well get to the point, no time to waste/Might as well break the ice, then set the pace”. Cries of rape can sometimes be unfounded, and Phife certainly intimates that at the end of his verse. Then Tip turns down the goods because of her state on “the 28th day” and, el fin.

atribecalledquestchecktherhimejive1991 If A Tribe Called Quest has taught you nothing else, they should have left you with this lesson that can be found on The Low End Theory‘s first single, “Check The Rhime”: “Industry rule number 4,080: Record company people are shaaady”. The video for this track symbolizes what is great about hip-hop, from the apparel of non-mainstream sports teams, delivery of lyrics and body language, and performing in front of fans at (or in the video’s case, on top of) an unconventional venue. 3 minutes and 36 seconds is just simply not enough for “Check The Rhime.”

Maintaining an upbeat sound, ATCQ gives us “Everything Is Fair.” Samples from the works of Bobby Byrd, Funkadelic, Harlem Underground Band and Willis Jackson give this track a truly funky feel, and Tip’s lyrics about “Miss Lane” paint a picture of a woman who is a boss in every sense of the word.

“Stern, firm and young with a laid-back tongue/The aim is to achieve and succeed at 21/Just like Ringling Brothers, I’ll daze and astound/Captivate the mass, ’cause the prose is profound” is how Q-Tip kicks off one of my favorite hip-hop songs ever, “Jazz (We’ve Got The)”, which was the album’s second single. Phife made sure to shout out producer Skiff Anslem and Tip reminds us that “The jazz, what? The jazz can move that ass…” Cover

I am 27 years old. By the time cell phones were common among my friends, it was 2002 and Nextel made you big man or woman on campus. Pagers are something I am only vaguely familiar with, but after “Skypager”, I realize that I certainly missed out on a cultural phenomenon. Your Skypager can run on Duracell batteries for three weeks? You can reach me even if you’re in Costa Rica? Being interrupted while eating cacciatore with a twist of lime doesn’t sound that bad if you’re leaving to meet your lover at a quarter to 9. “What” sounds like a Sanford & Son-influenced hip-hop theme song and is about two and a half minutes of Q-Tip asking questions like “What’s Alex Haley if it doesn’t have roots?/What’s a weekend if you ain’t knockin’ boots?”

1335670188_Cover Like they did with People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, ATCQ ended The Low End Theory with a dope ass song. The finale to their second album was the ever-popular “Scenario, the project’s third single. Amazing visuals made this song even more, well, amazing. Featuring Busta Rhymes, Dinco D and Charlie Brown of Native Tongues affiliate Leaders of the New School, “Scenario” was a fucking party. Hell, even Spike Lee made a cameo appearance in the video. Adding to the perfection were the samples: “Soul Vibrations” by Kool & The Gang, “Little Miss Lover” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “So What” by Miles Davis and “Oblighetto” by Jack McDuff. “Here we go, yo, here we go, yo/So what so what so what’s the scenario…”

The Low End Theory is 2b when I rank A Tribe Called Quest albums, juuust behind People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. If this album were released first instead of second, I’d probably make it 2a, as the sound of this work was something truly unique that didn’t deviate too far from a hip-hop sound. Most memorable about this album is the emergence of Phife Dawg, who we received only in bits and pieces on Tribe’s first album. The general incorporation of what ATCQ felt was more representative of their style and sound is what makes this album so great. Not only did they decide to step up their efforts from a lyrical standpoint as a collective, they made sure that they distinguished themselves as a musical force to be reckoned with. If Tribe’s debut album was and is regarded as highly influential in the music sphere, The Low End Theory must be in that same conversation.

Review: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm


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 Can_I_Kickopen, 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.