A Tribe Called Quest’s debut marked its 25th anniversary in 2015. With a timely reissue out now, we rewind the clocks to 1990 to find out how the Tribe re-drew the map for independent hip-hop.
Words: Dart Adams
Now I’m from the Tribe Called Quest / And I’m here tonight with the Jungle Brothers /
And we about to get into this thing called / Black is black is black is black
I first heard’s Q-Tip voice on ‘The Promo’ and then ‘Black Is Black’, both cuts from the Jungle Brothers classic ’88 debut Straight Out The Jungle. Supported by Kool DJ Red Alert radio play, the success of Jungle Brothers opened the door for De La Soul. Again Q-Tip made a guest appearance on the debut 3 Feet High & Rising but Phife also piped in for a remix of ‘The Native Tongue Decision’. By 1989 Native Tongues were officially a collective – united by the spirit of Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Nation – with A Tribe Called Quest the newest incarnation.
The tribe released ‘Description Of A Fool’ in late ’89 almost as a feeler. It got a fair amount of play of New York and the Tri State area but very little outside of college radio shows along the Eastern Seaboard. It wasn’t until ‘I Left My Wallet In El Segundo’, which aired on both on BET’s “Rap City” and MTV’s “Yo! MTV Raps”, that heads began to turn.
When their debut album eventually dropped on tape, I remember my big brother Dave, who was in college, bought it from Tower Records. At the time, the car rental age was only 18 so he’d rent a car and drive around playing tapes. He explained to me that the ultimate test of how good an album sounds happens not in hearing it in Walkman headphones but riding around to it. The first time I ever heard People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm in full was in a rental car driving all around the Boston Metro Area. Which in retrospect was fitting seeing as how the core of the Native Tongues all first met each other in Boston near Northeastern University’s campus.
Jarobi White’s narration turned a bunch of random songs into a full body of work. It was a concept album reminiscent of the jazz, funk, and soul LPs from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s that I was digging through at record stores. The production stood out to me. The sequencing of tracks, the way it all flowed together and took a 14 year old me on another ride beside the one I was already on. I felt like A Tribe Called Quest was consciously taking the listener along with them on their travels, but as a teenager I was going through my own quest trying to discover myself. Listening to the album for the first time was one of those moments where I placed a mental bookmark on what an album could and should be.
Songs like ‘Push It Along’, ‘Footprints’, and ‘Rhythm (Devoted To The Art Of Moving Butts)’ had me wondering how they put these beats together and what the hell they sampled. I remember my friends and I trying to piece together A Tribe Called Quest’s production process at a time when we didn’t spend much time thinking about these things. Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip must’ve been hip to some amazing records, I thought to myself.
A Tribe Called Quest weren’t super lyrical like some groups of the era. Whereas Jungle Brothers and De La Soul entered the fray at the tail end of what would later be called the “Golden Era”, Tribe just rhymed about every day things. Q-Tip told stories about his friends (‘Luck Of Lucien’, ‘I Left My Wallet In El Segundo’, ‘Mr. Muhammad’), everyday concerns (‘Push It Along’, ‘Youthful Expression’, ‘Description Of A Fool’) and they even made a song about healthy eating (‘Ham n’ Eggs’). At a time when you had groups rapping about shooting people or brutally bragging about their prowess on the mic, here was the Tribe: trying to get people to try beets. That was certainly different…
‘Bonita Applebum’ was an immediate favourite, and that was before I heard the video version or the remixes that would follow months later. That initial car ride had me wanting to hear this tape again, but this time in my Walkman headphones on the train to school. I knew my brother wasn’t gonna give his tape up so I asked him if I could get a copy. He agreed on the condition I provided the tape and did all the labour. Done, and done!
We stopped off at his apartment near the Back Bay Fens and I dubbed myself a copy of People Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm. As I sat there listening to it again as it recorded, I noticed that the tape liner notes had the song times all wrong. I wrote out my own tracklisting in my best graf handstyle thinking I couldn’t wait to go to school and stunt on my friends.
The Tribe were a slow burn but with the passage of time their music resonated with more and more heads in an organic fashion. The spread of the album was helped along by singles ‘Bonita Applebum’ and ‘Can I Kick It?’ but no buzz was bigger than the one provided by Q-Tip’s guest verse on Dee-Lite’s smash hit ‘Groove Is In The Heart’.
Twenty five years on, I can still throw on People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths Of Rhythm and instantly transported be back to when I first heard this album; a time when the rap world was in a state of flux. A Tribe Called Quest had made their own unique mark on the game, cementing the influence of the Native Tongues crew. Little did I know that next school year they’d return with The Low End Theory and change everything. And to think, this was only the beginning…