My whole body just shuddered.
As began my love for hip hop, so begins my blog for hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest was one of my first true hip hop loves so it's only right I start with them. Let's do this!
Prof Thug's Diggin in the Cassettes Vol. 1
A Tribe Called Quest - People's Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm
Tribe's debut album was released in April of 1990. I was 10 so I was still into Motley Crue and Def Leppard. I was starting to get into hip hop through acts like Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Run-DMC, Tone-Loc, and Public Enemy, but I wasn't all in yet. Low End Theory changed that, and when I went back and got this, it helped solidify my love for them and the art form as a whole.
Tribe was classified as "alternative hip hop"; that basically meant it wasn't as commercially viable but you might hear it at some local coffee shops. Along with other Native Tongue rappers (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers) they were applauded for their positivity and creativity. They also produced the entire album and wrote all their lyrics, an amazing accomplishment considering they were 19-20 years old at the time. The album received the heralded 5 mics in The Source and many other accolades. To be so young and have such a fully formed, well established sound is incredible. They refined and developed that sound in the next two albums, but the foundation was laid here.
It's a simple formula: Q-Tip rapping breezily over very jazzy, mellow, sample-based grooves. Phife was the capable, and slightly more aggressive sidekick; unfortunately, he was only on 4 of the 14 tracks of their debut, which hurts the album a little bit. Like all Tribe albums, it had great sequencing, with songs flowing smoothly into the next, largely orchestrated by DJ and current host of NPR's Microphone Check, Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The songs are all held together by the interludes, starring the (occasional) 4th group member, the elusive Jarobi. In these interludes, backed by a sample of Eugene Robinson's Jagger the Dagger, he talks to an anonymous crowd, hyping them and the album audience up. These skits help create album cohesion and make the listener feel like they are part of the block party that is this album.
And since it' a party, I came prepared...
Push It Along
The album starts with the sound of a baby crying. This is their birth into the hip hop scene. Push it along, like a baby in a birth canal.
Then the beat hits. The simple but transcendent drum pattern that Q-Tip gloriously referred to as the boom, the bip, the boom bip. Then that luscious little string sample.
This really set the tone of the album. There is an invisible force (the rhythm) that gives the album a constant forward momentum. Q-Tip starts it off with a verse, then there's a quick hook with the group chanting push it along push it along push it along yeah push it along. Then Phife follows it up with a short verse, and Tip comes in again right before the hook. There's a beautiful break down with the horns and then Q-Tip follows up with another verse. It all works perfectly here, but one minor problem I have with the album is that Tip goes on for too long at times. It's not like he was talking about much, either. Although in this song, he shouts out Afrocentric living and essentially outlines the entire style and persona of the group, so the extra verse isn't a problem here.
It fades into the short outro from Jarobi. He introduces the group and the album to cheering and clapping from a crowd of partygoers.
Side note: in researching the album, I couldn't find the sample used for these interludes. I asked Dart Adams, a music writer I follow on Twitter, who told me he was "not a sample snitch." Just as I thought all was lost, Phonte from Little Brother tweeted me and gave me the answer. Little Brother is a rap group that was heavily influenced by Tribe, so that was a very cool moment.
Luck of Lucien
It starts with horns from Here Comes the President, or some shit like that. I wish I had more of a music history background because I can recognize a lot of songs but don't know their name. So I might be saying things like, "that song with the horns and the guitar thing" a lot in this series.
Apparently this is somewhat of a dedication to Lucien Revolucien, a popular French rapper, but it also kind of makes fun of him. Q-Tip is flowing a bit faster here, addressing Lucien, who occasionally speaks back throughout the song. There's no chorus, just an instrumental bridge with jazzy horns.
Q-Tip drops a little French, and at one point Lucien raps "cuckoo...le poo poo." So, like a lot of the songs on the album, there are a few corny parts, but that's all part of the fun. You can't hate on it because it's so joyful and playful.
This is a jam. It opens with scratches into a Richard Pryor quote, after hours that was cool. Then the sample of a voice saying freak freak the funk the funk funk freak freak the funk the funk funk you got to GET UP.
Q-Tip starts in with a real laid back flow, talking about hanging out, drinking apple juice, and bullshitting with his friends about rap and famines and crazy crimes as the sun goes down. Then the bridge/chorus comes in with scratches and the sampled voices. I love a rap song with a good scratched sample as the chorus.
At one point, there's a breakdown with frogs croaking. I always found it odd, but again, its weirdness and corniness just adds to the unique, joyful vibe.
The sun rises, they all say peace and go their separate ways down their rhythmic paths.
Another straight up jam. A Stevie Wonder Sir Duke horn sample starts it off (I knew that one right away) and that leads into a crazy beat that samples Donald Byrd's Think Twice (I looked that one up).
Q-Tip begins flowing then the lower bass drum hits (not "drops"). On the breakdown, there's a sample of Rev. Jesse Jackson talking, and then someone repeats footprints yall.
Like all of their best work, this feels natural and effortless. It's so smooth and breezy, but the beat knocked, too. Unlike De La Soul, whose first couple albums felt like the songs were made up of samples layered on top of each other, this felt like it could have been a live band playing the songs. I love De La by the way so that's not a diss, just an assessment of the sound.
Sing a song o' sixpence, sing it like a singer
A Nubian, a Nubian, a proud one at that
Remember me, the brother who said "Black is black"
Q-Tip had a knack for mixing sing songy nursery rhyme lines with very positive, very pro-Black lines. This was an important theme in all of their albums. It's evident in their name, their album covers, their style, the samples they used, and many of their rhymes. They were not militant like Public Enemy or aggressively Afrocentric like X-Clan, but Afrocentricity was central to their music. That should not be forgotten when looking back on their discography and their place in music history.
I Left My Wallet in El Segundo
This is widely considered their first single, but apparently it's their second song released. It was definitely the first to make noise though.
It was very catchy and it had a great Spanish sounding guitar sample. I thought Sugar Ray used the same sample for Spread Your Wings and Fly but I was wrong. It sounds like it anyways, just way less obnoxious.
It's a fun song, albeit a little overly silly; a story rhyme that showcased Q-Tip's wit, charm, and slight corniness.
Here, Q-Tip shows how much of a beast he really is. Top notch lyrical performance.
Also, Kool DJ Red Alert hosts this song, meaning he yells a bunch of shit throughout the song. And it's awesome. I just realized Red Alert was all over The Fugees The Score album, and they also used the same sample as Bonita Applebaum for Killin Me Softly. Huh.
Anyways, this is a song based entirely on a sophomoric pun, but it works. Again, it's a little silly. But the beat is groovy, those keys deet deet dee dee dee dee make you want to do the running man (the original one), and Q-Tip's flow is sick (pun definitely intended...if they can do it, I can too).
It's always interesting to hear rappers from the 80s and 90s rap about safe sex. They don't get enough credit for promoting safe sex and decreasing the rate of HIV/AIDS in the 90s and I'm here to change that. Thank you, rappers!
Boump byoump baddow baow. We all know and love that little breakdown. The Fugees used it to go multi-multi-platinum. Everybody knows the simple yet infectious chorus. The flow is slow and methodical so most people know all the lyrics, too.
Once again, they promote safe sex. I got crazy prophelactics. It had a great video that represents the best of the simplistic 80s-90s hip hop videos: a bunch of young adults just bullshitting and talking about chicks. What made this stand out among a million songs talking about girls was its playfulness and respectfulness. It was one of the first and best hip hop ballads.
Then it ends with a guy repeating sex...sex...sex...freaks.
It ends with an outro from Jarobi, who asks, "Can I kick it?" The crowd, of course, replies, "Yes you can!" That question and its reply are etched on the Hip Hop Mount Rushmore...
Can I Kick It?
The song that made them stars yet kept them broke. They hate this song to this day because they are still paying Lou Reed royalties for the sample. I understand Lou Reed wanting to get paid, and the sample is very much a huge part of what makes the song classic, but the bass and the scratching and the other samples add so much. It's really a completely new, different, and unique song. It perfectly showcases the ingenuity of hip hop sampling.
This song featured every fundamental aspect of hip hop: a great chorus, catchy, braggadocious lyrics, great scratches, and a number of both recognizable and unrecognizable samples. The breakdowns are awesome, too. It feels like there are many different sections of the song. The verses, the chorus, and the breakdown where it's just scratching and a keyboard sample. Then everything drops out and it''s just the Lou Reed sample, then the drums start back in. The progressions throughout the song are incredible and keep the listener engaged all the way through.
Q-Tip is great on this song, but personally, I prefer Phife's verse. Mr Dinkins would you please be my Mayor. At his best, he was a perfect paradox: hard but silly, braggadocious but self-deprecating, aggressive but laid back. Overall, he had better punchlines than Q-Tip. More quotables, too. He had a more basic flow, but he absolutely mastered it.
The bass (upright bass, maybe? damn I wish I took more music classes) starts in: boom boom boodoo boom. boom boom boodoo boooomm. Then the keys start: dee dee...dee dee dee...dee dee...dee dee dee dee.
This is like their mission statement. It's jazzy and funky and upbeat. There are so many different samples that all fall into one groove, and Q-Tip flows right in the pocket.
Rhythmic lovin, my profession. It's very hippy-ish, but with a very clear African American take on flower power (much like their Native Tongue family members, De La Soul). Tribe was making very pro-Black, positive music without trying to appeal to the mainstream. Eventually, the mainstream caught on.
The piano breakdown at the end is lovely, and then the beat comes back before stopping abruptly.
Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts)
The synths start in and Ali Shaheed Muhammad introduces the song. Q-Tip starts rapping about rhythm. This is an ode to music itself. The chorus is simply whispered voices repeating, I got the rhythm, you got the rhythm.
The main sample is kind of hazy; it has an echo effect, making it feel like the music is circling around your head, engulfing you. You are part of the rhythm.
The rhythm was inside you all along!
Toward the end, Q-Tip talks with some guy in the background. The guy's speaking another language and it's very low so it can hardly be made out. Not sure what they were going for with this, but they do it a few times. It's one thing that could have been cut out. It would have cut down on the extra length of some of the songs, too.
Hip hop started off with more emphasis on the DJ. The MCs existed to tell the crowd how amazing the DJ was. This is an ode to that area.
Q-Tip raps for two verses about Ali and the art of DJing, then Phife comes in with a quick verse in which he big ups Ali, talks about getting girls, and cracks a few jokes. It's a good album cut, but it's almost filler material. Nothing too memorable.
Ham n Eggs
Was Tribe the first vegetarian rap group? Phife does mention "the occasional steak" so maybe this was more about Ali and Tip's Muslim background.
Or it's just a really silly ass song.
Anyways, this is a classic hip hop trope in the same vein as Lords of the Underground's Sleep for Dinner and dead prez 's classic Be Healthy, but about 20x sillier. Everyone eats, so songs about food are easily relatable.
This could be considered one of their few "MESSAGE!" songs, but it's not preachy. Tribe was never preachy. They were like the older brother or friend who told you what you should do but didn't get upset when you did the opposite. They even make fun of their own message; the chorus is, "I dont eat no ham and eggs cuz they're high in cholesterol, yo (insert name) do you eat em? Nope!" They go around their whole crew and ask the same question. Each time they sing the chorus, there's one guy who replies, "YUP, ALL THE TIME!"
Despite the silliness, it had all the ingredients for a great early 90s rap song: the back and forth rapping, the call and response chorus, the uptempo beat, and a pop culture reference: chicken chicken chicken I'm a finger licking winner (I guess that addresses the vegetarian question.)
They also drop this gem:
Phife: apple sauce and some nice red beets
Q-Tip: this is what we snack on when we're Questin
Both: no second guessin
It's over the top corny, but as I said before, they are having so much damn fun it doesn't matter.
It ends with a Jarobi skit. He and the crowd repeat, Funk...Rhythm. Funk...Rhythm...
Which leads us into...
Go Ahead in the Rain
A sampled voice starts in: Rain all day. There's some thunder and rain sound effects. Then the uptempo beat starts in and the guy repeats huh, what? huh, what?
Q-Tip starts flowing with a slightly deeper voice as the beat keeps pushing forward. Once again, he is mostly talking about music itself: rhythm, grooves, funk, vibes. There's not a lot of substance but it effectively establishes a specific atmosphere and feeling. It's almost impossible not to groove along with the song. This is a spiritual spin-off of Youthful Expression and Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts). Q-Tip even references Rhythm directly in the lyrics. Both are about music and the feeling that Tribe's music is meant to invoke, and both songs prove that they have already mastered the art of moving butts and other body parts.
Description of a Fool
This was actually their first song released. Q-Tip defines "fool" and then directly addresses a fool, who talks back throughout the opening verse.
Q-Tip does this cool, quirky thing where he extends the last syllable of a phrase. Read it to me would ya pleeeease....Whatsa matter with ya boyyyyyy.
The rest of the song is Q-Tip talking about different foolish people. It's decent, but besides having a smooth groove and a long instrumental breakdown to close out the album, there's not much purpose for this song.
I do like the reverberating yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah sample, though.
There you have it! The incredible musical experience that is People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. This is clearly a great album, and it's hard to believe it is their first. It's also hard to believe they would go on to make 2 (if not 3 or 4) better albums. More than anything, this album is about the feeling you get listening to it . Quite simply, it's about the rhythm, and the rhythm is gonna get you.
I was gonna save that line for my review of Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine's album, but I must've lost that tape.
4.5 THUGS out of 5
I Love You All...Class Dismissed.