Friday, November 11, 2016

Diggin in the Cassettes: Beats, Rhymes, and Life

I love this album. Released on July 30, 1996, it was A Tribe Called Quest's 4th album overall, and their 3rd best in my opinion. Their sound and content had increasingly gotten a little darker, but also more commercial in some cases. It reached #1 on Billboard, attained platinum status, and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Album.

Prof Thug's Diggin in the Cassettes Vol. 4

A Tribe Called Quest - Beats, Rhymes, and Life

The album cover made it clear that this would be darker than previous albums. 

It is far from a perfect album, but the title is perfect for Tribe, and I personally consider it a classic.

The album was their first to feature work from The Ummah, a production group made of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jay Dee aka J Dilla. Once again, Tribe's sound was able to evolve without losing the overall Tribe essence and feel.

I was in high school at the time, so the darker, more aggressive vibe worked well for me. The industry continued to dampen their spirits, and a grittier sound was more en vogue at the time, with artists like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, and 2Pac dominating the soundscape. Not to mention, this was released during the (largely exaggerated, but commercially profitable) East Coast vs West Coast feud. Songs about leaving your wallet in a diner just weren't gonna cut it.

There was still a sense of playfulness, especially on songs like Word Play and The Hop, but a lot of the joyfulness from the previous albums was nonexistent. A major theme of the album is pressure (The Pressure, Stressed Out); pressure from the music industry, pressure from their relationships, pressure from society in general.  It had been 3 years since their last album and things were different. Hearing that their relationship started to fall apart during this era made sense. Phife moved to Atlanta. Q-Tip's cousin was brought into the fold. It was a different vibe.

But it was still Tribe, and Tribe is always great.

Phony Rappers (featuring Consequence)

Another. Great. Opening. Song.

I'm pretty sure I used this as an opening song for one of my legendary HAYO mixtapes (if ya don't know, ya better assssk).

It has great energy. Tip starts talking about running into people who want to challenge him as an MC. It seems there's a sanitation yard full of trash talkers. Phife tells a similar story. Money please I get loose off of orange juice. They are showing their superior skills on the mic compared to all other rappers, but this is a much harder approach that they've ever taken. The beat is a little more aggressive than ever before, too.

The chorus comes in over those crazy, almost discordant keys. Phony rappers who do not write, phony rappers, who do not excite. phony rappers you know they type.phony rappers.

On the last verse Phife goes back and forth with this new cat. His voice is a bit high, raspy, and a little mush-mouthed. He can rap and it's a dope verse, but...who is he? Why is he here? It turns out he's Q-Tip's cousin, Consequence. Ok, cool. Adding another voice definitely altered the vibe a little, though.

At the end of the song there's a sampled voice that comes in with aclosing statement:

This feeling of embarrassment..This shyness and bashfulness…
If you take that out of the people then these people will do whatever they want to do
And that is the very definition of America. A people who have no shame and therefore do whatever they want to do.

Man, if that doesn't sum up America right now, I don't know what does....

Get a Hold

Drifting drifting drifting drifting....drifting back. suddenly. 

And then this song comes in to offer us hope...or maybe current events have cause me to imbue new meaning into the song. Either way, it's a great song with some great insight:

Your lust for the riches make a nigga feel sick
Down to his zealots, upchuck and then spit
Denouncing my beliefs, well then your wig get split

It's a really laid back, zoned out beat. Q-Tip is on his grown man shit. Respect me for that and let me do my thing...We all got faults don't ever front try to think that your perfect. 

He also mentions my record company be on some true jerk shit, and says We hitting, yo bust how we too strong to be broken, Occasional malfunction pressure time, we ain't joking.

Tip acknowledges that things have changed (in society, with the group) but that they are too strong to let it get them down. To deal with stress and pressure, they must take control. That feeling hangs heavy over this album.


This is a more uptempo, upbeat song. Definitely more playful than the first two songs. Tip, Phife, and Consequences trade bars back and forth. They all join in on the chorus we be the number one motivators over a jazzy sample.

Q-Tip: Will yall fall off?
Phife: Will Laura fuck Urkel?

So yeah, they're never too serious, thankfully.

Consequence also has a great pop culture reference While you be frogging like Bud-wei-ser and later shouts out Queens and various famous athletes, proving that he really did fit with the Tribe vibe. 

Jam (featuring Consequence)

As always, there's fantastic sequencing on the album. The last song flows perfectly into this, another uptempo, funky beat.

There's a little phone call introduction, with 2 girls talking about what they are doing that night. Then the guys start in and tell a story about their day and a night spent partying. At the end of the song/night, they see a bunch of people about to get into a fight. They decide to exit the party when the cops show up. The song ends with the guys drunkenly talking and getting in their car to leave.

This lives up to its name. It has a great vibe. There's no chorus or hook, just a jazzy little breakdown between verses. It's real simple and mellow, but it makes me happy, and that's what a good "jam" should do.


This beat has a very J Dilla vibe to it. Q-Tip talks about beef between good friends (foreshadowing?).

It's just one verse of him confronting a friend who slept with his wife. At the end a scene plays out with Tip yelling at the guy and friends trying to hold him back. Tip keeps screaming and threatening the guy, then shots ring out.

To say this is a tad darker than previous Tribe songs is an understatement.

The Pressure

This is probably my favorite song on the album. It starts with some scratching and a simple bass line Dun dun dun. Dun dun dun. Dun. Then a bunch of samples start up, layered on top of each other. Such a banger.

Tip starts off with a typically great verse. Then Phife comes in every dog has its day but fuck that its my year. Wooo they kill this song! They didn't miss a step lyrically on this album. Listening to it now is so refreshing. So damn good.

We feeling pressures in here, you know we feelin pressure.

Just look at the album cover. It was the Tribe trying to find their place in a world of chaos. They were dealing with fame and success and adulthood and a changing music industry, trying to navigate through it all successfully.

1nce Again 

This was the first single. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo/Group. I was very excited about the album when I first heard the single. It was incredible. It starts off with a little remix of their infamous Check the Rhime back-and-forth hook: ya on point Phife, once again Tip, watch me bust they shit. The same thing with a little more edge.

Then comes the ooooooh ya did to me once again my friend by Tammy Lucas. She handles the chorus later as well.

Phife kills a verse then Tip kills a verse then its back to the chorus. Then Phife kills a verse, Tip kills a verse, then they do the back and forth call again, then it ends on the chorus. Terrific song structure.

It's definitely a little more commercial than the typical Tribe song, but it never lost the Tribe feel. It had more singing than usual but they had singing before (Vinia Mojica). It also had dope rapping, scratches, great drums, and a couple samples, so it was just plain ol' good hip hop. It wasn't quite as good as previous singles, and it's a shame the Grammy's took so long to give them credit, but this is an undeniable classic.

Mind Power (featuring Consequence)

So funky....said mmmmmmm.

There are many great sounds on this song, especially that great main horn sample. And I  love how the various horn samples come in and out through the song.

This is somewhat fast paced and all three have some great lines. Phife has a particularly hilarious verse here. He references the Berenstain Bears. He gives a shoutout to Linden Blvd and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Oh, and just because the album is a little harder than previous ventures, they are not trying to portray a fake tough guy image. Phife claims:

Now, all that Glock totin' trash you talk will not prevail
It's stale, you'll either be dead or in jail
I keeps it realer than the logo on milk
Denouncin tough guy wannabes that look smoother than silk

It ends with Tip repeating Uh uh Mind power! then he states Kickin willy is good all throughout your whole hood but we gotta start with the spirit first yall.

As usual, Tribe was never overly religious or spiritual, but the idea of a spirit (that funk,that rhythm) that lives through their music is always a key theme. That spirit is always apparent in their lyrics, in their voices. It is the spirit that lives through their beats, rhymes, and lives.

The Hop

Damn this song is good. Another great transition. It starts with the deep bass boom boom boom boom and Tip exclaiming Yeah, move your body, inside the party, We 'bout to bring it to you kid like we never ever did.

Tip then starts his verse Inside the ghetto or in a sunny meadow I'ma make ya move whether women or fellow. 

You can't deny the rhythm, the spirit of the Tribe.

Tip handles the chorus You gotta do the hop, you move to the beat, you don't stop, Now everybody here, you do the hop. The groove can not be stopped dammit! Tip has some of the greatest rapped choruses in history.

Phife once again murders his verse, stabbing up the track like his name is OJ Simpson. You? You're freeloading like Kato Kaelin. He gives props to Das Efx, Method Man, and Megadeth. Word is bond I am the baddest. With verses like this, he was, man. He really was.

Its the hottest thang thang thang!

Keeping It Moving

Something for your ear hole so you can clean them shits out. From Q-Tip. Ha.

Tip addresses some people who thought he dissed the West Coast (I think it was Westside Connection, that awful Ice Cube side group that instigated most of the Coastal beef). I don't know what the exact reference is but Tip assures people that he's no west coast disser or damn ass kisser.

Tip exclaims Hip Hop...a way of life. On later versions, it says hip hop could never be a way of life. I always wondered why they added that, or if it was intended to be there originally. Anyways, Tip is essentially saying there is more to life than just rap, in an attempt to ease tensions between coasts. Positivity is the key in the lock, Put your hand on it, turn it to the right, ak. But he also reminds people that they are not to be messed with on the mic: Figure 4 your ass like Greg the Hammer. His references here are on par with Phife's best references.

He ends by giving shoutouts to other rappers, many from the West Coast. Pharcyde ya know we do it up. Hiero ya kow we do it up. 

He also says I aint got no time for shuckin and jivin, basically saying let's stop this song and dance/beef bullshit that the industry takes so much pleasure in. It's a powerful reference to black entertainers from the past who had to shuck and jive to please their bosses and white audiences.  

Baby Phife's Return

This is a very late-90s J Dilla sounding beat. There are lots of samples layered throughout the song. It was never my favorite; it's nothing too special as far as Tribe songs go, but it's good.

Consequence handles the chorus while Phife handles the lyrics.

Crushin MCs as if my name was Sargent Slaughter (how great is that?!)
Keep shit hotter...than a sauna
Or better yet, the hormones on your Christian daughter
Hey, I tried to warn her

An average Tribe song, so still better than most.


The beats have started to get a little lackluster, but this is still a great song.

Tip starts off with some bars about wack rappers (another common theme on the album) and addresses male-female relations: So brothers hold your heads high when you get down, Don't violate these women cuz we need them around, It's all of us together, not the one without the other. He follows that with the chorus we got to do our do, not separate together, then sings a little melody about sticking together through hard times.

A short but sweet little jam.

What Really Goes On

A great, jazzy, mellow beat with the bump the bump the bump bump yall. This is another Q-Tip solo. With no Phife, or Consequence for that matter, combined with a similar beat as the preceding songs, there is a slight lull in the album. All of the songs are good, but it gets a little monotonous.

Now when I say the beats are a little lackluster, or the songs are monotonous. I only mean that in comparison to their previous albums. Honestly, this song (and the few songs before it) are better than most on their debut; however, immediately prior to this album, they had 2 of my favorite albums ever back to back, so it's a little hard to maintain that level. Plus, I was into a much bigger variety of hip hop at that time. It was hard to stand out in hip hop in 1996.

But I want to stress (ha get it!) that it's still a great song and album.

Word Play (featuring Consequence)

This was another of my favorites on the album. It reflects the changes from their prior albums (featuring Consequence, a little darker beat, more aggressive, battle-type rhymes) but it did those things better here than on most songs.

They address wack rappers, big themselves up, talk about how to properly rap, and rap the chorus together. It still manages to be a little more moody, so it's not all fun and games, but it's a return to the more playful tone they always did so well.

Consequence definitely adds a youthful vibe; maybe they felt they had lost a step and needed a shot of youthful vigor, or maybe they needed a third wheel to take some tension off their relationship. It just feels like they don't have the same chemistry as before. It's a little more serious.

Stressed Out (featuring Consequence & Faith Evans)

And this is the most serious of all. They address stressful situations they've been through and/or are going through, and Faith Evans sings the chorus.

The music industry had officially gotten to them, in a couple ways. I'm sure the label pushed for the R&B collaboration, and their years of dealing with the label at least partially inspired the theme of the song and album.

The album version has a lot of Consequence. The video version had Phife as well. Needless to say, I was a little upset when I watched the video and saw Phife spit a classic verse: Dunn-da-lie, dunn-da-lo, dunn-da-lie, dunn-da-lee, Me no look for trouble but trouble done follow me. Eventually I found a DJ Clue mixtape that featured the video version, so all was well with the world.

Faith sings us out as the beat plays on. I think "airy" describes it best. There's even what sounds like an organ playing throughout, so it's rather spiritual. The lyrics evoke that sense of spirituality as well we gonna make it, ya know we gonna make it.

Really good song but a definite departure from their previous work, on many levels. It had an obvious commercial appeal, featuring a popular R&B singer on the chorus, and a breezy, radio-friendly beat, while addressing serious issues like mental health.

As far as sequencing goes, though, it's a great way to end the album.

On it's own, this album is a definite classic. In the Tribe's discography, it's only their 3rd or 4th best. I can still enjoy it immensely, and it's superior to soooo much music out there, but their two previous albums set an incomparable standard. Regardless, I highly recommend giving this album your time.

4.5 THUGS out of 5

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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