A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest
Three high-school friends from New York City—Q-Tip, Phife, and Ali—comprise the progressive, quick-witted, hip-hop group known as A Tribe Called Quest. The trio are some of the founding members of, and brightest stars among, the Native Tongues, an informal collective of New York-based rappers that includes De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, Monie Love, and Queen Latifah. A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, The Low End Theory, demonstrated the group’s popularity in February of 1992 by ringing up gold sales, while at the same time illustrating the Tribe’s outstanding creativity.
Q-Tip, Phife, Ali, and Jarobi—who would remain a full-fledged member of the group only until 1991—were classmates at New York City’s Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers. In 1988 they met the members of De La Soul at a Fourth of July concert. From this holiday congregation was born the Native Tongues. A Tribe Called Quest helped form the musicians’ alliance to preserve the essence of hip-hop, maintain rap’s sharp edge, and to avoid trite commercialization of the
Members include Ali (born Ali Shaheed Muhammed in 1970, in Brooklyn, NY), Phife (born Malik Taylor, April 10, 1970, in Brooklyn), and Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis, November 20, 1970, in New York, NY). Previous lineup included Jarobi, who left the band in 1991.
Group formed in 1988; all members attended the Murry Bergtraum vocational school in New York City; signed with Jive Records; released People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1990. Appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, NBC-TV, 1992.
Awards: Gold record for The Low End Theory.
Addresses: Record company —Jive Records, 137-139 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10001.
genre. The performers of the Native Tongues are not linked in a formal business sense but perform guest raps on each others’ albums and hail each other with affection in their liner notes.
A Tribe Called Quest began their recording career by releasing the single “Description of a Fool” in July of 1989, followed by the memorable “I Left my Wallet in El Segundo” in January of 1990. When offers started pouring in from major record labels across the country, A Tribe Called Quest chose to sign with the distinctly hip-hop-oriented Jive Records, figuring correctly that this label best represented their sound. Q-Tip—also known as the Abstract—the group’s lead rapper and chief rhyme crafter, “rhymes like the sound is coming directly out of his throat,” according to Source contributor Chris Wilder. Ali serves as the trio’s DJ, and Phife, who also goes by Phife Dawg, generally plays the backup role of straight-man to Q-Tip. The group’s earliest releases championed a hip-hop sound true to the music’s roots. Said a Source reviewer of their unique style, as evidenced on their second release, “Instead of just throwing a beat over a loop, the Tribe combine distinct pieces of music, program their own beats, and transform their samples into a sound that is truly their own.”
On their debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, A Tribe Called Quest forged a new path in rap by fusing jazz with the pop structure of hip-hop. Art Forum characterized the release by its “jazzy loops, laid-back rapping style, and offbeat rhymes.” Q-Tip, a self-proclaimed abstract poet, told Rap Express contributor Michael A. Gonzales, “My father was the one who turned me on to both jazz and poetry. When everyone was looking on old records for beats to rap over, I just pulled out all these jazz albums…. I can play electric bass by ear, but I wanna play an upright bass and form a jazz quartet and play small clubs…. Like the Duke Ellington records my father used to spin. That’s the stuff I wanna play.” The Tribe’s first album was such a bold innovation that other groups quickly began to pilfer their uncommon jazz-rap style.
After the release of Instinctive Travels, Q-Tip contributed his talent for rhyme to Deee-Lite’s platinum-selling single “Groove Is in the Heart” and lent a hand to Lenny Kravitz and Sean Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” single. The Tribe as a group contributed cameo raps to the Jungle Brothers album Straight Out of the Jungle and to De La Soul’s single “Buddy.” In fact, most of the band’s material for their first album was written in 1985 and 1986 when they initially began to make rap appearances on the albums of fellow musicians. While in the studio working on their second album, A Tribe Called Quest chalked up an acoustic appearance on MTV’s Unplugged, performing with rap heavyweights LL Cool J, MC Lyte, and De La Soul.
The follow-up to People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was dubbed The Low End Theory. The phrase “low end theory” refers to the visceral, bottom-heavy bass sounds and drum beats at the core of the band’s music. Explained Q-Tip in The Source, “the music is low and when you hear it loud you feel it.” Ali elaborated, remarking, “It’s lower than anything—you can’t hear it on any Walkman speakers, you need a good system to hear it. That’s how deep the frequencies are.” Though still heavily influenced by jazz, The Low End Theory is less avant-garde than the Tribe’s previous effort; as is suggested in the title, the record provides a more street-oriented sound, offering a simpler, more gut-level hip-hop style than did Instinctive Travels. And though the marked “positivity” of the first record found a place on the second, Low End featured several songs that signaled the group’s growing distaste for the music industry.
On that topic Q-Tip has been particularly vocal. Aside from what he and other rappers view as standard record company practice of creating images of rap stars that are sometimes not really representative of the actual artist and a tendency to condescend to the artist, the leader of the Tribe is especially alarmed at the lack of artist control of the business end of rap and the growing exploitation of the genre by whites. At an emotional 1991 New Music Seminar panel discussion in New York City, speaker Q-Tip ventured: “There’s [record company people] who live in Connecticut, got a fat house. They probably sit back and listen to Fleetwood Mac and shit. Then they’ll sign someone like Vanilla Ice. Why don’t they go to Brooklyn or out to Queens and find some kid on the street? He knows what he likes!” Tip went on, admonishing, “We gotta wake up and realize what [record company recruiters are] doing. They’re trying to destroy hip-hop the same way they destroyed rock & roll.”
On The Low End Theory, Phife significantly emerged from behind Q-Tip’s shadow, with vocals a bit quicker and higher-pitched than Tip’s, most notably on the cuts “Butter” and “Buggin’ Out.” Asserted The Source, “Those who questioned Phife’s microphone techniques on the first album will swallow those doubts as he practically steals the show on this one. Phife provides a more straight-up b-boy approach to complement Tip’s mellow vibes.” Source contributor Wilder reflected along the same lines, musing, “Maybe Phife’s very noticeably improved lyrical skills… are what make this album a follow-up that does not disappoint.” Also not disappointing was the single “Scenario,” an infectious duet with the group Leaders of the New School, the video of which received quite a bit of exposure on MTV. Another video, for the single “Check the Rhime,” featured erst-while Tribe member Jarobi and drew praise from Wilder, who called it “as creative on screen as Quest is on the mixing board, with crazy abstract visual effects done tastefully.”
Another distinguishing characteristic of The Low End Theory is the presence of legendary jazz bassist and former Miles Davis Quintet member Ron Carter, who agreed to contribute his skills to the release even though he had never heard of the group before they obtained his home phone number, called him up, and implored him to work with them. Carter agreed to listen to their music, and after doing so, quickly assented to join forces with the Tribe.
The Low End Theory was much lauded by critics; The Source gave it their highest rating, establishing the record as “a hip-hop classic.” After the release went gold, Q-Tip and posse performed live on television’s Late Night With David Letterman. And in July of 1992, various media reported that Q-Tip would star with dance diva Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, filmmaker John Singleton’s follow-up to his controversial and enormously popular Boyz N the Hood.
A Tribe Called Quest has won accolades for their use of complex musical structures and the fresh collage of sonic information they have produced. They call themselves A Tribe Called Quest because they are committed to braving new paths, guided purely by their passion for music. Of that dedication Phife said in Art Forum, “It’s not always raking in money and being on MTV. You go through your share of ups and downs and you’ve got to really love the music. That’s why I always tell kids, if it’s in your blood and soul 100 per cent, THEN GO FOR IT.” Along with this drive, the Tribe have met with success through their crusade to bring hip-hop back to the gut-thumping, thought-provoking “low end”—far removed from the diluting effects of commercialism and elaborate theatrical antics—while at the same time infusing the genre with the exuberance and sophistication of jazz. In so doing, A Tribe Called Quest has expanded the envelope of rap. Said mixmaster Ali in The Source of the group’s evolution, “There’s so many sides to us and so many personalities that we could go all kinds of ways and different directions.”
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Jive, 1990.
The Low End Theory, Jive, 1991.
Also contributed to Jungle Brothers LP Straight Out of the Jungle, De La Soul single “Buddy,” and soundtrack to Boomerang, Paramount, 1992. Q-Tip appeared on the Deee-Lite single “Groove Is in the Heart,” from the album World Clique, 1991, and contributed to Lenny Kravitz and Sean Lennon’s single “Give Peace A Chance,” 1991.
Art Forum, Number 17, 1992.
Billboard, October 26, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, December 6, 1991.
Playboy, January 1992.
Pulse!, December 1991.
Rap Express, January 1992.
Right On, April 1992.
Source, November 1991; January 1992.
Spin, July 1992.
Streetsound, February 1992.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
Tribe Called Quest, A
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
Members: Ali Shaheed Muhammed (born Brooklyn, New York, 11 August 1970); Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor; born Brooklyn, New York, 20 April 1970); Q-Tip (Jonathan Davis; born Brooklyn, New York, 10 April 1970).
Best-selling album since 1990: Low End Theory (1991)
Hit songs since 1990: "Can I Kick It?" "Check the Rhime," "Award Tour"
Along with the Digable Planets and Gang Starr, New York's A Tribe Called Quest pioneered the use of jazz in hip-hop music during the early 1990s. After years of James Brown–influenced funk production, critics and audiences alike welcomed a change in sound. However, A Tribe Called Quest did more than simply sample jazz melodies and rhythms. They, better than most, understood how the aesthetics of jazz could be used to transform hip-hop's sound and culture.
The trio of rappers—Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed—first came to public notice with People's Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm (1990). Like other members of their collective, the Native Tongues Family (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah), the group members dressed in neo-African fashion and rapped with equal parts humor and social consciousness. Their aesthetic was colorful and playful, an expressive, sunny artistry that stood in contrast to the darker, harder edge of rappers like Kool G Rap in New York or N.W.A. in Los Angeles. Their album borrows liberally from across the musical spectrum, including the moodiness of rocker Lou Reed (for their call-and-response club hit "Can I Kick It?"), the bounciness of the funkateers Brothers Johnson (for their single "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo"), and the complexities of the obscure saxophonist Billy Brooks (for the French-filled "Luck of Lucien"). Creatively, the group displayed a musical breadth not previously seen in hip-hop.
With their second album, Low End Theory (1991), the group refocused and refined their sound. Hip-hop might have sampled jazz before Low End Theory, but A Tribe Called Quest's sophomore effort was one of the first that a jazz afficionado could truly appreciate. Rather than stack a heavy wall of noise, Tribe strips everything down to the bare bones: a rhythm section of bass lines and drums and minimalist melodic arrangements of jazz loops and soul samples. From the catchy, midtempo bounce of "Check the Rhime" to the energetic rush of "Scenario," the album remains one of hip-hop's best produced efforts. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg's lyrics are more complex on this album as they tackle a range of issues. From critiquing unscrupulous record execs and gossiping groupies to eulogizing fallen rappers, Low End Theory captures the ethos of "beats, rhymes, and life," in the words of one of their later album titles.
Tribe's follow-up album, Midnight Marauders (1993), builds on all the elements that made its predecessor so memorable. Their sublime samples plumb deeper, and their lyrics are more clever: This album captures the group at the height of their abilities. The sound they produce is impressively sophisticated—every element is meticulously engineered with songs like "We Can Get Down" and "Oh My God" blending elements from several songs to create a cohesive whole out of spare musical parts. Songs like "God Lives Through" and "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)" also reflect the group's spirituality and forward-looking perspective. Midnight Marauders represents one of the last hurrahs of commercially embraced optimism in rap music before artists like the Wu-Tang Clan and Notorious B.I.G. dramatically darkened hip-hop's worldview.
The group's last two albums before disbanding in 1998—Beats, Rhymes, and Life (1996) and The Love Movement (1998)—attempt to follow the same path as their predecessors but with mixed results. At a time when hip-hop had become harder and grittier, some saw Tribe as too soft to stay contemporary, but the real liability was their change in musical style. On Beats, Rhymes, and Life, Tribe began to work with Detroit producer Jay Dee, whose penchant for filtering his samples—making everything softer, more muddled—alienated previous fans who liked Tribe for the clarity and sharpness their songs traditionally offered. By the time The Love Movement was released, Tribe was treated as has-beens, lumbering musical dinosaurs who had been overtaken by a new species of hip-hop.
A Tribe Called Quest may not have survived the end of the 1990s, yet they largely embodied and defined hip-hop's loftier ideals in the first half of the decade. The group's progressive outlook and impressive musical versatility made them popular not only with hip-hop fans but also with jazz devotees and rockers.
Low End Theory (Jive/Zomba, 1991); Midnight Marauders (Jive/Zomba, 1993).