Quirky Queens Kids Share An Alternative Perspective
2:00PM ET August 14th, 2011
Contributor : Hip Hop Blog Staff
A Rocky Williform Company
Every week, HHB will spotlight a legendary hip hop artist and examine their legacy and body of work. Hip hop is 30+ years old, and HHB wants to make sure that everyone understands how rich and varied this musical genre is. From Grandmaster Flash to 50 Cent, there are an endless array of MCs, DJs and producers who have made this music what it is today. Let's clap for 'em...
The group most responsible for the commercial viability and ongoing influence and visibility of what some dub 'alternative hip hop,' A Tribe Called Quest is one of the most innovative, influential and beloved hip hop acts of all time. Four friends from Queens blessed with an almost-innocent love for rhyming, a quirky sensibility and one certified hip hop genius in the middle of it all. Tribe took the baton from alt-rap's first generation; fellow Native Tonguers the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, along with the under-appreciated Ultramagnetic MCs; and carried it forward throughout the 1990s, ultimately providing a template for legions of followers, including Common, The Roots, Pharcyde and others.
The seeds for A Tribe Called Quest were planted when a young Jonathan Davis was encouraged to rhyme by his friend Malik Taylor. Davis, dubbing himself 'Q-Tip,' eventually attended the same performing arts high school and met aspiring DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed. The two bonded over a love of music and Davis soon brought Taylor (now calling himself 'Phife Dawg') and Taylor's friend Jarobi White into the group. Also attending the same high school as Ali and Q-Tip were Michael "Mike Gee" Small and Nathaniel "Baby Bam" Hall of the Jungle Brothers. The Jungle Brothers were recording their seminal 1988 debut album Straight Out the Jungle and included Q-Tip on two tracks. The Jungle Brothers dubbed the foursome of Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed and Jarobi "A Tribe Called Quest."
Following the release of De La Soul's acclaimed debut 3 Feet High and Rising, (which also featured Q-Tip), the Native Tongues collective was recognized as a new, left-of-center perspective in hip hop culture. Their sound was quirky and playful while also maintaining Afrocentric and bohemian aesthetics; and their emphasis on positivity, humor and offbeat sensibility set them apart from both the incendiary political rap and the nihilistic gangsta rap of the late 80s/early 90s.
This all set the stage for ATCQ's debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm which was released in 1990. The group's sound built on the template established by the previous Native Tongues, with Q-Tip's rhymes dominating the record. The popularity of hit singles "Can I Kick It?" and "Bonita Applebaum" established the group outside the shadow of the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul; and Q-Tip's crossover visibility was raised after an appearance on the smash single "Groove Is In the Heart" by pop group Deee-Lite. People's Instinctive Travels... garnered significant critical praise from critics and eventually reached gold status. Despite the young group's success, Jarobi decided to depart for a career in the culinary arts.
The group soon returned to the studio to record its follow-up, released in late 1991, The Low End Theory was a stark departure from the playful quirkiness of its predecessor. The lo-fi, jazz-influenced production was unlike anything in hip hop at the time; minimalist-but-soulful with Q-Tip and a rejuvenated Phife Dawg delivering witty word riddles over a backdrop that perfectly complements their rhymes. The album was immediately hailed as a landmark, landing on several 'Best of' polls at the end of year and achieving platinum sales on the strengths of singles like "Check the Rhime" and "Scenario." Tribe abandoned a large part of their previous image, adopting a slightly-more street aesthetic while maintaining their freewheeling and positive persona as a group.
Tribe's hot streak continued with an appearance on the alternative rock-dominated Lollapalooza tour and another hit single, "Hot Sex," from the Eddie Murphy film Boomerang. Q-Tip also appeared in the John Singleton film Poetic Justice.
In 1993, ATCQ released the third in their string of classic albums, Midnight Marauders. Featuring some of the group's most well-crafted and accessible work, and production assistance such talents as Large Professor and J. Dilla, the album was yet another critically-acclaimed work from the group was now lauded as the most creative and ambitious act in hip hop. "Award Tour" became Tribe's biggest hit to date, with songs like "Electric Relaxation" and "Oh My God!" continuing the group's string of strong singles.
After touring in support of Midnight Marauders, the group worked on individual interests and projects. Q-Tip produced for artists like Nas and Mobb Deep. He also converted to Islam, changing his name to Kamaal Ibn John Fareed. Ali Shaheed Muhammed worked on, Brown Sugar, the debut album for soul singer/songwriter D'Angelo, and Phife Dawg left his native Queens, NY and moved to Atlanta and made an appearance on TLC's Crazy Sexy Cool.
When the group reconvened for their fourth album, 1996's Beats, Rhymes & Life, cracks had begun to appear in the group's collective armor. Phife's relocation to Atlanta led to scheduling conflicts in recording and Q-Tip's religious conversion unexpectedly drove a wedge between he and his rhyme partner's previously-effortless musical chemistry. Further altering the group's dynamic was the creation of the Ummah--a production team that consisted of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed and the aforementioned J. Dilla. Also, Q-Tip's cousin Consequence made several appearances on Beats, Rhymes & Life, leading many fans to question whether or not he had become an official member of the group. Beats... wound up receiving the most mixed reviews in the group's history together, with many critics noting the entire project's dark and slightly cynical feel. This was a noticeable departure from the optimism of Tribe's earlier work. The album still went platinum and the single "1nce Again" was nominated for a Grammy.
Q-Tip made another high-profile guest appearance on Janet Jackson's hit "Got Til It's Gone" before A Tribe Called Quest released what it had decided would be its final album together. 1998s The Love Movement, released while the group was fraying due to personal differences and frustrations with its label, was a return to the warmer feel of its earlier work but with the production style of the Ummah and the matured perspective of Phife and Q-Tip. The album was praised by critics but the group split almost immediately after its release. "Find A Way," the only official single released from the album, became a significant hit and served as the group's swan song.
In the years since they split, Q-Tip became a crossover star, hip hop recluse and is now a resurgent elder statesman for hip hop's quirkier side. Ali Shaheed Muhammad has found success as a producer for several soul artists and as one-third of the supergroup Lucy Pearl and Phife Dawg released a solo album and the demand for the entire group (including Jarobi) on the stage has only grown over time. Tribe's legacy is recognized in every hip hop artist that has showcased the culture's more cerebral side, the laid-back, intelligent and relatable artists that aren't afraid to embrace their eclecticism. Today, they still stand as one of the most beloved hip hop acts of their generation.
People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)
"Can I Kick It?," "I Left My Wallet In El Segundo," "Bonita Applebaum"
The Low End Theory (1991)
"Check the Rhime," "Jazz (We've Got)," "Scenario"
Midnight Marauders (1993)
"Award Tour," "Electric Relaxation," "Oh My God"