Imagine a band that faces the kind of trajectory usually posited as a hard-luck story, a series of events that goes a little something like this: First, they drop a name-making debut that winds up becoming both one of the most acclaimed, hardest-to-follow first efforts by any group of an entire decade, and the last thing they released featuring major contributions by a core member who came up with some of their strongest ideas. Then they revamp their image to stave off a sophomore slump, and while the album garners critical acclaim and the hearts of their core audience, it doesn’t even reach the top 40 of Billboard’s album charts, and the most popular single sees them memorably outdone by some guesting up-and-comers. Their third record is a bonafide end-to-end classic, but it just so happens to share a release date with one of the few albums ever recorded in its genre (or any other) to become the kind of certified, dynasty-creating phenomenon that would last decades. The follow-up to this universally beloved and successful third album comes nearly three long years later, and now there’s new “unofficial” members and outside producers throwing off fans, promoters, critics, and the original group dynamic itself; even the music sounds embattled. With intraband feuding and health issues clouding their future, they released a record so uncharacteristically monochrome that even the cover looked like it belonged to some other group.
Now realize that I’ve just described the pessimist’s version of A Tribe Called Quest’s career arc, and that the reality of how things turned out for the artists and their discography feels a lot more remarkable. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were made of the kind of resilient artistic drive few acts can maintain — no slight to Jarobi, who left full-time associations with Tribe in ’91 to join culinary school yet remains an important component in their history. It’s amazing that people still invoke the sophomore slump in hip-hop when The Low End Theory stands as one of the all-time great rap records, and with the artistic triumph of follow-up Midnight Marauders placing it right up there next to it in that pantheon, it’s considered more of a music lover’s good luck than an intractable conflict that it came out the same day as Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Their last two records, Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement, didn’t have quite the same dynamic, but as introspective maturity efforts go you can still hear the fire in their breaths — and it didn’t hurt that the notoriously collective-minded Tribe transitioned from Native Tongues keystone to the origin point of The Ummah, mentoring J Dilla (then Jay Dee) through his come-up years and setting the stage for one of the most beloved canons in hip-hop production.
And above all else, the personality clashes in the group — as vividly outlined in Michael Rapaport’s near-universally-lauded 2011 documentary, also titled Beats, Rhymes & Life – were simply a byproduct of the same personalities that made their work as to-the-heart and human and joyous as it was. Magnanimous DJ and co-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad shared beat-making credits with fellow crate-digging record-scholar/fiend Q-Tip so closely that it’s still often unclear just who contributed what. On the mic, Tip’s unmistakably sharp-yet-smooth voice — nasal yet ceaselessly cool, capable of weighty knowledge or off-beat goofiness — is one of the most instantly recognizable in rap, while Phife’s hyped-yet-grounded presence brought the raw punchlines and off-the-hook manic energy; this made their two-MC dynamic rap’s second-greatest odd-couple pairing after Chuck and Flav. A Tribe Called Quest encompassed all different kinds of possibilities in hip-hop, not just musically but culturally, and they delivered it on point without any filters: the goofiness and the profundity, the hardness and the consciousness, the artistic refinement and the fist-pumping party-rocking.
10. “Pad & Pen (ft. D-Life)” (from The Love Movement, 1998)
The justly earned Cult of Dilla has helped rehab Tribe’s last two albums, but there’s more to those underrated-in-retrospect records than just some prime examples of early-peak Jay Dee beats. No sense in glossing over them, though: the beat to “Pad & Pen,” aside from containing a great in-joke (the samples are sourced from Gap Mangione and The Gap Band), has that signature space-jazz glowing-chord uplift and snap-tight drum programming that made James Yancey’s incorporation to the Ummah nucleus with Tip and Ali a natural fit. Since The Love Movement was touted in advance as the last A Tribe Called Quest record, the finality threatens to overshadow most of the bright spots, and there’s some weird mystery to this track, too — this is one of the only credits given anywhere to hook-duty/interjection presence D-Life, a voice who sounds uncannily like Phife through heavy reverb. But this is where Phife and Tip’s short-bar back-and-forth rapport still feels not just alive but lively, careening between dirty-joke punchlines and spirit-of-’93 vibes that do their best to hide the turmoil that caused this album to be their final statement.
9. “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” (from People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, 1990)
It can be easy to forget that A Tribe Called Quest pre-Low End Theory were just as off-kilter and playfully goofy as D.A.I.S.Y. Age-era De La Soul when it came to colorful, positive-rap bohemianism. Age might have something to do with it — Q-Tip was the only member who’d even hit his twenties when People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm came out, and he’d been out of his teens for all of one week. And there’s definitely a sense of reckless-youth freedom to their formative classic of storytelling rap, all kicking off because “my mother went away for a month-long trip.” With all the comedic surrealism — a fateful destination-setting encounter with “a man with a sombrero who was four feet high,” a titular bad-luck locale sourced from a Redd Foxx “Sanford & Sons” line that stuck in Tip’s craw, the urgency of finding the wallet in part because “it had my jimmy hats” — it’s like some teenage fuck-up excuse turned into a preposterous epic.
8. “Buggin’ Out” (from The Low End Theory, 1991)
Imagine listening to The Low End Theory for the first time after knowing ATCQ more or less as that group where Q-Tip is the lead MC, with Phife as the tag-along dude with more personality than skills. You’ve just heard “Excursions,” the opening track that features Tip taking control throughout, pulling off two of his most memorable verses ever and apparently setting the stage for everything to come: the connections between hip-hop and jazz, the Afrocentric perspective given more serious weight, the reassertion of a group that has something to prove after being interrogated over the threats of a sophomore slump. And then here comes Phife on Track 2 to set everything ablaze, starting with his old reputation. “The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business” stayed highly quotable from here on out, making his flow as ingrained as the beat’s window-rattling bassline (something about the way he rolls out the line “styles upon styles upon styles is what I have” just digs in) and creating a definitive self-portrait of a diminutive sugar junkie contending with his own ego (“I never walk the street thinking it’s all about me/Even though deep in my heart, it really could be”) and deep introspection.
7. “Bonita Applebum” (from People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, 1990)
Here’s a crucial moment in hip-hop love songs that snuck in another revolutionary moment in a space many people would mistake for a background detail. History knows this as one of the great romantic moments in rap, even if there’s more than just lovestruck flirtation in Q-Tip’s come-ons: there’s ambivalence (“Do I love you? Do I lust for you? Am I a sinner ’cause I do the two?”), there are paired promises of vague freakiness (“I like to kiss ya where some brothers won’t”) and honest connection (“I like to tell ya things some brothers don’t”), and we get that priceless compliment that Bonita herself is “like a hip-hop song, y’know?” — a phrase that gets more meta the more you think about it. The first shot at that attempted relationship didn’t pan out, at least if the second-chance pleas of the sequel “Hootie Mix” are any indication, but the beat is forever: the electric piano loop of RAMP’s “Daylight” was one of the first in a countless number of rap classics to sample Roy Ayers. With the once-tarnished reputation of jazz-funk filtered through an open-eared production style, Tribe both expanded the possibilities for where breaks could come from and restored the true impact of these elder artists.
6. “Electric Relaxation” (from Midnight Marauders, 1993)
On the other end of the love you/lust for you scale, this is where Tribe went borderline over-the-top in dirty sex rhymes — there’s punchlines and references in here, especially from Phife, that are as close to Danny Brown-style raunch as any Native Tongues artist or anyone else in the “conscious rap” periphery have ever been. (An all-time great obscure NYC-area reference from Phife Diggy: “Let me hit it from the back, girl, I won’t catch a hernia/Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s Furniture.”) They’re pretty self-aware of it, too, juxtaposing their own rep against loverman artists like H-Town, Bell Biv Devoe, and “Uncle L” L Cool J. But thanks to Tip’s smoothness, Phife’s humor, and especially the slickly reworked Ronnie Foster loop that puts some bump in its stride, it’s a fun kind of lascivious that’s too good-natured to really get skeevy.
5. “Stressed Out” (Feat. Faith Evans) (from Beats, Rhymes And Life, 1996)
The “dark” reputation of Beats, Rhymes And Life does make sense in the context of ’96. It’s the same year that the Shiny Suit era started to crest over the horizon, the same money-changes-everything atmosphere that drove Native Tongues cohorts De La Soul to riddle Stakes Is High with disillusioned observations on the state of hip-hop’s mainstream crossover. Tribe’s extended time away post-Midnight Marauders ended with a noticeable metamorphosis into a more extended family, thanks to Jay Dee’s production-team membership and the introduction of Consequence — literal fam, what with him being Q-Tip’s first cousin — as a featured co-star. And when they got Bad Boy diva Faith Evans to interpolate Anita Baker on the hook for a track destined for single status, cursory listens might make things appear vaguely sellout-ish. Deep-focus on the lyrics, though, and the uplift is there, even if it needs to manifest as a corrective instead of a given. Consequence’s intricate second verse on the album version and Phife’s patois-heavy personal-health ruminations in the video version are both strong, even if they’d share the same track in a perfect world.
4. “God Lives Through” (from Midnight Marauders, 1993)
Despite his history of providing memorable guest spots on three Tribe albums and being closely tied in with the group’s history in the minds of fans — check out 2013’s The Abstract And The Dragon mixtape for further reference — we don’t see a lot of Busta Rhymes in the Beats, Rhymes & Life doc. But when we do see him, he’s listening to “God Lives Through” while visiting Tribe backstage and damn near falling into a reverie about how “this is my favorite song, son… [recently] I was in Vegas, and I just put this shit on, and this shit had me in tears in the car, B.” Busta catching feelings to the Midnight Marauders closer makes all the sense in the world, and not just because that’s his younger-days voice from earlier in the record, shouting the titular hook to “Oh My God” in a rare case of instantly recursive self-referencing samples. It’s because the beat’s got this amazing blend of hardness and spirituality to it — soul-jazz horns both sophisticated and comforting, those summer-breezy guitar strums, the opening “heeeeeey” from the J.B.’s “Gimme Some More” stretched out to sound like Tibetan monks chanting — while Tip and Phife embrace the bigger picture, featuring shouts to retail-job friends and their neighborhood in Queens but in a way that’s fully aware of how those personal connections become universal with each hip-hop peer and obsessive listener. On the low, Tip actually drops one of the great big-picture declarations of an MC’s status: “Life seems to need me.”
3. “Award Tour” (from Midnight Marauders, 1993)
Tribe’s biggest crossover hit, both in 1993 and since, isn’t enigmatic or complicated or gimmicky, unless getting Trugoy from De La to do a “Night Train”-style itinerary of cities on the hook is a gimmick. It just all clicks together, and take your pick from all the reasons and ways: Tip and Phife outdo most peers in simultaneous show-and-prove lyrics, outsized character driving the way they tweak their flows without slipping, burning at both ends of the smooth-vs-hyped continuum. And lyrically they bring jokes and truth and shit-talk and motivation and history and the future and fame and trueness to self all crossing paths in a multitude of expression that shows all their dimensions.
2. “Scenario” (from The Low End Theory, 1991)
Only two things keep this, the legendary closing cut off the second of three straight classic Tribe albums, out of the #1 slot. The first is probably subjective to a fault, actually — it’s the ATCQ cut for a lot of people, the one track of theirs you’re almost 100% guaranteed to hear if you go out to any club or DJ set with an eye on the golden age of hip-hop. And while it’s never really going to feel truly overplayed, it’s got a bit more power as a door-kicking out-of-nowhere ambush than a comfortable old-head standard. The second, more notable thing is that it’s a great Tribe performance but a nuclear Busta Rhymes performance, and it feels kind of weird to call this ATCQ’s crowning achievement when they’re overshadowed on their own track. Not that overshadowing Phife and Tip is some garbage-time, tank-for-the-draft business — the way the former shifts gears into “but we’ve been known to do the impossible like Broadway Joe” and the latter plays good-natured yet steely-eyed call-and-response provocateur is both quotable and technically impressive. It’s just that Tribe, along with Leaders Of The New School’s abstract alliterative f-trooper Dinco D and Charlie (“who’s that?”) Brooooooooown, brought the metaphorical guns — and Busta brought POWERFUL IMPACT, BOOM! FROM THE CANNON. All that, plus some of the hardest drums known to man.
1. “Jazz (We’ve Got)” (from The Low End Theory, 1991)
If they didn’t invent jazz-rap on The Low End Theory, Tribe were the first to perfect it. In 1991, incorporating jazz was still fairly unusual in hip-hop production; even the first couple LPs by Gang Starr, a group feted for both Guru and DJ Premier’s reverence and ear for the genre’s many phases, were heavier on funk and R&B breaks than fusion or soul jazz. But by the time A Tribe Called Quest were in the studio working out their second LP, the crew — Q-Tip in particular — had taken the connections between jazz and hip-hop to heart, finding common threads between the way lyrical abstraction and toying with cadence could do for the voice what improvisation could do for melody. The highlights of this approach are well-known — recruiting the legendary double-bassist Ron Carter to play live on “Verses from the Abstract”; Tip’s immortal first lines on “Excursions” before the drums come in (“You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop/My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop”); the sly transformations of laidback loops from artists like Grant Green and Gary Bartz into components of tracks that were made to knock. On an already revolutionary album, this track soars above them all, and not just because it works as a mission statement or a blueprint or even an ideal example of a style that would change hip-hop to this day. (The horns that come in, re-created off a Pete Rock demo, make for a profound statement: haunting, beautiful, vibrant… and sourced from a Jimmy McGriff quartet concert recorded at the Cook County Jail on Friday the 13th,) It’s the actual personification of what they do on levels both artistically profound and gut-level immediate: weirdness triumphant as Afrocentric self-expression (Q-Tip: “Some say that I’m eccentric ’cause I once had an orgy/And sometimes for breakfast I eat grits and porgies”), pure straightforward lyrical simplicity mixed with audacious punchline rhymes (Phife rhyming “speakers” with “Massapequa”), self-effacement as below-the-radar cool (“so low-key that you probably missed it”) fused with a magnanimous mission of opening eyes: “I don’t really mind if it’s over your head/’Cause the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead.”