We've been doing our Greatest American Band debate on the website for a little over three months now. We've discussed many great bands, old and new. Some are hugely famous, others a little more underground. What dawned on me this weekend though, we haven't discussed any hip hop/rap groups.
That's a shame.
Hip hop/rap is the only type of music that is truly American. It originated in the US and, only about 10 years ago, did it start to come from overseas. There's a plethora of rap groups that I will be writing about over the next couple of months, one every week to be precise, and today I'm going to start with my personal favorite, A Tribe Called Quest. Tribe, which I will call them the rest of this piece, was the first true hip hop group that I was exposed to that was good. I listened to people like Puff Daddy and Mase and Onyx, but those were all pretty terrible rappers. Puff Daddy is a genius producer, but a not so good rapper. Mase was cool for a minute, but he went into some weird tail spin and I believe he's a preacher now. Onyx had one really good song, "Slam", but in preparation for this blog, I listened to it again, and sadly it doesn't hold up. Puff Daddy did introduce me to the GOAT, Notorious B.I.G., but he's a solo act, so he's out of this discussion.
Once again, my oldest brother, the same one that introduced me to the Velvet Underground, introduced me to Tribe. They were like nothing I ever heard before. They had a smooth, jazzy sound. But, they also were phenomenal rappers. Q Tip was the smooth operator of the group. He had a soulful, yet political consciousness that spoke to me. He delivered his lyrics with ease. He was/is such a good rapper, he made it sound easy. It's like watching a really good NBA player, someone like Magic Johnson, who is so good, they make it look easy. I can't do the things they do, but they make it seem possible. Phife Dawg came at you like a canon. After one of Q Tip's verses, Phife would come in and blow you away with his intensity and, almost angry, delivery. He was the perfect compliment to Q Tip. One was smooth(Q Tip), the other would punch you in the gut(Phife). Ali Shaheed Muhammed was a fantastic DJ, and when he did rap, he was decent. Ali Shaheed was more of the voice of reason in Tribe. He kept them going, even when times were rough. I'll touch on the rough times later. Ali Shaheed clearly just wanted to make music. He didn't want to argue and fight and gripe with the band, he just loved music. Look at the work he's done with D'Angelo or TLC or Tony! Tone! Toni!, the guy is a musical genius. They had a fourth member, Jarobi, but he only appeared on their first album, and he was, for all intents and purposes, their hype man. Jarobi and Phife still remain close friends to this day, so, for that reason alone, he deserves mentioning when talking about Tribe.
All three(four if you want to count Jarobi) were great as a group. They knew what each of them excelled at and they capitalized on that knowledge. In the long run, they grew to hate each other(really Q Tip and Phife hated each other, Ali Shaheed just wanted to make music like I said earlier) because with genius and ego comes jealousy. Q Tip and Phife were both so great at what they did, I think they both grew suspicious of each other and that's when the infighting started. These fights led to the demise of the band, they would reunite for four years, but I will talk about that later, and they only made four albums. But, those four albums are fantastic. Their debut album, "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm" is groundbreaking. I'd never heard anything like this ever before. You had four guys interweaving jazz grooves with hip hop beats and two of the best rappers to ever walk this Earth. Talk about coming out of the box and crushing a grand slam. This album put not only the hip hop world on notice, but all of the music business started to pay attention to Tribe. This is not only one of the best rap albums of all time, it's one of the best albums of any kind of music ever made. On this album, you can hear the influence it had on other hip hop bands like Digable Planets or Dilated Peoples. Without "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm", we would never have had those groups. Sophomore albums are usually a step down from debuts, but not in Tribe's case. Their second record, "The Low End Theory" was not a slump, it was a revelation. This is, in my opinion, the greatest rap album of all time. Q Tip was always the leader, but Phife took a huge step forward and became an unstoppable force on this record. They took all their jazzy beats and bumped it to a whole other level. They matured and became better rappers than I ever thought they could be. This is a must own album for all music lovers out there. Even if you don't like rap, you'll like "The Low End Theory". It's music for all different music lovers. After this album is where the fighting started for Tribe. As I said, Phife started to become a force and I don't think Q Tip liked that. It may sound like I'm being too tough on Q Tip and, yes, Phife is my favorite of the group, but that's not the case. I just think that two geniuses will eventually grow to dislike each other when they spend that much time together, and that's what happened. They still made two more albums though. "Midnight Marauders" is a really good record. The story goes, they were fighting so much that each of them recorded in their own studio, but when you listen to this record, it sounds like Q Tip and Phife are standing right next to each other in the recording studio. This is also the album where Ali Shaheed got to do some rhyming. He was pretty good too. They recorded one last record, "The Love Movement", but you can definitely tell that they were ready to be done with each other. It's still a really good record, but you knew it was going to be their last. They put out four great, classic albums in a short amount of time, and I didn't even get to some of the songs on these records.
In fact, let's do that now. Songs like, "Buggin Out", "Bonita Applebum", "Can I Kick It", "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo", "Award Tour", "Oh My God", "Steve Biko(Stir it Up)" and many more are classics. "Buggin Out" is when Phife busted out on the scene. Go listen to his verses in this song and be amazed at how awesome he is as a rapper. He is great. "Bonita Applebum" might be one of the greatest love songs I've ever heard. If it wasn't so dirty, I'd want it as my first dance at my wedding(full disclosure, my first dance song at my wedding was "Sea of Love", a great choice in my opinion). "Can I Kick It" might be one of the most quotable songs of all time. Wherever I'm playing sports with my son and we have a ball that we are kicking, whenever he says, "Can I kick it?", I say, in my best Tribe impression, "Yes You Can!". That song is awesome. "Oh My God" is the best kind of ear worm you can get. I hear that chorus and the rest of the day, I'm singing that in my head and out loud. "Steve Biko(Stir It Up)" has one of the coolest grooves in a rap song that I've ever heard. Q Tip is his smooth self on this song and he delivers his lyrics like a god damned pro. "Award Tour" is my favorite Tribe song. The verses and the chorus are awesome, both Phife and Q Tip shine, and they give a shout out to their main man, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, throughout the whole song. It's a really, really good song. There's many, many more songs I could talk about, but these are my favorites, and the ones I listen to the most.
As I've said before, they fought a ton, but they did reunite for a brief time in 2004 until 2008. They played sold out venues and sold out festivals. Fans were eager to see them live, and for the most part, they delivered. Go watch the excellent movie, "Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" directed by super fan and actor Michael Rappaport, and you'll see them reunite, but you also see the fights that were going on, specifically between Q Tip and Phife. This is a really good movie about Tribe and it's a must see for all fans. All of the members went on to solo careers, but Q Tip is/was by far the most successful.
Before I give my closing thoughts on Tribe today, I also wanted to mention that they were contemporaries with Busta Rhymes, Common and the great De La Soul. These two bands and two solo artists grew together at the same time. How crazy is that. Tribe is one of the greatest bands of all time, not just in hip hop/rap, but in all music. A Tribe Called Quest is, by far, one of the Greatest American Bands and they absolutely belong in our conversation. The things I've written and many, many more reasons are why I nominate them today.
(ed note: A Tribe Called Quest has also not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What they hell is wrong with the hall?)
Ty is the Pop Culture Editor for SeedSing and the co-host of the X Millennial Man Podcast. At one time Ty was rocking some series dreds, he now rocks a bald spot. Follow Ty on twitter @tykulik.