A Tribe Called Quest taught me more than any other artist could
You on point Phife?
Phife Dogg was always on point. So was Q-Tip come to think of it.
I first heard A Tribe Called Quest when I was 14. My family had moved to New York for my Dad’s work and the extent of my Hip-Hop knowledge consisted of Eminem and N-Dubz. It was when I joined the local swim team that I realised that I’d moved to a city eternally imbued with the sound of Hip-Hop. Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens – all the boroughs had their own sound. They all had history. They all had rappers they claimed as their own. The kids I swam with belonged to a borough in the same way their favourite MCs did. I didn’t belong anywhere. I was a quiet, self-conscious English boy.
Phife Dogg and Q-Tip belonged to Queens but you wouldn’t know that by listening to their music. Quest, as they originally named themselves back in high school, were far more proud of the music they made than where they came from. In their music they talked about their experiences at high school – “where the guys were corny, but the girls were mad fly”. They seemed down to earth, but at the same time driven – as though they always knew that they were destined for bigger places than Garvey High. They had a clear passion for music, and a clear passion in their own ability, talking about how, when they were young, they planned to “captivate the masses, because our verses profound”. As a confused and lonely 14-year old their self-confidence and passion comforted me. I not only understood what they were rapping about, but I felt like they wanted me to listen .
For me it was also Phife Dogg’s self-deprecating style, which seemed so at odds with his clear confidence, that was so inspiring . Phife, who died following a long battle with type-2 diabetes, referred to himself as the “funky diabetic” and the “five foot assassin” (he was 5ft 3in), a level of personal humour not often found in today’s overly image-conscious rappers.
There was a clear sense in which Tribe understood their responsibility as role models. If you look up their albums, anything from ‘The Low End Theory’ to ‘The Love Movement’ you’ll find hardly any of their songs are accompanied with an explicit warning – Tribe weren’t into cussing. They weren’t into guns or violence either, unlike many of their other New York counterparts in the early 90s. This was music I could listen to around my parents.
Not only was it safe to listen to, it was a learning experience. On their 1993 album ‘Midnight Marauders’ each song culminates with a sensual modulated female voice that imparts a parting lesson. Lessons like the true meaning of the term MC (Master of Ceremony) or about the alarming rise of AIDS in the African-American and Hispanic communities. The most poetic of these lessons to me will always be: “If you don’t pull the trigger you aren’t any less of a man, you’re not necessarily a man if you do”. You’d learn more from one Tribe song than you would from the entirety of Kanye West’s anthology.
Truly though it was their lyrical mastery that set them apart from any other artist of the time. The variety of subject matter covered across their over 100 song anthology is both astounding and absurd. In ‘The Low End Theory’ alone, the songs range from ‘Infamous Date Rape’, a song that deals with the practice of date rape, to ‘Skypager’, and yes that is actually a song about owning a pager.
And the production… wow the production. The work of Ali Shaheed Muhammed, coupled with Q-Tip as secondary producer on top of being MC, is a work of art in itself. When ‘The Low End Theory’ came out in 1991, it was announced as a Jazz-Hop album, and it has all the genius of a Miles Davis or Duke Ellington album. More often than not the Tribe crew loved feel-good, bouncy beats. Next time you’re walking somewhere listen to ‘Electric Relaxation’ and I challenge you not to bop down the street with a stupid smile on your face.
I don’t think there will ever be a musical artist who will have an impact on my life the same way that A Tribe Called Quest did upon my early teenage years. Phife Dogg’s voice will always remind of me a challenging time in my life, but it is also a voice that accompanied me through happier times that followed.
I’ll be bumping A Tribe Called Quest tunes all day and night, I hope you will be too.