A TRIBE CALLED QUEST / “Push It Along”
The symbolism used by A Tribe Called Quest to introduce their first album may be a bit obvious, but the effect is still beautiful. There are chimes. Swirling keyboard sounds—which could be wind, could be water. A baby cries out. Then suddenly, the beat drops. With that, A Tribe Called Quest began the People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm and along with it, a career that would eventually encompass ten years, five albums and countless accolades. Although, when it comes to People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, the critics were divided. Often, they seemed divided against themselves, feeling the need to qualify their own praise. Robert Christgau, for example, called himself “not Afrocentric enough to hear this indubitably progressive pastiche as a groove album….” Which means, I think, that he knows that there’s something there that he’s not hearing. He praises at least five songs from the album but also notes that Tribe’s music is the sort that a “neutral observer” can’t possibly enjoy “without trying.” But in the end, Christgau grades it a B+. Then there’s a Rolling Stone review that calls People’s Instinctive Travels “one of the least danceable rap albums ever” before summing it up as “the sort of funkified quiet-storm pseudo-jazz you might expect young Afrocentric upwardly mobiles to indulge in when they crack open that bottle of Ameretto and cuddle up in front of the gas fireplace.” Wow.
One problem (for the critics, I mean) may have been that ATCQ’s debut wasn’t a ‘statement album’ like the other major hip-hop releases of 1990. It didn’t take on the big social issues like Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet. It wasn’t self-assured like LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out or incendiary like Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. Musically, People’s Instinctive Travels is reserved and at ease while most hip-hop of the time is declamatory and aggressive. PE, LL and Ice Cube had axes to grind and did so eloquently if not exactly subtly. Tribe had a point to make too, but they were content to let you figure it out on your own and at a pace of your choosing. Thematically, People’s Instinctive Travels is an unfocused affair, drifting from subject to subject like the rambling road trip detailed on “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo.” The album title itself should clue you in—Tribe aren’t just traveling, they are ‘instinctively’ traveling, just following the paths. In other words, the lack of theme is the theme. Tribe’s debut says that hip-hop can go anywhere it wants to go and be anything it wants to be. No agenda required.
The literate, slightly nasal lead voice belongs to Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed (née Jonathan Davis). The infrequently-heard second voice (on this album, at least) is Malik “Phife” Taylor. The DJ and beat-creator is Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The narrator is Jarobi White the infamous ‘lost member’ of ATCQ, who left the group before their second album was released. Although later Tribe albums are more of a group affair, with Phife and Q-Tip sharing equal mic time, People’s Instinctive Travels is nearly all Q-Tip. For many of the albums best-known tracks, including “Bonita Applebum” and “I Left My Wallet,” Phife sits out completely; and even on the tracks where Phife does appear (most notably, “Can I Kick It”), his verses are shorter, less frequent and almost completely overshadowed by Q-Tip’s.
There are some rap albums that sound so insular, so constricted, so place-and-time specific, that you imagine the MC has never left the city he happened to be born in. ATCQ’s debut album has exactly the opposite effect. Though Q-Tip mentions more than once that he’s a Brooklynite and proud of it, it’s hard to listen to People’s Instinctive Travels without feeling a sensation of pushing forward, moving, traveling. From the beginning, Tribe is all over the map. “If you can’t pull it,” they chant on the chorus of the feature track, “All you gotta do is push it along.” The point being, even if you’re not “a hemisphere stalker” like Q-Tip, you should not, can not stop moving, doing, seeing, learning. Maybe you can’t lead the way (“pull it”), but you can still join in on the journey (“push it”). Throughout the album you’ll hear repeated references to traveling: ‘paths,’ ‘footprints,’ ‘rides,’ ‘journeys,’ ‘trips,’ etc. On the chorus of the fourth track, “Footprints,” a sampled voice repeats “Walk tall! Walk tall!” Either that, or it’s “Walk on! Walk on!” Either way, the point is the same as it is on the rest of the album—keep moving.
Over the years, one of Q-Tip’s unique talents as an MC has been the way he can convey a specific feeling without actually describing it. “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” is one of my favorite tracks from the album not just because it happens to be one of the few hip-hop road songs in existence but also because of the way Q-Tip’s lyrics acquire an almost Zen-like ‘abstraction of specificity’ as he explains how he lost his wallet.
I ordered enchiladas
And I ate ‘em
Ali had the fruit punch
When we finished
We thought for ways to get back
I had a hunch
Ali said, “Pay for lunch”
So I did it
The other tracks in the jukebox are the aforementioned “Push It Along,” the dark-and-smoky Brooklyn travelogue “After Hours” and the facetious sing-along “Ham ‘n Eggs.” If you’re wondering what happened to classic tracks like “Bonita Applebum” and “Description Of A Fool,” we’ll revisit, or visit, both of those tracks next week in part two of this write-up.
Musically, People’s Instinctive Travels has a unifying theme as well and it’s in the drums. It’s hard to give the sound a specific name—“polyrhythmatic with a big fat boom” is how Q-Tip describes it—but no matter if the beat is fast or slow, Ali Shaheed’s drums sound so thick and sticky that they came oozing through your speakers like black tar. Critics often comment on the wide-ranging variety of samples on the album—it’s not everyday that a hip-hop crew samples Funkadelic and Lou Reed, R&B basslines and Indian sitar. But there’s something special Ali does with the samples, or maybe it’s just that he picked certain samples because they fit the sound he wanted, but every sample has a muted, rounded-off feel that perfectly complements his beats. The resulting tracks sound like a good sepia photograph looks: easy on the eyes but evocative and timeless nonetheless.
The other recurrent element of the instrumentation is the use of jazz samples. Sixteen years later, it’s a common enough practice; back then, it was unusual enough that it made the album sound foreign, different, strange. One thing we should get straight now. This isn’t ‘jazz/rap’ or ‘hip-hop/bebop’ or any other kind of hybrid. This is rap music, period. Ali Shaheed may have sampled jazz records, but Tribe’s music has none of the essential elements of jazz. There’s no improvisation, no blues, no swing. What Shaheed was going for is the texture of jazz instrumentation—something softer and looser than your average R&B or soul sample.
It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that some heard Tribe’s ‘softness’ as a marker of inauthenticity, as if a rapper had to be yelling from a soapbox or from behind the barrel of a gun to be considered ‘real.’ In a review of Tribe’s second album, Christgau characterized Tip, Phife and Shaheed as “the well-meaning middle class.” Rolling Stone’s Chuck Eddy said People’s Instinctive Travels was a perfect fit for “middlebrow college radio” and wondered “how people will put this music to use.”
If I had to sum it up for the non-aficionados among us, I’d say People’s Instinctive Travels is late-night mood hip-hop. Hip-hop for insomniacs and sleeping pill abusers. This is hip-hop for educated hustlers, for inveterate beat lovers, for those seized with wanderlust or for those who wish they were. Hip-hop you can play for your girl without insulting her intelligence or boring yourself. Hip-hop you can’t necessarily dance to but you can’t help but nod your head to. The critics might call it ‘well-meaning’ ‘middlebrow’ ‘quiet storm psuedo-jazz.’ We simply call it ‘classic.’
Note: This is part one of a two-part write-up on People’s Instinctive Travels. Next week we’ll check out some of the b-sides, remixes and other non-album tracks associated with the album.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Two trains running
African-American culture has always had two currents running simultaneously: one towards assimilation into mainstream USA and the other resisting assimilation, generally in an oppositional way. I will risk over-simplification and misunderstanding by using the short hand that the assimilation train generally emphasized intellectual activity (logic, speaking correctly, etc.), while the opposition train generally emphasized instinctual activity (feelings and spirituality). In educational terms there is concrete/sequential on one hand, and random/abstract on the other hand.
That’s us. Twins. Two beats, one body. Left, right, left, right…. I’ve played ATCQ on the radio many, many times before. I’ve always liked what they were doing. I’m a big, big fan of the various mixes of “Bonita Applebaum.” I never paid much attention to the mainstream critics writing about hip hop. Those quotes Mtume cites calling ATCQ middle class, as if that was in and of itself a put down, is a profound bit of bullshit. Here you have middle-class writers putting down ATCQ because they sound too middle class when in fact if ATCQ is a definition of middle class then there is something seriously wrong with those critics because they can’t do what ATCQ does, not nair one of them critics can rap, can put together a hip record, yet they want to tell somebody what Black/hip is and isn’t. Bullshit.
So now we are to believe that being literate is being middle class. Them critics must think that only middle class people can think, but what do they mean by middle class anyway, and are they trying to imply that Black culture is Blackest when there is no thought in it?
Naw, it’s not about thinking or not thinking, it’s about what you’re thinking when you do think and what your thinking leads you to do. It’s also about feeling, which is the subtext, Mtume, you addressed. The truth of the matter is we would have a lot more intelligent rap music if white America didn’t control the music industry and didn’t try to enforce ignorance on us as some sort of badge of Black authenticity.
We can think. We can feel. I’m feeling ATCQ and I think those who don’t, should leave it alone. Which brings me to the last part of this random rant: One of the main reasons I stopped writing music criticism in mainstream publications is because I ended up spending too much time talking about shit I didn’t like. In fact, the way one made a name for oneself as a mainstream critics was by attacking something, tearing something down, tearing it apart. Well, negativity is not my cup of tea. In fact, I don’t even like tea. I drink juice. And water. Which is what BoL is all about.
You won’t see either Mtume or Kalamu posting music we don’t like and talking bad about the artists. True, occasionally you will see one of us strongly disagreeing with the opinion of the other but that’s just a healthy respect for diversity and a willingness to co-exist with dissent. What I mean is, we ought not spend time talking about what we don’t love, or for that matter talking bad about something we do love. Or, as is commonly said in the folk culture: it’s hipper by far to be a lover, rather than a fighter. Rather than loving to fight, I fight to love.
By the way, did the dude ever get his wallet back?
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, June 25th, 2006 at 12:45 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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