A TRIBE CALLED QUEST / “Bonita Applebum” (12” Boys Mix)
Last week, in a post about A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, I commented that the ATCQ’s debut album shouldn’t be considered a ‘jazz/rap’ hybrid because “there’s no improvisation, no blues, no swing.” Hip-hop producer Chris Defendorf disagreed. “You said they had no swing,” Chris wrote in, “I emphatically disagree. I remember when I got this tape, the only thing that I loved more than the sound of the horns (and their unusual chord structure) on ‘Luck of Lucien’ were the drums.” I don’t think we actually disagree. What happened is, we were using different definitions of ‘swing.’ I think Chris was talking about a certain dynamic that Tribe brought to the their drums sounds that was both more complex (in execution) and more interesting (in effect) than most rap drum tracks of the time. As he said, “It was like after that record [“Push It Along”], other artists got more loose and swingy in their drums, particularly on the kick drum. They had this new 3 against 4 thing.” I actually agree with that. When I said ‘swing’ I was referring to the specific, prototypical swing beat that we all recognize from any number of jazz tunes. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s “Pot Belly” provides just such an example. “Pot Belly” is a nice bit of jazz fusion swing that has provided the basis for probably a good 20-25 different rap records, the most obvious example being House Of Pain’s “Jump Around.” But two years House Of Pain used the “Pot Belly” sample, A Tribe Called Quest sampled it for the b-side of their “Can I Kick It” single. That sample became the basis for the lovely, if relatively unknown, hip-hop moment called “If The Papes Come.” (Meaning, basically, ‘If We Get Rich.’ ‘Papes’ is money.) In Chris’ comments, he also mentioned that Q-Tip started working on his freestyle ability for ATCQ’s follow-up album, the also-classic Low End Theory. From the sound of it, Tip had already improved his freestyling before he cut his vocals for “Papes.” While a lot of Tip’s rhymes on People’s Travels are narrative-based or otherwise noticeably pre-written, his rhymes for “If The Papes Come” are definitely in the freestyle mode, if not actually freestyled. He jumps beautifully from subject to subject, creating that freewheeling hyper-juxtaposition that hip-hop fans know and love. When Tip rhymes “the army wants me to drop my microphone” with “hot butter on what, say what, the popcorn”—it’s obvious that he’s not trying to tell a story or make a big point, he’s just having fun, doing his thing. A good swing beat will get you swaying and grooving in a mellow kind of way, though not necessarily nodding your head the way a good, hard 4/4 rap rhythm will. To compare and contrast the two styles, look no further than the original album mix of “Bonita Applebum” which featured a minimalist drum mix that has since become a virtual archetype of Native Tongue-style hip-hop. The combination of those stripped-down drums, the Roy Ayers keyboard/guitar sample (lifted from RAMP’s “Daylight”) and Tip’s intimate though never corny lyrics created an instant classic. It also created a seemingly endless string of remixes, remakes and mash-ups. The first version I remember hearing (other than the original, of course) was called “Bonita Applebum” (Remix) or “Bonita Applebum” (Part Two)—I don’t remember which and my 12” singles are still in New Orleans. (Though high and dry, give thanks.) So although I can’t verify the exact title, thanks to the magic of iTunes and portable computability I can drop the track in the jukebox. In the intro to the original, Q-Tip muses, “Do I love you? Do I lust for you?” Listening to Part Two, it occurs to me that it probably wasn’t the previous, as Tip kisses and tells all over the track. Over a nice, crisp loop of the Isley Brothers’ “Between The Sheets” (in one of the last years when rapping over a loop that obvious was still a good idea), Q-Tip rips Bonita for her drug habit (“speaking of high, I saw you smoke the hootie mack”), sexual appetite (“your ex-boyfriend claims he gets the booty back”) and shifty disposition (“she kicked the diabolical as if we was friends”). Not to mention that the ‘six-pack of hats’ comment probably crosses the line, even for a rap about an ex. Bitter, bitter, bitter.* A little later, I came across the so-called 12” Boys Mix of “Bonita” wherein Parts One and Two were remixed and strung together via Grace Jones’ “Slave To The Rhythm.” While I miss the sitar and hard drums of Part One and the Isley’s break from Part Two, whatever is lost there is made up for by the novelty of the entire sweet-then-sordid tale being told at once. The combination of the ‘I used to love her, but now I hate her’ vibe coupled with the sweeping strings of the “Slave” sample gives the Boys Mix a compelling epic-like feel that is absent when listening to either Part One or Part Two alone. We close out the “Bonita” versions with the “Why?” Mix, a bright-sounding light-reggae sort of thing that anticipated a similar remix of another track from People’s Instinctive Travels, that being Fatboy Slim’s “Vampire Mix” of “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo.” The Vampire Mix starts with some dancehall-style chatting by ATCQ’s Phife (an avowed reggae nut and native West Indian) before settling into an uptempo computerized skank. A dancehall remix of a qausi-Spaghetti Western hip-hop road song doesn’t sound all that compelling on paper, but it sounds great on tape and that’s really all that matters. Most of these remixes are available on Revised Quest for the Seasoned Traveler. As for the others, happy digging. The last track is the strangest. It’s a remix of "Description Of A Fool" by chill-out specialists Andy Cato and Tom Findlay AKA Groove Armada. (You might also know Cato as half of Weekend Players, the UK duo who scored a semi-hit with their Sade sound-a-like and Budweiser ad song “Best Days Of Our Lives.”) Groove Armada’s mix ignores the original instrumentation completely, making it more of a remake or mash-up than an actual remix. Tribe’s version is based on liberal samples of Roy Ayers’ “Running Away.” (Clearly, Tribe likes Mr. Ayers. But then, don’t we all?) Consistent with their reputation, Groove Armada’s remake is much more mellow than the jazzy uptempo sound Tribe created with the “Running Away” sample. The keyboard effects and acoustic guitar strumming that begin Armada’s mix lasts quite a while—long enough that you’re beginning to think there’s no way a rap record is ever going to start. That’s the exact moment the beat drops. After some edited-down rapping by Tip, the mix slides back into the acoustic guitar bag before easing back out. It’s weird, but I dig it. Groove Armada’s rework of “Description Of A Fool” is taken from Armada’s mix-CD Back To Mine, a release that hit the streets in 2000, ten years after the release of People’s Instinctive Travels. Meaning, a solid decade later, remixers still felt like there were new things they could do with Tribe’s earliest material. Now, another six years since Armada dropped their mix, their version of “Description Of A Fool” still sounds fresh enough to have been created, um, now. The continued relevance and excellence of the music from A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album speaks to both longevity and quality—hallmarks of a true classic. —Mtume ya Salaam * This just in. The 'Part Two' mix is actually Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s “Hootie Mix.” Do she got a twin? I’m 'a fess up. I spent the last hour trying to figure out if my UK 12” mix (which seems to be an out-of-print promo, extended cd single) is the same as the 12” mix Mtume put up. And, if it ain't the same mix, which mix is better. And, if they're different should we put them both up, or should I go for the one I like or stick with the one Mtume likes, or, damn…this week it's hard to make final choices. I like the UK mix by CJ Mackintosh better than the one Mtume put up, even though they are almost identical. Maybe I’m just trying to hold on to the integrity of my personal experience. Like, ya know, I wasn’t with your girl, I was with her sister and they’re twins, damn near identical twins. The differences are subtle, you got to check ‘em out real close, but subtlety in music aces me everytime. Y'all listen and go whichever way (or both ways) that your ears tell you to go. To help you out a little bit, I’ve separated the two Bonita 12”s with a short Bonita instrumental. Man, the girl was baaaaad. I couldn’t help myself, and if you are (or have been at one time) sexually active then you know what I mean by the (in)famous phrase “I couldn’t help myself,” which is usually uttered not as a confession or a plea for forgiveness but rather proclaimed with a wicked smile as a boast or a toast. A vow, if not to return to commit more crimes, then certainly as an incantation that one will never forget the utter bliss of that precious moment, fleeting though it may have been and (probably) unduplicable. That is, you can’t go there again, for a lot of reasons. Mtume, I don’t think Tip hates Bonita, I think he hates that he still thinks of her from time to time. Nobody likes playing the fool. But as we all know, when it comes to physical attraction, sooner or later, at one time or two or three times, everybody plays the fool. No exceptions. You know, I thought Digable Planets were the smoothest of the rap groups in an off-hand, not-really-thinking-too-deeply-about-it kind of way, but here we are in the second week of delving into ATCQ. We ain’t even past the first album and yet we're waxing all kinds of poetic. In polite circles we would say ATCQ got our noses wide open—did you know the olfactory sense is the one that is most directly connected to memory? On the block we would just say that ATCQ got us whipped…. The ATCQ catalogue is deep, deeper than the Planets, and in terms of quality and lasting impact, deeper than De La Soul, or any other rap trio that one might posit. But wait, aren’t we talking Native Tongues? Aren’t we talking about a movement? Aren’t we saying this was one direction in which rap was headed before being persuaded that getting stupid was hipper than being our intelligent selves? I thought so. These recordings are the proof. We now have enough years of rap to begin to make critical assessments based on more than personal taste—that is when we’re thinking straight. But like I said in the opening, Bonita must have a twin because although the one Mtume was talking about sounds a lot like the one I was talking about, I swear they are two different women. Anyway, for sure, I'm with Mtume on the ATCQ bandwagon and when we both like the same thing but for slightly different reasons and in slightly different versions, well, that’s when you know, you really know something serious is going down. Now, what in the world are we going to do for next week? —Kalamu ya Salaam P.S. What about that Jimi Hendrix sample on "If The Papes Come"?
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