5 Ways A Tribe Called Quest Broke Hip-Hop's Golden Age Formula
In hip-hop, a crew is hardly novel. From its most infant moments, like-minded producers, emcees and, of course, token hypemen, have banded together and put their artistry on full-blast, playing off one another’s strengths to create a singular sound.
Nowhere has this been more the case than with A Tribe Called Quest. Though they weren’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, Tribe’s particular union holds the blueprint for all assemblies of hip-hop and r&b heavies in the years that followed their 1989 formation within. Holding allegiances to the more expansive Native Tongues set (including The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Monie Love and Queen Latifah) Tribe found their path of rhythm by way of committee, but along with their Long Island-based counterparts (De La) stood well outside the pack of playful, jazz-chopping heads.
Look at any one of the collectives and crews that have made the journey down that path in the years since. Regardless of configuration, they all bear the mark of the elder tribesman, whether in spirit, style or sentiment. Soulquarians, Odd Future, Top Dawg Entertainment and yes, even Cash Money, are all indebted to the framework laid by Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. As we arrive at Tribe’s final release, We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, there’s no better time to put this all into perspective. Below you’ll find five ways that A Tribe Called Quest reimagined what it meant to be a hip-hop crew and passed on their unfuckwitable formula for generations to come.
This may be their final transmission as a crew, but certainly isn’t the last we’ll hear from the respective members. And that was all by design, as you’ll soon learn. Pick up your copy of the new album on iTunes and pre-order it on vinyl via The Shop today.
United in style, yet free to breakout
As a unit, Tribe was strong as they came; playful, poignant and profound in their ability to bridge a new generation of music lovers to notes of past and future. But the Tribesman were not hinged to their communal output. In fact, every single member led fruitful, at times prolific, solo careers during and following their tenure in the foundational four-piece, with some of Tip’s earliest production arriving on Nas‘ classic debut (not to mention dropping non-Native guest verses as early as Deee-Lite‘s 1990 smash), Ali producing D’Angelo‘s “Brown Sugar” the same year that Beats, Rhymes and Life dropped, Phife breaking out with an all-flames solo debut in 2000, and Jarobi, of course, leading a life of culinary excellence after the release of Low End Theory.
Championed strengths of each respective member
Oddly enough, that faith in one another’s respective super powers and paths of rhythm is precisely what makes Tribe a singular force in music, and a revolutionary crew, by any and all measures. Between Phife’s comedically earnest laments, Tip’s nasally on-point pitter-patter (and deceptive command for production) and Ali Shaheed’s evergreen pursuit of the tastiest unheards, the Tribe union is more potent than the highest grade, as candid and effortlessly accessible as a playground cypher.
Never took themselves too seriously
Where as many, if not most, Golden Age groups, whether 2 or 4 or 6 pieces in size, presented themselves as steel-toed hip-hop fundamentalists, everything from Tribe’s wordplay to their very aesthetic is wet with jest. Like God whispering “ease the fuck up” to the culture. Where Wu-Tang gave us on-the-nose grit, Tribe gave us defiant joy. Their sound is as malleable as they were, it evolved (again, much like De La) throughout a career nearing 30 years in. That ability to channel cold truths and taboo through slinky turns of phrase and sheer disregard for hip-hop’s adolescent conventions is that transformative catalyst at full-throttle, nurturing an entire generation of standard bucking geniuses, like your impossibly-optimistic Chance or your pound-for-pound champ Kendrick, all in the same meal.
Influence was not bound by geography
Well before Death Row/Bad Boy beef clogged hip-hop’s heart, and despite being clutched by it, Tribe was championing the blessed coast as inspiration for their no-slump-in-sight sophomore release. Granted this was before things came to a head at The Source Awards. But The Tribe reached back even further than that, tapping into the free jazz benediction of Sun Ra as much as Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock‘s sophisticated strut, pulling rhythms from unchartered corners of the music map both domestic and abroad. Their funk and jazz tapestries were appreciated by heads and seasoned musicians alike, setting parameters for innovators like J Dilla, Madlib and MF DOOM to crash through and redefine just a few years down the line.
Fearless defenders of musicality in hip-hop (in a slightly weirder way)
One look at the fanciful foursome should be enough to let you know. They weren’t the strangest group in hip-hop (all rights reserved to De La, again) but in terms of their sonic stamp, aesthetic, dynamic and feel, Tribe was just different. Sure, they shared a template with the Native Tongues collective, but where some opted for Daisy Age ditties, Tribe had the jazz, and were committed to face-crunching sonic experiments of their own order (and chaos,) facilitating the maturation of hip-hop from the crate to the tweeter, enriching it with deep musicality and rare energy.
Don’t miss out! Pre-order your copy of We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service now before its too late!