Part of the reason music from the North American continent is so popular across the globe is the respective contributions of the innumerable peoples and subcultures that call the New World side of the northern hemisphere home. Influences from colonial European powers and the African diaspora have been mixing together since day one to create sounds that ultimately appeal to all parties involved. However, there’s been precious little contributions from the indigenous people that populated the continent before all the slavery, revolutions, and genocide. Times have changed though and an intriguing crew with a cool name, A Tribe Called Red, are showing that in spite of all the brutal tragedy and travesties their people have been subject to, Native Americans have got their own flavor to add to the gumbo that is American music.
A Tribe Called Red is comprised of DJs Bear Witness and NDN along with two-time Canadian DMC champ DJ Shub. What these cats pull off is nothing short of brilliant, combining the sounds of the pow-wow’s of their rich Native heritage with the sounds of today in a manner that smacks the hell out of what those fond of MDMA consumption and glowsticks call ‘Tribal’. Their self-titled new project is, quite literally, the genuine article. ATCR have quite ably managed to incorporate the songs and chants of pow-wows and other Native ceremonies and gatherings with elements of hip-hop, dancehall reggae, and other electronic music to craft art that respectfully pays homage to their roots while pushing the envelope in terms of what club music can be. Their forte is creating cutting-edge electronica heavy on the funk and neck-snapping beats sans the ‘untz-untz’ that has regrettably become a stereotype of the dance music genre.
As the pioneers of what they term “pow-wowstep”, the vocalizations of indigenous culture are never an afterthought, the sounds of the pow-wow are an integral part of every track on A Tribe Called Red and it’s a sight to behold. “PowWowzers” featuring Northern Cree and Clarence Two Toes is the most obvious candidate for the uninitiated to peep. The cut starts off with a celebratory wail of a single individual over driving drums (real ones) and builds as more members of the Northern Cree add their voices to the hypnotic chant, climaxing when the 808 bass hits, along with the type of chorus funky enough to stand on its own. What exactly are they saying? Who knows but it sounds dope as hell. “Red Skin Girl” has a decidedly drum-n-bass feel to it and the near subterranean low-end activity merely serves as a conduit for the voices singing songs that have been in this part of the world since time immemorial. “Native Puppy Love”, far from sweet and tender, is a journey into the heart of man’s primal need to get up and dance. Like the rest of the tracks on this record, the modern and the ancient complement one another gracefully, the dark synths and staccato, stuttering stabs of bass juxtaposing with the mournful chants from another epoch.
A Tribe Called Red emphatically defies any sort of definitive categorization, and that’s a good thing. It’s electronica, but influences from other genres are recognizable throughout. There’s something for everybody, from hip-hoppers to the candy-eating club kids. But in the end the dopest thing about A Tribe Called Red is the way they capture the essence of their Native heritage, doing so honorably and making it beyond merely accessible; but compelling, damn good music. I’ve never heard anything like it. The question now is how much can they mine their Native identities without turning into one-trick ponies? If they can concoct this type of excellence using the pow-wow as a principal creative reference, what can they do with the indigenous music from other locales? Then again neither you, I, nor the average American truly knows the depth of the culture of the people who were here before Columbus ‘discovered’ America and pow-wowstep may be a legitimate new art form that is here to stay. The second dopest thing about ATCR? This album is FREE (those interested can get it here).