I first heard Q-Tip’s voice on “The Promo” and then “Black Is Black,” both cuts from the Jungle Brothers. (The latter song appeared on the group’s classic 1988 debut Straight Out The Jungle on Idlers/Warlock Records.)
Supported by Propmaster Kool DJ Red Alert’s Red Alert Productions imprint, the success of Jungle Brothers opened the door for De La Soul. Q-Tip made a guest appearance on De La’s classic 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising. Fellow Quester Phife Dawg piped in for the “Buddy (Native Tongue Decision)” remix. By 1989, Native Tongues were officially a collective with A Tribe Called Quest being their newest incarnation.
Tribe benefited greatly from the overwhelming popularity of De La Soul’s Native Tongue posse track “Buddy” before Jive/RCA released the single “Description Of A Fool” in late 1989. Even though the song was released almost as a feeler, it got a fair amount of play in New York and the Tri-State area but very little else outside of college radio shows along the Eastern Seaboard. It wasn’t until “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” — which was released in February 1990 with an accompanying video that aired on BET’s Rap City and MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps — that heads finally began to turn and recognize Tribe as their own entity.
When Tribe’s debut album eventually dropped on tape, in early April 1990, my big brother Dave, who was in college, bought it from Tower Records. The album was completely overshadowed by Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet which understandably dominated media coverage. At the time, my brother would rent a car and drive around playing tapes he had just purchased. He explained to me that the ultimate test of how good an album sounds happens not in hearing it in Walkman headphones — like I was accustomed to doing as a 14-year-old — but riding around to the music in a vehicle with a respectable sound system.
The first time I ever heard People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm in full was in a rental car driving all around the Boston Metro Area. (Which, in retrospect, was fitting seeing as how the core members of the Native Tongues all first met each other in Boston near Northeastern University’s campus.)
Jarobi White’s narration turned a bunch of random songs into a full body of work. It was an album reminiscent of the jazz, funk, and soul LPs from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s that I was digging through at record stores around this time. The production especially stood out to me. The sequencing of tracks and the way it flowed took a 14-year-old me on another ride beside the one I was already on. I felt like A Tribe Called Quest was consciously taking the listener along with them on their travels, while I was going through my own quest trying to discover myself. Listening to the album for the first time was one of those moments where I placed a mental bookmark on what an album could and should sound and feel like going forward.
Songs like “Push It Along,” “Footprints,” and “Rhythm (Devoted To The Art Of Moving Butts)” had me nodding my head furiously while wondering how they put these beats together and what the hell they sampled to do so. What kind of equipment did they use? Who did what? I remember my friends and I trying to piece together A Tribe Called Quest’s production process. Just 18 months prior we didn’t spend much time thinking about these things; now it had become a growing obsession.
We thought rap production was alchemy and didn’t have an inkling about the process until the fallout over sampling came to a head in 1989 after the releases of 3 Feet High & Rising and The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. Suddenly, mini-documentaries and news features about rap production and sampling were all over television between 1989 and 1990. I finally saw an E-mu SP1200 and an Akai S950 used on camera to sample and loop up a record and my life was never the same again. Listening to People’s Instinctive Travels, with its layered samples, impressed me. I remember thinking to myself: “Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip must’ve been hip to some amazing records.” It opened me up a wider selection of possibilities when I visited local vinyl shops, one of which being In Your Ear! where legendary record collectors, music experts and beatnuts like “Boston” Bob Gibson worked. ( He later introduced some records to Q-Tip. Small world.)
A Tribe Called Quest weren’t super technical, boasting about their lyrical prowess or their material possessions like some of the groups of the era were. Whereas Jungle Brothers and De La Soul entered the fray at the tail end of what would later be called the first Golden Era, Tribe just rhymed about everyday things and debuted during the transition period between the first and second Golden Era.
Q-Tip told stories about his friends (“Luck Of Lucien,” “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo,” and “Mr. Muhammad“) and everyday concerns (“Push It Along,” “Youthful Expression” and “Description Of A Fool”). They even made a song about healthy eating, “Ham n’ Eggs.” During a time when you had groups rapping about shooting people or bragging about their prowess on the mic, here was the Tribe — trying to get people to try beets.
“Bonita Applebum” was an immediate favorite, and that was before I even heard the video version or the remixes that would follow months later. That initial car ride had me wanting to hear this tape again, but this time in my Walkman headphones. I knew my brother wasn’t gonna give his tape up so I asked him if I could get a copy. He agreed on the condition I provided the tape and did all the labor. (Done and done!)
We stopped off at his apartment near the Back Bay Fens in Boston and I dubbed myself a copy of People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm. As I sat there listening to it again as it recorded, I noticed that the tape liner notes had the song times all wrong. I wrote out my own tracklisting in my best graf handstyle, thinking I couldn’t wait to go to school and stunt on my friends.
Tribe had a slow burn but with the passage of time their music resonated with more and more heads in an organic fashion. The spread of the album was pushed along by singles “Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It?” but no buzz was bigger than the one provided by Q-Tip’s guest verse on Dee-Lite’s 1990 smash hit single “Groove Is In The Heart.” Within a few months, I had to buy my own copy of the tape because I needed to have the J card, album credits, and the liner notes.
Thirty years later, I can still throw on People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths Of Rhythm and instantly be transported back to when I first heard this album. It was a time when the rap world was in a state of flux. A Tribe Called Quest had made their own unique mark on the game, cementing the influence of the Native Tongues crew during the time where pop rap era was underway with the massive sales success of MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em and Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme.
Little did I know then that the next school year they would return with The Low End Theory and smash everything.
Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for NPR and Producers I Know. Follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.
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