It’s a pretty frequent topic of conversation amongst my friends: who are your favorite rappers of all time? Almost out of necessity, legends like Jay Z, Pac and Biggie are spat out; new kings like Chance, Young Thug and Drake receive most of the praise, signaling that yesterday’s sound is fading in to tomorrow’s horizon. Kanye is the bridge between these two eras. Due to his longevity and acute ear, he’s responsible for evolving Hip Hop’s ‘90s soul into a new musical frontier. He’s done his job well.
Without skipping a beat, I emphatically respond to my friends, “KANYE! YEEZY SEASON APPROACHIN’”—I really, really like Kanye… I appreciate Kanye for his undeniable talent and ability to grow his popularity year after year. I appreciate him for the beautiful records he’s supplied during his tenure; for the beautiful production he’s supplied the industry with. Most of all, I appreciate his influence and game changing vision; for being the David to gangster rap’s Goliath.
As my friends and I continue to have this debate, my answer remains the same. Kanye’s the GOAT; Kanye forever; Kanye for 2020 president. But as I sit here and reflect on his seismic influence on Hip Hop, another influential group comes to mind: A Tribe Called Quest.
Ever since I was 15-years old (2007), I’ve been a Tribe supporter. Their innovative style and soulful identity separated them from my iPod’s library—a medley of Eminem, Lil Wayne, Biggie and Jay Z. ATCQ was different. In a genre dominated by heavy drums, drug tales, gangsters, chauvinistic content and oppression, they found comfort at the opposite end of the spectrum—conscious positivity flowing over jazzy vibes. Tribe was different; Tribe was fresh.
At 15, I remember journeying with my parents from Rochester to my childhood New Jersey home. They were discussing politics, the current economic climate, talking about my aunt’s upcoming foot surgery—topics lost on me. As the car’s political conversation thickened, my patience dwindled. I needed a lifeline. Luckily, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I had just downloaded Tribe’s first album: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. I found my lifeline.
The opening track, “Push It Along,” greeted me with a futuristic whirlwind of sounds and cries, suggesting the birth of music’s future. These otherworldly acoustics abruptly transitioned into a traditional Hip Hop boom-bap sound; a sound I’d become so familiar with. But the only reason I was accustom to these melodic staples was due to my longstanding relationship with Hip Hop. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm came out in 1990. The earliest Rap I’d listened to up until that point was Biggie’s 1994 Ready to Die. ATCQ were trailblazers. Coming off the heels of Rap’s ‘80s introductory period into its “Golden Age,” Tribe, just like Kanye, was the bridge between these two eras. They too did their job well.
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm continued to entertain and save me from my parent’s monotonous discussion. Each song sounding different from the last, yet seamlessly flowing into the successive track, manifesting Tribe’s identity and iconic vibe. Although Tribe and I were still getting acquainted, it was clear that a lifelong friendship was forging. Suddenly, the awkward “get to know you” phase converted into comfort and familiarity when I first heard “Can I Kick It?” The soft, smooth bass line, scratched records and rhythmic drums provided the framework for my favorite ATCQ song ever. I was mesmerized. At its core, the song’s concept is fairly simplistic—Q-Tip and Phife Dawg exchanging verses regarding the group’s dopeness, unique aesthetic and overwhelmingly positive vibes. Beauty is in simplicity and this song is beautiful. At first listen, I could appreciate the song’s cool and distinct texture, but I couldn’t appreciate its genius.
Sampling was a term that I wasn’t too familiar with at the time. Sure, I’d heard countless sampled songs throughout my life, but I was a stranger to the musical acumen required for this art. While driving with my dad one day, he played his favorite radio station: Q 104.3, New York’s Only Classic Rock Station. My iPod wasn’t there to save me this time. I had no lifeline. I was falling, grasping for help to no avail; plummeting towards my impending demise. And then, I heard that familiar bass line. I heard those same drums that commanded my attention. Could it be? Was this “Can I Kick It?” Is my dad cool? Just as quickly as I had gotten my hopes up, they were crushed even quicker when I heard Lou Reed’s soft-spoken voice sing, “Holly came from Miami F.L.A.” Nope, my dad wasn’t cool, and this song wasn’t “Can I Kick It?” It was “Walk On The Wild Side.”
There was one silver lining, however: I truly began to appreciate the supreme artistry and talent of A Tribe Called Quest. They’re the organ donors of music. To take a song, in addition to other samples, so far removed from Rap, and convert its DNA into a classic Hip Hop record is poetic; to create life is beautiful. “Can I Kick It?” isn’t the only time they breathed new life into a song—it’s just an example. “Electric Relaxation” calls “Mystic Brew” (1972), “Outside Love” (1970) and “Dreams” (1973) its parents. “Bonita Applebum” gets its allowance from “Daylight” (1977), “Memory Band” (1967) and “Fool Yourself” (1973). The list goes on and on. This collection of Rock, Funk and Jazz songs combine to produce the platform for modern-day Hip Hop. It’s a big reason why I respect Tribe so much; the same reason why I consider Kanye one of greatest.
When he’s not being unfairly scrutinized by the media, Kanye is making beautiful, genre-bending music. Each Kanye album differs from one another while retaining his unmistakable soul, creating classic records time and time again; just like his predecessors, A Tribe Called Quest. His albums’ beauty derive from his unapologetic storytelling, smooth flow, proficient feature placement and, of course, his evolutionary production. This production has distanced him from the competition and aided his artistic longevity. Kanye loves using 808s and keys, but he is perhaps best known for his sampling ability. Before “Jesus Walks” was a monster hit, it was the gospel song, “Walk With Me” by The Arc Choir; before “Spaceship” became one of my favorite Kanye jams, it was the Motown classic “Distant Lover” by Marvin Gaye; before “Bound 2” expressed Kanye’s urge to fuck Kim Kardashian hard on a sink, it was the Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s song, “Bound.” Mr. West is a musical genius, just like his predecessors, A Tribe Called Quest.
While some consider Kanye an asshole, he knows when to pay homage. USA Today posted the following Kanye statement: "(A Tribe Called Quest's) one of my biggest inspirations," the Pablo artist said during a November 2013 appearance on SiriusXM's Sway In The Morning. "Midnight Marauders, Electric Relaxation, Low End Theory — a lot of the melodies and the type of chords they would sample… was what I was going for when I did The College Dropout. When I felt like I was at my highest level was when I was closest to a Tribe record. So, a record like “Heard ‘Em Say” was an accomplishment for me — to even have something that was close to what they did.” Kanye West, one of the most arrogant individuals in the game, knows to give credit when it’s due. In the same article, Questlove, Pusha T, Pharrell and André 3000 reciprocate this sentiment of adoration.
Much to my and the Hip Hop community’s excitement, it was recently announced that ATCQ will be releasing it’s sixth and final studio album, We Got It From Here, Thank You For Your Service on November 11th—their first album in 18-years. While this is a joyous occasion, it’s shadowed in sadness due to the recent and untimely passing of the group’s legendary emcee, Phife Dawg. A Tribe Called Quest and the music world won’t ever be the same without the Five Foot Assassin. We will remember his innovative style, Afrocentric rhymes and for always being on point. Always. We will forever be indebted to him for the path he created; for helping father Kanye’s style; for grandfathering Kanye’s disciples.
We Got It From Here, Thank You For Your Service was almost completely finished prior to Phife’s passing and will feature the following artists: Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, Jack White and longtime Tribe collaborator, Busta Rhymes. All recording sessions took place in Q-Tip’s New Jersey home recording studio.
That list of features perfectly sums up ATCQ’s meteoric effect on music. Not just Hip Hop, but music. From the lead singer of The White Stripes to Compton’s shining Rap star, artists appreciate Tribe’s impact. I know that I do. I know that Kanye does. I know that the music world does. I doubt that my answer will change the next time my friends and I discuss our favorite rappers, but I damn sure will reflect, and appreciate everything A Tribe Called Quest has done for music.
To the group of four guys from Queens, NY, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your service.