According to the artificial intelligence masquerading as a search engine known as Google, it defines the word “subjective” as “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.”
If we are depending on the above definition, then music is subjective…VERY subjective. I didn’t want to agree with the general consensus about music’s identity, but there’s no escaping it. Different types of music moves different people differently. So many variables from culture, personal beliefs, morals, etc., impact our listening ear; we adopt a deaf ear to one genre while others become an echolocation that helps us see through dark times.
It is same reason why different races misunderstand and mistreat others when it comes to musical selection. This couldn’t be further from the truth in the early 90’s where anti-violence commercials and soundbites of blame ran rampant when gangster rap fully hit the scene. Whites ignorant of hip-hop’s characteristics quickly associated drugs, danger, and demise to it’s identity. However, those same people who equally felt misunderstood continued to provide ammunition to those same whites. Instead of choosing a separate approach, urban culture excused their choice of violent words with the “we rap what we see” rationale instead of offering solutions or digging deeper with how their surroundings affect their lives.
Enter A Tribe Called Quest
During the same time, rap was becoming regional-ized, and within those regions sub-cultures were born. You begin to have your backpackers, hardcore heads, beatsmiths, and even simpletons identified by the RZA as the “Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose” brand of rappers. Simultaneously, you had rappers that didn’t belong in either of these categories. And why? Because they carved their own lane.
What A Tribe Called Quest did and still do so well (as evident on their recent album) is reach far beyond their environment; escaping the barrel of crabs and demonstrating musicianship not embraced by a lot of hip-hop artist. And because of this, they have impregnated the culture ‘sonning so many styles & sounds that they could have raised a rare breed. Instead of trending “Ain’t Nuthin’ but A G’ Thang” in the early 90’s, they composed “Electric Relaxation” causing potential energy to power surge kinetically.
But this post isn’t about accusing them of resting on laurels or even celebrating previous projects. In lieu of their current release, “We Got it From Here…Thank You for Your Service”, this article takes a look at not what they created, but why and how. Frankly, this writer isn’t a diehard or even true Tribe head, but I gotta admit…this album was pleasure on the ear drum. And there’s a reason for that. Here I will divide the overall album into five objective components: chemistry, musicianship, energy, word choice, and vocal presentation. I know, I know. These categories sound a little bit more boujee than necessary as many critics would probably just chalk it up to beats and rhymes. But in order to capture the essence, we need a more refined analysis.
Whenever Phife got on the mic, it always feels like He makes use of every word to impress his audience with his cleverness simultaneously constructing a story in the midst of the wordplay.
When I first listened to Wu-Tang Clan’s double CD, Wu-Tang Forever, my mind was blown. The dense, vocabularic complexities of the English language, the minimalist, Asian-influenced beats, the back-to-basics mission of the album continues to propel my imagination. But what outranks these features is the Clans unmistakable chemistry. They sounded soooo happy and excited to record this album, reinvigorated and inspired to outdo their performance on Enter the 36 Chambers.
Then in 2004, ODB passed away and it seemed that the fire flickering on top of their candle finally flamed out. In 2007 that immense chemistry dried up like a prune losing it’s laxative affinity. The album presented a somber ambiance hinting at unsettled grief and a childish, arm-folding refusal to rap in harmony. 8 Diagrams received the Nastradamus treatment: mixed to sub par reviews thanks to group infighting, unresolved differences of opinion, and the RZA. At least we got a heart wrenching tribute to ODB at the end of the album, the premier time listeners hear any real clan unity on the album as the track sympathetically pierces.
In 2016, we mourned the loss while celebrating the life of Phife Dawg. His presence in the group will be sorely missed, but his presence on their new album has never been more refreshing. And unlike the Wu-tang Clan, his membership is preserved; unofficial, but honorary Tribesmen Busta Rhymes, original member Jarobi, and Q-Tips cousin and Kanye’s on and off frenemy, Consequence, give their all. Compared to 8 Diagrams, it felt like the group forcefully acknowledged Cappadonna as a member, musically still kind of brushing him aside as a substitute, filler, or an occasional guest feature.
The album swells with a joyous, “I’m happy to do this for Phife” vibe that adds to the listening experience. The verses are more creative, expressive, and visual. How could you go wrong with an animated Busta Rhymes tapping into his Leaders of the New School flow on multiple album tracks?
What made the earlier albums sonically superior in the 90’s was the musical approach by Q-Tip, contributing producer “The Ummah” (wow what a name right?) and how the MC’s worked off of each other. Every musical influence can be felt through every instrument played in the entire Tribe catalogue. By allowing themselves the creative freedom to incorporate different genres into their works of art, it released the fear of experimentation in hip-hop. The result is a tidal wave some of the weirdest, yet best rap music we’ve seen in years.
When discussing an artist musicianship, the listener must choose to ask questions about song structure, and challenge a song’s instrumental arrangement. Listen to “Bonita Applebaum.” Consider that this is off an album released in the 1990 during the continued rise of hardcore rap. Tribe could be accused of pioneering the backpack or/and alternative rap movement. However, depending on who you ask, this could be an insult rather than a compliment.
As this writer personally went back to re-engage with Tribe’s catalogue, I immediately felt…a vibe. I know that’s kind of a weak, hipster-ish word to identify each albums feel, but the truth is I did. Listening to their 5 mic classic, The Low End Theory, I observed that they good at creating a musical magical kingdom for their fans. The album’s arrangement succeeds on pulling peoples heart strings melodically surpassing the cerebral into the spirit.
Examining Wu-tang Forever, you could feel the Clan’s happiness, or at least great illusion, recording the double disc together. GZA sounded enthusiastic about every bar he intelligently-cleverly construed. Raekwon approached each verse with a “I wish a n***** would” attitude intimidating would be contenders with complex lines and abstract word play. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg captured that same essence in their earlier albums as you experience Phife and Tip feeding off each other without skipping a beat. The overall effort created pleasing music that was not only lyrical candy bars to the ear, but food good for the soul.
A Tribe Called Quest redefines rap camaraderie through denial and sacrifice. On most songs, the group presented Phife Dawg as the lyrical seer while Q-Tip remained the abstract and Ali Shaheed played the background. Whenever Phife got on the mic, it always feels like He makes use of every word to impress his audience with his cleverness simultaneously constructing a story in the midst of the wordplay. Every metaphor, every rhyme was used to impress upon both sides of the consumer brain: one side breaking down, analyzing each lyric while the other is super enjoying the musical creativity.
Tribe also excels in building this cypher atmosphere. It’s almost as if you can feel Q-Tip placing his arm around you saying, “Yo, yo, yo! You gotta come check out my man Phife! Dude is phresh and wildin’ out son! You gotta here us spit mad verses.” Whenever I listen to a Tribe song, I feel I’m closed off in this huddle where nothing else exist and the only thing that matters is the competition inside the circle. Their choice of wording was remarkable and Phife Dawg will be sorely missed for his verbal visual arts.
Ah…Kamaal the Abstract. As a rapper his voice is very distinct and unique. His fresh air fun air delivery makes almost every song a joy to listen to. You don’t feel threatened or intimidated, but a “I come in peace” tenacity that’s simultaneously calming and aggressive. It provides a yin to Phife’s yang who doesn’t hesitate to repel sucker MC’s with potent lines that’ll knock anyone back on the floor. Together their voices are attractive; it’s not their albums instrumentals that pump life into their music, but they are the music themselves. Didn’t you watch the end of the video to “Buggin’ Out”?
There you have it. A complete yet exhaustive look as to how a group like Tribe creates the type of timeless music rap nerds such as myself have enjoyed. The masterfully utilize these five elements into the songs they create consistently (I don’t consider The Love Movement a dud) dropping music that will stick in your mind, raise awareness, have you reflect on life and our current situations, but most importantly, simply be present in the moment.
If you’re an aspiring artist and desire to do more than mumble your message, follow these elements. By the way, A Tribe Called Quest did more than follow this strategy; they created it.