DUST IT OFF: A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm”… 25 years later

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When A Tribe Called Quest released their debut album on March 13, 1990, it almost seemed like an odd duck at first. The group did release “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” the year before and “Bonita Applebum” a month before but for people outside of New York City, Q-Tip was nothing more than the guy who said “black is black” in De La Soul’s “Me Myself & I”, he had little to know credibility outside of that and ATCQ’s first two singles. But we were meant to be taught in order to learn. A Tribe Called Quest were a part of the Native Tongue along with Jungle Brothers, which is where some also first heard Q-Tip in a song called “Black Is Black”. Then things started to change and gel together. A Tribe Called Quest were doing this for themselves, for music, for the tribe vibe, and for hip-hop, thus why they called their album People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm. The album title could’ve came off of a rare obscure jazz/free jazz album, but those travels they were talking about were not only musical but very much instinctive, for it said it required the mind. Thus, Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Mohammad, and Jarobi were about to take us into a few mind games.

When I look back at the album, I consider it to be the best in their discography, which seems to be different from the mainstream consensus, and is there a reason? Perhaps. It was The Low End Theory that had bigger hits, you can’t take away the success of “Check The Rhime” and “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, and the format gave us phrases that many hip-hop heads know as sacred mantra. We all want to get to the boulevard of Linden to give thanks. It was Midnight Marauders that not only gave us music and more hits, but it gave a slogan, a mascot of not only the music but the album, with a cover that represented what hip-hop represented in 1993, before the new wind of the Wu (-Tang) was to dominate. It was the community of creatives, all gathered at the New Music Seminar in New York City where various people were told to gather and have their photos taken. Those photos were assembled for Midnight Marauders and history was made. So why does People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm get a small blip in comparison? For me, it doesn’t.

First, let’s look at the hits it did offer. We can never forget “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”, an incredibly funky story song that had Q-Tip telling everyone he lost his wallet, he had to get it and was willing to detail that voyage, a path of rhythm. He traveled from New York to California and back, almost like a then-modern version of “This Land is Your Land”, “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” is very much a folk tale, it was his way of saying “this land was made for you and me, I’ll wear my hair the way I want, I’ll speak like how I speak, I’ll get to know you, you can know me, let’s be together.” But first, he had to get his wallet, hoping that his money and Jimmy hat was still in there. For me, I immediately caught The Young Rascals sample that opened the song (“Sueno”) but I would later learn the primary sample in there was courtesy of THe Chambers Brothers’ and “Funky”.

The second single for the album was the great “Bonita Applebum”, the video of which began with Special Ed and Queen Latifah dancer Kika being romantic near any location they wanted: the supermarket, the subway, near a public phone, it didn’t matter. It was very much a love song but not like LL Cool J’s “I Need Love”, for this song was not a ballad. There was a bit of funk with the drum sample, and who didn’t enjoy Minnie Riperton’s voice that was heard in the Rotary Connection sample? The form of the song was unique, for it wasn’t just 16 bars and a chorus. It was 8-bars, but not spoken in the typical hip-hop way, it was almost as if Q-Tip had written a message and wanted to pass it along to someone. Let’s also not forget that for the single and video version, the word “prophylactics” had to be reversed for fear that it may be offensive to some listeners. It was still a few years away from someone like Ludacris rapping about licking women from their head to their toes, but that’s the state of radio in 1990.

The third single was for “Can I Kick It”, which arrived in the form of a remix that I felt was better than the album version due to a funkier groove courtesy of added samples. The video featured Trugoy and Posdnuos of De La Soul showing the gathering of the tribe, but perhaps more importantly, it was also the first video to highlight the power of Phife Dawg, which would show that ATCQ had two core voices to pay attention to, that it was not just a Q-Tip venture. You may also see Juju of The Beatnuts in this video too.

Three solid singles was more than enough to make this album huge but perhaps people weren’t ready for Tribe just yet, or maybe they were overwhelmed. People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm began with the sound of a baby crying, the birth of Tribe, and “Push It Along” has Q-Tip and Phife getting into the boom, the bip, and then the boom bip as they define what they’re about and what they plan on doing. That leads to Jarobi the navigator getting us where we are in the album in order to understand the listening process.

When the album got to “After Hours” and I caught the Richard Pryor album, I knew I was going to fall in love with the album and this group. It may come off like an underground album on purpose, maybe because it sounds like it was recorded in a basement, just as it seemed like Prince Paul produced 3 Feet High And Rising in the shed where the lawnmower is. While “After Hours” generally represents what happens after a show or after a business closes, the song gets into the activities that one should do before the sun rises, as if they’re hanging out near a bakery, smelling bread as they’re talking about the basketball song they watched the night before as they’re listening for the frogs in the back alley. Organic? Perhaps. Then the sun comes up.

“Youthful Expression” is a song with zest despite the fact Q-Tip sounds like he just woke up, at least to me he did. But it’s a laid back voice placed over a funky jazz sample complete with a Hammond B-3 feel where Tip highlights the fact he’s a member of the Zulu Nation and wherever he goes, it is an eternal gestapo.

We then hear Prince Paul speak in the incredibly funky “Rhythm”, which I love from the distinct sound of the snare to the kiddie sample taking from a Funkadelic song, the whispering and a reference to the soul makossa. The song also has a hook which is simple: “I got the rhythm, you got the rhythm”, which means the rhythm they share is for one and all, feel free to share and celebrate it.

On vinyl, the album ends with “Ham’N’Eggs” but the cassette and CD ends with the amazing “Go Ahead In The Rain”, which I immediately got into because of the Jimi Hendrix Experience sample before it gets into a bit of the slide (Slave’s “Son Of Slide”) and excellent use of the applause from Maze featuring Frankie Beverly”s “Joy And Pain”, specifically the live version on Live In New Orleans)

Now if we want to get technical, the CD ends with what was A Tribe Called Quest’s first single, “Description Of A Fool”. Now, I caught the Sly & The Family Stone sample immediately and the slight reference to The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” but it sounded nothing like the rest of the album, or what preceded the music. It truly sounded like a jungle, or that I was about to get back to the parking lot or perhaps I was heading into the jungle for that quest and meet up with Maseo somewhere, I don’t know. I think what I liked more than anything about “Description Of A Fool” is that despite that it sounds out of place with the rest of the album (and on purpose), it was nice to hear a set of music where each song didn’t sound like what came before or what was to come after, which was part of the hip-hop norm back then.

There wasn’t a concept for People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, the listener meant to listen to it and kick back. We were listening to each path, trying to understand each venture and move forward, as we all do in everyday life. But what a venture it was, with much more adventures to come. For me, the album was solid from start to finish and sure, there were moments that seemed a bit too clumsy despite it being a way for them to deliver an important philosophy or two (i.e. “Ham’N’Eggs”) but the music was strong and we were in a city full of wonder. Look at the cartoon cover and one may be able to say it’s a continuation of the path of friends seen on the cover for War’s The World Is A Ghetto.
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We love our homes and neigborhoods, be it our apartment or house, and the people and characters surrounding it, but we all have to use our feet to get on the road and find new places to travel, and rhythm is often the way to broader and brighter discoveries. Occasionally, as Q-Tip said in “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”, there is no fear if we gotta go back.


DUST IT OFF: A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” 20 years later

A term that has been used in the last few years is “game changer” as a reference to something that “changed the game” forever. In other words, once it made its presence known, it would result in things influenced by its impact. A Tribe Called Quest‘s second album, The Low End Theory was released on September 24, 1991 and was never pushed as a game changer by any means. It wasn’t even that five years later, but the rise of hip-hop fans on the internet would bring up a generation who were immediate about their views, and the perception of the group and album being life-changing started. 20 years after its release, it is considered to be one of their best, if not THE best ATCQ album. That will lead to arguments in which you will not win, but it shows how devoted fans are to the album and Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Mohammad, and Phife. The recent release of the group’s documentary touches on what made that album the “it” album. It was make or break, it was one that ended up taking them around the world, but it was not an album that made them riches. Then again, they came from a generation that did not mind not having massive success because no one wanted to be ridiculous as MC Hammer. Everyone wanted that money, but not the silliness some had seen in him, yet despite the criticism towards him, you couldn’t help but admire his drive. If someone wanted something more organic, more rootsy, more traditional, you had the Native Tongues and you had its greatest success story, A Tribe Called Quest, and it was with The Low End Theory that they became a success.

However, I did not take to the album as quickly as I did with People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm. To me, that album is perfect ATCQ. It was rough and rugged, a lot of it sounds like it was recorded onto Chrome cassette, and the sound quality at times is not consistent. But what it didn’t sound like was Jungle Brothers first album, Straight Out The Jungle, which sounds like a demo they didn’t bother wanting to improve on. People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm is a fantastic album and to this day I’ll rock it. Yet amongst hip-hop fans online, liking it is equal to admitting you like Method Man‘s Tical more than The GeniusLiquid Swords. You’re told you’re a fool and aren’t worthy of participating in any discussion.

That’s not to say I didn’t like The Low End Theory, because I did, the entire album is great. It wasn’t the fact that Jarobi wasn’t on it, it was pretty much a non-issue. Everyone wondered where he was, but since he wasn’t on there, then people were happy that ATCQ were around and now a 3-piece crew. When the group came out with “Check The Rime”, it felt good to hear something that funky and powerful. Phife had been, for the first album, the “second dog” but with this album and this song he was equal in status of Q-Tip, and that would make people want to hear more of work, hoping he’d drop verses in other songs (cue up Fu Schnickens‘s “La Schmoove”), and maybe one day do a solo album. Fans honored the sanctity of the group unit, and thus wanted to hear all three of them as a group and nothing but.

The Low End Theory was an album that made its greatest impact through its videos. Both MTV’s YO! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City were in existence when they released their first, and people loved the fact their videos were not just a simple “walk on stage, hold a microphone, walk back and forth, make goofy faces in the camera, fade to black”. The video for “Bonita Applebum” had Special Ed and Kika dancing randomly in different locations, a jazzy man on the Hammond organ, and a guy being an umpire in a friendly game of baseball (a reference that would pop up later when De La Soul released De La Soul Is Dead in May 1991.) The video for “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” had them in California looking like boho hippies, while the video for “Can I Kick It” brought in their De La friends and other close associates. But “Check The Rime” looked a bit more “rich”, as in “wow, these guys have a bigger budget to make a video, this looks cool”. It was also the first time fans got to see what the world of ATCQ was like, turning Linden Boulevard into a street as popular as The BeatlesAbbey Road, Booker T. & The MG’sMcLemore Avenue, and L.L. Cool J‘s Farmers Boulevard, which happened to intersect Linden near St. Alban’s, a place that Biz Markie celebrated a lot in his early music. Like a lot of hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s, it catered to localism while seeking to be worldy, so indirectly they were telling fans “this is home to us”.

The video for “Jazz/Buggin’ Out” was like a much colder version of Journey‘s “Separate Ways (World’s Apart)”, but not as dorky. Then again, all of them bugged out at the end as Phife dropped his verse, and that stood out in a genre when you were often treated like dirt if you not only looked funny, but acted weird, even if it was of your own doing. You were an outcast. Then the Spike Lee-directed “Scenario” video helped to officially make this album a genuine classic, with cameos from all of the MC’s in the song plus Fab 5 Freddy, Redman, Posdnous, Kid Capri, Cut Monitor Milo and many others in a recipe that was true to modern vibe of the Native Tongue, but also futuristic, specifically how the video was programmed to look. There was a digital interfact at a time when most people had no idea what WAV files and digital synchronization was, plus the subtle in-jokes throughout: the “neg” (negative) option changing to “pos” (positive) when Posdnous’ face was shown in full, the Jimi Hendrix drum loop arranged to show each “stab” in visual form, and during Charlie Brown‘s verse, the map options switch as he mentions “New York, North Cacalaca (Carolina) & Compton”, and when you see the word Linden, you see the homes as originally shown in the “Check The Rime” video.

That was it: three official singles and videos, but one album that fans embraced, absorbed, and stapled into the consciousness of hip-hop. Another thing to consider at the time was the make-believe feuds of the East and West Coast. A Tribe Called Quest represented the East but were much more than the guys who loved Linden. It would be with the next album that they’d wantto be on an “Award Tour”, but they had no issues with people from New York, North Cacalaca, or Compton. The Low End Theory was very much New York hip-hop personified, especially as an album and a group that came from the city where hip-hop started. Yet without having a territorial preference, the group were able to travel across the country, Europe, Japan, and Australia and gain fans, all of whom loved what the group shared in their videos but more importantly what they could deliver on an album. Singers are a major part of hip-hop’s history, but soon it was all about proving yourself in album form, and A Tribe Called Quest did not have a problem.

It was because of this album that helped move ATCQ into the forefront for the Native Tongues, and when they released Midnight Marauders two years later, they were the leaders of their own school, even bringing on Busta Rhymes as an unofficial member when his group officially collapsed. If A Tribe Called Quest was a game changer in anything, it was the fact that not only were their videos showing a bit of forward thinking adventure, but it was also one of the first hip-hop albums to be partly recorded in digital. Digital had been a luxury for classical, rock, and pop music for years, but not with hip-hop. You may have recorded the music using modern equipment, but everything was still recorded on and mixed on analog. Engineer Bob Power helped to bring the sound of the group further into the future, and as everyone was highly impressed by its “future primitive” groove, everyone wanted to make an album that was as polished as The Low End Theory. That changed the way hip-hop was recorded from that point on, or at least allowed producers and engineers to record songs without the limitations placed on itself. In terms of recording studio technology and use of the studio as a “member” of the group, The Low End Theory was truly a game changer.)

To say how much this album changed things for others would be repeating what everyone has said for years, so… just listen. As for what makes up the perfect A Tribe Called Quest triad of albums, maybe will say the first three with The Low End Theory being on top. Regardless of your personal best, it’s safe to say that The Low End Theory is in there, or at least should be.

The music and culture of hip-hop has changed in the last 20 years. The Low End Theory was meant to represent what they called “the art of moving butts”, they made albums and music that would move the low end of women and men. In time, some will argue that “low end” meant low-class or old, and that all hip-hop after 1996 represented the “high end” aspirations of the music and its people, which felt like it was nothing more than a dividing line between the “old school” and “new school “mentality”, now that an era of “new school” was seen as “your father’s hip-hop”. That bitter feud is what continued to drive the music as a whole to do better, even as New York hip-hop started to fade out from mainstream acceptance. Yet when one puts on The Low End Theory, it very much goes back to when NYC was king, but when hip-hop felt like not just like the soundtrack to your life, but life itself. Or as ATCQ would announce a few years later, it was about Beats, Rhymes & Life: why bother with anything else? It’s a theory that the mainstream will claim is hanging out at grandma’s house, but even grandma knows how to get down to The Abstract.