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.
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.