on the path of rhythm
essay by trevor richen
For most of us born in the mid to late 80s, hip-hop culture has been an important backdrop of our lives and everyday experiences. For this twenty-seven-and-a-half-year old, it has been the soundtrack to my life. Many groups have made an impact but, in my opinion, one crew of emcees stands above the rest. Hailing from Linden, a boulevard in the New York City borough of Queens, they are universally known as A Tribe Called Quest. Their first three albums are considered by many to be classics. In the aftermath of the loss of one of the members of this iconic group, many have written tributes, but this? This is my appreciation of the group that invited me onto their funky Path Of Rhythm.
Regarding the first time I heard Tribe: one couldn't help hearing the sounds of hip-hop music playing all through our house when I was growing up. My father has one of the largest and most eclectic music collections of anyone I know. I can remember him playing I Left My Wallet in El Segundo when I was four and not realizing the level of awesome coming from our speakers. You know that dumb little dance that all little kids do when they hear fun music? Yeah, I did that to the song. Couldn't even dance to its rhythm but was still mesmerized by the sound. From that singular moment in my four-year-old brain, I was caught hook, line and sinker to what Tribe was and what they represented. Like the great Bill Walton and his fandom of the Grateful Dead, I became a 'Quester'. ATCQ became an important part of my everyday life. I could not go a day without hearing a song or seeing one of their iconic videos. One of my all time favorite song and videos is Oh My God from their third LP Midnight Marauders. The image of seeing the Tribe rocking out with all the kids from their neighborhood was classic. Growing up a fan of the NHL's New Jersey Devils, seeing Phife rocking a custom made Devil's jersey with the number five and his name on the back always made me smile and think Yo, he'd be a cool guy to talk sports with for hours.
The way they produced their songs was so unique. I would rank The Ummah, (the name that they gave their production team) and their productions up with the iconic Bomb Squad of Public Enemy days. The way the band fused rock, soul and jazz samples into their music was out of this world. Case in point, did you know the classic 'Scenario' song that ends their second album, The Low End Theory? The drums used for that song come courtesy of Jimi Hendrix's Little Miss Lover and drummer Mitch Mitchell. Just let that sink in. A group was now sampling a classic rock icon that our parents respected and adored. They took the music that we thought was old school and brought to it a new flavor and energy. That is part of what makes Tribe timeless; they so effortlessly bridge the generation gap of real music fans.
Getting older, the one constant for me was my love and respect for the Tribe. To me they were vitamins, an everyday necessity. Even though they had broken up well before I entered my high school years, which was almost ten years ago, everyone still loved them. I often wonder if Tribe knew how much their fans were hoping for and wanting new music. I would compare it with the same hopeful wait that people have for Ms. Lauryn Hill. Even with all of the amazing music that they gave us, part of me still believed that there was the possibility for more. When it was announced that Tribe would be doing the Rock The Bells Tour, I was worried. Not in a selfish way, but I wondered how that would work since there were still issues from the past few years. Would it be the same joy or would the drama overshadow everything? As documented in the Michael Rappaport documentary Beats Rhymes And Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest the tensions were still there. But through it all I never lost faith in, or love for, the music. But I hated the whole ego trip. They were, to use their own song title, 'Buggin Out'. Among man's biggest problems are ego and pride. That shit can get in the way of everything you have worked towards the majority of your life. But they, like all of us, are imperfect human beings.
Still the members of ATCQ pressed on and so have I. In every phase of my adult life (the last ten years), the Tribe has been, in some way shape or form, a part of my day. Doing chores around the apartment, I'm bumping them on the stereo. Going to work, I'm listening to them on the phones. I sometimes pretend to listen to them on a subway train in New York. I hear them and remember that four-year-old kid dancing to El Segundo in the living room of my house. That's what timeless and classic music does to you, it makes you remember the first time you heard it. Not one single part of a day goes without the influence of the group that defined my entire life. A Tribe Called Quest is, in my opinion, the greatest hip-hop group of all time.
Which brings us to the matter of the decades-long Tribe debate: Which album's better, The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders? My answer? Got to go with Midnight. There's something about the funkiness of that album that makes me nostalgic and think Why can't all music sound this good? ATCQ will forever be one of those groups -- along with Nirvana, The Beatles & Led Zeppelin -- whom I will steer the future generations of my family towards. They are the pure truth, unfiltered and funky. You can't dilute them.
By now, the news of the passing of Malik Phife Dawg Taylor has swept through the entire hip-hop world. Artists and fans alike have taken to social media to pay their tributes. The sad reality is we are all left to wonder what could have been. New music? That was possibly coming, but it still leaves us with a hole in our hearts knowing what could have been. As we reminisce over Tribe and mourn the Five Foot Assassin's transition, let us remember the great and timeless music that the four man crew from Queens, New York left us with.
The group that always was on point.
The group that always told us to Check The Rhyme.
They would want us to do nothing more than that.