A Tribe Called Quest revisit People's Instinctive Travels

The 25th anniversary reissue of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm opens a retrospective phase in A Tribe Called Quest’s legacy. We speak to the founding quartet about resolving beats, rhymes and strife

Feature by Ciaran Thapar | 03 Nov 2015

Few artists in music have led their fans on a longer, bumpier journey than A Tribe Called Quest. In 2011, the most talked-about hip-hop documentary of all time, Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest hit cinema screens, telling the story of the group’s rise and fall from mellow, Afrocentric teenage beginnings in the early 1990s, to multi-platinum-selling stardom to ego-driven civil war.

With this backdrop in mind, and the way the film finished by alluding to the sixth and final album still owed as part of their initial record deal, it appears impossible to discuss Tribe in any detail without also trying to understand what new equilibrium, if any, the group has reached in 2015.

It has taken four years for the dust to settle. And not only has it settled: it has been brushed off the record shelves to make way for the November reissue of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm – the group’s classic freshman album, first released in 1990, whose 25th birthday was in April earlier this year. The release includes an A-list roster of remixes from Pharrell, J. Cole and Cee-Lo. It is yet another example of a golden era outfit meeting the nostalgic demand for old-school authenticity that lives on in the genre’s marketplace.

"There are a lot of people out there still raising their kids on Tribe – no different to how my mom raised me on Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder" – Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Although it would be their multi-platinum selling sophomore release, The Low End Theory, that took Tribe to lasting worldwide acclaim in 1991, People's Instinctive Travels should need no introduction. The album spawned three singles – I Left My Wallet in El Segundo, Bonita Applebum and Can I Kick It? – each with an iconic accompanying video.

It was born out of a time and place whose precise context cannot be ignored in any discussion about the roots of hip-hop: Queens, New York, at the dawn of a new decade and musical era. Pro-blackness and street commentary were still developing as central lyrical themes. This was back when the genre was bubbling away in the urban melting pots of East and West coast America, barely getting radio play, largely ignored by the mainstream.

Q-Tip’s smooth, upbeat flow and conscious tongue-in-cheek raps, and the crew’s eclectic use of jazz and soul sampling throughout the album, were all sonically unprecedented elements, rolled into one. As industry bible The Source’s Matty C concluded at the time, in his now-cherished review (in which he gave the album one of the magazine’s first-ever ‘5-Mic’ ratings): “Ultimately what makes this album so slamming is the skilful synthesis of beats we love under samples we’ve never heard. Quest has carved out their own distinctive groove within hip-hop’s spectrum of styles. All we have to do is drop the needle in it, kick our corns up, and start traveling.”

'Focus on legacy of Tribe Called Quest'

Speaking to the group in the here and now, The Skinny seeks to clarify a few matters early on; does this re-release mean anything for the future of A Tribe Called Quest?

“No – unfortunately, I wouldn’t say that,” answers Tribe’s feisty MC, Phife Dawg, quite frankly. “Given that we aren’t even a group any more, and we’re not doing shows, if people still have a craving for that album, we might as well give it. It’s the 25th anniversary, so it’s only right… but in terms of any new material? Nah, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Over the course of the same evening, we also speak – separately – to Jarobi White, Tribe’s bouncy, on-and-off member, who first left the group back in 1991, as well as veteran producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad (enigmatic frontman Q-Tip responds via a concise e-mail). Though it's clear that these men are still artistically bound by their memories of youth, and are all similarly humble and excited about reminiscing on their success, there is an undeniable sense of closure in their voices. The focus now is on making the name last, according to Q-Tip, who suggests that his simple wish is to "hopefully extend what we've done as a group and elevate it further."

“Right now, our focus is on celebrating our rich legacy,” Ali expands. “There are a lot of people out there still raising their kids on Tribe – no different to how my mom raised me on Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder. To fast-forward twenty-five years and be considered as part of that ilk? We want to celebrate that.”

For seasoned fans it's often difficult to hear artists talk like this – about having moved on from the output that initially bound us to them, emotionally. The collective tone from the four men, however, is nonetheless one of unwavering acceptance; honest, as ever, but uplifting rather than cynical.

ATCQ revisit Beats, Rhymes & Life

This is in stark contrast to some of the scenes of tense bickering between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg shown in Rapaport’s documentary, which many people criticised for diverting attention away from the exploration of Tribe’s roots and genius, towards the reality TV style drama of a soured relationship.

“Now, what happened, happened… everything was real. But they paid too much attention to it. Everybody says their favourite part of that movie is when Tip breaks down the Can I Kick It? drums. I think people wanted to see more of that. The production techniques, the artists we sampled, what inspired us,” Jarobi suggests.

His words are echoed by Ali, who describes the film as a “missed opportunity” for its lack of conversation about the depth and meaning of their music.

As is perhaps expected, Phife’s analysis is most grounded: “I thought the documentary was cool for the simple fact that it’s life… you can’t have beats and rhymes without the life.”

Having addressed the issue of group dynamics, we move swiftly onto the music. Broadly speaking, each member has his own way of explaining two things.

At first they seem to share a mutual peace with the idea that A Tribe Called Quest ought to be, above all, cherished in retrospect – no longer discussed as an active artistic vehicle, but instead, viewed fondly with respect, like a golden-framed group portrait on hip-hop’s mantlepiece.

“We are all in our 40s, you know? I was in New York City the other day and a little kid came up and was like, 'Yo, Jarobi! My Dad would totally bug out right now,'” the group’s so-called ‘spiritual leader’ exclaims, chuckling in near disbelief. “It’s crazy… but every generation goes through this. For my parents, it was the 25th anniversary of Motown, honoring people like Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. 25 years from now, people are going to be playing Fetty Wap and Future and Drake. That’s how the cycle goes.”

Second, they all express the belief that People's Instinctive Travels should serve as a reminder of the originality-driven ethos of early New York hip-hop. Each discusses this view in particular reference to the current state of the genre, and the tendency of modern rappers to stick to tried-and-tested formulae, rather than break the mould.

Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed on modern hip-hop

“I think in hip-hop as a whole, there is a lot of laziness going on,” Phife Dawg suggests. “This rapper sounds like that rapper who sounds like that rapper. Back in the early 1990s, everybody had their own way.”

To some, this might sound like the spiel of an artist simply failing to come to terms with the way things have changed. But few would deny that the mass influence Phife and his group of childhood friends have had over the way hip-hop has evolved into an international phenomenon is enough to qualify his opinion.

“You have a select few who stand out, like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$ and the whole Pro Era Crew… the whole of Top Dawg Entertainment… they aren’t interested in sounding like the next man,” he continues.

“With the music right now… you can only talk about the same sort of subjects – hooking up with a bunch of women, drinking and smoking – for so long. There is more to real life than that. That’s why people look back to when things were more meaningful,” Ali says, going into greater depth.

“Our aim as kids was to think outside the box; be part of the conversation, you know, with the likes of Run DMC and Public Enemy… but keep our own identity. Exploring the backdrop of being young New Yorkers in a way that was honest and sincere.” Q-Tip makes two important associations that reveal his stylistic origins as an MC: "My main source of inspiration came from watching and listening to Slick Rick and Rakim."

Of course, it is all too easy to dismiss the present way of doing things in rose-tinted remembrance of the past. The fact remains, however, that A Tribe Called Quest’s long, winding path in 2015 seems to now be entering a calmer, more reflective phase than ever before. The music-making epoch of their careers may no longer be active. But neither is the tension that has plagued the group since 1998. With the re-release of People's Instinctive Travels comes the twofold opportunity to make greater sense of both the past and present of hip-hop – and do so whilst nodding your head to the immovable rhythm of Tribe’s legacy.

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Peoples' Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is reissued on 13 Nov via Legacy Recordings. http://atribecalledquest.com