When A Tribe Called Quest recently announced their first album in 18 years, hip-hop heads the world over rejoiced. As their final release as a group the project, aptly titled We Got It From Here, Thank You for Your Service, it includes the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000 and, interestingly, Elton John.
The album, their first since 1998’s The Love Movement, includes all four Tribe-members, including the late, great Phife Dawg. A stunning project from beginning to end, the new album represents a final chapter for one of the greatest musical groups of all time.
As much as an occasion like this makes us acknowledge the end, harkening back to the beginning is also a natural thing to do. Looking back on their 1990s heyday, it’s evident that Tribe have produced undeniably classic songs and albums. Everyone remembers ‘Can I Kick It?’ ‘Scenario’, ‘Electric Relaxation’ and the like, but there are scores of other Tribe tracks that don’t get the recognition they should, simply because the monster singles overshadowed them.
Here are 10 of those tracks that deserve some more shine.
1) ‘Get A Hold’
Tribe’s fourth album, 1996’s Beats, Rhymes & Life was an effort that polarised the hip-hop community. A very apparent departure from their previous three albums, and incorporating a darker tone and sound, courtesy of The Ummah (Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jay Dee aka J Dilla), it took many by surprise. The project is a solid body of work, and one of its highlights is its second track, ’Get A Hold’. A solo effort from Tip, he touches base “over the illest drum rolls” about the prevalent East Coast-West Coast rivalry, a backdrop which probably explains the album’s change of direction. The Abstract has always been slept-on as a rapper in my opinion, but on ‘Get A Hold’ he proves he can more than hold his own with his contemporaries.
2) ‘God Lives Through’
The final track from their third, and arguably best album, Midnight Marauders, I get a feeling of triumph from ‘God Lives Through’ – like Tribe knew they had created a classic and were ready to flaunt it. A laid-back number with some sick drum patterns, both Phife and Tip are composed, but it is the former who steals the show. Malik Taylor came into his own throughout this album, but he weaves words together effortlessly here, amounting Tribe’s failure to look good to all of New York not looking good. He really had sky-high confidence at this period and could go up against anyone, and this track proves it.
On People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Tribe were literally and figuratively on a journey towards an Afrocentric paradise. It’s almost goofy in its approach on ‘Footprints’, with a lot of references to feet, but Q-Tip is spitting some real gems from start to finish, showing a wisdom far beyond his 20 years of age at the time. It’s appropriate, and quite fitting, that they sampled ‘Walk Tall’ by the Cannonball Adderley Quartet; a nice touch.
4) ‘Hot Sex’
The title of this track, is a little misleading, because its only mentioned in Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s hook. The rest of the track is just a barfest, with both Phife and Tip flexing as only they know how. The Five Foot Assassin comes with the aggressive bars but still sounds cool as hell, while Tip is smooth as silk while speeding up his flow, and he even acknowledges that on record (“I’m the lyrical master blaster, yeah I can do that”). Looking back, this was one of the first songs that drew a line in the sand between what Tribe were doing before and after it, setting the tone for darker, more aggressive material to follow.
5) ‘Description of a Fool’
Q-Tip showed that he is a master storyteller throughout Tribe’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that technique is fully realised on the project’s final track. Telling an expansive anecdote about an individual doing foolish things, over a sample of Roy Ayer’s classic ‘Running Away’, Tip serves up a warning to all those who are prone to indulge in the darker side of life, such as domestic abuse, and generally being a bit of a sucker. Its songs like these that help you remember the important messages Tribe initially brought with their music.
6) ‘Start It Up’
Regrouping after Beats, Rhymes and Life, the trio softened the tone slightly for their fifth outing, The Love Movement, and appropriately began with ‘Start It Up’. The song is a minimalist effort, containing hollow drums and wicked synths as Q-Tip adjusts his flow to fit the beat, with devastating effect. Tip has been better on other tracks, but it is his delivery and presence that is impressive, in addition to the fiery instrumental.
A song dedicated to night activity, ‘Midnight’ is further testament to Tip’ s storytelling. He makes you feel like you’re involved, giving superb detail and clever puns to what is essentially a tale about looting in the first verse. In the second, Tip goes on to describe himself and his need to make music, without anyone trying to put a stop to it. The track ends with a dose of the real via the PSA system employed throughout Midnight Marauders, adding perspective to slept-on tune.
Phife Dawg goes solo on this cut from Tribe’s immortal sophomore effort, The Low End Theory, and tries his hand telling tales about the ladies. The beat is pure jazz rap genius, incorporating a groovy saxophone riff during the hook to supplement the simplicity of the drums and piano chords. Meanwhile, the Five Footer rides the instrumental as he tries to avoid “someone whose mind is blank, and trying to juice me for my banks” and those who previously rejected him but now want to approach because he’s famous. He doesn’t lose his composure one bit, remaining laid back and collected as always.
One of the best intros to a hip-hop album ever, ‘Excursions’ is the embodiment of what jazz-infused rap was in the early 1990s. The most amazing double bassline begin proceedings, as Q-Tip explains the cyclical nature of music with some hard bars, allowing the drums to kick in. The Abstract continues to reiterate the group’s gospel not to sell out, after a well-placed sample by The Last Poets, and continues to deliver with insightful line after insightful line.
10) ‘Scenario (Remix)’
As amazing and innovative as the original ‘Scenario’ is, its remix outdoes it in my opinion. Over a beat that can be considered boom-bap, a stark contrast to what they were doing at the time, it includes Tip, Phife, The Leaders of the New School and newcomer Kid Hood, who was murdered three days after recording his verse. Every emcee meet the harsher instrumental with ferocity and charisma to their bars, particularly Phife and Busta Rhymes, who somehow manage to better their classic original verses. The chemistry is electric on the remix, and it is surely remembered as one of the very best in hip-hop history.
Listen to Tribe's new album below:
Words by Yemi Adiabe.