“Hey Bonita, glad to meet ya,” raps Q-Tip to the lady with the “elaborate eyes” and shapely dimensions (“28, 34, 37”). This second single from MC/producer Tip and his cohorts from Queens, New York – rapper Phife Dawg, DJ/co-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and “spirit” of the group Jarobi White – introduced fans to the latest members of the Native Tongues, the creative collective incorporating the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and De La Soul. Taken from Tribe’s debut album, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Bonita Applebum remains as mesmerising as its muse. Over a wistful sample of Daylight (1977) by Roy Ayers’ proteges Ramp, punctuated by the sitar lick from Rotary Connection’s Memory Band (1967), the 19-year-old Tip turns on the charm, his flirtations striking the perfect balance between sweet and sexy (“I like to tell you things some brothers don’t / I like to kiss you where some brothers won’t”); nerdy and earthy (“if you need ’em, I got crazy prophylactics”). “So far, I hope you like rap songs,” he rhymes. If Bonita didn’t like this one, she wasn’t worth it.
2. After Hours
An example of the youthful expression that abounds on their debut album (see also, er, Youthful Expression). After Hours finds Tribe perfectly combining Q-Tip’s affable account of a night on the tiles with laissez-faire 70s sonics – ’s Remember Who You Are (1977) provides the backdrop, and a chorus trades on a Richard Pryor vocal sample from the comic’s 1971 Craps (After Hours) album. Working the everyman angle, Tip takes time out from his unsuccessful attempts to pull, enjoying a sandwich before meeting friends to discuss “the world’s famines” and “the status quo of rap”. Brimming with fresh-faced naiveté, After Hours may only hint at what was to come, but back in 1990, it established Tribe as a crew worth hanging out with.
People’s Instinctive Travels may have spawned the goofy, adolescent grooves of Can I Kick It? and I Left My Wallet in El Segundo, but 1991’s The Low End Theory came back harder and battle-scarred (NWA’s Straight Outta Compton was an inspiration). The music business – rather than mislaid wallets – was now their main source of angst. And it’s not just the group’s outlook that’s tougher: as its name suggests, Low End is a slab of East Coast boom-bap built on dusty, often jazzy samples. The opener to a truly classic album, Excursions sets out the crew’s stall over the bassline from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ A Chant for Bu: “Back in the days when I was a teenager / Before I had status and before I had a pager / You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop / My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop / I said well Daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles / Way that Bobby Brown is just ampin’ like Michael,” Q-Tip rhymes. Before the second track even started, it was clear that Tip’s claim “Musically, the Quest is on the rise” was no idle boast.
4. Check the Rhime
“Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am,” raps Phife Dawg on Low End’s first single. The sporadic sidekick to Q-Tip – whose diabetes-related death in 2016 broke hip-hop hearts – raised his game on the group’s second album. He cemented a chemistry with his childhood pal that would come to define the group’s sound (by contrast, Jarobi had slid amicably out of shot). The unveiling of that dynamic ‒ Tip, the “Abstract Poetic” with his old soul wisdom and drowsy delivery; Phife, the sports-mad “Five Foot Assassin” with the trad-rap bravado and high-pitched, livewire flow ‒ makes Check the Rhime perhaps the formative Tribe track. Set over a beat that melds the supple bassline from Minnie Ripperton’s Baby, This Love I Have with the propulsive horn melody from Average White Band’s Love Your Life, the crew also put their Linden Boulevard stomping ground on the rap map (and, thanks to the video, probably had many a fan hauling their laundry to Nu-Clear Cleaners). It’s quintessential Quest, as the guys later acknowledged on their 1996 single 1nce Again, revisiting both the immortal call-and-response opening (“You on point, Phife?” / “All the time, Tip”).
Low End’s Scenario finds Tribe connecting with Leaders of the New School (Charlie Brown, Dinco D, Cut Monitor Milo and a rambunctious Busta Rhymes). The monstrous beat, which bolsters the brooding organs from Brother Jack McDuff’s Oblighetto with the dusty drums from Jimi Hendrix’s Little Miss Lover, seems fortified to withstand the “ripping and romping” that happens next. After Phife’s riff about the Nike Bo Jackson ad campaign, Dinco, Brown and Tip keep the charisma coming until Busta delivers a final verse that begins on a reggae-inflected simmer before bubbling over. In fact, Busta’s verse would provide borrowed equity for everyone from Black Moon (who sampled Busta’s cannon-themed ranting for the 1993 song Powaful Impak) to Nicki Minaj (who swiped his “dungeon dragon” impression on 2010’s Roman’s Revenge). Even Canadian pop group Barenaked Ladies repurposed Busta’s bonkers “Chickity choco, the chocolate chicken” lyric on their 1998 hit One Week. More importantly, Rhymes’ star turn also started a beautiful music-making friendship with Tribe.
6. Oh My God
“We hope that you will find our presentation precise, bass-heavy and just right,” intones the tour guide at the start of Midnight Marauders from 1993. Indeed, Tribe’s third album represents hip-hop perfection from one of the genre’s most romanticised years, from its victory-lap first single, Award Tour, to its darker turns. Marauders is an embarrassment of rap riches, yet the group’s second single, Oh My God, deserved its 12-inch treatment and expertly executed video. An agile, insidious bassline lifted from Max Roach’s Absolutions underlies Tip and “funky diabetic” Phife’s airtight interplay, with Kool and the Gang’s Who’s Gonna Take the Weight supplying the brassy backdrop to guest Busta Rhyme’s combustible chorus – a reprisal of his “Oh my God!” exclamation from Scenario that was, in turn, sampled for Marauders’ God Lives Through. This one, to quote the Abstract Poetic himself, is “a humdinger coming hook, line and sinker”.
7. Electric Relaxation
Trust Tribe to do the impossible (like Broadway Joe) and make an elegant, enigmatic single that still has Q-Tip offering to “pound the poon-tang until it stinks” and Phife joking about ejaculating on sofas. Maybe it’s that bewitching beat, which augments the looped-up opening bassline from Ronnie Foster’s Mystic Brew with the drum break from Brethren’s Outside Love and the twinkly detours of Ramsey Lewis’s Dreams. Or maybe it’s the charisma that the MCs bring to their girl-chasing. From his opening come-on (“Honey check it out, you got me mesmerised / With your black hair and your fat-ass thighs”), Q-Tip once again tiptoes between reverence and lasciviousness, while the sheer silliness of Phife’s sofa-soiling quip (“Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s Furniture” gives dubious publicity to a now-defunct northeast US furniture retailer) undercuts its filthiness. While the exact act of alchemy remains as mysterious as the song’s notoriously muddy hook (for the record, it’s “Relax yourself girl, please settle down”), Electric Relaxation’s status as a hypnotic hip-hop head-nodder par excellence is crystal clear.
8. Keep it Rollin’
Dusting off Roy Ayers’ 1974 cover of Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Makin’ Love, MC and producer Large Professor blesses the fellas with a stealthy, shadowy track that, in keeping with Marauders’ M.O., really does sound best at midnight. Phife borrows some bars from I Love You by Barney the Dinosaur (purple-hot back then) before Large Pro delivers a sign-off that would come back to haunt him: “Rapper Nas on top, it seems we gonna rock it / Queens represent, buy the album when I drop it,” he rhymes. While his young charge Nas was mere months away from releasing his astounding debut Illmatic (featuring the Q-Tip-produced One Love), Large Professor would see his own album interminably delayed by record label shenanigans.
9. The Hop
Burdened with the unenviable task of following Low End and Marauders, Tribe’s fourth album, Beats, Rhymes & Life, was destined to disappoint. What really irked many fans was the crew’s abandonment of the formula that spawned the back-to-back classics, roping in upstart Detroit beatmaker Jay Dee (forming part of production unit The Ummah, with Tip and Ali) and rapper Consequence, who’d previously graced the remix of Marauders’ The Chase Part II. Ironically, Jay Dee AKA J Dilla would go on to establish himself, to his own chagrin, as a producer in Tribe’s true school lineage (his group Slum Village would quickly invoke Tribe comparisons). While The Hop features now dated references from Phife (Kato Kaelin, Johnny Carson and even the premiere of Disney’s Pocahontas), Dilla’s woozy way with the central sample ‒ Henry Franklin’s 1974 track Soft Spirit ‒ with hindsight, makes this sound ahead of the curve.
10. Dis Generation
The boys may have titled their fifth album The Love Movement, but it’s no secret that their hearts weren’t really in it, or that by then there was love lost between Q-Tip and Phife. With A Tribe Called Quest calling it quits shortly after its release, the patchy album remained an unsatisfying swan song, until last November when Tribe dropped We’ve Got It From Here… Thanks 4 Your Service, an unexpected reunion album with tracks recorded prior to Phife’s death. Fuelled by samples from Argentinian rockers Invisible and Birmingham boys Musical Youth, Dis Generation finds Tip and Phife effortlessly and poignantly recreating their peak years back and forth flow, accompanied by old pal Busta and a back-in-business Jarobi. Like the album itself, which felt almost medicinal on its release two days after Trump’s election victory, it’s inescapably nostalgic but urgent and of its time. “You can’t define us, X, Y us or Z us” raps Tip, but he can’t prevent fans from labelling Tribe one of the greatest groups ever.