Happy 25th Anniversary to A Tribe Called Quests debut LP Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, originally released April 17, 1990.
My wife and I have never been avid moviegoers, at least relative to other people we know. And now that we have two little ones at home, were lucky if we get out to the movies once or twice a year at most. So when we do venture out to the theater, were stubbornly selective about the films we see. About four years ago, she and I spent a gloriously lazy Saturday afternoon at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema in the heart of San Franciscos Japantown, to watch a film that we had been eagerly awaiting since we first read about it a few months prior. The film in question was the Michael Rapaport-directed documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.
While we both enjoyed the film very much, my most vivid memory from that afternoon was the audiences shared reaction when the opening credits rolled. About four-and-a-half minutes in, the iconic neon artwork flashed onto the screen, the heavy drums and scratches of Can I Kick It? kicked in (appropriately enough), and every head in the theater instinctively began to nod up and down, in unison. Goosebumps were unavoidable for me, and I suspect that an outbreak swept across the expanse of the packed auditorium. Indeed, the infectious energy, excitement, and love for the films subject could not have been more palpable that afternoon, and it was beautiful to behold.
So why such an impassioned response to a film about a group that, at the time, hadnt recorded new material for more than a dozen years? Well, A Tribe Called Quest and more broadly, the pioneering Native Tongues collective represents a different time, when hip-hop music was defined by a vivacity and freedom that has evolved, expanded, and ultimately faded over the past two decades. Coupled with the fact that for thirty-something adults like my wife, me, and the majority of folks in the theater that day, Tribes music automatically evokes our more youthful days. The nostalgia that my parents have for Motown or Bob Dylan is precisely how I feel about Tribe, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, and much of the hip-hop that emerged during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Tribes music was a constant companion and wellspring of inspiration during my teenage years, and their albums are some of my most cherished of all time.
When Ive spoken to friends who have seen Rapaports documentary, most of them have homed in on the films exploration of the groups internal turmoil, which admittedly was eye-opening for many fans. To be sure, the antagonism between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg is a pervasive thread throughout the film and intensifies as the portrait of the groups history progresses. But despite the arguably disproportionate amount of airtime devoted to the two emcees interpersonal conflicts, the key take-away from the film for me and the focus of todays Long Play Love column is the enduring brilliance of A Tribe Called Quests music.
Tribes musical legacy cannot be understated, and no single film biopic will ever undermine the fact that the quartet of Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi are one of the most extraordinary acts in the history of hip-hop. Granted, if you account for Q-Tips 1988 appearances on the Jungle Brothers Black is Black and The Promo singles, Tribes recording career lasted a way too ephemeral ten years. The members of Tribe have not recorded together since 1998 and have only sporadically reunited to perform live since (most recently in 2013). Nevertheless, their discography five studio albums, all of the classic singles contained therein, and a handful of stellar b-sides and remixes unquestionably qualifies as prolific, and represents a standard of consistency and quality that few acts have been able to replicate to date.
Now if I were to prompt our soulhead readers to name their favorite Tribe album or the groups career-defining work, I suspect that I would receive two overwhelmingly unanimous replies: 1991s The Low End Theory or 1993s Midnight Marauders. And I wouldnt fault any of my fellow soulheads for their selections. Not in the least. Both albums are masterworks, irrefutable Classics with a capital C. But based on my conversations over the years with other hip-hop and music aficionados alike, Ive made a painful discovery. Many folks including those whose musical tastes I have the utmost respect for have incredulously forgotten that these albums were preceded and, in fact, made possible by Tribes magnificent debut LP, Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. In fact, upon conducting research for this piece, I was appalled by the dearth of material concerning Tribes first album. With far too few exceptions, most of the Tribe-related articles, interviews, and reviews Ive found seldom mention the album or if they do, they merely reference it in passing, as an afterthought.
Released in the spring of 1990, Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm has admittedly gained more respect as time has passed. But it still resides in the shadows of its aforementioned successors, relegated to a role akin to the forgotten first child within the broader context of Tribes recorded output. Which is perplexing, at least to my ears. For while the album may be understated relative to its more universally lauded counterparts, it is exceptional in its own right, and one of the most imaginative debut albums ever recorded, hip-hop or otherwise.
Now before we delve too deeply into the album itself, its worthwhile to refresh our memories regarding what was transpiring across the broader landscape of hip-hop music and culture at the time that Tribe materialized. 1990 was a transformative year for hip-hop, to say the least. As the 80s concluded, hip-hop was still primarily defined by its traditionally underground sensibilities, boasting only a few acts such as Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Young MC, and Tone L?c that had broken through to the mainstream.
In 1990, however, two performers and their massively successful, albeit superficially conceived, albums fundamentally altered the course of hip-hop forever. For better or for worse. Sounding as if it was unapologetically tailor-made for the pop airwaves and charts, MC Hammers Please Hammer Dont Hurt Em was released in February of that year. Six months later, the not-so-great white hope Vanilla Ices To the Extreme was unveiled and elevated Hammers calculated mainstream appeal to a totally different stratosphere altogether. With To the Extreme, audiences that had never given rap music the time of day most notably, Middle American whites began proclaiming themselves hip-hop fans, much to the head-scratching chagrin of the genres more devoted evangelists.
Two months after Please Hammer Dont Hurt Em hit stores, Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm arrived and served as an ambitiously anti-pop counterweight to Hammers sound. Harboring neither grand schemes nor lofty delusions of crossover pop grandeur, Tribes debut didnt purport to be anything other than what it is: a cleverly unorthodox and sonically inventive celebration of life, love, and music. Fittingly, a year later on the closing verse of The Low End Theorys classic first single, Check the Rhime, Q-Tip fueled the growing artistic chasm within hip-hop circles when he not-so-affectionately name-checked Hammer and admonished that Rap is not pop / If you call it that then stop. And the hip-hop community exhaled a collective amen.
Following in the creative footsteps of Jungle Brothers Straight Out the Jungle (1988) and Done by the Forces of Nature (1989), as well as De La Souls 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm embodied and expanded Native Tongues trademark virtues of playfulness, positivity, and pride. Equal measures whimsy and wit, the album exudes an unparalleled bohemian cool, Afrocentric sophistication, and admirable humility, all of which combine for an irresistibly vibrant and soul-affirming listening experience.
Bafflingly, at least to yours truly, my sentiments were not necessarily echoed by the music media at large. Granted, when The Source magazine revised its Record Report section in the summer of 1990 to include ratings alongside its reviews, Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was the first album to receive the prestigious five-mic salute. Most other critics, however, were not as forthcoming with praise.
Seemingly blinded by their hyper-critical eye and smarter-than-thou condescension, many critics didnt seem to appreciate, let alone understand, the album. For example, the albums tongue-in-cheek frivolity appears to have been lost on music journalist Chuck Eddy. Notorious for his myopic and misguided assertions about hip-hop, Eddy once wrote I mean, what are those honkie daunters in Public Enemy if not just more middle-class college grads acting tuff by yelling a lot: The black Big Black, they sound like to me, and the stance is too limited to last.” Yes, he actually wrote this and it was published in the Village Voice back in 1988. In his Rolling Stone review of Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Eddy describes Tribes debut as self-satisfied, bored, tedious, cute, and middlebrow, and smugly reflects that it’s impossible to imagine how people will put this music to use. I wonder if Mr. Eddy has mellowed at all with age, and sincerely hope that time has taught him that musics power ultimately derives not from its utility, but rather from its ability to move minds, hearts, souls and bodies.
More recent, retrospective reviews of Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm veer toward the positive side of the criticism spectrum, but only slightly so. Most writers Ive come across typically include caveats about the albums lack of polish or inferior compositions relative to The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Of course, were all entitled to our opinions. But I find most of these critiques that evaluate the album relative to Tribes subsequent output instead of exploring the albums own merits to be unfair and in most cases, utter rubbish.
For my money, Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is excellent on multiple levels. Most notably, the album formally introduced the dynamic duo of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, two of the most gifted emcees ever to grip the mic. From the groups inception on wax, Q-Tips smooth and methodical flow heralded a charismatic rhyming talent who was wise beyond his 19 years and would continue to mature on later recordings. And while Q-Tips voice is by far the predominant one on Tribes debut, Phife shines during his moments in the spotlight, signaling the promise that would be more fully realized on The Low End Theory and beyond. Absent from subsequent Tribe albums, Jarobis voice is noticeably present in the form of the albums Eugene McDaniels-sampling outros interspersed between songs. And unlike the over-used, clichéd skits that tend to disrupt the song sequence of other rap albums, the Jarobi-led interludes are actually additive here and reinforce the more intimate, conversational tone of the album.
Sonically, the album is an intoxicating mélange of melodic sounds and expertly incorporated samples, primarily culled from 1970s jazz, soul and funk records, which together provide the perfect canvas for Q-Tip and Phife to flex their skills. Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was the album that first inspired my curiosity about the use of samples in hip-hop and prompted me to begin researching and embracing the artists, albums and tracks lifted by my favorite acts. When I first listened to the album, I recall being intrigued and wondering things like Whats that organ groove on Youthful Expression? or Whered they get those drums on Can I Kick It? (Answers: Reuben Wilsons Inner City Blues and Dr. Lonnie Smiths Spinning Wheel, respectively).
Pound for pound and song for song, Tribes debut is a timeless classic, and one of the most consistently and comprehensively enjoyable albums Ive ever had the luxury of hearing. The album is a filler-free zone, with no throwaways or fluff to be heard anywhere. Each of the fourteen tracks possesses its own unique sticking power, whether it induces your head to nod, your brain to quake, or your butt to shake. And as a testament both to the albums greatness and my unequivocal passion for it, Ive decided to share a track-by-track exploration below, a first-of-its-kind feature for the Long Play Love column.
So without further ado, here are my personal adventures along A Tribe Called Quest’s Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
Push It Along
Clocking in just shy of eight minutes and riding along a sweet Grover Washington, Jr. sample (Lorans Dance), the albums first track is an epic way for Tribe to introduce themselves. Ive always loved Q-Tips opening verse, which formally announces Tribes noble musical vision and humble disposition:
Q-Tip is my title, I don’t think that it’s vital
For me to be your idol, but dig this recital
If you can’t envision a brother who ain’t dissing
Slinging this and that, cause this and that was missing
Instead, it’s been injected, the Tribe has been perfected
Oh yes, it’s been selected, the art makes it protected
Afrocentric living, Africans be givin’
A lot to the cause ’cause the cause has been risen
Luck of Lucien
Unless you were to dig deeper into the songs background, you would be justified in assuming that this amounts to Q-Tips reflections about some random French dude named Lucien. I initially believed as much. Delve further, however, and youll discover that the track is actually Tribes homage to the elusive, but revered French rapper Lucien Revolucien, who also provides backing vocals. Released twelve years later, Commons Heaven Somewhere from his 2002 Electric Circus LP also contains references to the mystique of the same Lucien.
A wonderful ode to an idyllic day spent in the comfort of close friends, its damn near impossible to resist bopping your head and tapping your feet to this feel-good anthem that samples Sly & The Family Stones Remember Who You Are. Recognize the gentleman who provides the after hours, it was cool line weaved throughout? Yep, thats borrowed from one of Richard Pryors standup performances recorded at Redd Foxxs Club in Hollywood.
Such an addictive groove with Q-Tips fervent rhymes gliding across a harmonious mix of samples courtesy of Donald Byrd, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Stevie Wonder, and Public Enemy. Tough to pick a favorite tune from this album, but if push comes to shove, this is mine.
I Left My Wallet in El Segundo
Tribes first-ever single & video that cemented their unconventional approach to songcraft and penchant for compelling storytelling. The song documents an impromptu road trip gone awry, to a town inspired by one of Redd Foxxs common references in Sanford & Son: the town of El Segundo, CA. Love the interplay between the carefree Q-Tip and exasperated Ali Shaheed Muhammad on this track. Classic.
Certainly not to be confused with the great Public Enemy (note the missing “L” in the song title), this track finds Tribe offering public service-style cautionary tales for the more sexually reckless among us. Words of wisdom, indeed.
The albums second and arguably most recognizable single is Q-Tips endearing plea to the object of his infatuation, articulated over a fantastic sample of RAMP‘s “Daylight.” In Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Pharrell Williams confesses that I listened to Bonita Applebum all the time, I was obsessed with it. I was like, I have never heard nothin like that in my whole life. And thats where I changed. From a kid who liked hot beats to really following something. Pharrells right. Bonita Applebum has a unique charm and sound that no other single before or since has ever replicated.
Can I Kick It?
Along with Bonita Applebum, this is the song that most people associate with Tribes debut. The combination of Q-Tip & Phifes inspired rhymes, the playful call-and-response chorus, and ingenious lifting of Lou Reeds Walk on the Wild Side and Dr. Lonnie Smiths Spinning Wheel coalesce for one unforgettable track. In a 2011 interview, Ali Shaheed Muhammad admitted that the song was a harbinger of future success for the group, when he explained that One of the things that I think contributed to the success of The Low End Theory was actually the last single from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that was ‘Can I Kick It?’ [That song] pretty much opened the doors of love from MTV and they really embraced us with that video.
Expanding upon the themes introduced in opener Push It Along, this stands as an eloquent declaration of the groups devotion to crafting songs of rhythmic lovin. Q-Tips flow is measured and methodical here, but captivating nonetheless.
Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts)
One of Tribes strongest and most uplifting, yet most underappreciated songs, which features my favorite of Q-Tips verses on the album:
Devoted to, the art of moving butts
The rhythm’s happening, and it’s moving up
The Tribe has been on hold for much too long
Don’t fear the rhythm because it’s strong
On the corners, brothers bop their heads
From the high-tops to the natty dreads
I’m a Nubian y’all, look what we did
Took the crust away from the third eyelid
Now it’s kinda open, longs to see the sight
Rhythms of the Tribe which is passed outright
Night after night, day after day
Questing for the rhythms of the Native Tongue way
Rhythm is the key as we open up the door
Things a B-boy has never seen before
Poly-rhythm addict with a big fat boom
You have an eargasm as you start to consume
The ghetto beat with a ghetto poem
Yeah, it’s from the heart, cos it’s from the home
Jarobi, Phife, Ali Shaheed
Call me Koala, got what you need
You’re a disc jock, then jock this
Rhythms can’t lose, rhythms can’t miss
If you feel uptight and you need to freak
It’ll be alright once we drop this beat
The groups passion for music-making could not be more evident than it is here. The track serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, in that after dropping these rhymes, how could the group not go on to create some of the most inspired work that hip-hop has ever seen?
One of the groups I recall hearing regularly in my home growing up was Earth Wind & Fire. So from the opening moments of this homage to Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the familiar sounds of EWFs Brazilian Rhyme transport me back in time to my very early childhood. Nostalgic, much?
Ham N Eggs
An amusing exploration of the dos and donts of the groups dietary habits. Ive read that some cats just didnt understand the point of the song. Um, whats not to understand? I can relate, not just as someone who has a family history of high cholesterol, but as someone who is very conscientious about what he consumes (with a few slip-ups here and there, mind you).
Go Ahead in the Rain
Sonically, the albums funkiest cut, thanks in large part to the incorporation of Slaves Son of Slide. When Q-Tip encourages the listener to Get inside the groove and get nasty / Funky nasty, crazy classy, the listener has no choice but to oblige.
Description of a Fool
Q-Tip convincingly relays three anecdotal stories that illustrate how the line between ego and foolishness is an ever-so thin one. And if you hadnt already pegged Tribe as fans of Roy Ayers and Sly Stone upon listening to other songs on the album, the samples leveraged for this track should leave no doubt concerning the groups reverence for the two legends.
So in light of the effusive tribute above, is Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm your authors favorite Tribe album? Perhaps. Its definitely my favorite today. Though tomorrow it might be Midnight Marauders, and the next day it may very well be The Low End Theory. As far as I’m concerned, all three LPs are magical, and Im cool with just calling it a tie, if you are.
My Favorite Song: Footprints
I Left My Wallet in El Segundo (1990)
Bonita Applebum (1990)
Can I Kick It? (1990)
Live in Paris (1990)
Can I Kick It? (MTV Unplugged 1991)
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest – Official Trailer (2011)
Stream Full Album Here: