When I think of A Tribe Called Quest, I think of my high school’s art room. I think of the overflowing cork board, pushpins doing their darndest to tack down exceptional student work and inspiration, with a cardstock square print of the Beats, Rhymes and Life cover hanging on for dear life at the top left corner. I think of playing “Oh My God” in the select, seniors-only space that was the back room (affectionately referred to as “the closet,” because it wasn’t much bigger) while we were painting the annual homecoming mural. I think of my classmate approaching me the next day, gushing about Midnight Marauders and asking for more music recommendations similar to it. I think about finally breaking down the façade of my too-cool-for-school art teacher when he regaled the story of his first Tribe concert to me.
When Hanif Abdurraqib thinks of A Tribe Called Quest, he thinks of his father’s reverence for jazz, sour cherry candies he bought on a road trip and Tony, the bootleg “CD Man” in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Abdurraqib thinks of a lot of things I have never thought of, but we are still united in the fact that when we think of A Tribe Called Quest, we think of a lot of thoughts. Both him and I are self-described ATCQ fans, and while our backgrounds can’t be any more disparate — Black boy from urban Ohio who blossomed alongside the golden age of hip hop and white girl born and bred in varying suburbs who rediscovered that era as the internet made her more musically conscious — this strand of fandom has lassoed us together.
In “Go Ahead in the Rain,” Abdurraqib threads together all these thoughts using the keen needle that is A Tribe Called Quest.
The book’s function is multifaceted: a history, a commentary, a love letter, a memoir. It tracks the history of the Tribe from its inception to its final bow, supplemented with sketches of scenes from Abdurraqib’s own adolescence and grounded in the American landscape at any given moment. Take, for example, his situating of ACTQ’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, in the context of the Rodney King riots: “Los Angeles wasn’t on fire yet when (Low End) was being made or when it was released. But it would be on fire by the time the songs were playing in heavy rotation across America … The constant replaying of the footage (of Rodney King’s beating) was laying a new groundwork for rage in communities miles away.” Low End is an album undercut by “righteous anger,” as Abdurraqib puts it, but in his exhaustive profile of the group, he never loses sight of the world they moved with, and the world that moved against them.
A Tribe Called Quest’s anger on The Low End Theory was more audibly weaponized by other groups defining the rap game in divergent ways, groups like Public Enemy or N.W.A. That same anger was channeled through Abdurraqib in a heart-wrenching anecdote where he punched his older brother, “not because I wanted to hurt him, but because I wanted him to imagine a world in which I was unafraid to hurt him.” This complex interconnectedness is indicative of how the book flows as a whole: For everything A Tribe Called Quest did, Abdurraqib has a story to tell.
And through the stories he tells us, they live on through stories of our own. In this regard the book is timeless. There is no Midnight Marauders without the legendary cover art, a veritable who’s who of rap in ’93. There is no Midnight Marauders without young music nerds like Abdurraqib, who would complement his listens to the record flipping the sleeve back and forth, trying to correctly identify everyone on the cover without peeking at the cheat sheet on the back. There is no Midnight Marauders if it doesn’t live on decades later, in an unlikely high school art room hundreds of miles away from Linden Boulevard in New York City.
This is not to say “Go Ahead in the Rain” falls into a formula. Abdurraqib does not spend the whole time laying out a concise compendium of the major players in late ’80s and early ’90s hip hop, nor does he spend the whole time talking about his childhood attempts to impress the cool kids on the bus rides to school with his ever-expanding taste. He satisfyingly swirls all these parts into a simmering stew, meant for all to enjoy, from old to young, fan to critic. Its taste is irresistible.
No two people will have the same experience reading “Go Ahead in the Rain.” You might have never heard of A Tribe Called Quest before picking up the book, or you might be so well versed in hip hop history you felt Abdurraqib’s version of it was incomplete. No matter how you feel, Abdurraqib makes you think about your relation to the Tribe, however idiosyncratic it is. He uses ATCQ’s music as a springboard to uncover an unsure truth behind their impact, wonderfully juggling tons of golden nuggets of supplemental information while never losing sight of the task at hand. Abdurraqib asks a seemingly simple question — “Is there more to A Tribe Called Quest than their discography?” — only to stumble upon a wealth of answers.
Since I didn’t live alongside A Tribe Called Quest at their peak, my fandom is one primarily defined by wistful appreciation, delving critically into their catalog for the sake of my growth as a listener and a scholar. I was overjoyed that Abdurraqib introduced the mostly chronological framework of the book with a discussion of “Jazz (We’ve Got),” my absolute favorite Tribe song, and even mentioned a very specific line from the song, one that has stuck with him as much as it has stuck with me since my first listen years ago: “I don’t really mind if it’s over your head / Cause the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead.” Yet I was slightly disappointed he didn’t have much to say about the actual music on their last and most recent album We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.
Much like Q-Tip’s bumbling road trip in the “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” video and much like life, the book is a meandering odyssey, one with no clear end or beginning. It is loaded with references, stories and background information, but there is no semblance of a traditional music biography. The core communion between the artist, the listener and the world is the main narrative tool that binds all these moving parts together, but is perhaps only evident to those who actively synthesize their interest in the music with what they are reading on the page. How you feel if given an exit survey might directly depend on your level of familiarity with ACTQ.
However, it doesn’t matter if you feel “Go Ahead in the Rain” was encyclopedic or inadequate. What matters is that it makes you feel something, because what’s so damn captivating about the Tribe is their timeless capacity to touch us any listener. A common criticism of the group nowadays is that they are corny, that it’s rap for your parents. The irony is that this criticism has been thrown at them for their entire lifespan. I think that says a lot — A Tribe Called Quest might not be for you, but at least you tried to listen to them, you had a clear experience with them, be you mother, son, father or daughter.
Celebrity deaths don’t usually hit me hard, but the passing of Malik Izaak Taylor aka Phife Dawg aka the “Five-Foot Assassin,” consistently heralded as pound for pound the group’s best rapper, challenged me in a way with which I had been never familiar. He was a core fixture of a group I immensely admired, but never associated with anything more than some damn good music — the same music that I got everyone bopping to in my high school art room. Back in my advanced art class senior year, we had free reign to take on any project. To make sense of Phife’s death, I decided my next endeavor would be a tribute, a dual portrait of Q-Tip and Phife united in brotherhood. But because of my misguided laziness and the reality that deadlines are a fickle mistress, I only ended up drawing Q-Tip solo, and my tribute felt hollow.
I have always found myself mesmerized by Q-Tip’s craft. I had never felt the betrayal that Abdurraqib felt when he learned Tip was the most responsible for Tribe’s inevitable breakup. On one of those late nights painstakingly sketching the countless strands of straw making up his hat, Thank You 4 Your Service dropped. I immediately bought it on iTunes (I know, something unheard of in today’s day and age of streaming). I needed to own this album: It wasn’t enough to just look it up on Spotify, a place where its continued existence is not fully guaranteed. The greatest impression I had after my first listen was that the album is a bridge between the past and future, life and death. To Hanif, who never “wanted another Tribe Called Quest album” before “Phife died,” “it was even greater than (he) could ever ask for.” To me, it was the old guard’s way of formally passing the torch to the rap I grew up with, those like “Joey, Earl, Kendrick and Cole,” as shouted out on “Dis Generation.”
If I had to describe “Go Ahead in the Rain” using only one Tribe song, it would be “Black Spasmodic,” a cut off the second half of Thank You 4 Your Service. Tip’s verse on the song is very much trying to make sense of Phife’s death, using his words to summon Phife’s own spirit “through mixing chords and boards and even drum machines.” His verse ends:
“Live the Tribe principle of having impeccable taste
Enjoy that breath like that one was your last one left
If you don’t believe me, Tip, there’s truly life after death
So refer to the Biggie covers and shout out my Trini brothers
And please check in on my mother
Malik Izaak, call me shorty.”
It seems Phife’s death was the impetus for Hanif Abdurraqib to write “Go Ahead in the Rain,” his way of making sense of it. We are blessed with Abdurraqib giving the Tribe everything he could, acting a lovely curator and chronicler of all things A Tribe Called Quest. We are reminded that the soul of the group was always one to be shared, then and now, between Hanif and me, through speakers in art rooms and headphones on bus rides, to anyone willing to hear.