F or me, rappenin’ started happenin’ when I was about10 years old and saw A Tribe Called Quest’s joint video for “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Buggin’ Out.” (Give Tribe some dap: They were pioneers in the “let’s-cram-in-a-second-song-to-our-video-as-a-means-for-shameless-self-promotion” movement.) After learning all the words to both songs – “Yo, microphone check, one-two, what is this” remains a JLitty favorite – I went to Tower Records and copped Tribe’s The Low End Theory. After just one listen, I was enamored of the group and hooked on hip-hop.
Following my initial purchase, more albums quickly followed (especially once my parents let me buy records with adult material. And just to clarify: Mom and Dad, I already knew that Dre didn’t really say, “Before I have to pull the strap out and cut.”) However, I always came back to Tribe.
The intimate connection I forged with the Tribers on a Quest was both encouraged and rewarded by the group’s consistent excellence, displayed on the seminal works People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Low End and Midnight Marauders. Beats, Rhymes, and Life, their fourth album, wasn’t far behind in quality. Even their less impressive break-up album (which sounded uninspired), The Love Movement, still trumps most hip-hop.
Yet, I’m forced to write “still trumps” because A Tribe Called Quest disbanded and haven’t produced any new music for some time. The end of that professional relationship was the beginning of a new Litty designation – “The Best Active Hip-Hop Group” – necessitated by Tribe’s enduring supremacy.
Necessitated? Yes. I quickly became convinced that no other rap group would ever excite and interest me the way that Tribe did. So, I had to denote that while there certainly could be contemporary acts that were great, none, in the macro sense, would ever better ATCQ.
I am not claiming that A Tribe Called Quest was the most innovative group, had the most poignant rhymes, or influenced the largest number of successors. But Tribe certainly developed a unique sound, definitely wrote some tight flows, and absolutely contributed to other rappers’ conceptions of what it meant to make hip-hop. Tribe was never the best anything, but always better than most at everything.
All other rap cliques couldn’t measure up to Tribe in the Litty universe. De La Soul, whose ingenuity and charisma always render me speechless, has come the closest; Public Enemy, whose directed lyrics and bombastic sound were wonderfully jarring, also impressed; NWA, whose brash nature and gritty street tales defined gangsta rap, remains one of my favorites. Don’t even get me started on EPMD, Brand Nubian, Eric B. and Rakim – you get the point. But still, no one had ever matched ATCQ – until Sunday.
What happened to me then? The Roots’ concert. I have been a long-time Roots fan, and I don’t just mean that I heard the song they did with Erykah Badu or saw that funny video where they’re playing their instruments on the ceiling. Rather, I have cherished all five of their LPs and seen them numerous times in concert. Needless to say, I was excited about the experience.
Before the show, I was running around my house as though I were coked up. My roommates, particularly the Zwiggler, were astounded by my level of energy, and they quickly realized that it wasn’t merely because we were switching back and forth on television between an MTV show about one-hit wonders and VH1 Classic’s 1980s programming. Asked what was making me so excited, I told the Zwiggler, “Papi, I’m going to see the Roots later and they’re my favorite hip-hop act.” What did I just say? “I mean, favorite active group.”
My slip up made me wonder, though, if perhaps the Roots had, indeed, become Tribe’s equivalent or better in my estimation. I was left to ruminate about that possibility for a while, but once ?uestlove and company hit the stage in the State Theater, all doubt was removed.
I have never seen a better live act than the Roots, and they certainly outperform all of their hip-hop brethren. For the two hours they were on stage, I was completely elated and nothing, not even their cover of Nelly’s punk-ass “Hot in Herre,” could ruin that feeling. After the show, all I felt was longing – longing for more music, longing for more energy, longing for more chances to merely bask in my adoration for the group.
When I got back to my room, I threw on Iladelph Halflife, my least favorite Roots record, assuming that the album would remind me that no one else is Tribe. Instead I was reminded that I am sometimes an idiot and had completely underrated a great record.
Prior to Sunday, I had also underrated the Roots. They’re not ahead of Tribe, but they’re certainly not behind them either. I’d happily admit this did it not feel as though I were breaking up with a life-long love. What Tribe aptly asked on The Love Movement I must now ask myself and my readers: Help me find my way.
– Have an opinion for JLitty about Tribe, the Roots, or hip-hop? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.